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30 Dec. 2011 | Comments (0)

Over the past few weeks, two different research reports on employee engagement have crossed my desk – both of them surveying exactly the kinds of workers companies compete for. This week's news came from Catalyst and the Families and Work Institute, who found that there is very little difference between men and women executives in terms of what they really want from their employment experience – but there are differences in how fully those needs are being met. The other survey was from Sirota Survey Intelligence, who found that most employees start becoming jaded after just six months on the job – and morale declines steadily over the next four years of employment.

As I thought about that long slide into cynicism, it occurred to me that people are looking for all kinds of things in their work:

• Intellectual stimulation
• Inspiration, or strong belief in the mission of the enterprise
• Comraderie/social interaction
• Time/flexibility/convenience
• Advancement up the ranks
• Financial rewards
• Various extra freebies and boondoggles

It reads like a progression from the sublime to the ridiculous, but essentially this is the meal any employer serves up. Only the portion sizes vary.

My theory is that talent seeks out the top items on that menu, and to the extent that it finds them, will tolerate meager helpings on the lower items. But in workplaces where the top items are found lacking, people focus hard on the bottom of the list and often make surprisingly outsized demands there. It may be a way of “making themselves whole” on the deal. They’re saying, in effect, “if you want me to work in these conditions, then by God, you’ll pay extra for it.”

The problem is that people aren’t very vocal about shortcomings at the top of the list. Very few people march into their boss’s office and demand greater levels of inspiration or more camaraderie. If you’re the boss, you only hear the demand for pay raises and bumps up the hierarchy – and therefore, you might get the mistaken impression that those are the things your people care most about.

Resist that conclusion. Instead, see it as your job as a manager to attend to the higher needs. If it's hard to imagine how, read Tim Butler's and Jim Waldroop's classic HBR article on "job sculpting" for advice on making work more intellectually stimulating. Or Rosabeth Moss Kanter's recent "Transforming Giants" to see what it means to inspire a workforce with mission. Or "Inner Work Life" by Teresa Amabile and Steve Kramer, to appreciate the impact of small acts of managerial kindness. Get the top of the list right, and you'll have no problem retaining talent. And if, with a fully engaged workforce, the business grows well enough to also provide the bottom of the list, then so much the better.

This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 6/6/2008.

  • About the Author: Julia Kirby

    Julia Kirby

    Julia Kirby is an editor at large for HBR. She is coauthor with Chris Meyer of the forthcoming Standing on the Sun.

    Full Bio | More from Julia Kirby


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