Stop telling your employees how important they are

I used to joke with my clients that I would be a millionnaire if I had been paid a dollar every time a CEO or C-level executive said something along the lines of “people are our most important asset.”  Now I tell them that I would be a billionnaire if I had received the same payment every time an employee in their organisation said “well that’s odd as it certainly doesn’t feel like it!”

It happens so often that we coined a term for it – “the people asset paradox”.  How can it be that those in charge have such a diffrent view from those at the coalface?   I set to thinking about this and
came up with three potential reasons.

The first, and hopefully least likely of the three, is that senior management don’t really mean it.  They have read the books, been on the leadership development programmes, seen the film and most likely got the tee-shirt, so it rolls off the tongue with the greatest of ease.  Yet despite the public protestation of employee value,  deep down they see the rank and file as interchangable,  a commodity  to be used when needed and discarded when not.  Whilst I am sure there are still senior managers who have this Dickensian view (perhaps you are unlucky enough to be working for one),  in my experience they are few and far between.  So we come to the second potential explanation.

Perhaps senior management have become so far removed from the reality of life for their foot soldiers, they can no longer relate to the issues and challenges they face.  Sadly, this is an all too common occurance.  Take the case of the CEO of British Airways, Willie Walsh.

A few years ago the organisation was experiecing a tough time. In order to manage costs, he asked all employees to forego thier salary for one month. He used impecable logic to explain how beneficial this would be for the company and some impressive numbers to illustrate the impact on the bottom line.  And then came the slight miscalculation that showed just how out of touch he was.

As an intended show of solidarity, he proudly proclaimed that even he was prepared to give up a month’s salary.  Only one slight problem.  A month’s salary for him was rounghly $90,000!  Now I’m sure that he would rather have had the money than not, but when you are earning that much, the odd month without a paycheck is probably no big deal. But what about a single mother or father of three for whom a single missed pay check could result in not being able to make the mortgage repayment or rent check that month?  He seemed genuinely surprised when employees didn’t come flocking to HR asking them to whisk their salary away immediately!

Then we come to the third potential reason.  Senior managment  genuinely believe what they say, have a reasonable grasp of life on the front line, but they don’t know what to do to make sure employees are motivated and engaged.

This category spend their time lurching from one fad to the next in the vain hope that employees will be inspired by one of them and put in extra effort as the company really seems to care about them.

Sadly many of these initiatives fall on stoney ground as they are not basd on empirical evidence of what drives true engagemeent and motivation.

In these organisations management tend to become more and more exasberated and can begin to think of their employees as an ungrateful bunch who are never satisfied.  “The more we do for them, the more they seem to want” is often the cry from this poor soul.

So, what is the answer?  Simple.  Stop telling your employees how important they are and start showing them.How?  We’ll take a look at this in our next article