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Road to Recoverya Q&A on Employee Engagement

December 1, 2009
Related Topics: Corporate Culture, Career Development, Employee Career Development, Featured Article, HR & Business Administration
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Few people know more time-tested, practical and effective ways of engaging and rewarding employees than Bob Nelson does. And that’s why Workforce Management asked Nelson to be the keynote speaker for its December 9 online conference, Road to Recovery: HR Strategies for Post-Recession Success.

Nelson is the president of Nelson Motivation Inc., a San Diego management training and consulting company that specializes in helping organizations improve their management practices, programs and systems. He’s also the author of a new book, Keeping Up in a Down Economy, which is the theme of his keynote talk at the conference. Nelson will answer questions live for conference attendees.

Nelson has an MBA in organizational behavior from UC Berkeley and received his Ph.D. in management from the Peter F. Drucker Graduate Management School at Claremont Graduate University, where he worked closely with the late Peter Drucker on his doctoral studies.

Nelson talked to Workforce Management about the recession, employee motivation and what employers can do to keep their staff upbeat and productive—particularly when times are bad.

Workforce Management: Bob, can you give us a preview of your talk, and the book behind it?

Bob Nelson: Sure. An economic recession is a scary thing. And while the financial headlines ring out loud and clear, it’s important to remember that the real toll of the recession is its impact on everyday people—those who have lost their jobs, benefits or wages as well as those who are concerned about losing those things, which is just about everybody else.

I wrote Keeping Up in a Down Economy, and will be highlighting its key themes in my talk, to teach managers about the positive things they can do to motivate employees in any work environment and impact an organization’s success in difficult times. There is a distinct difference between stress and excitement, and what separates the two, I believe, is “control.” The driver of a car never gets carsick!

Negative circumstances you cannot control leads to stress; negative circumstances you can control are opportunities for excitement. So, managers need to turn away from the things outside of their control and instead focus on the many ways they can make a direct, positive impact with their employees NOW. By concentrating on those things, managers can help buffer employees from the negative impact of the economy, inspire them so they see the opportunities that exist in these uncertain times, and help channel their energy to achieve better results.

WM: It’s not surprising that recessionary times affect employee morale. What’s the real impact being felt in today’s workplaces?

Nelson: In difficult times not only are employees worried about job stability, they are also concerned about their personal finances and future, causing heightened levels of stress, anxiety and fear. Left unchecked, these lead to declining morale, eroding trust and loss of productivity.

In fact, the 2009-2010 U.S. Strategic Rewards Survey by Watson Wyatt found that employee engagement levels for the 1,300 full-time workers polled have dropped 9 percent since last year, and close to 25 percent for top performers. Given the direct impact of employee engagement on a company’s bottom line, these statistics are very significant.

WM: Is there anything companies can learn from past recessions?

Nelson: It’s counterintuitive, but past recessions actually tell a very positive story about some companies. Many of today’s most successful organizations started or grew substantially during the Great Depression and every recession since then. GE, Disney, P&G, Kellogg and virtually all the large airlines of the day bucked the trend and either started or experienced significant growth during the Depression. At the height of the recession of the early 1980s, IBM led the crusade to introduce the PC that would become a milestone for the company and the industry. When the big car companies were busy laying off workers during the recessionary times from 2000 to 2003, Toyota expanded operations and emerged with a higher market share. Even now, when everyone else seems to be retrenching or cutting back, AT&T recently announced the $1.2 billion purchase of two companies in an aggressive signal that they were not going to let the current downturn prevent them from growing, HP said it is looking to purchase 3Com, and many other acquisitions and mergers are in the works.

What sets these leading companies apart is that they didn’t close down and wait for the economy to come back. Each company decided to do things differently, and successfully communicated and implemented that approach with their employees. Whether your company has 3,000 employees or three, you can look for opportunities and excel in challenging times, just like these companies did.

WM: What are some things these and other best-practice companies are doing to keep their employees engaged during these challenging times?

