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My Top Takeaways of 2015

With the year drawing to a close and the festive season almost upon us, I thought now would be a good time to take stock of everything we’ve learned in 2015.

Agile Performance Management

The annual reviews and performance metrics of traditional Performance Management (PM) have been slowly giving way to an agile (APM) approach. This trend became increasingly obvious in 2015, with the publication of numerous papers and case studies all highlighting the benefits APM offers. Add to that the fact that major companies like Adobe went on record crediting this new approach (they went agile in 2012) with the rocketing share price they’ve experienced since adopting it, and it’s little wonder that APM is picking up pace.

The increasing popularity of the agile approach doesn’t surprise me. Agile Performance Management strategies are an integral part of Cognology’s solutions, and regular readers will know I’ve long been an advocate of real-time reviews and 360-degree feedback. I’m not the only one to note the accelerated change in PM this year and, while companies like Accenture announce plans to adopt it, others warn of the potential pitfalls of an accelerated change.

Tom Hakk, the founder of The HR Trend Institute, believes organisations are failing to recognise the difference between performance ratings and management. He worries that companies are so keen to jettison the traditional annual reviews and performance metrics, that they are abandoning PM altogether. I’m not sure I agree with his observation (the number of HR managers citing PM as ‘important’ or ‘very important’ rose to 75% in 2015), but I do recognise his concern. If we fail to implement this new approach properly, it could cost us more than it’s worth.

Onboarding

With poor onboarding contributing to the failure of 50% of new hires, doing it properly has the potential to save organisations thousands (and some, much more). I covered the science behind onboarding earlier this year and discovered that 35% of companies spend nothing (as in $0) on onboarding. Of the rest, 40% think their programmes are ‘less than moderately effective’.

Innovations and trends to revolutionize performance management, employee engagement, L&D, freelancing and onboarding in 2015
In October, Google gave us a lesson on how to tackle this sticking point. Their analytics team experimented with multiple approaches before hitting on the Just-in-time option. Characterised by an email to a manager the night before a new hire starts, onboarding is left entirely up to managers providing they perform five key tasks:

  1. A role and responsibilities discussion.
  2. Match new hire with peer buddy.
  3. Assist new hire to build a social network.
  4. Conduct onboarding check-ins once a month for the first six months.
  5. Encourage open dialogue.

It might not sound particularly innovative, but Google’s data suggests this approach reduced new hire time to productivity by 25%.

Imagine how technology can improve this by starting the onboarding process from contract stage through to Day 1 and the first six months. Incredible.

Learning and Development (L&D)

I’ve delved into L&D topics many times this year. By far the most important takeaway was the benefit of aligning learning with strategy, and its ability to increase ROI, enhance engagement and speed organisational progression.

Like PM, L&D has been driven by technological advancement, with gamification and social learning taking centre stage in 2015. Offering benefits across the board, a recent study by PWC suggests the technological innovations in this field will become increasingly important as more Millennials enter the workforce. Statistics published this year indicated that L&D is more important to this group than any other, with 52% stating that fast career progression is more attractive than salary.

Employee Engagement

Arguably one of the most notable takeaways of 2015 was the discovery that work engagement and employee engagement are two separate entities, often operating independently of each other. This, coupled with the finding that individuals engage differently, goes some way towards explaining why employee engagement initiatives traditionally produce poor results.

Newly published data suggests that engagement is an increasingly important issue. The average employee is 6% less satisfied with their role in 2015 compared to 2014; experiencing a reduction in enablement, autonomy and a sense of accomplishment.

Freelancing

You probably don’t need me to tell you that freelancing is the new workforce megatrend. Driven by economic pressures and an increasing focus on lifestyle over work, this trend is particularly popular with Millennials, 38% of whom work freelance.

This isn’t a number that is likely to decrease anytime soon. PJMorgan’s Chauncy Lennon is studying the rise in freelancing and flexible work initiatives. His findings suggest that this new megatrend will change the business landscape. In the future, we can expect to see operations organised around workers, instead of workers organised around companies.

To sum up…

As research continues to offer us greater insight, and technology gives us new metrics and opportunities, it seems likely that the changes we’ve seen this year in PM and L&D will be mirrored in other areas, including employee engagement and onboarding, which are currently poorly managed in a number of industries.

