Head-in-the-clouds but feet-on-the-ground employee engagement

OK folks, it is time to give the ‘good feel’ fella called employee engagement serious shape.

How does this sound?

High engagement workplaces have a

  • 63% difference in shareholder return
  • 50% higher sales
  • 56% higher customer loyalty
  • 38% above average productivity
  • 27% higher profits

Are you kidding, do I hear you ask? Let me ask you back. If Gallup, Hewitt or Towers Watson told you this, would you believe it better? The fact is this. The figures above come from a combined survey by all three of them!

Now that credentials are established, let us look at busting the biggest myth about employee engagement strategies and practices. Which proclaims that an organization must offer higher incentives to increase employee engagement.

The carrot-or-stick approach over-justifies incentivization and actually destroys an employee’s intrinsic motivation to perform. In many cases, the act itself is the cause of engagement, the driving force that enables employees to innovate, execute with excellence and exceed personal limits. Set a limiting price on this, and you limit his will to perform and her level of engagement.

Here is another interesting statistic. A Globoforce survey showed that 60% of employees look for employment elsewhere when they feel undervalued. And this reduces to 20% when employees feel appreciated! Lesson to be learnt? Move away from unemotional, transactional and top-down reward and award programs. No more of the milestone catalog gifts. How about making it social and emotional? Publicly appreciated? Applauded by peers? Awards tied to organization culture and values? Allow personal choice in the reward type?

Let us go back to basics. Anything that excites, promotes confidence and encourages self-motivation works like wildfire in blazing employee engagement. Three simple attributes of an employee engagement strategy can do the trick.

The first is placing freedom in the employees’ hands in the spheres of their work and accountability. The responsible creativity that bubbles up by opening this window of autonomy can be mind-boggling. Not to mention the multiplying effect of its healthy happiness for both the employee and the organization! Google’s incentive strategy of ‘20 per cent time’ allows its employees to devote just that extent of their time at work to whatever projects they want to work on. Similarly Altassin’s initiative of what they call ‘FedEx Days’ allocates one day a quarter for their employees to do whatever they want. At the end of the day, they gather to share what they have created. Cool, don’t you think?

The second concentrates on stroking positive psychology rather than highlighting what not to do, or what will not work. Most incentives are assassins of employee engagement, creating as they do (mostly by design), unattainable goals that leave employees frustrated in striving to meet them. By celebrating values and behavior that enhance the stated corporate culture, employees can be made more engaged, productive, and successful. Performance can then be kept separately to the high standards that are required for business to be successful.

The third is a wee bit wild, but grounded on a well-founded theory of psychology. It is allowing fluid intelligence to triumph over crystal intelligence. Simply put, it is promoting the skill to problem-solve in new situations rather than merely appreciating the ability to perform what one already knows how to do. Gamified initiatives in employee engagement can appeal to an employee’s will to succeed. Just as moving to the next level or ranking higher on the leaderboard drives game enthusiasts, this could well unlock their potential to think more creatively and feel more engaged.

Employee engagement is an endurance effort that lasts the entire lifespan of an organization. If promoted with genuine sincerity, a simple truth emerges. Engaged employees are more successful than successful employees being more engaged!

And they celebrate semantics in technology!

“It is a cold, hard world. There is no room for sentiments and emotions here”

Have you pronounced this as a leader, or heard it from your leader? Over time, as we collide with realities, we almost brainwash ourselves into believing this of our professional life. The optimists perhaps will try to balance this in their personal life.

But hey, pause for a minute. Why cannot sentiments and emotions be powerful tools in professional life? If social media is touted as enormously influencing, what does it play upon, if not the thinking and feeling of interconnected individuals, of social networks? And this thing they call semantic modeling – is that not an intuitive handshake of knowledge-based information?

