Category Archives: employee engagement

Maligning vs. Pitying Micromanagers

I noticed a couple of mentions over the last few days about the evils of micromanagement and how this horrible and uninhibited trait can impact a workplace.

One, from Beeson Consulting, warns that this obsession with every little thing that every single person under you is doing can, and will, prevent you from becoming the senior leader you’re trying to be. “Managers who are perceived by their troops as meddlesome micromanagers,” it reads, “are probably, in turn, viewed by senior executives as not having the bandwidth to step up to higher-level positions and handle greater responsibilities.”

Another, by Suzanne Lucas, a.k.a. the Evil HR Lady, questions why more companies don’t just fire the poor (anti-)slobs. The reason, she suggests, is that they’re still stupidly promoting non-leadership behaviors such as “attention to detail” and failing to promote (literally) their “self-motivated, results-oriented” employees.

The key for those suffering from this malady is to learn to delegate, obviously. The key for companies, writes Lucas, lies in implementing a results-oriented workplace environment (ROWE), where “managers let people do their work without hovering.” (We’re actually focusing on that very approach in Human Resource Executive®‘s August cover story.)

Personally, I’m wondering if more companies shouldn’t be training and coaching their micromanagers away from their addictions, or maybe directing them to their employee-assistance programs … or maybe we should all consider them disabled and in a protected class??!!

OK, I jest … well, mostly. As a parent, wife and manager, I’m here to tell you it’s damn hard to break out of the “If I want it done right, I have to do it myself” cycle. Or the killer mind-set of “If I don’t ask him about his progress, he won’t make any.” Thankfully, I’m getting better. But for some, it might take a 12-step program to overcome.

Risks of the Recovery

Better times are coming. More people are looking for work. Wages are thawing out. Defined-contribution employer matches are returning.

But before your workforce rebuilding goes full bore, consider the landmines of the recovery, Matthew S. Effland, employment lawyer with Olgetree Deakins, told attendees at the Society for Human Resource Management’s 2010 conference.

Despite the name of his session, “And the Tide Rolls Back In — Legal Issues in Rebuilding Your Workforce Post-Recession,” Effland’s warnings were not confined to the law. He spoke a lot about “survivor anger” spreading through corporate America right now — among people who’ve been working on frozen wages, doing the jobs of laid-off former co-workers as well as their own, and feeling minimized by their companies’ efforts to infuse new blood into the organization by recruiting outsiders and paying them higher salaries than their own.

“Think about what you can do to make sure you’re taking care of the survivors,” said Effland. “Their disgruntlement can lead to litigation if you’re recruiting from outside to replace a position equal to theirs at a higher wage.”

Also be careful not to “give into the pressure” to selectively re-hire laid-off employees, those problem workers you were able to let go of in the name of hard times. Those who are not re-hired when others are, or who are told to reapply for the same position, “will feel some sense of entitlement, and may sue, and may have a case” if they fall under a protected class, he said.

“Avoid the shortcuts and the push for speed-hiring,” Effland said. “And make sure you fully document your hiring process. When you decide not to hire someone back, you better be able to justify it and explain it in a court of law.”

Experimental HR

Vineet Nayar, CEO of HCL Technologies, a global IT services company headquartered in Noida, India, urged the SHRM audience to treat HR “as an experimental journey,” and to consider follow his example of treating the employee first, the customer second.

Management doesn’t create value, he said. It can only “induce, encourage [and] enable the creation of value by the employees.”

HR leaders, he said, should consider the leadership of Ghandi, MLK and Nelson Mandela. What they did, he said, was create dissatisfaction with today and develop a romance among their followers with tomorrow.

Autocracy doesn’t work, he said. Democratize the workplace. Managers need to be answerable to employees instead of just the other way around. And the result of treating employees first is that customers will be served better.

To create an environment conducive to change, however, requires trust. In his company, Nayar facilitated that trust by providing an environment of 100 percent total transparency. His 360-degree assessment is posted on the company intranet. If an employee asks him a question — and 99 percent of the questions are negative, he said — his answers are sent to all employees.  (The questioners must also reveal who they are.)

His $2.3 billion company continues to grow rapidly — without new services, new products, new locations. It’s due to placing trust in his employees.

“Transfer the problem to them. They create magic in the interface of customers and employees,” he said.

The Meaning Behind the Work

Dave and Wendy Ulrich made a nice coupling on stage Monday at their session, “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value to Employees, Customers, Investors and Communities.”

No surprise the joint session at SHRM worked, considering the Ulrichs have been married for many years and share three children and a granddaughter. But it was their joint message and the subject of their new book, The Why of Work, that carried an especially cohesive and cogent argument — that organizations would do well to start looking at themselves as places where people find meaning and purpose. More importantly, that organizations should be looking for ways to cultivate that new realization and approach.

“We’re taking a different cut from human resources,” said Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a prolific and well-published HR expert. Wendy is a professional psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah. “We’re basically combining HR and psychology,” he said.

They’re also taking their show on the road, if you will, to refute the notion that fostering the relationship between worker and work, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their jobs is some warm and fuzzy, soft and cuddly notion. “I hear this criticism in some circles,” said Dave Ulrich. “I tell them they’re just wrong. Still, I can’t convince everyone.”

