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Myths and half-truths about employee commitment

/ 12:03 AM January 10, 2016

After 40 years in  human resources (HR) management practice and consulting, I have seen enough and yet I continue to be a student (and also teacher) of the craft.

Holy Grail

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Employee commitment continues to be the Holy Grail for HR practitioners and business leaders.  Jack Welch believed that “the top three most important measures of organizational health are employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow.”

Corporate managers are trained in planning, organizing, controlling and leading, the easier functions of management.  Much depends on the planner, organizer or controller.  The leading function is fuzzy, hazy or at best complicated.  The leader is only one part of the equation. Understanding the other side of the equation is key. The leader can only extract the last ounce of commitment from his follower to the extent that the follower will oblige.  Of course, when there is a .45 caliber pistol on one’s head, why wouldn’t he? But that’s not a sane or acceptable people management practice.

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Getting commitment is an elusive aspect of managing people. If you know how, it’s easy to obtain.  But, it can also be easily lost. Gaining or losing employee commitment, from one day to the next, happens quickly.  Eighty percent of your assets go home everyday, and you’re never sure they’re coming back. Heidi Klum said, “In life, as in fashion, one day you’re in; next day you’re out.”

Myths

Most HR practitioners focus on exciting the imagination of employees so they can engender an emotional connection with their jobs and the company. Then, they run an employee satisfaction survey.  If responses are on the high side, the HR guy flaunts the engagement rating to the CEO.  Sad news: Employee satisfaction does not automatically translate into commitment and achievement of goals.  Happiness and productivity don  ‘t always go together.  A clubhouse party atmosphere in the shop floor keeps people happy, but efficiency and productivity are remote possibilities.

Some managers openly declare in departmental meetings, “I want your commitment and your loyalty.  I don’t want you to be loyal and committed to me.  I want you to be loyal and committed to the Company.”  There’s a problem here.  To many employees, the Company is an abstract being – just like the Father and the Holy Ghost.  This is why many religious people can relate more to the Son.  The Chairman & CEO is often unreachable in the ivory tower.  The COO (child of owner) is more down to earth.  Gallup has determined that employees don’t resign from companies – they resign from their bosses.

Many CEOs and HR people are fond of monitoring attrition as an indicator of employee commitment.  A 10 percent annual attrition rate doesn’t tell me anything, except that one of every 10 employees resigns every year.  What’s meaningful data to me is how much of this attrition is “good riddance” and how much is regrettable. Believe me, in any organization there are people you’re happy to see working for you, and there are those you’re happy to see working for your competitors.

Half-truths

Many managers often misinterpret what employee engagement really means. They confuse it with a worker’s passion for his work or the craft he has chosen to do for a living. A craftsman in the shop floor or back room office who passionately does his job does not necessarily mean that he is committed to the company.  Perhaps, it’s just that he simply loves doing his craft.  Passion for doing a job is essential in employee engagement, but managers must be quick to discern that the real test of commitment is the employee’s contribution in achieving corporate goals and objectives.

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When employee engagement and commitment are low, it’s not just a function of the manager or the employee.  In good times, when the company can sustain good pay and benefits to workers, employee commitment tends to be high.  When economic conditions deteriorate, managers and employees need to work harder at being engaged and committed.

When things are going well, organizations try to ensure employee retention to sustain continued operations.  They will offer retention programs and behavior-reinforcing performance rewards.  In bad times, business managers are more concerned with efficiency, productivity and profitability.  Workers are more concerned about job security. The business environment becomes a wild card during economic recession or depression.  Recession is when your friends lose their job.  Depression is when you lose your job.

Whenever people problems arise, I start by asking, “Is it them or is it me?”  Studies have shown that engendering employee commitment is not just about tweaking the employees to be subservient and obligated to organizational goals and objectives.  Organizational culture, leadership, communication, rewards and other systems play an important role in ensuring commitment from the minions and supernumeraries.  Resolving issues on commitment must by necessity include a review of the latter part of the commitment equation.

Real challenge

Generating employee commitment is not a one-time activity.  You do a team-building exercise over the weekend, sang Kumbaya, and you expect that employee commitment will skyrocket throughout the year. Wake up. Give me a break. Listen to Heidi Klum.

The real challenge is this: how to connect employees with their job and the company and keep them connected, not for eternity but for how long the management wants.  Let’s break this down.  You have to develop in the employees an emotional commitment to their jobs. Then, you make them feel proud about the company and feel lost if they leave.  You need to sustain that connection by doing something about the employees, their jobs and the company.  Instill the right attitude so that employees will develop commitment in their DNA.  Sculpt (restructure) their job to make it challenging and rewarding, not monotonous and akin to robotic slavery.  Then, make the Company lovable, enjoyable, and worth worshipping.

Here’s the rub – “not for eternity but for how long the management wants.” I know some HR people make it a goal to have Zero Attrition.  This is a meaningless goal.  This sounds ideal, but real engagement happens when all your employees are fully committed and delivering on their commitment to achieve organizational goals.  You don’t need all those you’ve hired five, 10 or 20 years ago – except for some who’re doing exceptionally well the more responsible jobs now.  The trick is to determine how many and what kind of employees you should keep over the long haul.  Weeding out the deadwoods (driftwoods), undesirables, shenanigans, scalawags, and crooks will make the remaining mass of humanity more committed.  If you allow them to stay, you are unwittingly saying to your people, “Here we tolerate inefficiency, mendicancy, laziness, dishonesty, free-riders, and dead weights.  You don’t have to perform to deserve your pay and benefits. Go ye and multiple.”

There are typical solutions – listen to employees and customers, communicate more than you think you should, and stop paying across the board.  In compensation, discriminate and differentiate.  It doesn’t make sense to give to Pedro what you gave to Juan if they didn’t perform and contribute similarly.

HR practitioners’ canned responses to lack of commitment might or might not work. Study all sides of the equation before launching people programs left and right. Don’t believe everything that the survey says.  Not all programs appeal to everybody – have separate programs for different pockets of workers.

As child actor Gary Coleman would say, “Different folks, different strokes.”

(Ernie is the 2013 Executive Director and 1999 President of the People Management Association of the Philippines (PMAP); Chair of the AMCHAM Human Capital Committee; and Co-Chair of ECOP’s TWG on Labor and Social Policy Issues. He also chairs the Accreditation Council for the PMAP Society of Fellows in People Management. He is President and CEO of EC Business Solutions and Career Center. Contact him at [email protected])

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