Tag Archives: engaged employees

Living In Fear At Work Is No Way To Live

18 May

I spoke with a friend of mine who is looking to leave her current employer. She is an outstanding employee– hard working, highly skilled in her functional area, considerate and helpful to her coworkers, and passionate about serving others.  Her direct supervisor loves her; in fact, when her supervisor learned she was being wooed by another company a couple of years ago she was persuaded to stay.

Why would someone leave a job they like with a supervisor who wants to keep them? A senior leadership team that uses fear and intimidation as their modus operandi, that’s why. Here’s what she told me:

Most people here are walking on egg shells around the CEO, who is a tyrrant. We are all scared of her irrational behavior. There are times when she intimidates people, thinking this somehow will motivate them. It does just the opposite. My boss tries to shield me from this, but the fear people feel in the office can be cut with a knife. I love what I do, but life is too short to put up with this crap.

I feel badly for my friend. She is a good employee stuck in a company run by a leader who should be supervising a Cold War Soviet gulag instead of a twenty-first century company.  Sadly, her lament is something we hear far too often from employees who weigh in via employee engagement surveys collected by our research partner Quantum Workplace. Here’s an employee offering a similar sentiment:

There is too much fear in the organization. It prevents us from making quick and decisive decisions. Form over substance is the primary guide for certain management. Heavy politics prevents success.

What a shame. What a waste of time and talent. The philosopher Sophocles said “To him who is in fear everything rustles”. Too many employees are in environments where they “rustle”, where their hearts and heads cannot be put fully to the task at hand for fear of the despot leader.

Of course, people don’t have to be managed by fear and intimidation. The companies with highly engaged employees we studied and who are profiled in Re-Engage actually work hard to minimize fear, knowing that this approach brings little long-term value to the enterprise. Contrast these feelings with the following employee, who lauds his employer for allaying fear in the midst of these more difficult economic times:

In these uncertain times the leadership of the office has gone out of its way to hold staff-wide meetings to keep us informed of how the firm is doing and what it is doing, short of layoffs, to hold down expenses, and to try, generally, to assuage the fear that is naturally going on right now.    Trusts its employees to do their respective jobs without undue interference or micromanagement.

Here’s another employee, who has chosen to stay with her employer, in part because of a leader she can trust:

I have had opportunities to leave the organization, but have chosen to stay because of the leadership of our operation and the opportunities that are afforded me and my fellow employees.  I believe leadership is honest and provide crucial information about the current state of our industry in light of the economic down turn.  This transparency has kept me here.


Employees don’t have to be motivated by “do-this-or-else”. Leaders who feel a need to manage by fear and intimidation are, in my view, broken. In this case of my friend, the CEO has a Napoleon complex that serves no one. It’s pathetic, really.

We’ve found employees can be motivated in so many more productive ways, such as desire to contribute to something important, a need to feel part of a productive team, or an opportunity build one’s skills and talents.  What leaders need to do is help employees find the best within them to bring out that talent.

Want to engage and re-engage employees? Stop leading with fear.

(Photo from by stuant6 on Flickr)


On Employee Engagement and the C-Suite, by Leigh Branham

10 Mar

I hope you enjoy this post, written by my colleague and good friend Leigh Branham:

I encourage anyone interested in employee engagement to read a report recently released by The The Economist (co-sponsored by The Hay Group), titled “Re-engaging with engagement: Views from the boardroom on employee engagement” .  The report is based on a survey of 331 C-suite executives or senior directors from 19 industries in Europe and the Middle East.  I would be interested in hearing from readers in the U.S. (and internationally) about whether you believe the findings also apply to senior executives in your country, or in your company.

The Survey Findings:

The most disturbing findings were these:

  • 84% of survey respondents say that “disengaged employees” are one of the three biggest threats facing their business.  Yet, only 12% report that their companies “regularly and often” confront staff with “continually low engagement.”  C-suite executives themselves admit that employee engagement is discussed “occasionally”, “rarely,” or “never” at board level in 43% of companies.
  • More than one in five in the C-suite believe that employees are “much more engaged” than those in rival firms, compared with only 7% of respondents outside the C-suite.
  • 47% of C-suite executives believe that they themselves “have determined the levels of employee engagement” in their companies, a view shared by only 16% of senior directors outside the C-suite.  Only 13% of C-suite executives believe that line managers and middle managers are “chiefly responsible” for staff engagement.

