From the archive: Hitting a moving target

One of the benefits of being a TJ subscriber is full access to our decades-long archive of content – here we look back to another great piece on engagement from May 2013. 

Engagement + enablement = success in times of change, says Mark Royal.

Creating and sustaining work environments that motivate employees and position them for success is a demanding task in itself, but many leaders today are faced with the additional challenge of engaging and enabling employees amid growth, transition, or change.

To hit what is increasingly a moving target, leaders need to know what drives employee engagement and enablement and how these drivers are (or will be) affected by changes in the organisation.

The value of engagement amid change

Engaged employees can be expected to display high levels of attachment to an organisation and a strong desire to remain a part of it. They are also more likely to go above and beyond the formal requirements of the job and pour extra effort into their work to deliver superior performance.

As a result, employee engagement has become a major focus for leaders and managers in many organisations. By drawing out the discretionary effort of employees, engagement holds the key to increasing productivity. And with more and more employees looking for work environments in which they can be energised and feel that they are contributing in a positive way to something larger than themselves, many organisations view creating high-engagement workplaces as key to attracting and retaining talent.

Notably, interest in employee engagement is also fostered by the ever-increasing pace of change in today’s organisations. In fast-changing environments, it becomes all the more difficult for leaders and managers to specify roles and responsibilities precisely across a diverse set of jobs. Workers at all levels are likely to be faced more frequently with unanticipated and ambiguous problem-solving and decision-making situations. Leaders, therefore, have to count on employees to act in accordance with organisational objectives based on their understanding of, and alignment with, priorities, cultures and values.

Hay Group has partnered with Fortune magazine annually for more than 15 years to identify the World’s Most Admired Companies and the business practices that contribute to their strong performance and reputations. During recent research, we asked leaders in participating companies what the economic challenges of the last several years had taught them about employee engagement.

Among the primary themes highlighted in their responses was the value of an engaged workforce in coping with change – and especially difficult transitions. One leader commented: “The biggest lesson has been that, where we have high engagement; employees are more willing to accept and embrace the organisational changes needed to address customer concerns and cost issues.”

Another leader noted: “Our employees are a tremendous source of strength and consistency, which is even more evident through a downturn. It reinforces creating a strong reservoir of employee engagement and goodwill to help you win during difficult times.”

Engagement challenges created by change

Clearly [pullquote]engagement is a resource in times of change[/pullquote], as highly motivated employees can help an organisation respond more flexibly to new opportunities and challenges. But while change makes engagement more important, it can also make it more difficult to achieve and maintain.

Hay Group research into the factors that influence employee engagement levels in organisations has highlighted two overriding themes.

First, [pullquote]engagement is influenced not only by employees’ current work experiences but also by their view of the future[/pullquote]. For them to commit, especially over the long term, they need to have confidence that their company is well led, heading in a positive direction and well positioned to deliver products and services that are aligned with customer needs. Likewise, they need to have a positive outlook on their own futures within the company, in terms of opportunities to learn, develop and progress in their careers.

Secondly, engagement is an exchange relationship. If organisations want employees to do and deliver more, it’s essential that employees feel valued, believe that their extra efforts are appreciated and that, over time, there will be a balance between total rewards and contributions.

Unfortunately, change can create challenges in both of these areas. Given the shifts that come with change, employee clarity regarding organisational priorities commonly falls off. Amid uncertainty, the demand for information from employees often outpaces what leaders and managers are able to supply, which can erode confidence in leadership and strategic direction. Likewise, as organisations are forced to ask more of employees to manage through growth or transition, the balance between expanding contributions and rewards can be stretched.

Leveraging and sustaining engagement

Hay Group’s research suggests that engaging employees is essential but not sufficient to sustain maximum levels of performance over time. To get the most from employees, leaders must also ensure that organisational systems and work environments support personal and organisational effectiveness. In other words, [pullquote]leaders need to motivate employees – but also enable them to channel their extra efforts productively[/pullquote]. In times of change, helping employees work ‘smart’ as well as hard is essential.

