It’s not uncommon for executives to believe that they have a positive work culture, yet in reality, most still have problems typical of a negative reinforcement management style. The misinformed executive typically arrives at this conclusion because company performance is good, they are profitable and employee complaints are few. It is unfortunate that negative reinforcement can produce those results, but it can. The reason is that negative reinforcement produces improvement in behavior as people do more to avoid punishment. The punishment may be slight or significant. People will work hard to avoid termination, but they will also work hard to avoid the displeasure of the boss.
Take employee morale, for instance. Executives have been conditioned through history to think that competitive wages and good benefits produce high morale. If that were true, all financially successful organizations would have high morale. Of course they don’t. In fact, I’ve reported on this before: employee engagement numbers have changed little in the more than 20 years. A Towers Perrin Global Workforce study showed that only 22 percent of workers are engaged, while BlessingWhite’s survey found 31 percent. Furthermore, by their own admission less than half of employees say that they are “fully engaged.” It is quite unusual to find a company where all employees enter the workplace rejoicing, “Thank goodness it’s Monday!”
Engagement is not determined by what you do; it is determined by what happens to you when you do it. Employee engagement is a leadership problem, period. You cannot improve engagement by having a one-day motivational training program or an engaging mission statement or vision. You can only improve it by changing how people are treated on an hour to hour basis. As Tom Odum of Shell Oil said many years ago, “It’s hard to celebrate when you have been beaten up on the way to the party.”
Engagement requires policies, executive decisions and management behaviors that are focused on helping employees be successful. Respect their brains. Make them a vital part of determining how things are done, how problems are solved. After all, most executives have said at one time or another that their employees are their most valuable asset. How many of the following five signs typical of engaged employees do you see in your organization?
- Volunteerism – Employees willingly lend a hand to co-workers, even when they aren’t asked.
- Dedication – Employees typically complete jobs/projects ahead of schedule and aren’t clock watchers; they often show up early or even stay late.
- Pride in accomplishments – Employees acknowledge the accomplishments of others and are pleased with their own success as well.
- Initiative – Employees openly offer ideas and solutions for improvement, and anticipate needs.
- Response to criticism/failure – Employees are open to feedback and make changes quickly.
As with most things in business, pure engagement is a leadership issue. It cannot be mandated; it must be done willingly. Leadership must be focused on creating a workplace where every employee advances the organizational mission every day. The mission of leaders should be to “create successful employees.” It is only when the culture of a company is defined as a group of people working to create the best, cost-effective, quality product or service and where they all see the accomplishments driven by their behavior on a regular basis that you will have employees who come to work after the weekend saying, “Thank goodness it’s Monday!”