My Take:

I was not surprised by the first two findings.  My experience has led me to agree with the report’s conclusion that “a sizeable discrepancy exists between what companies say about the perils of disengagement and how far they will actually go to confront the problem.”  This describes most companies, but not the minority whose CEOs are committed to building best-place-to-work cultures–CEOs like Jim Sinegal at Costco, Kip Tindell at The Container Store, Vineet Nayar of HCL Technologies, Tony Hsieh at Zappos.com, Howard Schultz at Starbucks, Dr. Kim Hoogeveen at Quality Living, Inc., or Graham Weston at Rackspace Hosting (these last two are profiled in our new book, Re-Engage: How America’s Best Places to Work Inspire Extra Effort in Extraordinary Times, co-authored with Mark Hirschfeld).  The business success of these companies speaks for itself that employee engagement works.

Now that “employee engagement” has reached true fad/buzzword status, many CEOs have pretended to embrace it by jumping on the engagement survey bandwagon.  But alas, many have not followed through by acting on employee ideas and feedback.  I think most CEOs no longer need convincing that employee engagement is vital to business success, though some, incredibly, still express doubt. The main reason most CEOs don’t aggressively tackle the employee disengagement issue, I believe, is that it appears “soft” and overwhelmingly difficult (soft = hard) to do so.  After all, in many cases it would mean a complete overhauling of the culture.  Most CEOs, especially at public companies, would much rather, in their boardroom discussions, deal with the nearer-term topic of how to increase quarterly profits.  The irony is, of course, that the surest way to increase profits is to build a culture where engaged employees consistently exceed customer expectations.

The finding that many CEOs are more optimistic than their subordinates about how engaged their employees are compared to rival firms is not surprising considering that most CEOs are generally optimistic and take seriously their role as cheerleader.  The cause for concern lies in the fact that they may be isolated from the reality that those one level down can see more clearly.

Good News, Bad News

What I did not expect to see in the survey was the degree of responsibility that CEOs take for controlling levels of employee engagement in their companies.  This should be good news.  But, if almost half of CEOs believe they are the prime mover of employee engagement in their companies, why are so many not doing more to drive it?  Our analysis of 2.1 million employee engagement surveys from 10,000 employers (in partnership with Quantum Workplace) does indeed show that senior leaders influence employee engagement slightly more than direct managers in that they do set the tone, embody the values, and convey the culture.  But it would be a mistake for CEOs not to hold middle managers equally responsible for driving up levels of employee engagement, just as it would be a mistake to not hold all employees responsible for keeping themselves engaged.  The fact that only 16% of those who report to CEOs agree that CEOs are the primary drivers of engagement suggests that lower-level leaders are more than ready to share the responsibility.

“People Leave Managers, Not Companies”…Up to a Point

I  have facilitated too many post-survey action planning sessions in which middle managers, after identifying the corrective steps they can and must take, come to the inevitable point where they say “we can only do so much.”  Some things, they correctly point out, only CEOs, their boards, and more senior leaders control and decide–things like clarification of company direction, overall staffing/workload levels, work/life policies, general pay/benefits, recognition budgets, and many other vital levers of employee engagement.  It’s up to those of us in HR-related roles to help them see the connections and trust us to advise them on the truest path to engaging leadership.

So, What Do You Think?

I welcome your responses to these questions:

  • Who truly influences levels of employee engagement more in your company–senior leaders or direct managers?
  • What actions should HR leaders take to help C-suite leaders sort out which employee engagement initiatives to take?

Take Two Aspirin and Complete this Engagement Survey

3 Feb

I seem to be doing this a lot recently, but let me start this missive with a disclosure: I am a consultant who earns his living helping companies conduct employee engagement surveys. I’ve also been conducting research in this field for over thirty years. Although some might not consider it a profession, I do. In fact, I’m honored to do this work. I cannot imagine doing anything else. I dig this work. I’m passionate about it.

Heck, you might even call me engaged.


The firm where I work has an extensive wellness program-a wonderful benefit. As part of that program I just had my cholesterol and blood pressure checked. Medical science has shown that test results such as these are reliable indicators of important aspects of our health. They’re not perfect, but the results of those tests can give us a generally sound idea of whether, for example, we’re headed for a heart attack or stroke. And if those numbers are out of range we can take actions to address the underlying problems related to our health.

