Employee Engagement: The Soviet Lesson
People are messy. They have feelings, opinions, moods and likes and dislikes. But in all this human messiness is human brilliance.
One of the very first major articles I had published over 20 years ago was titled, “Thanks Boris and Mikhail, The Soviet Lesson for American Business.” I wrote it shortly after Boris Yeltsin and Mikhail Gorbachev had been instrumental in the collapse and dissolution of the Soviet Union on December 25, 1991.
The message was clear: if you try to control people and try to centrally plan everything, you are destined to failure. And, I argued, the vast majority of businesses apply principles more aligned with the Soviet Union than with those of a genuine free market system.
At the human level setting up a management system designed to control people, whether be it for a profit-making venture or for a government entity, removes the natural human drivers and motivators.We as humans, each of us, come equipped with gifts. Human gifts, aligned to a meaningful vision, are what enable a vision to be fulfilled. The more we are able to tap into and align those gifts to our purpose the more readily any vision will be achieved.
That’s what management is. That’s what real employee engagement is.
We face a crisis in this nation. After all these years we still run our organizations more like the Soviet Union was run — than on the ideals that our nation was founded upon. Our systems of management are old, faded and tired at every level of endeavor.
It’s time we learn the lesson.
What Managers Can Learn from Mom
No one is more in the NOW than mom. She doesn’t miss an opportunity to guide, teach and protect her kids.
In daily work as managers we experience many teachable moments. These are those little opportunities that pop up in every day work life when just that right situation arrives to help an employee learn. How often do you make the time to take advantage of these valuable moments?
Five things you can count on mom to do for her kids:
- Keep them safe.
- Teach them skills.
- Help them learn to get along with others.
- Teach them to admit their mistakes.
- Praise them when they do right.
How do these lessons translate for managers?
1. Keep them safe
Mom knows how to balance order and freedom, slowing letting her kids have more and more autonomy as they demonstrate the ability to apply it. She does this to keep them from getting hurt or hurting others. In the NOW work world we need our people engaged, and yes we have a long history of wanting them to simply do what they have been told to do. Now we need them to think, make decisions, and watch for opportunities that move our organizations closer to its goals.
But fear prevents actions. So in the NOW world your people will be cautious to step into it and start making decisions. As they do, stay near so you can help them recognize when the direction they are headed is one you know won’t work. It’s okay to get bumps and bruises and learn from experience, but broken bones need to be avoided. Guide people who are stepping up to help them be successful. Success breeds confidence and confidence comes from a track record of appropriate decisions.
2. Teach them skills
Mom is on the lookout to teach new skills to her youngsters. She’s great at spotting the perfect opportunity to learn – the point in time when the lesson will help the child achieve something they want.
Your employees are not children, but as they move into the NOW world (see Business at the Speed of NOW) they are learning new skills that are preparing them for success in the real-time economy. These new skills – problem solving, collaboration, decision making – are skills you need them to have so they can thrive in our new NOW world.
3. Help them learn to get along
Oddly, few of us were blessed enough to have been taught skills such as constructive conflict or the basics of collaboration. As Americans we seemed stuck in the belief that it is better to be polite than to be honest about what you think. The net result is we often simply avoid dealing with things that involve differing views or concerns about people’s performance because we believe it will be uncomfortable and awkward.
Mom knows just what to say to her kids to help them hear what she is saying. She knows her children and realizes that when they are not getting along with others that it is an opportunity to bring in new skills. Mom knows that in any given situation you don’t have to be rude to say what you are really thinking. You just need to choose your words thoughtfully and constructively before you open your mouth. The way in which Mom corrects her children is incredibly important. The words and the tone determine whether the child can hear the message without being shamed and managers need to master this approach, too.
4. Teach them to admit their mistakes.
We all make mistakes, yes, even mom. The best mom is the mom who knows when she has lost her cool that she needs to circle back around and tell the children that her response was not the right way to handle the situation. Mom will admit her mistakes so she can teach her kids that when they make mistakes they can also admit them.
As managers we have to use mistakes to teach not to punish. We have to also make it safe to make mistakes by acknowledging our own.
5. Praise them when they do right
Mom knows the best encouragement is to acknowledge when her kids are doing the right things. She also understands each child has unique needs for acknowledgement. One child might treasure a big hug while the other sees a piece of chocolate as a great reward for a job well done.