We make such a great deal of killer apps (for example a ‘smart fridge’) that will tell us when the milk is sour or even get a replenishing order in. How boring! Really, how boring, when we compare it to the intriguing excitement of the human cognitive processes that decipher and decode language, expressions, movements and behaviors?  And when you add to this the spices of culture, context and persona, it is a heady brew!

IoT technologies. Crowdsourcing. Sentiment Analysis. Online Anthropology.Engagement Analytics. And each area has its own quota of trademarked tools.

Ah ha! What a difference packaging makes! When you call it so, it sounds so much more exotic, so much more ‘pedestal-worthy’ and so much more ‘jargon-attractive’! And the poor occupants of the trash bin named sentiment, emotion and intuition sadly wonder – but isn’t that me?

Actually they should neither be sad, nor should they wonder. They are the stars that are being featured in today’s buzz technologies – from the labs to practices in organizations. Researchers, solution providers, business users, and analysts are experimenting with text and speech analytics, natural language processing, semantics – and I am sure quite a few more I am not even aware of! Fast and furious, data is being acquired, integrated, visualized and adapted to transform them into business solutions.

Do I hear the ‘Internet of Things’ shouting? If so, the ‘Internet of Humans’ should yell!

For it is this internet of people and their sentiments that enable businesses and solutions to extend, improve and disrupt; to create, kill and expand. It is this recognition of people sentiments and human data that is being used in cognitive tools and systems. And in business solutions, to learn and interact with more people to extend what they can actually do on their own!

Ironic eh? To ask the human face before us to dump emotions and sentiments, and then have a garbage sifting system that actually recycles them to build tools!

Making machines of people and people of machines? Hmmm….

A little slack in your calendar does not make you a slacker!

“I really don’t care as to how much time to you can or not give this project”.

The smooth tone of my boss was dangerous – it popped up all my red alerts. Oh, oh! What was coming next?

“Just let me know how soon can I have this report”

 And this is the truth. The unvarnished truth, if I may be allowed to be dramatic. Nobody, I repeat nobody, really cares about your capability or capacity to do work. These are irrelevant till their main concern is addressed. Throughput – that is all your managers and bosses care about, my friend.

How quickly can you get the work done?

How long need I to wait?

Tick tock, tick tock…

Even Henry Ford found this out the hard way. He thought that he could squeeze more productivity out of his workers by increasing their schedules to 60 hours a week. Short-lived exultation, that was! The burst of productivity lasted only about four weeks as they began producing less than their counterparts who worked 40 hours!

How many times have you whizzed through your maze of drowning work after a relaxed sleep, or a workout at the gym? How many times has a “Eureka” stroke of genius struck you as got up from your claustrophobic space surrounding your desk, walked around the office to the pantry, or relaxed on the chair opposite your friend with a joke before coming back to your laptop screen?

Believe me, this is a powerful realization and acknowledgment. Don’t trick yourself into believing that you will be more productive if you can do more, or work at it longer. This is exactly the reasoning behind traffic signals – filling a road to capacity with cars ain’t gonna take anyone to their destination quicker. Break it up, mon ami, break it up!

And that is why you should recoil at the pretty sight of your calendar neatly boxed in to capacity with “to do” lists – meetings, calls… Empty spaces on your calendar are not sitting ducks to be filled up with some ostensible productive work (pray, who defines the meaning of productive?). They are your havens of sanity refreshers that actually multiply your throughput.

And for all ye resource management analysts, please don’t make the fatal mistake of assessing employee productivity through their calendars. That gives you merely the theoretical production capacity, not productivity – and certainly not throughput! 100% utilization of capacity is the biggest mythical loser – any ops expert will tell us that once a system exceeds 65-70% of maximum utilization, the only thing that increases is the cycle time. Never the productivity!

You need slack in the system, in your calendars and in your minds. That does not make you a slacker. It does not mean that people do not think about their work outside of their scheduled work hours or during their breaks. The truth is exactly the opposite. When I am not intentionally thinking about work, I actually spend time unintentionally thinking about it. I am in my boundary-less creative zone where I do not box myself in with the constraints of my work zone – and so reach the solution sphere quicker sans the annoying pull of ‘that’s-how-it-is-always-done” gravity!

