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The Last Word Accentuate the Positive

Focusing on what people do right is the way to get more of what's right out of them.

February 18, 2010

OK, we’re past the New Year’s festivities, the NFL playoffs and Super Bowl and well into 2010. So, I’m dying to ask—are you feeling the economic recovery yet?

If you’re honest, the answer is probably something along the lines of “not really.” If you’re fortunate—that is, if you work in one of the rare industries actually seeing an uptick—perhaps you can say, “Well, we’re feeling it, but just a little bit.”

The fact is, we still have more than 15 million people unemployed, the national unemployment rate is 10 percent and the economy isn’t creating many jobs. Larry Summers, an economic advisor to President Barack Obama, told the World Economic Forum in Davos, Switzerland, last month that we’re experiencing a “statistical recovery and a human recession.”

In other words, any near-term growth in your business or organization is going to come from getting more out of your current workforce, and the best way to get more out of your workforce is to get them more focused and engaged.

I wrote here last fall that a fairly simple way for managers to help get their organizations out of this economic morass is to focus more on engaging their employees. And I listed some ways to do this: more communication from the top, some sense of when all the pay freezes and furloughs might end and a greater recognition (and appreciation) of the sacrifices everyone has been making to get through this recession.

As simple as that sounds, there may be an even easier way for managers to engage workers, as this Workforce Management story makes clear—by just focusing on the strengths of your employees.

Some newly released research by the Gallup organization found that employee engagement, which is the increased discretionary effort you get from workers who feel passionately connected to their jobs, rises considerably when managers focus on employees’ strengths.

Of course, workers are a lot less engaged when the manager focus is on their weaknesses. That’s not a big shock, but what was a surprise is the finding that employees are hardly engaged at all when their managers instead simply ignore them.

This is important information, the authors of the Gallup survey said, “because employees who are ignored feel like they don’t matter. There’s a crucial phenomenon inherent in employee engagement: The best employees don’t want to be coddled; they want to matter. They want to be part of something greater than themselves. … [A]lthough it seems counterintuitive, when managers focus on weaknesses rather than ignoring employees, those employees’ chances of being engaged actually improve. That’s because people prefer to get any feedback over no feedback at all—even if that feedback is criticism.”

I’ve worked for a few of those bosses who seem to ignore the people under them, and I always wondered: How do these yahoos get promoted into management, anyway?

That’s something the Gallup survey didn’t focus on, but anyone who has spent much time in the workforce knows that it’s disconnected managers who create the most disengaged workers.

Some would say that employee engagement is valuable to an organization no matter what the economic environment is, but the reality is that in good times, great employee engagement is a bonus, the icing on the cake, an added dimension.

In really tough times, like those we’ve experienced for the past 18 months, employee engagement is crucial. It may be the only way you can help get your business to the point where, eventually, you can hire again. You can’t get there without managers who focus on employee strengths and build on them.

The late, great management guru Peter Drucker used to say that “to focus on weakness is wasteful—a misuse, if not abuse, of the human resource.” Drucker was right, as usual. Focusing on what people do right is the way to get more of what’s right out of them. Smart managers will take that credo to heart. It may be the only way to keep your organization moving onward, upward and, eventually, out of the Great Recession.

Workforce Management, February 2010,  p. 50 -- Subscribe Now!