As humans we thrive on recognition, but each of us have unique needs in that space. Acknowledging an employee at a company meeting is motivating for some and brings great embarrassment to others. When in doubt, a handwritten old-fashioned thank you note works well for most people. That said, take time to recognize people who take risks and step into the NOW world.
My mom died a few years back, and I do miss her, but whenever I think of her I remember her always-steady hand in preparing me for life. We can learn a lot about management from reflecting on the lessons mom taught us.
Management is Harder Work than Leadership
Everybody wants to be a leader. Nobody wants to be a manager. Why?
Leadership is cool. It’s inspirational. We cherish and honor great leaders. We devour books about Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, John Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher.
But who wants to read a book about a great manager. Boring. Dull. Uninteresting.
While leaders do dramatic and exciting things, managers work the infinite details. While leaders create visions and rally people to bring the vision to life, managers detail out plans, manage costs and meet deadlines.
While management is harder work than leadership, that’s not to say anyone can be a great leader. It takes a very special set of talents and skills to lead. But one thing is true about leadership–it is an emotionally appealing role. We love the feeling we get from being around someone who inspires us, and we all wish we could emulate what he or she does.
We don’t feel the same emotional appeal about the role of manager. The problem with management is that it demands hard work, discipline and a willingness to sort through the morass of execution details. It requires long attention spans and the willingness to sort through the complexity needed to get things organized. It also demands lots of judgment calls, lots of candid conversations, and the willingness to talk about what isn’t working.
Steve Jobs, Jack Welch, Bill Gates, Warren Buffet, John Kennedy, Hillary Clinton, and Margaret Thatcher are not only great leaders, they are great managers as well. These leaders all understand the details of their business. Apple did not become one of the most successful businesses in history without both great leadership and great management. The iPad would be a worthless innovation if Apple could not bring it to market in vast quantities at a competitive price with a high level of reliability – that demands great management.
The reason I say management is harder work than leadership is brought to life in the fact that people who write management books (me included with my book Business at the Speed of Now) want their books to sound like they are leadership books. We do that because we know people prefer to buy leadership books.
The reality is that not everyone can be a great leader. And while we never have enough great leaders, most of us need to put our heads down and do the hard work that makes us a great manager. If you desire to be a great manager, study what it takes to plan effectively and learn to manage the work to deliver on the plan.
We need great managers. Be one.
The Idea Pit: 5 Stupid Reasons Smart Ideas Die
Enthusiastically Kathy takes her idea to improve customer response time to her boss, Gabriel. Gabe is a good guy and he’s so glad he found Kathy to fill a vital position in customer service. She’s doing exactly what he had hoped she would do–bring innovative ideas to him, which he hopes will get Gabe’s boss off his back about the poor customer service satisfaction scores of the past six months.
But there’s a problem with Kathy’s idea.
To implement the change Gabe needs the cooperation of production. That requires he take the idea to his boss, who then has to work with the vice president of production. But Gabe’s boss and the VP of production don’t get along.
Kathy’s idea is dead on arrival and is headed straight to the idea pit. Plus, Kathy’s level of engagement is going down due to the mixed messages she is getting about bringing innovative ideas to the department.
This situation illustrates one of the common reasons good ideas die young.
What causes great ideas to be tossed into the idea pit? The top five reasons are:
- Poor internal working relationships/organizational politics
- Differing or conflicting objectives
- Managers who are just too busy to take time
- Employees who don’t know how to develop and sell an idea
- The absence of data to validate the idea or the problem it solves
A fraction of employees ideas ever get implemented primarily because those ideas have to go up and down the chain of command and across the organization. And unless ideas are presented with data that validate they are big enough and how the economics justify management’s time, they get discarded because of the simple reality that there are bigger fish to fry. That’s why in a LinkedIn poll we conducted 80 percent of managers said that less than 10 percent of employees’ ideas ever get implemented. Sad.
I often ask managers this question: “Is the key thing a manager can do to engage employees is to listen to their ideas and increase the number that get implemented?”
The consensus of the room is always yes.
However, in reality I don’t believe this happens. Management is already the primary bottleneck to the implementation of ideas. There is no way they can find the time to process all of the ideas employees have.
To create a high engagement organization employees must be able to implement their ideas without the direct involvement of management. I know this is provocative, but it is possible. I’ve seen it happen and what a difference it makes!
For employees to be able to take action management has a lot of work to do to enable them. Employees need to understand where the business is going, what they are accountable for, and how they are expected to solve problems.