So go ahead, grant your mind a work schedule with generous doses of ‘Do-Not-Fill’ blocks. Use your calendar not to plug empty gaps but to actually prevent you from taking on more commitments than you have the time to handle. And get ready to see your productivity soar!

I C – do you see?

They outnumber leaders in any organization by a large margin.

They satisfy customers, negotiate with suppliers, create and support innovation and provide the manpower for the most pressing business strategies.

The exceptional ones visibly demonstrate skills in the key high-performance imperatives of influence, personal effectiveness, collaboration, and building stakeholder loyalty.

Yet, we have no clue how to deal with their aspirations. Or more specifically, their non-aspiration to become the much-hyped leader!

I am referring to the Individual Contributor.

Of all the irritating stereotypes, this is the most destructive in an organization. We are apologetic at best, and disdainful at worst to this least understood, most valued and hopelessly misused group.

Question. Should we only think about advancing the careers of such individuals by moving them into manager positions? And then do them a disservice by confusedly asserting that they do not have leadership skills to be there, when we are the ones with blinkers on?

Today is an era of flat organizational structures to reduce costs and get more nimble. Management positions are getting fewer and rarer – so let us say thanks to the numerous professionals who opt for individual contributor roles. And recognize and salute the strengths they bring to the organization.

Individual contributors hold the key and wield tremendous influence on how an organization realizes its business strategy or sinks in its underperformance. Many of them will step up effortlessly to informal leadership roles, managing parts of a process, function or workgroup, and the high performers will be the ‘make-or-break’ stitch with their unique expertise.

Is it possible to be both an individual contributor and a leader? I would say “Yes.” And “YES”!

Let us see. What are the broad leadership competencies we tout and shout about?

Maintaining effectiveness in leading and dealing with change?

The individual superman does this everyday in his work responsibilities and environment. She adjusts efficiently to work within new work structures, processes, requirements, and cultures. But of course, they do not trumpet it in status reports.

 Taking accountability for customer loyalty?

She exceeds customer needs by building productive relationships. Clients stake their continued relationship with an organization based on his very presence.

 Engage stakeholders to make them understand, accept and retain critical messages?

He clearly conveys information and ideas through a variety of media to diverse stakeholders in a manner that convinces critical audiences for their voluntary buy-in. She personably and inspiringly influences her team toward the completion of goals.

Conceptualize strategic solutions, and display execution excellence to successfully close the last mile?

The individual star anticipates, identifies and understands both challenges and opportunities. She brilliantly culls data from different sources to draw conclusions and make efficient decisions. He factors facts, constraints, and probable consequences with telling precision.

Draw a meticulous roadmap for oneself and slot the stakeholders’ roles for successful closure of goals and objectives?

Our individual topper is very aware that he can shine only if he opens the canals of collaboration. And she does so with a sure belief in teamwork.

The conviction and responsibility must come from both sides. Individuals must believe in and explore ways to build credibility through developing expertise, demonstrating values, and articulating a vision. Organization leadership should  move out of its comfort zone to provide ‘feel-proud’ career advancement opportunities to such key individuals through credible specialist and expert ranks.

The traits of well-rounded and integrated leadership are a fine balance of essence and form. It matters not if my role is that of an individual contributor or a manager to demonstrate both character (essence) and competence (form). Peter Drucker’s incisive insight on this may well be our lodestar. “Leadership is lifting a person’s vision to high sights, and raising performance to a higher standard”

Enter…the corporate artist

“An arts degree is now perhaps the hottest credential in the world of business.”  So quoted Harvard Business Review a few years back.

Interesting don’t you think? Dare we imagine organization leadership to be as much a stage for artists as for management executives?

Think about it. Is there really an unbridgeable gap between what can be imagined and what can be accomplished? Can not the artistic idealism of originality complement and prevail over the hard-nosed pragmatism of replicating past patterns?

