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Thoughts from the Field - Issue #6 - The Answer to Doing More with Less

By Pam Bilbrey - May 2011

The Answer to Doing More with Less

It’s a tough world out there. The economic downturn has become our reality and with it the business environment has grown even more complex, more volatile and more uncertain. We’re continuously challenged with what seems like contradictory priorities in our efforts to: generate significant growth while managing costs; create a differentiated customer experience, yet reduce the resources needed to serve the customer; maximize technology to gain efficiencies, but retain that personal touch; standardize, yet customize. And all the while, we struggle to determine how to remain relevant in a world that is constantly changing. Welcome to the “new normal”!

Instead of wishing that a superhero would sweep in and rescue us from these dilemmas, why not look a bit closer to home. Quite simply, everything that any organization needs to be incredibly successful already exists within the organization. Alfred P. Sloan, the legendary former president and chairman of General Motors, said, “All organizations are fundamentally comprised of physical assets, finances, and people. Physical assets can be ordered on the phone. A call to a banker can get more money. Only in its people can an organization be unique. Therefore, the only sustainable competitive advantage lies in an organization’s people.”

There has never been a more important time to accelerate the energy, enthusiasm and commitment of your workforce. Yet, many organizations fail to see what already exists, missing opportunities to build on it for the greater good. When that happens, the full effort and the potential of the workforce is never captured. Instead, we’re faced with an overwhelming number of disengaged employees, an epidemic of “presenteeism” (present in body, but checked out commitment-wise), and individuals who are miserable in their jobs. BlessingWhite in their comprehensive study of the current state of employee engagement (Employee Engagement Report 2011) found that less than one in three employees (31%) is engaged and nearly one in five is actively disengaged (17%).

Employee engagement starts with you – the leader. Try as they might, leaders do not possess superhero powers and they need to actively cultivate an engaged, productive workforce. Leaders find it enlightening to honestly ask themselves the following questions:

Am I “bossing”…or leading?

Leadership is all about managing people versus giving orders. If you are the kind of individual who would rather perform your job from the vantage point of an office – issuing various directives and completing reports which substantiate those requests – you’re missing the point. An effective leader sets up as many opportunities as possible to interact with employees in order to find the facts to make the right decisions, to capture their ideas and suggestions and to build buy-in. The well-known Japanese management philosophy, genchi genbutsu, or go and see, keeps the leader focused on where value is created:where your employees are!

Being visible and interacting with the people for whom you are responsible fosters their engagement. Another important element of managing your employees is listening and being accountable for acting on what you hear. Asking, “What is going well today, what needs improvement, do you have the tools you need to do your job, and how can I help you be successful?”, sends a clear message that you are fully engaged in your role as a leader. You also build trust and raise morale by establishing a personal connection with individuals, while enjoying the opportunity to share your appreciation for the job they’re doing. The perception is that “you care”, and employees, in turn, experience a heightened level of commitment.

Am I renting…or owning?

If you are not taking full ownership of the engagement level of your workforce, you are merely renting your position as a leader. I was so pleased when Pat decided to tackle this topic in his book, The Three Signs of a Miserable Job, because it is a subject that constantly arises during our consulting work. Pat describes job misery as a compound of three factors employees feel: 1.anonymous, 2.irrelevant, and 3.unable to measure their own success (immeasurement).

In terms of anonymity, leadership carries with it the responsibility to know – not just recognize by name or position – but know your people. Employees have a life outside of work, unique attributes and perspectives that a leader needs to tap into. According to Pat, “No employee – regardless of how much money he makes or how much she loves the nature of the work she does – can be fulfilled without a manager who knows and cares about them as a unique individual.”

To avoid the irrelevant trap, employees need to be made to feel that the work they are doing matters personally to someone – whether it’s clients, vendors, another department, co-workers or even you, their leader. Without seeing a connection between the work and the satisfaction of another person or group, an employee simply cannot find lasting fulfillment. And finally, staff has to be supplied with some tangible means of assessing their own success or failure, in order to avoid misery via immeasurement. Otherwise, the motivation to be engaged in their work, to improve and demonstrate their own worth, will be lacking. By actively addressing the three signs, a leader will demonstrate a commitment to his people and create an engaged workforce.

Am I speaking…or communicating?

Often, leaders assume the words they’re saying are enough to convey the information they want to impart. But in fact, communication consists of far more than mere sentences. The experts tell us that facts, emotions and stories must all be present in order for the message to be heard – and it must be repeated time after time, reinforced in various venues. Once is not enough.

The facts tell staff the basis of the message and lend credibility to the leader; emotions encourage a willingness to act; and stories are how employees connect the strategy to the destination. The end result of true communication is not just the imparting of knowledge – it’s a demonstration of the leader’s total involvement in the vision (future), and a call for similar engagement and ownership on the part of staff. I am reminded of a story I heard about the country singer, Kenny Chesney. Before each concert Chesney sits in the seat furthest from the stage and imagines how he can connect with that person during the concert. Are you taking the time to make sure that your communication will connect in a way that inspires and supports your employees?

Am I ignoring…or rewarding?

Effective performance management, across the board, usually does not come easy to leaders. Rewarding top talent may be simple enough to do. But what we often fail to realize is that there’s a vast reservoir of ignored high performance out there in the workforce, which is just as deserving of recognition. The problem is, we don’t see it and the reasons for this are numerous.

  • Compartmentalization: prejudging a person and their abilities based on their current circumstances (for example, job level or current area of expertise)
  • Preconceived notions or jumping to conclusions, which leads us to form opinions about people and their work without adequate evidence
  • Internal scripts, which despite our best efforts not to be biased when it comes to people, unfortunately continue to influence us
  • Perpetual “busyness”, which inhibits recognition of existing talent, which may be out there

In working with executives over the last twenty years, I have found even the most steadfast and dedicated leader can ignore employees who go about their workday, fully engaged and performing small miracles of service. Discovering greatness in ordinary situations requires us to release patterns of thinking that limit possibilities. Being determined to see the entire workforce with clarity is just one more measure of a leader’s engagement; it’s also an inspiration to those who finally are rewarded for their due diligence and it’s motivational for those who have yet to become engaged.

Doing more with less

Our workforce is a repository of passion, energy, skills and ideas just waiting to be tapped. Organizations whose leaders fully engage the workforce will succeed in accessing and harnessing the abilities and capabilities of all their employees. As a result, businesses will find that doing more with less is entirely within the realm of possibility.