It’s been a year of learning and discovery, improvements and advancements in the HR field this year. At Cognology, we’re excited about what 2016 will bring. If there are topics you’d be interested in hearing from me on next year, drop me a line. In the meantime, have a wonderful Christmas and festive season.

Reference:

Up to 20% of staff turnover happens within the first 45 days of employment. Source: Urbanbound

Four Ways To Allow Brilliance To Shine In Your Business

A few months ago I came across an article written by Bruce Kasanoff. For those of you who didn’t happen upon it, or have never heard of Bruce, he’s pretty focused on the idea that individuals – not companies – are responsible for nurturing talent in others.

I’ve seen too many examples of successful organisational L&D to fully support this approach, but there was one phrase in his article that really struck me:

‘The person who is capable of designing a better tool is not necessarily the person with the mechanical or technical skills to build it.

It’s pretty obvious to point this out, and it’s something most of us would agree with, but it got me thinking: does everyone in the company need to be good at everything? Should we invest time and money bringing individuals up to a ‘meets expectation’ level in competencies that other staff already excel in? Does a brilliant sports scientist really need to be fabulous at running meetings? Should this person be able to manage potential under-achievers, get budgets right to within a dollar, have excellent interpersonal skills and know how to recruit expertly?

Or should we accept that no individual can master everything, and instead focus training on areas in which they already excel? Fostering remarkable skills that then become invaluable to the individual, the team they work with and, by extension, the organisation? To me, that sounds like a much better use of everyone’s time, and talent.

Hierarchical environments

An army of minions

Whether you run an SME or a Fortune 500 company, time is not an infinite resource. Focusing training on areas where staff have the potential for brilliance is an efficient (and effective) strategy. Rather than creating an army of minions who all have the same basic skill set, organisations that promote individual brilliance increase the value of the skills available to them. They ensure employees don’t waste time on areas they’ll only ever be mediocre at, facilitating greater engagement and reaping all the competitive advantages that a productive, engaged and skilful workforce provides.

Take the design team at Dropbox. It includes the founder of ‘Mailbox’, Gentry Underwood, who sold his app to Dropbox in 2013 for $100 million. Had he found himself in the traditional corporate environment, expected to invest time and energy gaining proficiency in a wide array of skills, would Gentry have been able to achieve so much so quickly?

What about Steve Jobs? Would Apple be the same today if he’d spent his time increasing his proficiency in skill areas where colleagues already excelled? Of course not. These innovators are innovators because they recognise their strengths, aren’t afraid to acknowledge their weaknesses and are happy to rely on the strengths of others.

No one excels at everything, but everyone excels at something.

So how do you nurture individual star talent?

1. Identify the movers and shakers

It sounds obvious, but knowing your employees is key. Identify the areas in which individuals excel and don’t insist that they invest time building up competence in lesser skills at the expense of brilliance.

Performance metrics can be a useful tool for gauging where individual strengths lie, but they are only an indication. Take time to talk to employees, understand their likes and dislikes, how they perceive their strengths and, most importantly, the areas peers think they excel in. You need to identify these strengths at every level of the organisation if you’re going to make the most of them.

2. Focus on success

Employees need to understand that their growth is important to your organisation. Managers who are committed to the individual progression of those under them create an open, collaborative environment in which junior staff feel free to challenge the status quo and progress.

There are a number of ways to effectively foster individual brilliance among your workforce. Career coaching enables employees to define a clear path, encourages them to identify their strengths and gives them the tools they need to fully utilise those skills. A 2012 report by the CMI ranked external coaching as the fifth most beneficial management and leadership development (MLD) practice assessed (see page 8, they looked at 26). This approach was actually cited as 32% more effective at promoting individual performance than appraisals and skills audits.

3. Ignore titles

Star performers often upset the balance of a hierarchical environment, and they should be encouraged to do so. Individuals need freedom to display their strengths, regardless of their job title, to excel. While maintaining hierarchy is important, it’s up to managers to provide staff with the freedom to think laterally and display brilliance.

By delegating tasks based on accomplishments rather than seniority, you improve the skills you’re trying to foster (in an earlier article, I touched on the fact that as much as 70% of development comes from on-the-job experience). Most importantly, assigning tasks to the people who are best at them — not best qualified or most experienced — results in a far better result.