We’re wasting a lot of creativity and passion with our out-of-date THEN management thinking, as I describe in detail in Business at the Speed of Now. In the end analysis, it won’t take enthusiastic Kathy long to learn Gabe can’t help get her great ideas implemented.
After she sees a few ideas tossed in the idea pit, she’ll stop sharing her ideas. What a waste!
What do you think causes ideas to get tossed in the idea pit?
The 7 Deadly Sins of Management
In 1987 when Japan’s hot breath was being felt on the back of the neck of U.S. automakers, President Ronald Reagan signed into law the Malcolm Baldrige National Quality Award. Its intent was to inspire U.S. organizations to do what Japanese companies had been doing since the Japanese Union of Scientists and Engineers founded the Deming Prize in 1950. The Deming Prize had inspired Japanese companies to test themselves against a rigorous set of best-practice management standards.
I’ll skip the detailed history lesson and cut to the chase.
“We have a problem Houston!” The problem is that most U.S. organizations suffer from the 7 Deadly Sins of Management, which I elaborate on in detail in Business at the Speed of Now (pages 28-38). The 7 Deadly Sins of Management are:
- Lack of clear direction
- No line of sight
- Unclear accountability
- Inconsistent language
- Poor issue transparency
- Insufficient resources
- Inadequate tools/skills
Leadership is about vision, setting tone, inspiring people and working from a deeply held set of values. If you want to read the best blogger I know on leadership read Dan Rockwell’s Leadership Freak.
But the work of management is to prioritize and organize work, set up measures, connect people, eliminate fear, communicate progress, and make sure the right resources are in the right place at the right time. I am sorry to say the work of management is tedious and detailed work. And because of that a lot of us are guilty of not wanting to do that work. Heh, life is short and who wants to spend it working in the weeds.
However, by avoiding the detailed work of management, the 7 Deadly Sins of Management propagate in our organizations. But the 7 Deadly Sins of Management come at a heavy price because it causes our people to disengage.
There are several reasons our people can’t engage. They can’t engage because they don’t understand where the business is going. They can’t engage because they don’t see their part. They can’t engage because they don’t know what they are accountable for and they don’t understand the language of the business. To top it off our employees suffer from the fear of making problems visible, inadequate resources and tools, and weak training.
It’s a wonder our people even show up to work at all!
Of course I am being dramatic. But what I am saying here is more commonly true than not. Our people don’t engage and can’t engage because management is not doing its complete job.
Management’s job in this Mass Customization world is to enable people to act on every opportunity every time in order to meet customer needs. For that to be possible, we have to eliminate the sins that prevent our people from being engaged.
Let’s sin no more.
Our Love of Speed
BY JOHN M. BERNARD
Before the automobile was in common use many people believed that high-speed car travel would cause the human body to disintegrate starting at about 60 miles per hour. Only 100 years later that belief now sounds so far fetched you probably think I made it up. I did not.
Speed fascinates us and the mystery of it taps into our imagination. As I write this I am traveling in an ordinary jet aircraft traveling some 400 miles per hour and about seven miles above Mother Earth. Ironically, after the flight ended my young daughter told me that the plane we took was “too slow,” which I knew was because once we reached cruising altitude she thought it had actually stopped moving.
It is a strange world.
Second only to our love to move fast is our passion to get information fast. It wasn’t that long ago that a letter from a far away relative was a treasured possession as it took many weeks to travel to its destination.
Today we get information in real-time. An email traveling at the speed of light circles our globe seven times in one second. So, I don’t know about you but when a web page doesn’t load instantly or when I have to wait for my computer to boot, I am a bit impatient.
It is true that we live in a NOW world with instant access to everything. And the faster things move the more we value time. In fact, we so hate wasting time that when an organization puts us through the hoops as we try to get our needs met we simply want to scream with frustration.
Our NOW world has redefined what customers expect. Yes, they expect your organization to meet their needs, although that’s really just the price of admission. Increasingly time is the dimension from which our speed-driven world derives the greatest value when meeting their needs. These are known as the NOW Moments.
That value creation most often requires the intervention of employees. Unless those employees have the skills and authority to take action NOW, your business is at risk of becoming irrelevant to your customers.
And our passion for speed is only accelerating.
We live in a time where we must do Business at the Speed of Now. Management’s new job is to enable their employees to deliver on the NOW Moments.
