When we talk about creating a “union-proof” culture, we’re really referring to the ability to meet the needs of our teams by leading and listening – in short, creating an engaged workforce. The founder of Inspired Work, David Harder, has tackled the difficult job of drilling down on the reasons for stubbornly and persistently low employee engagement levels in the workplace. In writing the book “The Workplace Engagement Solution,” Harder makes it clear that there is a solution, and that solution revolves around relationship building and personal involvement. As the work environment moved from being primarily industrial to primarily technology-based, he says it’s people who were left behind as they still struggle to cope with rapid and ongoing change. The disengagement, in his opinion, is a symptom of a workforce that is going through the motions and not acknowledging the type of predictable work that defined the workplace for so many decades no longer exists. Change will only accelerate in the coming years, so employers are in desperate need of successful engagement strategies.
The path to increasing worker engagement, says Harder, is to help people identify their personal and compelling vision. It takes a vision to rise above the chaos to find motivation and connectedness to work. Harder holds CEOs and senior managers accountable because people will only be willing to change when the organizational culture provides a support system. The culture should be transparent, value-driven and supportive, encouraging workers to pursue their personal vision as employees. Some of the points Harder makes seem obvious upon reading, but in reality they’re seldom spoken out loud. In American culture, people are afraid to ask for help because it’s viewed as a sign of weakness. In an interesting perspective, Harder says that smart managers play to weaknesses to find people’s strengths. Someone who is brave enough to ask for help should be lauded and not seen as weak because that person is clearly willing to learn and grow. People need a support system to achieve success.
Harder’s book seems like it’s written to the older CEO struggling to understand younger millennial workers. It’s millennials who are defining the workplace, and they’ve already made it clear they want meaningful work, appreciation and opportunities to collaborate. To manage a company as if the workers are still working in an industrial setting is a path to disengagement. One of the most important questions that Harder asks in the age of social media is, “The entire learning and development field works to help organizations provide their talent with certain forms of growth support, but how many spend time teaching their people how to acquire the right forms of support?” Networking for networking’s sake isn’t a good strategy for engagement.
There are some dangers in naming specific CEOs in a discussion on engagement. The most glaring example is a mention of Facebook’s Mark Zuckerberg. Employees speak of a “commitment to create a fully open and transparent culture,” but recently there have been several stories about lack of transparency in user experiences and data collection. However, this only reinforces Harder’s point that the speed of change makes it challenging for all employees — top to bottom — to maintain their values.
The author’s management model for increasing engagement is truly built on what some would call a return to “old-fashioned values.” The people organizations hire need “manners, presentation, demeanor, demonstrated ability to change, resiliency, enthusiasm for innovation, thoughtfulness, and persistence.” Managers must focus on helping employees strengthen their ability to grow relationships, become active learners, sell their ideas and network. Engagement is about training and development, feedback, pursuing a personal vision through work that supports an organizational vision, and to thine own self always being true.
Harder’s belief that too many people are going to work in a trance as a coping mechanism may be right. Disengaged employees lead to undesirable consequences, and the opposite is true. The companies that are employers of choice or stay union free, and have high employee retention rates, are the ones with high employee engagement levels. Their employees aren’t in a trance. They find meaning in their work, feel free to present creative ideas without fear of being hurt, take advantage of two-way communication systems and, above all, believe their employer is approachable. Change isn’t something to fear because they know their managers want them to succeed and will provide the right training and development tools and information. They don’t need to turn to outsiders to solve their problems, find a support system or find people who care about their well-being. Engaged employees, in the words of Harder, share a common mission, vision and purpose with their leaders, creating a team of members moving in the same direction.
This book is a recommended read for managers who continue to struggle to understand the root causes of employee disengagement and need to find a productive path to creating a workplace that is inspiring, supportive and engaging. It’s all about giving people what they need to succeed as they pursue their personal vision in the workplace.