Career Coaching

4. Promote teamwork

Developing individual strengths does have potential drawbacks. Focusing on areas of brilliance in individual employees means that you create an environment where success is reliant on the skills of multiple individuals.

This can be a good thing, it increases engagement, facilitates greater organisational ownership and helps employees to shine. However, to be ultimately successful, this approach requires a cohesive team. Each individual must have clearly defined responsibilities and the understanding that they are one part of a bigger picture.

In conclusion

By removing the focus from competency areas where employees might be struggling, and encouraging improvement of outstanding skills, you should be able to create a well-honed workforce: efficient, productive, engaged in their tasks and confident of their strengths. You should be able to turn every employee into a top performing superstar, someone who contributes meaningfully to the success of your organisation and doesn’t waste time developing skills in areas where they will only ever be average.

References:

Hierarchical environments are particularly difficult for Millennials, 34% of whom say their personal drive intimidates older colleagues. Source: PWC

A poll by the International Coach Federation found that 86% of organisations who used a career coach felt they received a good ROI. Source: ICF

Can you really measure employee engagement?

In a recent post, I asked whether we might be accidentally killing employee engagement by obsessing over it too much. And, yes – we certainly can.

This is because, like happiness, engagement is a complex emotional state that only emerges when everything else is right, so trying to force it directly just doesn’t work. You’d have more luck drawing big lipstick smiles on your employees’ faces every morning!

It’s obvious that overzealousness generally leads to disaster, but we still want to engineer a pleasant and meaningful working environment. So, where’s the middle ground?

Measuring engagement

Your workforce’s engagement level can be the canary in the coal mine for both systemic and individual problems. If we can succeed in measuring engagement accurately, that information can form the basis for truly effective intervention. Because, as they say, ‘if you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.’

For example, declining staff-wide engagement ratings can warn us that subtle problems are emerging, particularly regarding the company culture and working conditions. There might be a new manager with a bad attitude, new and inefficient processes might be causing frustration, or the volume of work required has crept past some critical threshold.

At an individual level, a worker whose engagement level starts to fall will eventually leave unless you discover and troubleshoot the problem before it’s too late. Often, the descent begins months (or years) in advance, as it generally takes a long time to decide ‘enough is enough’.

Why is measuring engagement so complicated?

It’s not so much that it’s complicated to measure engagement; rather, the difficulty lies in properly grasping such an abstract concept. Because it’s a feeling – like love or happiness – it’s hard to define. We have to talk about it indirectly, for example, describing it as a feeling that ‘leads to more discretionary effort’ or ‘makes you less likely to think about changing jobs.’

We can’t ask about it directly and expect a meaningful answer. Observe:

“How much do you love me?”

This much!”

Plus, your employees know that you want them to ‘be engaged’ – if you just ask them, their answers will be biased toward assuring you that they definitely are very engaged. When that happens, in effect you’re measuring how secure they feel in their job, or even how attractive the HR manager is, for that matter. ‘Desire to please’ can be a big confounding factor.

And, as I mentioned in my earlier post, the fact that there’s definitely something amiss when it comes to measuring engagement is shown by the disconnect between engagement and loyalty; ie. while engagement scores are rising overall, retention remains unchanged.

Employee Engagement

Mismeasuring engagement can be dangerous

When engagement survey scores are failing to predict reality, you’re asking the wrong questions. Workers might be falling victim to unconscious bias, or they might be consciously gaming the system. Either way, little good can come from making decisions based on incorrect assumptions.

Another danger is that you become so overly reliant on surveys, analytics and other metrics to inform your decisions that common sense goes out the window.

What’s the current best practice for measuring engagement?

To measure engagement effectively, you need to ask questions that probe whether the expected effects of solid engagement are happening or not. For example, you might ask how much work is occurring outside of normal working hours and outside the office, which is a good way of measuring discretionary effort.

Gallup recently produced a study titled “State of the American Workplace” in which it defines twelve “actionable workplace elements with proven links to performance outcomes.” Essentially, what Gallup thinks is best to ask in order to determine engagement.