Employee enablement in the workplace has two key components. Leaders must ensure that employees are effectively matched to their roles, so that their skills and abilities are effectively utilised. In addition, people need to be provided with the resources they need (such as time, information, tools and equipment) and barriers to getting the job done need to be removed.

Change can place strains on employee enablement levels. Shifting ways of working has implications for employees’ understanding of their key accountabilities and the scope of their decision-making authority. They may be less certain where to go for information or support from co-workers. And existing skill sets and organisational work routines may be misaligned with new priorities and objectives.

Strategies for engaging and enabling employees

Whether change involves growth or transition, organisations need highly motivated employees, who are well positioned for success, to respond effectively. But change also presents special challenges in both engaging and enabling employees. Below are some key considerations to help managers respond effectively.

Enlist the support of managers at all levels Managers play an important ‘sense-making’ role in times of change, helping employees understand new developments in the organisation and their implications for their teams and job responsibilities. It is critical that leaders make sure that managers at all levels are well-aligned with planned directions and understand the importance of reinforcing key messages with their teams. If middle managers and supervisors signal to employees through their words or actions that they lack faith in organisational leaders, employees’ trust will decline rapidly.

Clarify ‘must-win’ battles Organisations today tend to be very good at putting tasks on employees’ plates but are not nearly as effective at removing them or helping define priorities. In times of change, when responsibilities are shifting and workloads are often expanding, managers can support employees by clarifying their key accountabilities. An awareness of which personal goals and priorities are the most critical allows employees to focus their efforts on essential, value-added tasks in cases where there is too much to do and too little time to do it.

Manage the hand-offs In interdependent environments, the success of individuals and teams often depends on support from co-workers. Unfortunately, as work routines and processes are evolving amid change, employees may be uncertain of where to go for resources, information, or assistance. That means that managers need to focus on clarifying not only the responsibilities of the individuals in their teams but also the key accountabilities of other teams upon which they depend.

Avoid the trap of routines Structures and processes facilitate efficient execution of objectives by promoting consistent expectations. But along with the benefits comes a potential trap. When requirements change, existing ways of working may no longer be feasible. Making the situation more problematic, psychologists tell us that one of the ways we reserve cognitive horsepower for higher-order activities is by reducing common tasks to routines that require little conscious thought. This means that important aspects of how work is done may be taken for granted, making it unlikely that they will be evaluated in the context of change. Avoiding this trap requires an intentional examination of assumptions to ensure that they are aligned with present work demands.

Take a broad perspective on rewards It’s all too easy for there to be an ultra-focus on short-term compensation. In any single year, employees may feel disadvantaged given increased work demands associated with change. The best companies do an effective job of highlighting ‘career income’. Managers emphasise that, while any given year may be challenging, over the longer term (for example, three to five years) employees will be dealt with fairly. Notably, managers have particular influence over the array of intangible rewards the organisation provides. In fact, many employees see the most important rewards as career development opportunities, doing interesting work on important company projects and a high-quality work climate.

Don’t overlook recognition For organisations going through transitions that involve cost-cutting, we commonly see an increased focus on the importance of recognition. That’s because the benefit/cost ratio of these non-financial rewards is high. Intangible rewards don’t cost an organisation much, and their impact is substantial. As Harvard Business School professor Rosabeth Moss Kanter puts it: “Compensation is a right. Recognition is a gift.” The fact that patting employees’ backs may be a more effective form of positive motivation than padding their wallets is good news for companies, especially when budgets are stretched to the limit.

Treat training as a process, not an eventOrganisations tend to emphasise training for new hires and those who are switching roles but, as they are changing and evolving, ongoing training is likely to be required to ensure that employee skills keep up with changing work demands. Given that the skills and knowledge that made an employee successful in the past might not be what makes him successful today, training needs to be viewed as a continual process.

Charles Darwin is quoted as saying that “it’s not the biggest, the brightest, or the best that will survive, but those who adapt the quickest”. Faced with more dynamic business environments, the same can be said of organisations. Responding effectively to change means not only reacting nimbly to new opportunities or challenges but doing so in a way that promotes high levels of engagement and positions employees to succeed.


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