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26 Jun. 2015 | Comments (0)
The technological advances of the digital age have allowed the global workforce to be better connected, more collaborative, and have greater personal impact than ever before. More information is immediately available, through more channels, than at any time in history. Clearly, workplaces are now optimized for high levels of workforce engagement. Or are they?
More than a year after its publication, I’m still reeling from the results of Gallup’s 2013 Global Workforce Study. Only 13% of people in 142 countries reported they were engaged in their work, while nearly a quarter reported they were “actively disengaged.”
The theme of the 7th Annual Global Drucker Forum is Claiming Our Humanity: Managing in the Digital Age. The first step in claiming our humanity is creating workplaces that optimize human engagement. Creating these workplaces starts with leading people differently. Here are four observations about managing engagement in the digital age.
1) Managing engagement requires new leadership skills.
The question of how to motivate people in organizations has been of interest to scholars and practitioners since the time of Frederick Taylor. However, the rise of the global economy and the coming of the digital age have made the engagement question much more complex. Organizations everywhere are coping with unprecedented levels of competition and pressure to perform. These organizations are facing a legion of issues that include the need to become more global, the need to simultaneously become more frugal and more innovative, the need to manage new and different stakeholders, and the need to cope with political uncertainty, energy issues, and other factors over which they have no control. For many organizations, the search for competitive advantage is focused on maximizing human performance — and the question of how to create and sustain a highly engaged workforce is taking on new meaning and urgency.
A hundred years ago, managing employee engagement was a much more stable proposition. Changes affecting the workplace occurred — but at a much slower pace. Today, literally everything in the workplace is changing from the volume and complexity of job-related data to the nature of work itself. In the digital age, managing engagement occurs in an environment of nearly continuous change. New leadership skills are required.
As part of our research for the book Choosing Change, we interviewed 60 executives from 13 global organizations. Each of their organizations had recently navigated some form of organizational change — in some cases, disruptive change. In the interviews, executives gave specific advice to leaders for managing engagement during periods of “high change.”
- Put yourself “in the middle.” Leaders should position themselves between the chaos of change and their people. Engaging leaders use their experience, insight, and knowledge of the organization’s business and culture to help people make sense of changes and to better participate in them.
- Invest in your people. Leaders should personally invest more effort in talent development during periods of high change. By doing this, engaging leaders use change as a medium for accelerating the professional development of the workforce.
- Focus on a higher purpose. In times of uncertainty, engaging leaders use higher purpose to keep people focused on their ability to shape the future of the organization.
- Leave no one behind. “False urgency” is a phrase we use to describe a phenomenon sometimes mentioned by the executives. False urgency occurs when change anxiety becomes so high that fear takes over and the only thing that matters is staying on schedule. Suddenly, there is “just no time” for things like human development and engagement, and the workforce is left behind. Engaging leaders refuse false urgency and stay focused on people when the stakes are highest.
The executives reported that when they followed the above actions, people were able to stay more positive, focused, and engaged during periods of change. An event that was perceived as a personal threat was reframed as an opportunity for personal development — and to shape the future of the organization.
2) Managing engagement starts on the front lines.
Until recently, much emphasis has been placed on the C-suite’s role in improving engagement. However, a growing amount of data from Gallup, Bain & Company, the Wall Street Journal, McKinsey, and others is indicating that supervisors play a key role in workforce engagement. In fact, a recent study by Gallup found that they account for up to 70% of the variance on engagement.
However, in spite of growing evidence of the importance of supervisors in workforce engagement, organizations have been slow to implement changes in how supervisors are developed. In my experience, leadership development activities for first line supervisors are often more transactional than transformational. By this I mean that supervisor development focuses more on building technical skills than on building the higher level capabilities needed to motivate and engage people. Said simply, many current leadership development programs do not adequately prepare supervisors to create work environments optimized for engagement. It may be time to take a careful look at the curriculum your organization uses to train supervisors.
Senior leadership is also critically important in building workforce engagement in myriad ways. For example, their support in re-creating the role of supervisor is critical. Perhaps even more important is their role in creating, reinforcing, and modelling an organization-wide culture of engagement.
- 3) Managing engagement is personal.
Last month, I attended ATD’s global conference in Orlando, Fla., along with almost 11,000 talent development professionals from 100 countries. Speaking to people from five continents about engagement, I noticed that they quickly associated their level of engagement with the performance of their supervisor. When people told me they were dissatisfied with their supervisor, the dissatisfaction seldom related to poor technical or business skills. Instead, it related to supervisors’ poor personal skills and their inability, or unwillingness, to invest energy in the people on their team.
When I asked people at the ATD conference to describe a great supervisor, they often described the ability to do two things: Perform the technical aspects of the job and personally invest in getting to know them better and investing in their development.
The information I gained at ATD is consistent with the findings of another recent study by Gallup. In that study, Gallup found that workforce engagement was higher when managers 1) have some form of daily communication with their employees, 2) make a concerted effort to “get to know” their employees and help them feel comfortable talking about any subject, and 3) personally help employees develop in their jobs. Clearly, a key ingredient in highly engaged workplaces is leaders who are personally involved with people.
- 4) Managing engagement is about everyone.
About a century ago, the great Mary Parker Follett wrote a classic article entitled “The Essentials of Leadership.” While it’s rich for many reasons, I like it because it acknowledges the critical role of the follower in organizational life. The idea of “followership” elevates the role of people in organizations by suggesting that everyone has both leadership power and responsibility. Everyone is responsible for leading themselves — and for being a fully contributing member of their team. To Follett, followership was active and important. It completed the equation that is leadership.
So, for teams to become more engaged, they need to have more than engaging leaders—they also need engaging members. We each have the responsibility to our organization, our team, and ourselves to “self-engage.” Earlier, I suggested that many of today’s leadership development programs do not develop engaging supervisors. Likewise, today’s programs don’t develop — or even acknowledge — the role of followership. A key way to create engaging workplaces is to define and develop followership as a formal part of leadership development.
The digital age can enable us to do more than merely claim our humanity: It can foster a renaissance for human achievement in organizations. A great first step is creating workplaces optimized for workforce engagement.
This post is one in a series of perspectives by presenters and participants in the 7th Global Drucker Forum, taking place November 5-6, 2015 in Vienna. The theme: Claiming Our Humanity — Managing in the Digital Age.
This blog first appeared on Harvard Business Review on 06/17/2015.
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