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Loosen the reins at work or risk losing top talent

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Employee engagement has been on the skids this year as organizations pile more expectations on reduced staffs in a lagging economic recovery.

A new Gallup Poll found 71 per cent of U.S. workers are either "not engaged" or "actively disengaged" in their work. A recent survey by human resources consultancy Randstad found nearly 60 per cent of North American respondents are likely to seriously consider a new job in the next six months or would take another job, if offered.

Researchers Mark Royal and Tom Agnew of leadership coaching company The Hay Group say it's not that all these workers have turned off their motivation to work, rather that they're frustrated by not getting enough authority and resources to do their jobs effectively.

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The authors are speaking across Canada at a series of events sponsored by the Canadian Management Centre. In an interview with The Globe and Mail, Mr. Royal, co-author of The Enemy of Engagement: Put an End to Workplace Frustration and Get the Most from Your Employees , explained how leaders can get workers connected again.

Why is engagement such a pressing issue now?

As the pace of change has picked up in organizations, it's become more difficult for managers and leaders to specify precisely what employees should be doing day to day. While that means employees need to take more initiative to get to the right answers on their own, many don't feel they have the authority or are hesitant to step up because they are unsure of the objectives. Meanwhile, organizations have been challenged by the economy to get the most they can out of each employee.

For those reasons, even organizations that have been focused on engagement for a long time are still struggling with performance issues. We hear that from employers as well as in the opinion surveys we do of over a million employees a year in companies.

We characterize the issue as workplace frustration. All too many motivated people – who still have a desire to contribute and accomplish what they recognize as important – are feeling held back in some ways. That's important, because it's generally thought of as disengagement, which conjures up notions of people who are dissatisfied, disaffected and turned off. But this frustration is in otherwise motivated employees.

How many people are in that category?

The book stems from experiences we've had with over 100 large organizations that The Hay Group has had as clients. Our research suggests that 20 per cent or more of employees who are high achievers and want to do their best for the organization feel held back by having roles that don't suit them or working in environments that don't support them.

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To unleash the potential of these employees, managers need to make sure people are in roles that allow them to do their best as often as possible. As well, they need to review people's individual motivations and whether employees believe they have what they need to be effective and leverage their motivation. Those needs are not only financial resources but also information, tools, collaborative support from co-workers and an organization that doesn't throw up procedural barriers and impede action with red tape.

How does this frustration show up and how can good leaders diagnose it?

In the feedback we get in satisfaction surveys, all too many employees are saying, "You need to help me help you." They've bought into what the organization is trying to achieve and they feel it's a good company and they want to contribute, "but." What generally follows that "but" is that they don't understand why they don't have authority to make decisions, there's too much red tape, they don't have the resources they need and, "boy, it's tough to get things done in this organization."

That motivation they have will erode very quickly if organizations don't deal with those frustrations. Yes, there are some who out of sheer frustration manage to find ways to problem solve their way around the difficulties, but even those who have to continually fight to succeed eventually turn off and disengage. And still others – often very energetic high performers – start to focus on moving to a greener pasture because they feel they can't be successful where they are.

Why do you believe empowering employees to make more of their own decisions is a cure for frustration?

From our research, organizations that have a strong reputation and consistent high performance give a greater latitude to employees. The most-admired companies tend to attract and retain more than their fair share of the best and brightest talent by empowering them and getting out of their way. They give individuals authority and autonomy in how they go about their job roles. They have a climate that is more encouraging of appropriate risk taking and is tolerant of well-intentioned risks that don't pan out in the end.

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By giving employees more space to act, it reduces frustration by increasing the likelihood that they are going to be able to use the full range of job skills and experience and competency. And, by having more latitude in how they go about their job roles, they are better able to problem solve their way out of situations independently and address them without being pinned down by unnecessary processes.

What do you say to managers who think it's too risky to give staff more authority?

We're not saying that you should give employees unlimited discretionary authority. What we're saying is that employees need specific freedom to act. The absence of any bounds on decision-making authority can somewhat counter-intuitively not be empowering at all, because employees are going to become fearful of overstepping a boundary that has not been made apparent to them. That can be paralyzing for many employees.

Instead, what managers need to do is clearly specify the range of decisions that employees are truly empowered to make, so that they can act confidently and readily in those areas without fear of overstepping their bounds.

How would you suggest managers establish those criteria?

It all gets down to clarity. Big-C clarity is communicating the broad strategic goals and objectives. And little-C clarity is communicating the things individuals need to do to excel in their job roles. As well, you need clear performance management that clearly communicates individual expectations and reviews results and potential course corrections.

A big problem for many employees – especially higher performers – is that they are continually being asked to take on additional responsibilities to their task list while few things are ever taken off. As a result, their list of things they feel they need to perform can become longer than their work day, and that too can be paralyzing. So we suggest providing clarity on the "must dos" so that it's not on the employees to prioritize what is essential. Managers and leaders should step in and help employees understand what is most critical to their and the organization's joint success.

What is a common blind spot managers often miss?

It's important to regularly analyze the day-to-day routines for signs of traps. The problem that leads to frustration for many employees is that as goals change – as they do in turbulent times like we're facing – the daily routines, performance management, employee autonomy and training aren't re-evaluated as well.

What's your advice for helping leaders to get more from their employees?

A rallying cry of many organizations is "we need to do more with less," but instead of firing up the troops, it comes across as the organization wanting employees to produce more with fewer resources and less support. That's not a mission statement but mission impossible for many employees – especially those who are already worn down by a long period of being asked to go above and beyond.

Our message is to turn that notion around: It's not about what you as an employee need to do to help the organization, but approach it from what can a leader do to provide resources and work structures to set them up to accomplish more.

The key to sustaining and fostering higher levels of motivation is putting people in positions in which they can succeed, and making sure they have a supportive working environment to ensure that they can be effective.

Any organization can succeed in the short term through the force of motivating people to work harder, but over the longer term, if organizations are not about helping people work smart rather than just hard, that motivation and their success is going to suffer.

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About the Author

Wallace Immen is an award-winning staff writer for The Globe and Mail whose stories about workplace trends and career advice, as well as about cruising and travel destinations around the world appear regularly in print and on-line. He has worn many hats in his career with the Globe, including science writer, medical writer and columnist, urban affairs reporter and travel writer. More

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