5 ways to Engage people after the recession

In our series of guest author articles Marcelo Borges, co-founder of insight-2-performance adresses post recession actions to re-engage people in businesses. 

The recession has damaged national economies and businesses and produced traumatic effects for millions of people worldwide. In the UK alone 2.46 million are currently unemployed. According to the Office of National Statistics, in 2008 there were a total of 758,900 working days lost in the UK due to industrial disputes involving 511,200 workers in 144 stoppages. The impact on the employee has in many cases been traumatic: job losses and organisational restructures have caused insecurity, anxiety, fear, stress and, in worst cases, depression. Employee engagement has been compromised, which has in turn affected productivity, efficiency and discretionary effort. The Gallup estimates that “actively disengaged” workers are costing US businesses $300 billion a year in productivity losses… And this figure was produced in 2007, prior to the global recession!

Employee disengagement has also been fuelled by the decisions and behaviours of many business leaders. During these challenging times, employees have looked up to their leaders for answers. In many instances, leaders failed to provide satisfactory solutions. Many CEO’s, acting in an irresponsible manner, had actually contributed to the chaotic state of the economy and organisations. Numerous managing Directors, experiencing feelings of insecurity, anxiety and fear themselves, became too preoccupied with self-preservation. Countless middle managers lost their own sense of direction, so leading and engaging others became an impossible exercise. Fortunately, there are also a number of leaders who perceived the recession as an opportunity to re-energise their organisations and work side-side with their employees to find mutually beneficial solutions to the problems presented by the economy. Such leaders and their organisations are now a few steps ahead!

So the question remains: what leaders will need to do in order to engage their employees in the post-recession? There isn’t a straight forward answer to this question, but a lot can be learnt from the principles underpinning transformational leadership and the famous work conducted by Tjosvold (1991) looking into team organisations. In order to engage their people the ‘post-recession leaders’ will undoubtedly be required to:

  • Articulate a compelling vision;
  • Promote unity;
  • Empower individuals and teams;
  • Create space for exploration, challenge and creativity
  • Promote continuous improvement

Articulate a compelling vision: In order to engage their people leaders will be required to articulate a clear, compelling and achievable vision. They will need to listen to their employee’s concerns, frustrations, ideas, and involve them when creating the vision. ‘They need to realise that they cannot command commitment, they must inspire it’ (Tjosvold, 1991) and employees will only feel inspired if they can relate to the strategy. An engaging vision needs to address the widespread cynicism that has taken over since the recession. Employees should be able to see and believe that there is opportunity for growth and development and their discretionary effort will eventually be rewarded. Above all a compelling vision must be underpinned by organisational values and address medium and long term interests of the business, so to avoid unethical decision-making and short-termism which have been responsible for the poor state of the economy.

Promote unity: A ‘them and us’ attitude has developed in many businesses during the recession. In many cases there has been a complete breakdown in communication between management and workforce. In order to address this destructive dynamic, leaders will need to actively promote and nurture a values-driven culture based on ‘we are in this together’ attitude. Employees will engage themselves if they are part of a team which they can relate to and are proud of. By encouraging team identity and promoting personal relationships leaders can start creating an environment conducive of cooperation. Cross-functional projects and complementary roles can help. Rewards based on individual as well as team performance can also aid cooperation.  Most importantly, board members need to start cooperating with each other as oppose to fighting over the scarcity of resources. Employees are more likely to cooperate if they see their leaders working in unison.

Empower individuals and teams: Empowerment has been undermined in a number of businesses during the recession. Many managers and employees were given new responsibilities but not provided with the appropriate resources e.g. training, technical skills, equipment, people, etc. Unsurprisingly, they felt undermined. Inevitably, the new economic reality will require individuals and teams to take more responsibilities. However, leaders need to ensure that employees have what they need in order to engage with their new roles and responsibilities. Majority of people will strive to do a brilliant job if they have been trained and are equipped with the appropriate resources to do so. Leaders can then hold teams and individuals accountable to their mandates, thereby celebrating and rewarding success and managing poor performance accordingly. A robust performance management system can help this process by linking individual and team performance to organisational goals.

Create opportunities for exploration, challenge and creativity: Pressures put upon people over the last couple of years has caused insecurity, anxiety and fear. Such feelings tend to be accompanied by defensiveness and avoidance of difficult issues, which are detrimental to creativity, innovation and change. Leaders will play a crucial role in helping employees to overcome these mindsets by creating an environment that gives people a sense of safety and security and promotes a problem-solving attitude. Constructive controversy should be embraced. By creating opportunities for debates, work groups, employee’s forums, organisational leaders will send an unmistakable message: everyone’s opinions are important and can contribute towards the growth of the business. As result each individual employee will start feeling that their contribution is valuable and appreciated, which is a big step towards increasing self-esteem and developing a sense of engagement.

Promote continuous improvement: The recession has reinforced the fact that businesses need to constantly change and evolve in order to survive. Organisations are, right now, experiencing a level of change never seen before. The ones who are not able to respond will perish. The post-recession leader will play a critical role in leading and engaging their employees in the change process. Opportunities to gather developmental feedback at organisational, team and individual level need to be created and embraced. A self-evaluative attitude should be nurtured and can assist the continuous improvement of the business and people within it. A number of tools such as customer surveys, team diagnostic tools, 360° feedback and staff surveys can effectively support this process. Most importantly, organisations require leaders who are able to scan the internal and external environment and respond appropriately by leading the change and bringing people along with them.

Organisational leaders have a big challenge ahead of them. Such challenge can become an exciting opportunity to achieve high levels of performance through people engagement. By articulating a compelling vision, uniting and empowering their employees and creating opportunities for exploration and continuous improvement the post-recession leader will certainly enhance employee engagement. An engaged workforce will surely be more creative, productive and efficient. Most importantly an engaged employee will actively seek to make a difference and help the business differentiate itself.

Marcelo is a Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development Graduate specialising in Learning and Development and has an MA in Personnel & Development from the University of Westminster. Having finished a B.A. in Law in Brazil, Marcelo came over to the U.K. in 1998 and joined Nando’s restaurants, where he fulfilled both the role of Head of Learning and Development and Head of HR. During his time with the organisation, Marcelo successfully implemented an L&D Business Partnering structure; was involved in the design and delivery of National Training Award winning programmes; contributed to the achievement of Best Companies Award; and ensured the successful opening training for 85 new restaurants.

Picture: Stock Exchange | People 1 | Ervin Bacik

Insight-2-Performance

Marcelo is a Chartered Institute of Personnel & Development Graduate specialising in Learning and Development and has an MA in Personnel & Development from the University of Westminster. Having finished a B.A. in Law in Brazil, Marcelo came over to the U.K. in 1998 and joined Nando’s restaurants, where he fulfilled both the role of Head of Learning and Development and Head of HR. During his time with the organisation, Marcelo successfully implemented an L&D Business Partnering structure; was involved in the design and delivery of National Training Award winning programmes; contributed to the achievement of Best Companies Award; and ensured the successful opening training for 85 new restaurants. He has been involved in a number of organisational re-structures and facilitated change processes for various teams. Marcelo has designed and implemented a number of HR initiatives, including Performance Management Systems and Processes such as 360° Appraisal aiming to increase individuals, team and organisational performance. Amongst other innovative Learning & Development interventions, Marcelo has designed Team Buildings and Management Development Programmes based on charity activities, linking L&D strategy to corporate social responsibility. He has presented at a CIPD conferences and acted as a judge for the National Training Awards. Marcelo’s interest in people and team’s behaviour within organisations has recently led him to undertake a second Masters in Business Psychology, which he is currently studying with the University of Westminster

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