Nelson: This question was the driving force for the book. To answer it, I examined variances in management practices between companies whose employee engagement scores have increased dramatically during the current recession and organizations whose scores nose-dived over a comparable period. Based on this research, I identified six clear dimensions that any manager or organization can implement to create a more motivating work environment for their employees today. If I can talk in bullet points for a minute, they are:

• Create a clear and compelling direction

• Have direct, open and honest communication

• Involve employees and encourage initiative

• Increase employee autonomy, flexibility and support

• Continue focus on career growth and development

• Recognize and reward high performance

 WM: Much of your work has focused on simple, low-cost ways for employers to make a difference. What are some of these steps that managers can take now to keep employees inspired and engaged?

Nelson: The list of ideas is bound only by a manager’s creativity. One company I talked to established a 24-hour “news desk” on its company intranet that was constantly updated with the latest company news for its employees to check.

Other companies encourage managers to write sincere, handwritten thank-you notes to their employees rather or have granted time off rather than cash bonuses. Some have replaced expensive catered lunches with brown bag lunches prepared by managers.

WM: That’s probably a big hit with rank-and-file workers.

Nelson: Well, you know they’re not working on a new layoff list if they’re right in front of you making bologna sandwiches.

Seriously, employees’ “need to know” is at an all-time high during dynamic times such as these, and managers and executives need to be more visible and accessible to workers for practical purposes as well as symbolic ones.

Another company, recognizing that the economy is a huge source of anxiety for employees, created money management courses for employees to take. Companies are encouraging workers to take their vacation time and maintain a better work/life balance. Finally, one firm I talked to helped employees forget about gloom and doom by encouraging them to organize fundraisers for the less fortunate.

WM: If managers could focus on only one thing right now to engage their employees what should it be?

Nelson: Now, more than ever, managers need to give employees permission and encouragement to be part of the solution. I believe that every employee has a $50,000 idea. Managers need to be proactive in helping to get that out of them. Encouraging employees to make suggestions and take initiative starts with communication. Once employees are armed with frequent, open and honest communication, they are more likely to act on that information in ways that will help the organization. For instance, Texas Commerce Bank held focus groups with employees to determine what procedures most frustrated employees and customers. Using the feedback, the company nearly doubled its $50 million cost-savings goal.

WM: The book is peppered with discussions of 26 common mistakes managers make. Are there a few key mistakes—ones that managers really need to avoid making?

Nelson: There are a few that warrant special attention. One of the worst mistakes managers today can make is to assume that recognizing their workers is not as important now as when unemployment is low. “They should be happy they have a job” syndrome. Managers shouldn’t believe that their employees should simply feel lucky to have a job and therefore don’t need support, encouragement and recognition when they do good work. Sure, most people surviving layoffs are thankful for their jobs, but this feeling alone is hardly enough to motivate them to do their best work, and since 54 percent of those that are currently employed say they plan to find a new position as the economy improves, now is the time to closely consider how you are treating your people.

Another key mistake is thinking your staff cannot handle the truth. Talking openly about a downturn can help people feel they have some measure of control over the situation. What happened last time business was slow? How did the company turn things around? Along with making employees feel more included, managers who explore these questions are also more likely to get employees energized to do a better job, not myopic and scared to contribute in any way that makes them stand out. Your employees are your key source for some of the most useful ideas you can do right now.

Managers also need to keep their focus on the front lines. Because customer service is paramount when times are tough, managers need to do everything possible to make sure those who are the first point of contact with their company are sending the right message, feel supported by the organization and their managers to take care of customers. If these employees come across as being indifferent or inexperienced, you could lose both prospective and existing customers in a hurry.

WM: You talked recently with one of our sister publications, Crain’s Detroit Business, and described the most important thing organizations should look at when they’re trying to tackle the issue of employee satisfaction. What did you say?

Nelson: I said that employee satisfaction in an “internal construct”; that is, it comes from within each person so you can’t assume you know what someone else will find motivating—especially in this time in which we have four different generations in the workplace. You have to ask them and accept what they share as being valid for them, trying to provide those things as their performance warrants it. Performance and satisfaction go hand in hand. In fact, people who perform well tend to feel great about themselves, where they work, who they work for and who they work with. Help employees be performers, help them to learn and grow and advance their careers and they’ll love working for you and your company.

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