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Alan Hilburg, President of HilburgMalan

By Lulu de Beer, associate, Legitimate Leadership

Businesses are fixated on the issue of Employee Engagement these days. They conduct multiple surveys and employ employee engagement managers. Research indicates that employees who are not sufficiently engaged damage the business.

Statistics indicate that only around 20-25% of employees are fully engaged. Approximately 60% show up, but are merely there for a paycheque. The remaining employees are actively disengaged, and might even be taking actions that damage the business.

Employees who are disengaged are more likely to take sick leave, more likely to damage company property either accidently or even intentionally, and more likely to abscond from work. Worse, these employees treat customers badly at the frontline or on the phone, make mistakes, produce poor quality work, work at slow pace or even act dishonestly. The impact of these behaviours can be difficult to quantify.

So, how could leaders go about creating engaged employees?

In a recent event at the Gordon Institute of Business Science in Johannesburg, Alan Hilburg president of HilburgMalan, who is recognised as one of the world’s leading advisors on innovative employee engagement strategies quoted Doug Conant of Campbells Soup Co who said, “To win in the marketplace you must first win in the workplace.”

He said that business plans do not deliver results, nor do strategies, marketing plans, complex IT systems, sophisticated operational models etc. People deliver results!

He asked the question: “What is the cost of losing the trust of your employees?”

“Incalculable!” was his answer.

Businesses are quick to apply cost-cutting measures to achieve ever more ambitious profit goals, satisfy the stock market and allow shareholders to maximise their returns. Calculations revolve around the cost savings of reducing employee numbers, removing benefits or discontinuing any activities that bring about cost saving – without much thought given to how these changes affect, or are perceived by, employees.

The debate around how these impact the business tends to be one sided as the cost savings are easily calculated; by contrast, quantifying the loss of employee engagement is often subjective and mostly not considered.

Hilburg suggested that companies need to move away from quantitative analyses, instead considering qualitative impacts by asking appropriate questions. These include:

  • “What are the barriers that keep you from doing your job?”
  • “What characteristics in leaders build trust in you?”
  • “How would you define responsibility and accountability within your company and team?”

At the event, Zanele Dintwa, head of employee engagement at Aon South Africa, suggested that the kinds of questions that might be asked were:

  • “Does the employee say positive things about the organisation?”
  • “Does the employee intend staying with the organisation?”
  • “Does the employee strive to produce good work, improve and continue to grow?”

COMMENT BY LULU DE BEER: Leaders need to step up and accept responsibility for creating employee engagement. This cannot be a purely statistical exercise. The required actions cannot be abdicated to the human resources department.

Organisations must be realistic about the extent to which “accidental managers” in every workplace could damage their profits through their inability to take the actions that would create engaged employees.

Managers are not necessarily naturally skilled in creating engagement. Many employees move through the ranks into leadership positions because of their technical abilities or educational qualifications, without having received training or an opportunity to develop the skills to create willing followers.

The Legitimate Leadership Model, which I applied for over 20 years in a labour-intensive business, provided the foundation for leaders to create employee engagement:

  1. Leaders who treated employees with respect and consideration were trusted. These leaders listened to their employees and took appropriate steps to ensure that employees wanted to be at work every day. Often these were small actions which cost nothing: greeting employees by name as they arrived in the morning; checking on employee that seemed to be out of sorts or hadn’t been at work the previous day/s; providing positive feedback to the team on the previous day’s results.
  2. Leaders who placed employees’ needs ahead of their own and acted in good faith – being honest and even delivering bad news when necessary, but always with the intention of benefitting the employee – earned willing followers. Their employees were keen to accept the direction of the leader and were likely to choose to stay with that leader despite other opportunities.
  3. Leaders who recognised the efforts of their employees and rewarded them appropriately were liked and trusted. These leaders did however also have to exhibit the courage to hold employees who did not perform accountable. It is not enough to hand out incentives and threats. Non-monetary recognition created far more engagement, while action taken in response to a lack of contribution was respected when it was fair and firm.
  4. Finally, when a leader has a clear purpose and a set of values that are transparently lived by him/her, employees see value in their own activities and consider their contribution to the organisation to add value. This leads to committed employees who strive to grow and improve for the benefit of the business.

Leaders who are equipped to create engagement will ensure that the entire workforce contributes to the profit, progress and sustainability of the organisation.