01 August 2005

Enthusiastic Employees? Well... yes, but...

I saw this mini-excerpt in the Globe Careers section last week. It’s from a new book called, The Enthusiastic Employee: How companies benefit from giving employees what they want, by David Sirota, Louis Mischkind, and Michael Meltzer. The basic idea of the book is pretty simple and straight-forward: Enthusiastic employees “are willing to go the extra mile, persist when there are setbacks, participate in continuous learning, identify with the organization, volunteer – and always act in the best interests of their company to enhance its stature as a good place to work and with which to do business.” The three authors have done research “proving” that companies with enthusiastic employees perform better in the usual sorts of objective measures of business performance, including stock market performance. Further, they found that, “just 14 per cent of these companies demonstrated enthusiastic work forces – that is, more than 75 per cent were positive about their employer – and 16 per cent had employees who are downright angry.” No surprises on either of these fronts.

So what’s to be done? According to the authors, improve management:
Employers do all sorts of things to deflate that natural state of enthusiasm, from failing to show appreciation and concern for their employees to being too quick to respond to adverse business conditions with employee layoffs. Employees, in other words, are treated as faceless, disposable objects – despite so many companies' avowals in their mission statements that "employees are our most important asset." Employees are also too often treated as irresponsible -- like children or criminals -- perceived as wanting to do as little work as possible for as much money as possible. No wonder enthusiasm wanes.

But it doesn't have to be that way. To acquire and sustain enthusiastic employees, managers must pay attention to three primary goals that matter the most to the great majority of employees: Achievement – being proud of one's work and employer; Camaraderie – having an opportunity to have positive, productive relationships at work; and Equity – feeling treated justly in relation to the basic conditions of employment, such as pay benefits and job security.
Such simple steps, that it’s surprising that more companies don’t do them.

Simple, and wrong.

Not wrong in the sense that managers shouldn’t do these things. But wrong in the sense of incomplete. The researchers set out to prove a hypothesis about managers being responsible for their employees’ enthusiasm, and prove it they did (thus justifying their consulting business), thereby missing what is, in my opinion, the most important aspect of “enthusiastic” – or even passionate – employees. That important aspect is role* (“role star”), which is the key for each of us, and our managers, to understand our individualized intrinsic motivators, and how to turn ‘em on (or, in social science academese, actualize them).

As I’ve written previously, the role* construct acknowledges that we feel motivation by virtue of our interactions in the workplace (and elsewhere, too). Those interactions create “micro-environments” from which emerge a variety of effects. Simply put, the effects with which we most engage turn us on, motivate us, make us feel as if we’re doing something worthwhile, largely irrespective of what it is we’re doing. This creates the type of enthusiasm that Sirota, Mischkind and Meltzer are talking about. Similarly, my in-depth research with people who are at mid-career in large corporations, just starting out in a variety of entry-level jobs, and those in-between, strongly indicates that my concept of role* explains both enthusiastic engagement and depressed apathy among workers. It also explains seemingly paradoxical and contrary results in workplaces that should be both good and bad according to the book. And, most important of all, it puts the control for how a person feels about their workplace back into the hands of the worker.

Imagine that: A way for each of us to actively control our own sense of engagement and enthusiasm in the workplace, even if our managers don’t read the latest how-to book.
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