Think your people are your greatest asset?
Do you survey your employees but ask the wrong questions?
Is corporate engagement one of your goals?
Widgets, FTE’s and Assets
What I think I love most about Rodd Wagner’s new book WIDGETS: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People is his clear, unambiguous writing that calls it like he sees it. He upends common practices and wisdom, throwing out what you know and replacing it with what just makes sense. Our conversation is likely to change your position on a few subjects and have you rethink your practices. It did for me.
Why did you call the book “Widgets”?
If you spend enough time at enough companies, the bad terms used to refer to people start to accumulate. “Human capital.” “Full-time equivalents” or “FTEs.” “Headcount.” “Aprons” at a home improvement store. “Blue shirts” at Best Buy. I could barely contain my shock when leaders for one temporary staffing firm referred to the people they place as “inventory.” And the department responsible for people? In most companies, it’s called “Human Resources.” At one company, a mass layoff is called a “resource action.”
These are euphemisms, and euphemisms are most dangerous when used to refer to people, because they make it easier to disregard that we are talking about someone’s son or daughter, brother or sister, and they deserve the respect and dignity of being referred to as people. I used the title “Widgets” to take a hard whack at these bad habits and all the dehumanizing practices that flow from that perspective.
Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
What is wrong with many employee engagement efforts today?
Employee engagement is in a rut. It’s become hackneyed. It’s routinized.
Commission a survey. Beg people to participate. Get the results back. Distribute scorecards. Train some trainers; unleash them on the company. Cajole the CEO into using the word “engagement” in his next speech. Ask managers to do some team sessions, which maybe half will do before tucking the forms in a desk drawer. Leave the way managers are selected, coached, supported, and held accountable untouched. Let the executives feel good that they checked the employee engagement box. Go quiet for 9 or 10 months until it’s time to start the Sisyphean cycle all over again. Lather. Rinse. Repeat.
But the most pernicious problem with engagement initiatives today is the way some consultancies and companies talk about the people who are neglected and, when the survey comes around, tell the truth. So-called “disengaged” employees are vilified, their motivations and character questioned. They’re said to be “more or less out to damage their company” or trying to undo what the more “engaged” accomplish. Our research contradicts these assertions that those who are most frustrated are some kind of “cancer” inside the organization.
Of course, recognizing that they will be suspect if they give low marks to their company, many employees have realized it’s career suicide to tell the truth. So they don’t. Who would under those circumstances? “Just mark five to survive,” one admin advised her colleagues. In many places, it’s now difficult if not impossible to even get a true measure of engagement. That’s the mark of a fundamentally flawed and broken system.
Inside the Head
Getting inside their heads is your first rule. It’s individual; it’s unique; it takes up significant time. And yet, it’s the most important of all. Would you share why this rule is the first?
I’ve been fielding and analyzing employee surveys and other data from more than a decade-and-a-half. Every time I plot the numbers on a new study, the first thing that strikes me is the massive range in individual responses. You simply cannot predict how a person will feel about his or her job based on generation, age, gender, race, tenure, industry, company, or any of the other group statistics that are used so often to stereotype employees.
Engagement is an individual phenomenon. Everything – how much money people want, what they consider a cool place to work, how they like to be recognized, what they envision for their future – is unique to that person. Therefore, applying all of the other New Rules depends on first understanding that one person and responding to his or her personality and ambitions. This is the reason that every good piece of research on employee engagement finds that a person’s direct supervisor is one of the key players. That manager is in a unique position to know the employee well and match him or her with the resources and opportunities inside the company.
Best Friends at Work
Having a best friend at work appears in most surveys, and we repeatedly hear that it is critically important. You argue otherwise. Help us understand.
First, asking about friendships – particularly sticking your nose in an employee’s “best” friendships – is quite intrusive when the relationship between company and worker is increasingly transactional. One week you’re asking about their best friends, the next week you’re sending a few thousand of them home with severance packages. So if they either had best friends at work or were the best friends of someone still there, you’ve opened yourself to some well-founded criticism that you abused their trust.
More important, in the studies my teams and I have conducted, the “best friend” concept does not hold up well in driving results compared with more
business-related questions such as trust in leadership, perceived future of the company, and collaboration. Asking about those is your business and is better connected to your results than asking what The Washington Post once called a “high school” popularity question.
What can a professor teaching more on the left side of the classroom teach us about motivating teams?