Changing times and employee engagement - Canadian Government Executive
Best Practice
May 7, 2012

Changing times and employee engagement

CGE Vol.14 No.2 February 2008

Management speaks of change in positive terms, for who would want to change for the worse? But despite the goal of improvement, the act of change carries with it significant risk – change will not work out and will instead degrade organizational performance.

Change within an organization might be viewed differently – success for finance might not be success for customer service – however, if you can keep people engaged throughout the change process and in the change process itself you might be able to obtain a more uniformly positive view.

Most of us seek similar fundamental needs from our work, which cut across industry, geography, ethnicity, gender and generation. They are uniform because underneath it all we are all human. For instance, you would be hard pressed to find a worker anywhere who did not want to be treated with respect and dignity, who did not seek a sense of equity, fairness, meaningfulness and pride in what their organization accomplishes. These characteristics are not erased simply because we moved from the savannah to the suburbs, or because the younger generation has taken up snowboarding or freak dancing.

The same principles apply universally. A worker in a developing country who submits to sweatshop-like or other horrible conditions does so out of economic necessity and not because they are fundamentally any different than you or me. Their needs make them accept conditions that you or I would not currently tolerate, needs like feeding themselves and their families and putting a roof over their heads. Placed in circumstances with similar opportunities that you or I have, they would make the same choices that we would. These uniform fundamentals imply that a single methodology can be used to make organizational changes and to keep employees engaged.

What about perceptions of differences by generation, gender, occupation, public vs. private sector employment? Does the claim of uniformity fly in the face of the common wisdom that says, for instance, that public sector employees care less about money than those within the private sector? For both, the key is a sense of equity – what they get out for what they put in. How you reach that sense of balance will be different by person, and by other factors such as economic circumstances. An employee within the public sector might be willing to trade off a lower base pay for a higher sense of job security, earlier retirement, better current or post-retirement benefits or for having more societal impact. In other words, the equity equation is in balance. This balance leads to a sense of fairness with the job environment and helps keep the employee engaged.

A case where sense of equity and engagement recently declined was the US Air Marshall Service. Two hundred thousand people applied for new positions created in the Service after 9/11. Those selected came into these jobs excited about the prospect of doing something meaningful. After joining the Service they found themselves faced with gruelling schedules, lack of advancement, onerous rules, and a lack of identity protection, resulting in many quitting the Service, the ultimate act of a disengaged workforce. The head of the Service called these complainers “disgruntled amateurs, insurgents, and organizational terrorists.” The Air Marshalls responded by joining a union. The head of the Service has since been replaced and the new head has begun to make changes addressing the staff’s concerns.

Organizational characteristics and the success or failure of change should not be viewed as binary. People are not either concerned or unconcerned, change is not either successful or unsuccessful, and employees are not either engaged or disengaged. Treating and speaking about such concepts in a binary fashion is too simplistic. Concerns regarding change are on a continuum varying from many to few; the change itself can range from stunning success to abject failure, with many having components of both success and failure.

The fundamentals of creating a work environment where change can be more uniformly implemented and employees more uniformly engaged can be depicted using the Message Performance Future (MPF) framework.

Message: Absolute clarity regarding what the organization is about, how it will operate and how each person contributes to delivering on goals. Are the organizational communications regarding Message consistent throughout all the levels of the organization? Are policies and practices in line with the Message? During times of change is it clear how the organization is changing, what the expected benefits of the change will be and what each person’s role in the change effort is?

Performance: The resources needed by the employee to deliver on the Message. Performance should be thought of broadly including the areas of teamwork, communications, decision making, training, equipment, resources, processes and procedures.

Future: Reasons to stick around, a sense of belonging, of being valued by the organization, of accomplishing a better future.

Every organization will have varying degrees of each component. Those most successful at implementing change and keeping their employees engaged during change are those that are strong in all three areas. In one agency measured, one group of employees viewed the organization positively in all three areas. That group had engagement scores in the mid 80s. But within the same agency those who did not view the organization as performing in these critical areas had engagement scores in the low teens. The key to success is to create the conditions for low engagement to increase.

Less than optimum conditions

Number 1 in the diagram above represents organizations (or work units) without a strong sense of Future. Employees know what they have to do and are given what they need to perform, however they have no sense of a long-term organizational future, they feel like chess pieces to be shuffled around or laid off as needed. They exhibit low commitment and engagement to the organization. They will be searching for better opportunities, if not immediately, then as soon as other factors become intolerable. Their customers (external or internal) experience disinterested employees.

Number 2 represents organizations without a strong clear Message. These organizations have constantly changing priorities and goals. People are not sure what they should be working on or who is responsible for what. There is little accountability and much rework because final products and goals are unclear. Customers experience inconsistent performance.

Number 3 represents organizations that do not provide what is needed to get the job done. These organizations have strategy and goals, tell people they are important, give them lots to do, but don’t supply what they need to get their jobs done. Staff feel they have impossibly high workloads, are frustrated by poor processes and ineffectiveness. Leaders are viewed as ineffective. Customers experience poor service and product quality, often times only made up for by having people work very hard.

Number 4, Optimum Performance, represents the area of balance where effective organizations operate.

Sometimes change efforts affect mission-critical processes; they can carry terrible consequences if the change effort were to fail. Failure to successfully implement change, when that process is one that protects the public’s safety or puts the life of an employee at risk, is often times simply no

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