Referred to as Gallup’s Q12, the questions are as follows:

  1. I know what is expected of me at work.
  2. At work, my opinions seem to count.
  3. I have the materials and equipment I need to do my work right.
  4. The mission or purpose of my company makes me feel my job is important.
  5. At work, I have the opportunity to do what I do best every day.
  6. My associates or fellow employees are committed to doing quality work.
  7. In the last seven days, I have received recognition or praise for doing good work.
  8. I have a best friend at work.
  9. My supervisor, or someone at work, seems to care about me as a person.
  10. In the last six months, someone at work has talked to me about my progress.
  11. There is someone at work who encourages my development.
  12. This last year, I have had opportunities at work to learn and grow.

As you can see, the questions focus on the employee’s comfort in their role, the strength and breadth of their professional relationships, and whether they are being both supported in their development and recognised for their efforts.

Focus on the outcomes

None of the Q12 elements mention anything about ‘engagement’, happiness, or anything particularly emotional or subjective. That’s how you avoid bias, by basing your measures in objective reality.

If you do perform testing in this way, remember – it’s still a relative measure; you can tell whether engagement has increased or decreased, but there’s no official scale.

When it comes to troubleshooting a declining trend, there are many ways to intelligently intervene without mandating on party hats or blaring polka music over the PA system, and it starts with the big picture:

Is the company vision intact?

Are its direction, values and purpose fully articulated?

There are many aspects to look at, from both a macro and micro perspective, and I’ll go into more detail about these in a future post.

For now, my message is that yes, it is possible to measure engagement – by measuring what engagement is supposed to produce; and, yes, if done correctly, it can produce an extremely useful datapoint that you can use as a basis for evaluating your success in designing the ultimate workplace.

The key is to keep it short and infrequent – if you’re using something like Gallup’s Q12, it needn’t take more than a couple of minutes for your employees to complete.

What are your thoughts on how best to measure engagement? Do you use something like the Q12, or questions that are even more incisive? I’d love to hear your suggestions in the comments!

Are we accidentally killing employee engagement?

Ever since it was discovered that ‘a happy worker is a productive worker’, organisations have been scrambling to engineer happiness among their workforces. But I wonder: have they gone too far? Is it even possible to have too much engagement?

What’s the cause of our modern-day obsession with ensuring our employees feel overjoyed all the time?

Why is employee engagement such a big issue?

Firstly, organisations face problems that directly impact the bottom line, including productivity and greater efficiency. I looked at these challenges in an earlier post, such as low employee retention rates, an inadequate talent pool, and an expensive hiring process, in the context of how a good onboarding can help.

Secondly, emerging evidence, such as Deloitte’s Human Capital Trends study, strongly suggests that organisations that prioritise employee engagement outperform their peers, both financially and in attracting top talent.

In this highly competitive economy, organisations are rushing to outperform their opponents in any way possible. In that feverish millieu, ‘Employee Engagement’ is now lit up so brightly in the minds of upper management that, in my view, some are losing their way.

Employee engagement is important, but not that important

Employee engagement is now considered a key performance metric. It’s considered highly importantDeloitte’s report even suggested that 87% of HR professionals and business leaders consider ‘culture and engagement’ to be a challenge more important than leadership itself!

That might sound admirable, but here’s the problem: when management starts prioritising happiness over making decisions that might be temporarily painful, but best for the business in the long run, strategic drift can take the company way off course.

You can’t force engagement

Engagement isn’t really a thing in itself: it’s a complex psychological state that emerges as the result of many other inputs – like satisfying achievements on the job, decent pay, a decent working environment and a company culture that matches peoples’ own values.

 

Employee engagement

Trying to force engagement is like a parent demanding loyalty from their child; not because they deserve it, just because “I’m your parent!” Clearly, this tactic is unlikely to succeed in either scenario. The outcome is usually the polar opposite of what you’re looking for.

The only remedy at this point is just to stop. A good way to start stopping might begin with giving the analytics a rest.

While engagement used to be measured annually, we now have frequent pulse surveys tracking emotional data points as they evolve. It’s tiring enough just thinking about them; in practice, they’re overbearing and counterproductive.

Employees working for engagement-obsessed companies feel doubly burdened. Not only are they required to complete their tasks, now they have to give up some of their individuality and mental space, too, in the form of organised ‘fun’, rewards systems, and other management ‘initiatives’.