Employee Engagement by Tools and Techniques
BY JOHN M. BERNARD
PART THREE OF A FOUR-PART SERIES
Employee engagement is the Holy Grail because when it improves so does the customer experience, productivity and revenue. Also when it moves up, costs, absenteeism, turnover, theft, accidents, and defects go down. In the search to drive up employee engagement there have been many alluring paths to explore. Over the years most organizations have jumped at dozens of programs to boost the degree to which people, their most valuable asset, take initiative and go the extra mile to make improvements.
However, not only has employee engagement NOT improved in the past 25 years, it has actually declined according to research by Gallup. Today in the typical company less than 30 percent of employees do anything more than the minimum required.
Our hunger to engage people creates an unrelenting appetite for anything and everything that might help. We hope the Balanced Scorecard will transform engagement. Maybe if we just emulate the Good to Great companies we can pull it off. Or if we can get past the Five Dysfunctions of a Team or if we all just practice The 7 Habits of Highly Effective People our employees would finally be more fully engaged. Then there is the promise that lean, six sigma, Kaizen, the whole world of process improvement, certainly must be the path to true engagement. Right?
Unfortunately, programs and tools like these do NOT transform employee engagement. Every one of the great books I mentioned and the very powerful world of process improvement all support engaging employees. Yet, supporting employee engagement does not create transformation.
Take lean as an example. You can engage employees in a project to take the waste out of a given process. But projects of this nature are almost always special sanctuaries where the over-riding norms of the organization are temporarily set aside. What that means is the improvement effort is a special event during which employees actually have a voice and are highly engaged.
For these reasons, there is no doubt that lean is a good thing. But the problem is we hope that if we just keep repeating these projects we will transform the underlying behaviors, expectations and routines of the organization in such a way that results in a highly engaged workforce. It’s like remodeling a 1,200 square foot track home one room at a time and hoping when you are done you have a 8,000 square foot mansion.
Repeating a good practice, no matter how much we hope it does, can’t transform an organization. As Einstein put it, “In theory, theory and practice are the same. In practice, they are not.”
In reality, employee engagement is driven by the underlying system of management, the logic that organizes and runs the business. That logic is often unseen and unconscious, and it is that logic that creates organizational culture and behaviors.
Learn about our exciting results by reading Business at the Speed of Now.
The Failings of Performance Management
BY JOHN M. BERNARD
PART TWO OF A FOUR-PART SERIES ON APPROACHES TO EMPLOYEE ENGAGEMENT
In the world of management, employee engagement is the Holy Grail. Extensive research shows a compelling positive correlation between the level of engagement and customer satisfaction, product quality and profitability. In fact, organizations in the top quartile of employee engagement out earn their competitive peers by 22-28 percent.
In my last blog I wrote about attempts at workforce engagement through exhortation (words, talks, campaigns, encouragement, and rewards). The fatal flaw in that approach is that enthusiasm doesn’t solve underlying problems, and believing that if we just “pump” people up we’ll get sustainable improvement is naive.
A very popular and common approach to engagement is performance management, often the modern-day equivalent of management by objective. It’s underlying assumption is that if management organizes the work, and everyone is accountable for his or her part, the organization will achieve extraordinary results. Underneath this approach is a belief that it is all about individual accountability – and if we write it down and hold people to their piece of the puzzle, the business is bound to succeed. And sometimes they do succeed although it is usually only with small incremental improvements that do not move the needle forward enough.
Performance management isn’t a bad notion, but it has some fundamental flaws. First of all it holds people accountable for things they usually only have some control over. Also, in the absence of relevant concrete measures it often has many “measures” that are based on opinion rather than fact. Second, a performance management goal measured only by a task due date, and does not include a measure for the quality of the completed task because it is viewed as too subjective, is a very weak goal.
Third, if employees are not solving problems using data-driven root cause analysis, no amount of performance management mechanics will improve the customer experience or achieve financial goals.
And the reality is if performance management is used as a hammer, then everyone ends up scrambling to meet their targets even if doing so has an unintended negative consequence to the team or the organization. In the real world things change and sometimes walking away from certain objectives becomes clearly the right thing to do. But changing plans can have a consequence during that dreaded annual performance review.
Performance management can easily lead to an every-man/woman for himself/herself environment. That annual review must go well.
There are exceptions to every rule, but most performance management systems have the hollow ring of an empty metal barrel.
