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Show Them Where You’re Headed

November 1, 1998
Related Topics: Strategic Planning, Featured Article
Change is an accepted given by today’s employees. Having survived the layoff era of the mid-’90s, what employees are looking for now is how well their companies are led, where those companies are heading and how well organizations can handle change. Workers also want to know whether they can be involved in planning the change and to feel that their ideas are welcome. Employees who find these qualities in an employer are much more committed and likely to stay. They’re asking -- and demanding answers to -- the tough questions about a company’s culture before making any commitments.

According to Linda Lewis, vice president, transition, for Oakland, California-based Kaiser Permanente -- a health care organization that underwent a cultural change process a few years ago -- company culture is important because it acts as the glue that holds the organization together. It also provides a sense of meaning and identity for both the group and the individual, and it establishes communication patterns.

Each of these are important issues in the new dance between employers and employees -- it has become more of a give-and-take in which both sides give more, and both sides take more.

Communicate both the big picture and the little picture.
What are employees looking for from their companies? According to the “1997 Workplace Index” study by Boston-based Towers Perrin, an international management consulting firm, a big part of what they’re looking for centers on management effectiveness. In the past, the average employee wasn’t expected to know much about the big picture in terms of company strategy, profitability, the competitive market and so on. Now companies are sharing business and financial information to help connect employees to the business and give them more concrete direction about what they should do and how they should do it.

In fact, according to Towers Perrin’s study, three-quarters of the employees who were surveyed say they understand the big picture, how that picture relates to their day-to-day activities (their roles and responsibilities), and how they can have an impact on company success. Interestingly, the more employees understand, the more they feel a sense of personal accomplishment and contribution.

Among employees who say they understand what makes the business successful, 84 percent also say they’re motivated to help create that success. In contrast, among employees who don’t feel they understand the business’ success factors, just 46 percent say they’re motivated. Among employees who say they do understand how they can help achieve company goals and who believe their own activities influence success, 91 percent say they’re motivated to help create success. But among those who don’t understand their piece of the puzzle and believe they have little personal impact on results, only 23 percent say they’re motivated.

So the critical questions that affect employee commitment are: Do employees understand company goals? Can they have a direct impact on company success? And are their roles and responsibilities distinctly communicated?

Now employees want a solid commitment from management to give them the information they need to get their jobs done. They want to know what their role is. If that isn’t clear to each person, the relationship falls apart.

“Clearly, people today understand these things,” says Stephen M. Bookbinder, a principal with Towers Perrin and author of both his firm’s employee commitment studies. “But where it gets much more negative is whether they understand about the things that affect them within the organization.”

According to Towers Perrin’s 1997 Workplace Index, people feel they’re working hard, but they don’t always see others working hard. More than half of the study’s respondents now feel that employees at their companies “pass the buck.” With the growing workload and the pressure employees feel to keep up their skills and performance, they have little tolerance for co-workers who aren’t fully engaged in their work and for managers who allow this behavior. “In a sense, the individuality of things is rising to the surface,” comments Bookbinder.

In the future, managers increasingly will become business leaders and their role will be to inspire employees, then get out of the way,” says John A. Challenger, executive vice president of the international outplacement firm Challenger, Gray & Christmas, Inc., based in Chicago. Employees want managers who inspire and coach them, and above all, communicate well and often.

Seven out of 10 respondents (69 percent) of 612 employed persons who responded to a nationwide survey conducted in September by In Touch (R), a Minneapolis-based employee opinion and management consulting firm, said it was “very important” to “somewhat important” for top management to do a better job of listening to employee ideas and concerns. After all, employees heard the empowerment message of the early ’90s loud and clear. Now they want a more solid commitment from management to give them the information they need to get their jobs done. They want to know what their role is -- the “little picture,” if you will. If that isn’t clear to each and every person, the whole relationship falls apart. And that isn’t good for commitment -- either way.

Frequent communication supports the organization’s goals.
“Employees are the heart and soul of this organization,” said Sharon Faltemier, vice president, people and communications, for Rocketdyne Propulsion & Power in Canoga Park, California (a division of The Boeing Company, based in Seattle) at The Conference Board’s 1998 West Coast HR conference in January. At the conference, Faltemier discussed the firm’s vision for 2016 to “be the best provider of rocket propulsion, space power and high energy laser systems in the world.” To reach this vision, the firm’s two measures of success will be the growth and increase of shareholder value and having involved, committed employees.

Rocketdyne’s plan is to gain employee commitment through the following five steps: enable people to work together, provide meaningful assignments, practice highest ethical standards, increase personal growth and employability through training and development, and recognize personal and team contributions. Faltemeier explained that each work group throughout the company must take ownership for its success through a vision support plan that’s reviewed quarterly. The company formulates a leadership-expectations plan each year. In 1998, the firm’s leadership activities have centered on leadership, quality culture, continuous learning and metrics-based management.

Bentley College in Waltham, Massachusetts, also has initiated a goal system that defines the overall goals of the college and then develops division, department and individual goals. By ensuring that individual goals are tied to the overall goals of the college, each employee is able to identify his or her personal contribution to the company goals.