Invariably, they feel forced and fake – and faking it is exactly what the employees are doing when it comes to their apparently smiling faces!

Focusing on engagement isn’t actually improving anything

As we mentioned, the focus on employee engagement is being driven by worries surrounding the high rate of employee turnover. However, efforts to remedy this by increasing employee engagement aren’t impacting the situation.

Yes, employees might be happier, but are they more loyal? Aon’s recent Trends in Global Employee Engagement report revealed that while there has been a rise in the number of engaged employees overall, the proportion of workers intending to remain with their current employers has not changed.

The current obsession with employee engagement is reactionary

It could be that this enthusiasm for improving engagement survey scores is related to the demand for rapidly-increasing workplace transparency. An organisation’s culture can now be a competitive advantage – or a thorn in its side. Topics like employee engagement and company culture are now out in the open, no longer confined to the HR office.

But of course, the HR manager is still tasked with solving the problem by COB yesterday! No wonder they’re losing sleep; low engagement runs deep and can indicate entrenched systemic dysfunction within the company. It’s not impossible to fix, but panicking will only make things worse.

Too much engagement can be a really bad thing

Do you know what kind of organisation has 100% engagement? A cult. And, while that might be the secret aspiration of some CEOs, it’s definitely not good for the business, especially when it comes to onboarding new hires.

Employees just starting out need to be able to connect with their workmates on an emotional level. If everyone around you is a Kool-Aid connoisseur, it can be extremely isolating when you haven’t yet summoned the courage to take a sip yourself.

That’s why it’s actually better when there are just a few highly-engaged employees around – enough to sustain the company culture, but not so many that an impenetrable clique emerges. It doesn’t always hurt for some of your employees to think of their job as simply the means to earn money to pay their bills. That’s reality for some folks, and the truth is healthy.

Nurture everything else before ‘engagement’

It bears reiterating that ‘engagement’ is side-effect that happens when employees are having their basic needs met.

Employees become engaged with the company because they enjoy working there; because they’re able to be productive and feel good about that; and because their co-workers are cool individuals who they can relate to on a human level; because they get decent pay for decent work, and so on.

From an HR perspective, an awesome onboarding program can do wonders to facilitate the relationships that will form the basis from which a highly engaged workforce emerges in future.

In a week or two’s time, I’ll be looking at the ways that employee engagement is being measured, whether it’s working, and discuss how we can improve our metrics to provide a real benefit.

How are you ‘doing’ engagement – what are your priorities? What’s worked for you and what hasn’t? I’d love to hear about your experiences.

5 Facts Every Manager Should Know About Employee Engagement

Discover how the very latest psychological, health and emotional research is informing our understanding of employee engagement.

Increasingly popular with researchers, employee engagement is a topic that has seen some interesting studies conducted, particularly over the last year or so. They have given me plenty to think about, and I want to share five insights I think are really relevant to how we view and manage employee engagement. I’ve included my own takeaways too, but you might see different ones.

1. Individuals engage differently

We often talk about employee engagement in terms of employees as a group, but the reality is that engagement means different things to different people.

Common sense tells us that employees find certain work environments more appealing than others. But perhaps what hasn’t been clear is that we need to target our engagement initiatives at groups of individuals, rather than the workforce as a whole. For example, in 2011, the availability of flexible working practices was found to significantly increase engagement in the under 30s, but had less of an impact on older employees.1

Not surprisingly, personality traits also come into play. Earlier studies suggested (rather broadly) that conscientious, emotionally ‘stable’ people are the most likely to become engaged with their work. But new data narrows this down and suggests we should be looking for those with interpersonal sensitivity, resilience and ambition. These are the people most likely to engage at work, especially if they have a high emotional intelligence (EI).

Takeaway: treat employees as individuals, or groups of individuals, instead of taking a ‘plain vanilla’ approach.

2. Internal communication is key

Percentage of employees inspired by their leader

The fallout from poor communication is pretty clear. Open, two-way communication and consistently stated expectations are crucial to a positive, successful workplace. (I’m a big advocate of the ‘feedback expectation loop’, as you’ll know if you’re a reader of this blog). The big news is that we can expect to read more about it in relation to engagement soon too.