I’m really glad we have those measures of our health.

One could call them leading measures of our health. They tell us something about our health before we have a problem. For my money, it’s best to know those indicators now to prevent a heart attack before it happens. Kindly keep this idea in mind as I respond to a recent post by Paul Hebert. Please read the post in full at Incentive Intelligence, and then we’ll continue.


Welcome back.

To begin, Mr. Hebert says we may not need a survey to tell us how engaged a workplace is, because we have good metrics like employee retention or profits that can guide us.

There’s no question that measures like employee retention or profits are indicators of an engaged workforce. In my view, however, they are lagging indicators. Having employees leaving a company in droves, for example, tells you a lot about the quality of the workplace. Although accurate, do we really want to wait for the “corporate heart attack” of a mass exodus to tell us whether employees are engaged?

As we say in Nebraska, this would be a case where the cow would already be out of the barn.

Most of our clients want information about employee perceptions before they do something like leave the company, which is why a well designed employee engagement survey process can get to the core of employee issues so something can be done.

Additionally, metrics like employee turnover, when it comes to employee engagement, are crude and rudimentary at best. For example, we may have two productive people who left our employ, but the reasons why each left could be very different. Consider:

  • Did they have difficulty with their manager, that they weren’t appreciated and valued?
  • Did they not feel like they had opportunities to develop their career?
  • Were they burnt out and wanted more balance in their life?
  • Did they lose confidence and trust in the senior leadership of the company?
  • Or, in the case of a few folks, was it all of the above and more?

Productive employees leave for many reasons, and a metric showing the percent of employees leaving won’t give us the information we need to understand and address the problem(s). Just because we have a metric called employee turnover gives us little, if any, insight into why valued employees left. We need more data, which we can get from tools like a well-crafted employee engagement survey or exit interview. (Warning, here’s a shameless promotion: My colleague and friend Leigh Branham conducted a wonderful study on why good employees leave, and found seven common reasons. You can learn more by checking out his book, The 7 Hidden Reasons Employees Leave, and his web site: Keeping The People.)

And just how “lagging” is employee turnover as an indicator? According to Leigh’s research, many employees begin their deliberations about leaving their employer weeks, if not months, before they actually turn in their letter of resignation.

The cow is not only out of the barn, it’s in the next county.

It would be much better to get working on these issues before the bad news of the loss of a valued employee finally hits the radar screen. And mind you, a good engagement survey can only act as a guide for a well-intentioned leader to take the steps to address employee concerns.  The data can start some conversations or act as the impetus for asking questions for which the answers may not very pleasant. The clients we serve appreciate having data that can act as a guide for their actions before the problem of a mass departure that make the Exodus look like a petty spat.

And speaking of the engagement data, we see a significant dip in results regarding so-called “intent-to-stay”, suggesting that more disgruntled employees may be planning their departure as economic conditions get better and they start thinking about greener pastures. There is an increasingly larger group of employees who are “sullen and near mutiny”. We ought to be very concerned about that, concerned enough we start acting now.


Mr. Hebert raises another important question about employee engagement surveys. He is concerned that many employee engagement survey studies report only correlations between survey results and business results, such as improved retention or increases in per person productivity. He contends that just because something is correlated does not mean that there is evidence of causality— that just because two factors are correlated doesn’t necessarily mean one causes the other.

This is a very important argument. Returning to the world of health care for a moment, medical science has provided evidence that high blood pressure and bad cholesterol ratios cause certain medical conditions.  In the case of cholesterol, our government has been studying a community in Massachusetts for over fifty years and gathered mounds of data that provides evidence of causality, so we can are more convinced that this case has been firmly established and will act accordingly. This is good science, and we take the results of these tests seriously when we get this information.

There are other medical conditions where medical science established a correlation between two variables, but later found there was not causality. One of my favorite stories about having correlation without causality occurred in the early part of the twentieth century: the U.S. government put out a warning that there was a correlation between consuming a certain food, ice cream of all things, and an increase in polio.

Before you put down your spoonful of Rocky Road, eating ice cream doesn’t make contract get polio.

Polio is simply more virulent in the summer, when we also happen to eat more ice cream. So eating ice cream and an increase in polio are correlated, but there is not causality.