Bentley also has recently strengthened merit-raise programs so exceptional performers receive more than average performers. The president holds regular “town meetings” to let employees know what’s happening and to ensure that everyone knows where the college is headed. All of this helps fulfill the strong need for communication and recognition that our sampling of employees said was important to them.

And at Parker Aerospace Corp. in Irvine, California, several initiatives contribute to the organization’s effort to enhance loyalty, including frequent communication, opportunities for strong peer interaction, and reward and recognition programs. Linda Walker, vice president of HR, says the company maintains communication through newsletters, one-on-one meetings and other ways with the more than 5,600 employees in her division to keep workers in the loop.

An interesting part of the new employee-commitment rules is that workers’ relationships with their managers and managers’ relationships with their teams also have become much more important. Workers have been known to stay with a team and not accept job offers at other places because they have a great relationship with their bosses and they’re afraid they may not find that elsewhere. It’s true, the grass isn’t always greener on the other side.

So the more a company can encourage the communication channels between employees and their supervisors, the stronger the employee’s commitment to the entire company will become. After all, people go to work every day and usually interact with their team, not with a big conglomerate. The more a company does to enhance and leverage those close relationships, the stronger the performance bond will be.

Employees are more committed to winners.
Employees want to be part of a winning team. And winning companies are being identified through various forms -- the media, employee surveys, benchmarking, national and local awards, and so on.

“One of the things we find is that when workers believe in the direction their company is headed, they have stronger commitment. That’s because they think their company will be one of the winners in the global marketplace,” says David L. Stum, president of The Loyalty Institute (TM), an Aon Consulting Worldwide division based in Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Winning vision usually translates into greater employee commitment. But employees want to be invited to ride the train, rather than stand on the sidelines watching it go by.

Leaders at Sun Microsystems Inc. based in Mountain View, California, know what a winner looks like. They’re already sixth on Fortune magazine’s 1997 list of the world’s most admired companies in the computers and office equipment category. But the firm isn’t stopping there. Leaders there have a vision of what they want their firm to look like by the turn of the century: One million Solaris licenses. Two million systems. A $1 billion SPARC company.

“Sun’s course is set,” said Lora Colflesh, vice president of human resources operations, in a presentation at The Conference Board’s West Coast HR Conference in January. In presentation materials, she talked of a committed workforce that’s “engaged with the SMI vision, customer-focused, highly productive, teamwork-oriented and dedicated to continuous improvement. Employees are open to paradigm shifts, and willing to initiate difficult changes needed to meet business objectives. Throughout Sun, employees will be empowered to take initiative, and will be accountable for results.”

Winning vision usually translates into greater employee commitment. But employees want to be invited to ride the train, rather than stand on the sidelines watching it go by. All the experts and studies say that the more you can involve employees in the direction the company is moving, the faster it will get to its destination -- and everyone can share the rewards.

Provide context and support for change.
For most employees, cultural changes such as reorganizations or mergers can feel like the company has pressed the “fast forward” button and let the tape spiral out of control. It’s utter turmoil for people, unless they have an understanding of what’s really going on. If they’re not in on the secret of corporate change, they’ll often resist. “The truth is most resistance is tough to diagnose -- and even tougher to overcome,” says Ken Hultman in Making Change Irresistible (Davies-Black Publishing, 1998).

The good news is, according to Aon’s study, a large portion of employees (79 percent) feel their organizations are ready to make the changes needed to stay competitive. However, they have slightly greater confidence in the ability of their own work groups (74 percent) to make changes quicker than the company’s overall ability (69 percent) to move quickly when changes are needed. Fewer employees (66 percent) feel encouraged to participate in change efforts, perhaps because workers feel their organizations don’t want them to “make waves.” These are critical areas for HR professionals to understand as they’re immersed in change management projects and organizational change efforts.

Aon’s experts suggest that to make any change effort more successful, you need to investigate the expectations of your workforce, create opportunities for employee input, support and reward employee initiatives for improvement, and improve communication -- especially during organizational turbulence. There’s that communication theme again. The more you have an open-door policy and mean it, the more your people will stick with you during the good times and the difficult ones. Change may never be easy in the business world, but if employees are engaged in the change, it could be easier. Who knows? It might even be fun.

Involve employees in decisions regarding leadership, culture and change.
The big theme in leadership is: Give them better communication -- of the big picture all the way down to their role. It’s more important than ever for companies to lead with a clear vision, communicate that vision and involve workers in implementing it.

Human resources professionals, who often are embroiled in their firms’ change management and cultural-change processes, have a front-seat opportunity to involve employees in their organizations’ strategy. Employees want to be in on the company’s projects, and to be in on the action, they want improved communication from co-workers, managers and the company in general. As one employee anonymously puts it: “I get frustrated when upper management manipulates news just to get a particular spin and invoke a certain mood with employees. We’re intelligent folks -- we can separate spin from facts.”

Perhaps HR pros would do well to remember the saying: “We have met the enemy and they are ours” (Oliver Perry, 1813) Employees are clearly saying: “We’re not the enemy. We’re on your team. Treat us that way.”

Workforce, November 1998, Vol. 77, No. 11, pp. 45-48.

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