For the first time, a link between positive employee engagement and good internal communication has been proven. It might seem obvious, but focusing on communication practices at both organisational and management level is as important for engagement as it is for productivity.

Internal communication

Organisational communication is responsible for 23% of the variance in employee engagement and supervisor communications accounts for a massive 32%.

Takeaway: internal communication matters. Put a good internal comms strategy in place, and execute it well.

3. Work engagement can exist without employee engagement

Anyone who’s spent time reading up on the topic will have noticed that the terms ‘employee engagement’ and ‘work engagement’ are often used interchangeably. In fact, they represent two distinct concepts. Employee engagement is about committing at an organisational level, while work engagement reflects an individual’s commitment to their role.

 

Employee and work engagement

 

A recent look at employee engagement in the British National Health Service brought to light some interesting questions about both:

Medical personnel were found to have low vigour (otherwise known as energy, persistence and a willingness to invest effort) and dedication (enthusiasm, inspiration and pride for their role). On the other hand, they had high levels of absorption in their work (measured by how quickly their shift passes and how difficult it is to leave when it ends). 

The first two are measures of employee engagement, the last work engagement. This suggests that one can be high while the other is low, which is pretty interesting stuff.

Takeaway: be aware that employee engagement and work engagement are different things. Consider how you can identify which type individuals are high and/or low in, and look at how to up the ante to achieve improvements in both.

4. A trusting environment dictates the success of HRM practices

This one has been hinted at a few times this year already. First, a study looking at the impact of corporate social responsibility (CSR) on engagement found that employees who didn’t trust the motives of their organisation were inclined to dismiss it altogether. This was supported by a recent white paper from Dale Carnegie, which found that 54% of employees who took pride in their company’s contributions to society felt engaged.

The next hint came from an analysis of diversity practices and engagement. This was the first study to identify a trusting environment as essential for translating diversity measures into positive engagement across all groups, not just minorities.2

The results of both studies suggest that trust is the crucial bedrock of successful HR practices and positive outcomes. Employees who trust their organisations perceive HR initiatives as authentic, which positively impacts their engagement.

Takeaway: Know your company values and make sure everything you do, including CSR, is in line with them.

5. Passionate employees are not (necessarily) engaged employees

When it comes to work, there are two types of passion:

Harmonious Passion: These are the folks with high productivity and life satisfaction. They view their role as important and it forms part of their self-identity, but it is not all-consuming.

Obsessive Passion: These workers are the most likely to suffer from burnout or home-work conflicts. They love their work, it forms part of their self-identify, but they are driven to work by internal pressures (such as social status).

Work engagement resembles both, except that engagement is not characterised by an association of work with self-identity. This is an important distinction, and one we’re only just beginning to explore. The latest research suggests that a passion for work is distinct from work engagement — passion is a general attitude, while engagement is a cognitive state. Exactly what this means in practise is hard to say right now, but more insights on how to drive up engagement are welcome indeed.

Takeaway: Observe people and try to understand their passion. The more insight you have into the people you work with, the better your HR practices will be.

In conclusion

It’s all interesting stuff, and should help us make the most of our engagement initiatives. Targeting specific members of the workforce, correctly distinguishing between passion and engagement and fully utilising our communications strategies could make a real difference. It might be slightly trickier to determine whether our employees truly trust our CSR and diversity practices (and I’m still not sure how we’ll measure work vs employee engagement practically), but for twelve month’s worth of research, these are all pretty impressive findings. And who knows what progress the next year will bring?

Do your experiences of employee engagement agree with this latest research? Add your thoughts to the comments below or join the conversation via Twitter @cognology.

Jon Windust

Jon Windust is the CEO at Cognology – Talent management software for the future of work. Over 250 Australian businesses use Cognology to power cutting-edge talent strategy. You can follow Jon on Twitter or LinkedIn.

 

References:

1. Bal, P.M., and De Lange, A.H. 2015. From flexibility human resource management to employee engagement and perceived job performance across lifespan. Journal of Occupational and Organizational Psychology. 88.

2. Downey, S.N., van der Werff, L., Thomas, K.M. and Plaut, V.C. 2015. The role of diversity practices and inclusion in promoting trust and employee engagement. Journal of Applied Psychology. 45.