Let’s be clear– you cannot have causality with out correlation, but just because you have correlation does not mean you will always have causality. Kindly keep this in mind as you review any kind of research, because the distinction is important and can make a differnce.

Let us return to Mr. Hebert. He contends that although there may be a correlation between a workplace that has a higher engagement survey and higher business results that these variables are not causal, that there is no evidence that a more engaged workplace as measured by an engagement survey causes increased business results.

Actually, there is.

Several researchers have taken the additional steps to provide evidence of causality. Here’s one, from the consulting group Mercer. A report from the Conference Board, published in 2006, said this about the study:

Their most significant finding was that employee engagement increases preceded overall financial measure, strongly implying a causal relationship between engagement and financial achievement.

Yes, they use the word “imply”, you’ve got me there. Establishing causality is a far more difficult process, particularly because of the time required to conduct a study where evidence of causality is established. More studies will come, and I’m confident they’ll continue to make this case.

Perhaps the best evidence I can offer, which isn’t correlated or causal but merely anecdotal, comes from companies Leigh and I have had the opportunity to study that have been recognized as “Best Places to Work”. Our friends at Quantum Workplace recently asked whether these winning companies saw a relationship between employee engagement and customer satisfaction/loyalty. As Peter Drucker so deftly observed, there is no other purpose for a business beyond the acquisition and maintenance of a customer, so this would be a pretty important linkage to explore, right? Here are a few of the responses:

We post an e-mail address at the entrance to each of our properties that solicits guest feedback. As an example, one of our hotels honored as a Best Place to Work generates a disproportionate number of guest compliments relative to their peer properties in the company. In our industry, our goal is to meet or exceed our guest’s expectations. If we don’t have a great workplace, with engaged associates, we cannot expect a positive guest experience.

Customer service is the largest facet of everyone’s job here. Many of our employees field more than 75 calls per week. If they aren’t happy to be at work, that is, if they feel uncomfortable in their work environment, it will certainly come through in their tone. How many times have you been waited on by someone who was aggravated, stressed, or just couldn’t care less about their job? I’m sure their service was less than desirable. We want our employees to enjoy coming to work so that our customers will enjoy speaking with them.

We do very little marketing at my firm. Most of our business comes from existing clients and referrals. That is only possible if the people that are delivering the service are competent, motivated and engaged in exceeding our client’s expectations.

There is no question that a high satisfaction level in your employees translates directly to high satisfaction in your customers. When you think of yourself, your best days are when you are most satisfied with your work; this directly translates into how you deal with people.

The insights of these engaged workplaces will help us focus on the elements we should continue studying.

Although I’m in the business of selling employee engagement surveys and associated consulting services, I’ve advised many an employer to not conduct such an assessment. Does that surprise you? It shouldn’t, because there are many employers who ought not. Leaders who really don’t care about creating an engaging workplace should not conduct such a survey, because when they conduct the survey they are setting an expectation that something is actually going to happen as a result of the survey. If leaders conduct a survey and don’t do anything about the results they will actually make engagement, however you define or measure it, worse.

To me, that’s management malpractice.

Whether a company conducts an engagement survey, employees deserve leaders who listen to their concerns and are willing to take bold steps to build a great workplace. An engagement survey is a tool, nothing more and nothing less, which can help leaders who have the right intentions and are willing to put in the work necessary to build a great workplace.

Mr. Hebert’s post raises some important questions that warrant further discussion. We need to be smart about the kind of metrics to which we pay attention. More importantly, we need leaders who will take this information and use it in the right way, an assumption we should not overlook. Good data in the hands of a misguided leader can produce horrible results as well.


There’s been a terrific discussion going on at Talent Anarchy about the use of metrics in this field, and Leigh and I were pleased to be given the opportunity to provide a guest post-hope you’ll check it out.

(pic courtesty http://www.sxc.hu/photo/72200)

[i] Employee Engagement: A Review of Current Research and Its Implications, by John Gibbons, The Conference Board, 2006.

Webinar on Re-Engage

24 Jan

I recently conducted a webinar with Quantum Workplace on some of the main elements of our research into employee engagement. I talk about some important trends we see that you need to pay attention to and manage:

  • Employee engagement in difficult times,
  • The impact of generational diversity on employee engagement,
  • How organizational size impacts employee engagement,
  • Whether senior leaders can influence engagement, and
  • The changing role of employee benefits in creating a great workplace.

