Why employee engagement is not your priority
Leadership Coach, Front of Room Leader and Systemic Change Guide

In 1990, car sales plummeted world wide in the wake of the first Gulf War. FAVI, a French metal manufacturer and car industry supplier, urgently had to reduce costs. There was not enough work for its workers.

There was an easy, simple solution: to fire all temp workers.

But firing people was not part of the family business’ culture, and its CEO, Jean François Zobrist, was not a lone decision maker. Like often before, he went to the shop floor instead, had all machines stopped, and started an all staff meeting with the workers on that shift – which included the temp workers.

As Frederic Laloux reports in Reinventing Organisations, a shop floor conversation started.

Workers asked questions and shouted proposals. Within one hour, someone made a proposal that had heads nodding all around. So Zobrist put it to a vote. The proposal was unanimously accepted: everyone would reduce work from four to three weeks a month and accordingly be paid less, until orders were to come back in. No one was laid off.

Everyone was content with a 25% pay cut.

What Zobrist had not done, was working out scenarios with HR, getting clear on his options, and then announcing his decision to the workers. Instead, he had no answers, only questions, and went to share these with his workers.

What does that have to do with employee engagement?

Everyone talks about employee engagement. Yet hardly ever do we talk about employee satisfaction. And whenever I speak about “inspiring leaders”, I get a “too much” kind of reaction.

And I get that, though I disagree, because even in dire crisis, perhaps especially then, do leaders have a chance to inspire people to stand together and do their best work.

But when so many employees are not even fundamentally satisfied, then the path to being inspired seems a long and winding one indeed. What if, like now, companies are merely trying to survive, just like in the example of FAVI?

Today, many leaders ask themselves, and their coaches, how to keep their people engaged whilst remote working.

Engagement is not possible without satisfying basic needs first.

Research by Bain & Company and the Economist Intelligence Unit demonstrates that talk of employee engagement is too simplistic. After surveying over 300 senior executives, they have come up with a hierarchy of needs of people in their work environments.

Let’s take a step back and remember Maslow’s hierarchy of needs first:

In his theory of motivational behaviour, Maslow found that there is a hierarchy of needs which informs what motivates people. And most people go through this hierarchy step by step, from bottom to top:

We need to meet our basic needs of food, shelter, and security first.

Only when we have succeeded to do so, do we become aware of our psychological needs: We then seek a sense of belonging, and want to be held in esteem by others and ourselves.

The next, and for most people the final step, leads to a longing for status, a feeling of having accomplished and achieved something.

Few people ever tap into their need of self-actualisation.

Often the new awareness of one’s need for self-actualisation comes in mid life, when status and prestige have been reached. In fact, until we started branding millennials as more meaning oriented than other age groups, we thought it was exclusively an age related phenomenon. At any age, it is the realisation of having reached – or, even more painful, of not having reached – everything that you thought would bring you recognition and therefore satisfaction. And to realise that it does not give your life the meaning you crave.

Back to the office.

It is futile to embark on expensive engagement campaigns when you’re not allowing your employees to meet their basic needs.

To be inspired, your employees need to be engaged.

To be engaged, your employees need to feel safe and enabled to do their job well.

A satisfying environment comes first.

Without a satisfying work environment, engagement campaigns are a waste of money and, like “inspiring CEO talks”, only lead to cynicism.

To be satisfied, employees need a safe work environment. They need the tools, training, and resources to do their job well. They need to be able to get their job done without excessive bureaucracy.

Look around in your office. Are your people satisfied?

Listen in to the talk on the floor: Likely more than one of these prerequisites are not met. For instance, it is not just teachers and health workers who ache under the amount of paperwork and box ticking which takes up more and more time and leaves less time for person to person interaction. A safe work environment is not one where mobbing is condoned, nor where people burn out. And job security has again become a huge concern for many, even if they have not already lost their jobs in the past three months.

How do they know that they are making a difference?

To be engaged, employees need to be part of an extraordinary team. They need autonomy to do their jobs. They need to learn and grow daily. And they need to make a difference and have an impact. In the atmosphere of the past decades of fast growing controlling departments, a sense of lost autonomy and of not being trusted has infected both public and private sector organisations. Moreover, less and less people are able to see how they are making a difference. As coaches, we often hear that while in principle their work is contributing to a good cause, the individual impact they create is lost on our coachees, because they are so far removed from it.

Without purpose and lived values, there is no inspiration.

To be inspired, employees need to get meaning and inspiration from their company’s mission. But that is not enough. They also need to be inspired by their company’s leaders.

That’s why we always start our leadership coaching and group experiential learning programmes with purpose and values.

Why do you want inspired employees? We would argue that you would be more inspired yourself as a leader if your impact on those around you was positive, and vice versa. It makes leadership joyful, and you happy and fulfilled.

There also is a case of productivity to be made.

Inspired employees are more than twice as productive as satisfied employees.

According to Bain & Company’s research, if satisfied employees’ productivity is indexed as 100 (with dissatisfied employees at 71), then engaged employees’ productivity is significantly higher at 144. And inspired employees score a whooping 225 on that scale.

In times like ours, where it’s not just individual jobs or one struggling company, but whole industries, which are on the line, it might not seem easy for a leader to even keep their employees satisfied.

But the example of FAVI demonstrates how even under great economic pressure, employees can not just be satisfied, but engaged, and even inspired, by their leadership, as well as by their collective ability to find humane and practical solutions.

For leadership coaching and developement, get in touch

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