Dr. W. Edwards Deming, one of the most influential management thinkers of the past century, called performance reviews one of the “7 Deadly Sins” of western management. He said that the system people work within and its impact on co-worker and customer interactions determines 90 to 95 percent of performance – not the individual.
Deming and others (me included) believe that performance management does far more to engender individualism, self-protection and fear than it does to serve the need every organization has for innovation.
Learn more by reading Business at the Speed of Now.
People Are Terrible Machines
A charming children’s book titled “Children Make Terrible Pets” tells the story of a young bear who came upon a small lost boy in the forest and wanted to take him home as a pet. His mother cautioned the bear warning that children do not make good pets.
The whole notion made me laugh because it reminded me about the reality that people by their nature are independent, curious, questioning, passionate, emotional, opinionated and frequently irritable. To conclude the opposite, that human beings are basically rational and logical, defies what we experience in each other and in ourselves. And to believe that it is human nature to sit by quietly and comply with whatever we are told to do is to misunderstand the very nature of being human.
But when we look at the workplace and our underlying management model it is highly dependent upon people doing exactly as they are told – being compliant. Even in this post-Mass Production Age employees are largely still seen as cogs in the great machine of enterprise. The enterprise relies heavily on these complicated, messy and often troublesome humans to mechanically and reliably repeat its processes delivering its goods and services.
The problem is that people are terrible machines. Rather than being able to rely on them to just do as they are told, it is their nature to question, to challenge, and to improve whatever it is they do. This is not to say people are not reliable, the problem is they just don’t enjoy being compliant for compliance’s sake. Machines do a much better job at being compliant because they are designed to only do what they do.
To get people to comply we have to disengage their human nature. We have to use something to keep them focused and doing what we want them to do. Unfortunately, the drug of choice for controlling people is fear. Fear of losing their job, fear of not fitting in, fear of not being good enough, fear of the boss, or even simply the fear of being called out in front of your peers.
Now I know fear is not a polite word and the vast majority of managers would likely deny they use fear to keep their people on the straight and narrow. But in the real world of messy, creative, thinking and feeling human beings, fear is the silent killer of human spirit and thus human innovation.
After all, without fear, people are terrible machines. So, with a little fear, most people out of necessity will begrudgingly leave their humanness at home, come to work, and try their best to simply do what they are told to do.
Management Redefined: The Path to Economic Leadership
While our way of life is challenged by today’s economic realities, the solution lies not in some breakthrough political strategy, but instead with those who manage our organizations day-to-day. This applies to most organizations be they large and small, private and public.
The reason I believe this is where the solution lies, is because the way we currently manage our organizations has failed to engage the hearts, minds and passions of our employees. THAT is where the solution lies because that is our largest untapped resource and therefore the biggest opportunity to regain our competitive advantage.
Gallup research shows 67 percent of our people make no extra effort to help our organizations – other than what they are told to do by their bosses. They show up and shut up. Think about it. If you go to work and share ideas and express concern about how poorly things are done, and nothing comes of it, after awhile you check out. And if you are viewed as a troublemaker who asks too many questions, you really check out.
Many managers I meet believe that most employees don’t care, that the average Joe is lazy and unless closely supervised, would really rather screw off than work hard. But this is not human nature and what they observe is a very human response to an unhealthy work environment and management system.
Today we still operate by a management philosophy and system passed down from the era of mass production (when humans were viewed as extensions of machines). So the human behavior we often see is actually in response to those management methods, and is not an indication of human nature.
Therefore, the best path to economic leadership starts by realizing that the human resources we have long called our “most valuable asset,” actually are our most valuable asset AND our most underutilized, untapped, and wasted asset.
This is not a “let’s love our people” message. It’s a practical, realistic business call to action. Management must redefine its job and the system it uses to manage employees’ performance. The NOW Management System creates a shift from managers making the vast majority of decisions (a relic of the past) to enabling its people to make their own decisions. Plus, the system aligns those decisions with business goals to improve customer experience, drive growth and cut costs.
There remains a big gap between how we have managed traditionally, and what management must do in the modern, mass customization economy. Closing that gap will tap into massive levels of innovation, small and large innovations, that will fine-tune everything we as managers must do to thrill customers and delight shareholders.
The path to economic leadership travels through the hearts, minds and souls of our most valuable asset, our employees. To get there, we have to redefine management.
Next: Enabling Innovation: Discovering the Unseen Source