‘Create value’, scream managers, organizations and various business summits. The bugles call for greater creativity, commitment and innovation in the business domain.

But wait! Aren’t these what artists do – and do well? Suddenly, the dots seem to be already joined.

Take strategists and coaches. They exhort their members to set and manage unreasonable expectations. To an artist, this business parlance echoes her courage to make her leaps without a safety net.

Take the mantra of innovation that sweeps across the business landscape today. It acknowledges the truth that viable path-breaking options need to be invented, not replicated or tinkered for difference. To an artist, it resonates the assertive message he practises. Move over, traditionalists – make way for my bold brush patterns of creativity!

Or look at the confidence of discontinuous and disruptive change that laughingly threatens the established practice of continuous improvement to define business success. This is what the creative artist does. No incremental enhancements for him He goes beyond re-jigging the how. She invents a new what.

The truth is, creativity and innovation are design efforts, not analytical tasks. And they are the ‘raison d’etre’ of artists. Maybe it is time for organizations to encourage artistic powers of their employees that they have hitherto been unwelcoming of. Maybe they should allow their artists to exercise the indiscipline of ‘out-of-the-box’ thoughts and actions without the burden of collecting evidence to bail themselves out.

Collaborative teamwork. What corporate professionals strive so hard to make a science of, an ensemble of artists transforms it effortlessly into a spellbinding masterpiece. It is interesting to know that even as early as 2003, Sloan Leadership courses at MIT had arts-based components, including ‘Leadership as Acting: Performing Henry V’. University of Chicago’s leadership exploration and development course has MBAs create and showcase a film. Wharton’s MBA program has a compulsory workshop on “Leadership through the Arts” facilitated by an internationally acclaimed dance company.

And what about the ability to improvise? To respond to unpredictable problems and opportunities as they arise? Artists unfold spontaneity in stepping both up and down to rein in individual brilliance from overshadowing collective success. And in doing so, they create a sure atmosphere of trust that each is looking out for the other and the team.

Yes, it is time for the corporate artist to step up and be allowed to step up. What can be a better vote of confidence for this claim than the following endorsements by two successful business stewards?

“You need to let the artists explore and create the next great thing, which they will do reliably if you permit it.”

Eric Schmidt, Chairman & CEO, Google

“Creativity is the one irreplaceable human skill in an increasingly automated world . . . the only sustainable source of competitive advantage.”

                                                                                                                                           Ivan G. Siedenberg, former Chairman & CEO, Verizon

I want a promotion, but do I deserve one?

You’ve got to admit it.

Promotion time at the workplace does add spice.

Dare I hope? Dare I not? Anticipations whisper in your heart.  Will I this time? Will I not? Expectations bounce off the walls of your mind. And this is if you are the milder type.

And then there are the more aggressive ones. I hope I am in that list you send up the leadership chain, hints one to the manager. You know what will happen if I do not get the leg up this time – this is a more explicit message. And just so that everyone is on the same page, a ‘I-mean-business’ e-mail is sent to the manager and copied to the powers above staking his claim among the prescribed numbers.

Everyone thinks they deserve a promotion. But how do I know if I truly deserve one?

Early on in my career, I had an interesting conversation with my dad as I was chewing my nails out during one such nerve-wracking time of the year. “So why do you think you deserve the promotion”? he asked me.

For the next half hour, he decimated my arguments as I presented my case to him. It was one of the greatest and humbling lessons I learnt in my professional career, one that helped me realistically peg both my expectations as an employee and apply sensible criteria as a manager.

In making their decisions, managers look for different things, and look at things differently too. But forget managers for a minute. What are the candid questions I should be asking myself? How can I honestly assess myself and accept what I see with equanimity? The illuminating discussion with my dad pointed me to the following questions against which I must exactingly evaluate myself.

* Have I exceeded all the goals and targets that had been set in the past two years?