The Ulrichs’ base their premise on the early works of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Frankl discovered that, even in the harshest and cruelest of settings, some people remained vibrant and vital because of their stories and their strengths, and the strengths they could bring to one another. They found meaning in their identities.

So, too, should “organizational strategies be stories,” said Ulrich. ” Successful leaders should be meaning makers. We want to begin to change the conversation” about what HR’s purpose should be as well.

Calling on another famous thinker from the past, Wendy Ulrich told the story of medical researcher Jonas Salk, best known for his discovery of the polio vaccine. Salk, in one interview, recalled how his mother found lessons to be learned in all his setbacks. She created the learning environment that, in turn, created the famous scientist.

“Do we inculcate a learning environment in our organizations?” she asked. “How do we learn from our setbacks, and help our employees learn from theirs? What are we doing in HR to promote that?”

One clear path to helping people find meaning and happiness in an organization, they said, is to promote the importance of the team and relational strengths. “HR,” said Dave Ulrich, “is the force of the organization that shapes identity.

“One of my greatest fears in HR today,” he said, “is that we’re so worried about talent, we’re forgetting about the organization — its systems and the capacity to work together.” That’s where the meaning and purpose lie, he added — “building on your own strengths to strengthen others.”

The Ambiguity of Employee Engagement

Most HR leaders would be quick to say that employee engagement is a good thing; far fewer would actually be able to definitively define it.

That’s because there seem to be a zillion definitions out there. But many employers and consultancies continue to attempt to measure it, nonetheless.

Right Management is no different, but Douglas Sietsema, its talent management practice leader, (who I caught up with at the SHRM convention) mentions an interesting correlation.

One recent survey found that 65 percent of employees said their managers positively impacted their engagement, while 25 percent said managers had a negative impact and 10 percent said no impact.

What’s interesting, he notes, is that the numbers are pretty similar to another survey — this one measuring leadership.

In that survey, 60 percent said their companies provide some leadership, 22 percent said no leadership and 15 percent said consistent leadership.

“That’s where we started to see leadership, engagement — that correlation kind of thing.”

Leaders provide a sense of identity, of buy-in, he says.

“Leadership is what leads to engagement,” Sietsema says.

Military Cross-Cultural Issues

There’s a big push during the SHRM conference this year — rightfully so — on hiring veterans. As the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan seem to be winding down, there may be many military personnel looking for work in the civilian world. Should the economy ever truly recover, companies may even be able to hire some of them.

Should that happen, HR leaders should consider that the civilian leadership/organizational structure just doesn’t speak to many people trained by the military — most of whom were young when they entered the service and may not have held another real job beforehand.

And that lack of understanding leads to disillusionment and turnover, says Emily King, president of mymilitarytransition.com, who works with companies to help them better onboard vets.

“It’s like going to another country,” she says. “You don’t know the language.”

Part of the problem is that in the military, the mission is simple, straightforward and understood by everyone. In private organizations, it’s often just the opposite  — with the mission becoming more diffused as it filters down the ranks.

Vets have an abundance of positive abilities to share, she notes, including leadership and loyalty, but those traits are not free and have to be earned by the organization.

By the same token, it’s really the vets that need to change — to learn how to fit within the organization.

“Trying to push back against an entire organization doesn’t work,” King says.

Employees Sometimes Do Know Best

Before you stop reading this, thinking it’s some department-store promotional, hear me out.

The other day, I was in a Kohl’s Department Store madly searching for the right print in the right size in the little time I had. Taking my quest to the customer-service desk, thinking I’d probably be directed to another store (if I was lucky), I was directed instead to a telephone on the wall across from the desk. I picked it up and was immediately connected to a very friendly Kohl’s.com representative who quickly checked her “kiosk” of wares, found it and, while we were chatting, shipped it to my home, no shipping charge attached.

“This is our new service,” she told me. “If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for in any of our stores, we can now direct you to this phone and you get it sent, no charge.” Misson over, headache abated, faith in your fellow humans temporarily restored. How simple.

“I’m impressed!” I told her. “I haven’t heard of this particular type of service before!”

“We came up with it ourselves, employees here at Kohl’s,” she said, sounding immensely proud. Some stores have installed computers in their customer-service departments, “but this just felt more personal; it made common sense,” she said. “We don’t think anyone else out there is doing this but us.”

In my old reporter mode, I immediately tried to track it down, thinking there might be an innovation case study for us in it somewhere. But the best James Barnes, Kohl’s’ manager of public relations, could give me was that the company is “very focused on implementing concepts that improve the customer experience and provide excellent customer service.” So, oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get names — no what, why, where and when either.

I did come across this release, though, about a new book by the CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, pushing his notion that companies of the future need to shift their mind-sets and start relying on the good ideas of their employees when it comes to customer service, or fail. His book, Employees First, talks about solving much harder, more strategic problems around customer satisfaction by giving up the age-old notion that C-suiters and line leaders are where your solutions lie.