Apply Now to be Recognized as a 2011 Top Small Company Workplace in Inc. Magazine

12 Jan

Winning Workplaces is collaborating with Inc. to recognize “Top Small Company Workplaces” that have built corporate cultures that foster a productive work environment and satisfied employees. The winners will be featured in the June 2011 issue of Inc. Magazine, the premier publication for entrepreneurs and business owners. In addition winners will be featured on Inc.’s and Winning Workplaces’ websites and will gain additional exposure through a nationally distributed press release.

To see if your company qualifies for the award please visit: https://tsw.winningworkplaces.org/

Celebrating Best Places to Work, Phoenix Style

23 Dec

A wonderful video from the 2010 Best Places to Work in Phoenix event. Goes to show that just because you take your work seriously that you don’t always have to take yourself seriously!

Two Very Different Ways to Feel Lucky, by Leigh Branham

13 Nov

A post from my colleague and co-author Leigh Branham:

Surveys that have tracked levels of employee engagement since the recession started continue to confirm Quantum Workplace’s findings that employee engagement levels have declined in most companies.  Quantum’s results, based on a comparison of surveys completed in September, 2008, when the economy imploded, and just three months later, revealed that two-thirds of employers saw engagement scores go down, while the other third’s scores actually went up (for insights into how these employers actually increased engagement during tough times, see Chapter Two of Re-Engage).

Both Watson-Wyatt and Hewitt have released surveys showing significant drops in employee engagement over the last two years.  Hewitt’s research reported that 46% of organizations experienced a decline in engagement levels the quarter ending June, 2010, while just 30% saw an improvement.

There’s no longer any doubt that declining engagement among the workforce, triggered by layoffs, job insecurity, overwork of those remaining, reductions in benefits, and paltry pay increases, is having a longer-term detrimental effect.  When Mark and I speak with employees and audiences about engagement and retention initiatives in their companies, many still say that the message they keep hearing from managers is “You should feel lucky to have a job.” 

Of course, anyone with a job should feel lucky when one in ten are unemployed and another seven percent have given up looking for work.  An “attitude of gratitude” is psychologically healthy.  And it’s true that some employees have unrealistic expectations, exaggerated opinions about their own capabilities, and an excessive sense of entitlement.  These employees may need to be reminded to step back and consider their good fortune.  But what about the rest of the workforce?  When they hear those words, are they more motivated?  Apparently not, when most studies find that 60-75% of the U.S. workforce is not engaged.  What concerns me is that many managers seem to feel that telling employees how lucky they are seem to think so.  Even worse, they may even be thinking that saying those words is all they have to do.

It’s almost as if employers have been using the economic downturn as their primary retention strategy.  There is a price to be paid for this approach.  According to exhaustive workforce report released by Deloitte, about one half of the workforce are considering leaving their current jobs, and almost a third are actively looking for work elsewhere.  As the economy slowly recovers, a tipping point will be reached, and a new wave of employee turnover will begin.

In our analysis of “Best-Place-to-Work” winning employers during the last two years, we detected early on a very different message coming from the mouths of employees in these elite organizations.  That message–“I feel so lucky to work here,” reflects a different kind of gratitude.  Employees of companies with the highest engagement scores don’t just feel lucky to have a job, they feel lucky to work in a culture that truly values, respects, and develops them.

One of those winning workplaces is Winchester Hospital, in Winchester, Massachusetts, which built a great workplace by training their managers not to avoid difficult conversations by building their skills and confidence to have those conversations successfully.  They even used their HR staff as coaches, so when a manager needs to prepare for a difficult conversation, they  are available to “rehearse” the conversation with them.  The result–a culture of openness, honesty, and trust that has become the talk of nurses and hospital workers in the community.  Winchester ranks in the 90th percentile in the state in patient satisfaction, enjoys an 87% occupancy rate, an eight percent turnover rate, and an unheard of two percent nurse vacancy rate.  In spite of having to reduce patient volume during the recession, and having to reduce staff hours as a result, Winchester was named the Best Place to Work in Boston in its size category for the second year in a row.

Such practices are available to any employer, but it tales the right mindset to implement them.  At a time when many so employees at your competitors are feeling unlucky and despise where they work, what better time earn their loyalty and admiration?