* Have I quantifiably increased my efficiency at my job and role to benefit my organization?

* Do I add measurable value to all the work that passes through me?

* Have I learnt everything I could possibly learn in my present position?

* Are my superiors happy with me? My team members? My peers?

* Have I developed and visibly demonstrated any new skills that are necessary to move to the next level?

* Do I work at my level but perform like the level above me?

* Will I, in all honesty, be able to do justice to the new responsibilities of my higher position?

And then let me look at my attitude.

Am I engaged in my work? Am I focused on the future? Do I handle change well? Do I display a positive attitude and never drag anybody down? Do I volunteer for tough assignments? Do I look for ways to grow in my role my career, my organization and in my field?

If the answers are ‘yes’, let me make my claim with responsibility, meticulousness and firmness.

If the answers are ‘not yet’, let me admit it loud and clear to myself. I do not deserve a promotion now. Neither am I entitled to it. I need to earn it – perhaps when the next year comes around.

And what happens if I do not get it even if I have earned it fair and square?

I have a choice. I can do nothing. I can wallow in the unfairness of not receiving in proportion to what I have given. Or, based on my inner sense of knowledge and approval of who and what I am, I can charge myself and take a different route.

The elevator, if you please, instead of the ladder.

Can conviction and consensus shake hands?

“I am not a consensus politician. I’m a conviction politician.”

For Margaret Thatcher, this was no rhetoric. It was the truth. A truth she lived with the same felicity that she believed in it.

Whether or not you liked her, whether or not you agreed with her, you cannot take away from the fact that she consistently demonstrated the immense power in the value of conviction.

This value lies in its unshakable belief without need for proof or evidence. Some may myopically term it pig headedness. But when the passion of conviction amalgamates with purpose, it unleashes a power that can change the self to change the world.

In the corporate world, this is the essence of leadership.

The leader must possess a vision, but above it, an unshakable faith in his vision. She should have expertise, focus, charisma, passion…but above them all must sit  conviction as the driver. For, as somebody so aptly put it, it is conviction that drives decision, promotes action, accepts risk, overcomes doubt, and draws others into the endeavor. Simply put, it is a firm persuasion of oneself that something is right, and so must be believed…and must be done.

Where does this then place the much-celebrated leadership by consensus? Do conviction and consensus confusedly conflict with each other?

Contrary to what the extreme conviction leader may think, consensus is not about abandoning beliefs, principles or values and policies. (Mrs Thatcher’s famous pronouncement about it being “something in which no one believes and to which no one objects” may be a little harsh).

Good leaders do not confuse the two. They take the road of conviction in their strategy but build consensus around it. They do not diminish their power of conviction to build consensus. They listen and take strong action down the path they believe to create the best performance. They unerringly keep the vision of their goal as the primary target.

Such ‘visioneering’, is a unique trait of a good leader. At all times he holds a clear picture of what could be, and fuels it ahead by the conviction that it should be. She compels herself to move forward and make bold and sometimes, disruptive decisions, no matter the cost. They clear the cobwebs around populism to instill competitive identity in their teams, a trait that makes their members proudly engaged in discovering a focussed belief and voluntary commitment to succeed in today’s hyper competitive scenarios.

True, we should not brush aside some real risks associated with strong convictions. Such as hubris that leads to arrogance and perhaps manipulative fostering of dissension for selfish ends. Here is where the true leader balances his conviction with responsibility. Responsibility, to understand with integrity the causal effect of a desired end. And conviction, to choose the right end. CK Prahalad’s message on this will remain eternally un-erasable – “Responsibility without conviction is amorally pragmatic and un-engaging; conviction without responsibility is impotent”.

And when the ‘conviction’ leader adds optimism in instilling competitive identity, he is on his way to becoming a charismatic leader. She is then seen as one who accepts both obligation and accountability to engage and enable her people to pursue the vision.

May such Pied Pipers start their journeys!


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