“Nayar argues,” the release says, “that the best way for companies to meet their customers’ needs is to stop making customers their top priority. Instead, companies should shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems — in part by making management accountable to the employees who are the real creators of value.”

In Nayar’s own words: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of my book will be that Western-style companies can achieve even greater success by making their approach to business more democratic. Companies with traditional top-down, pyramid-like hierarchies with rigid reporting structures make it very difficult for critical competitive information, garnered on the front line, to flow uphill to the C-suite, where strategic business decisions have traditionally been made.”

Kohl’s might be onto something here. Its employees certainly seem to be.

BP’s ‘Human Face’

BP seems to have a regular spot on the front page of the New York Times lately, thanks to the Gulf of Mexico disaster. In today’s edition, two front-page stories touch on BP and the oil leak, including one focused primarily on the verbal missteps of BP’s CEO, Tony Hayward.

Nicely titled “Another Torrent BP Works to Stem: Its CEO,” the story dissects some of the more memorable “gaffes” from Hayward, including one in which he said the spill is not going to cause big problems because the gulf “is a very big ocean” and “You know, I’d like my life back.” Responding to the latter, Hayward apologized to the families of the 11 men who died on the rig.

The story, for the most part, explores how Hayward’s comments have turned into something of a public-relations fiasco for BP. But I have to also believe they haven’t been much of a motivator for those BP employees (and contractors) who now face the monumental task of fixing the leak. Would imagine they’d be a lot better off were they to have a CEO at the helm who managed to not make news himself.

Ironically, just about the same time BP started making headlines, John Hofmeister’s book, Why We Hate the Oil Companies: Straight Talk from an Energy Insider, arrived in the mail. Hofmeister is one of the handful of HR leaders to be promoted to president of a major corporation, in this case Shell Oil Co. (2005-2008). Perhaps, had Hofmeister’s book come out in the fall, BP’s latest fiasco (remember, BP was hit just last October with the largest OSHA fine ever) might have received a paragraph or two in Hofmeister’s book, which explores the oil industry’s image-management problems.

“Best practices doesn’t just mean taking credit for the positive steps the industry has taken; it also requires public exposure by top executives, a human face on a complex organization, consumer empathy and engagement, obvious and intentional,” Hofmeister writes. “Twenty-first-century engagement demands a commitment to transparency.”

OK, I guess you can say Hayward is showing BP’s “human face.” But I suspect that’s not the kind of “human face” Hofmeister is referring to in his book. Nor is it the kind of face that’s going to inspire BP’s engineers to come up with a solution that works.

Google Not Sold on Employee Engagement

For an upcoming feature story in our July issue, I’m interviewing Google’s Prasad Setty, its director of people analytics and compensation. Setty and his boss, Google CHRO Laszlo Bock, both feel that the concept of employee engagement is of limited use, to say the least. “Engagement is one of those nebulous concepts that appeal to HR people but are very tough to get across to business people,” Setty told me.

Here’s what Bock had to say: “It’s impossible to define what ‘engagement’ means: Does it mean I like my work, my colleagues, my manager? Does it mean I live only for work? It’s such a general term.”

Setty and Bock both feel that focusing on employee engagement simply adds an unnecessary step to getting at what Google’s line managers and business leaders really care about: retention and innovation. That is, are the people that the company needs to keep planning on sticking around and are they being creative and innovative in their jobs?

At Google, Setty oversees Google’s employee survey, called “Googlegeist,” that’s designed to get the answers to those two questions. Focusing on engagement would simply be a waste of time, they say.

“You have to explain to managers why engagement matters–that there’s a link between engagement and productivity,” said Setty. “So why not just measure retention and productivity directly?”

I find Google’s stance noteworthy, especially considering the emphasis that the HR vendor community has placed on employee engagement within the last few years. You can’t throw a stick at an HR convention without hitting a consultant who wants to tell you all about his firm’s employee engagement tools, or how his product or service will ramp up your company’s employee engagement. Is it simply yet another HR trend that will come and go? If you consider Google a trendsetter, then the answer’s definitely yes.

Workers are Wearing Your Health on Their Sleeves

Probably pretty intuitive, but definitive nonetheless. A new study from Gallup-Healthways shows people working for employers that are in a hiring mode tend to have brighter outlooks on their own personal lives than those working for companies in the midst of layoffs.

No duh, right? Fair enough. But when you consider that as many as two-thirds (68 percent) of the 20,000 employed adults polled who were working at growing companies said they were thriving in their personal lives versus less than half (49 percent) working at downsizing organizations, it does cause pause to wonder: Is there something more HR can and should be doing during layoffs to help the survivors stave off depression? Translated: absence, loss of productivity, possible long-term disability?? (The ratings, by the way, were based on the Cantril Scale, which many organizations use to determine individual well-being.)

Granted, there’s not a whole lot HR leaders can do with this except maybe drum up even more satisfaction detectors and morale boosters than you already have in place to counter the layoff-survivor blues — or get some going if you have nothing at this point.

But consider this too: Even the simple fact that a reorganizing company is spending time, energy and money to ensure the survivors don’t go into emotional tailspins carries the subliminal message that things there can’t be that bad. Right?