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Tim Holden

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Employee engagement and motivation: What not to do


Tim Holden examines the approaches businesses should definitely not be taking if they want their employees to remain motivated, loyal and engaged throughout the recession and beyond.

Keeping levels of employee engagement at a satisfactory level is one of the biggest challenges employers face in the UK at present. Pay cuts, pay freezes, redundancies, slashed learning & development budgets, and even working for a period without pay significantly impacts on employee engagement. So what should the forward-thinking organisation avoid doing that may make matters worse? Here are a few hints:

1. Ride roughshod over employees without consultation

Failure to involve the workforce in meetings and surveys will reduce the level of commitment to changes around budgets and restructuring. Moving disengaged people to ‘neutral’ (en route to them being ‘engaged’) can improve their interactions with clients and enhance the employer brand whilst minimising the chance of fraud and poor productivity. Buy-in can be achieved by top-down communication, bottom-up, on a group basis, on an individual basis, through the intranet, notice boards, suggestion schemes, emails, texts, social networking sites and blogs.

2. Forget about appraisals and training

A recent survey by the Institute of Employment Studies identified the improvement in morale triggered by the completion of appraisals and training courses. Appraisals get a bad press but a well-designed system can be a valuable tool in encouraging high-performers to remain with the organisation and to spell out that poor performance cannot be tolerated indefinitely. Training budgets have been slashed during the recession, but high-quality sales and customer service skills need to be enhanced if the organisation is still going to be trading when the inevitable recovery arrives.

3. Do as I say, not as I do

Leaders who fail to walk the walk but just talk the talk will create an atmosphere of one rule for them and one rule for us. Fat cat pay, frustrating car park policies and inappropriate expenses only fuel these feelings of inequality.

4. Overlook what makes people successful

Good leaders should act like a conductor of an orchestra: they have no instrument to play but listen, observe, energise and enthuse their team. It is through these actions that she or he gets the best out of the flautists, cellists and horn players. By instilling these qualities in the organisation, effective leaders encourage others to achieve their goals by getting them to want whatever the goal is, through a culture of openness, collaboration and commitment.  

5. Giving praise is ‘soft’

Sometimes I meet strangers and they ask me what I do and my answer varies slightly depending on the particular situation. One of my responses is that Fluid works with organisations to save money by reducing staff turnover through actions that create an environment where valued employees don’t jump ship. This generally leads to a question such as ‘how do you do that?’ and my reply typically focuses on zero-cost options such as praise and recognition schemes that cut rates of attrition and absenteeism whilst raising productivity. Macho, old-style employers sometimes believe that giving praise is weak and should be avoided wherever possible.

6. Never ask reasons for staying

Most employers undertake exit interviews when resignations occur. We find that taking a second exit interview three months after the person has left can produce a more realistic set of reasons for leaving. One of the questions we encourage current employees be asked is: "Why do you still work here?" Further questions that work well in our experience include: "Which aspect of your job makes you jump out of bed on a morning?", "what makes you press the snooze button?" and "if you had a magic wand what would be the one thing that you would change?"

7. Create a culture of mistrust

Cut-throat cultures where phone calls and emails are intercepted by colleagues eager to earn commission at the expense of their colleagues are thankfully a rare phenomenon. Cultivating a network of informants craving the opportunity to curry favour and score points with the bosses is sure to lower morale. A modern example is the manager who has subordinates working from home and makes phone calls or sends emails to obtain an immediate response in order to assess the possibility of ‘skiving’, possibly even driving past the home address to check the car is parked in the drive and the employee is not sat in a deckchair.

8. Tell people they should be grateful they have a job

There’s my way or the highway… be aware that some vacancies are still very hard to fill; therefore the UK Border Agency has a points-based system for highly-skilled workers arriving in the UK from overseas. Skill shortages are still a massive problem for employers even as unemployment keeps rising – there are rarely queues around the block to work in care homes, food processing and agriculture. In addition, customers who regularly find that their initial point of contact has moved on will typically think twice about continuing to buy products and services from that particular organisation.  

9. Work-life balance is for wimps

Single people want to work flexibly just as much as individuals with childcare or eldercare responsibilities. Technology allows homeworking and mobile working to take place more easily than ever before, and just because the leader of the organisation has never gotten the balance right does not mean that others should suffer the same fate.

10. And finally…

Happier people are more productive than their miserable counterparts. They work harder, work smarter, arrive on time, don’t throw ‘sickies’, and talk positively about the place they work – if you don’t look after them, someone else will.

Tim Holden is managing director of Fluid Consulting Ltd

7 Responses

  1. Employee Engagement: how to get the best from your people

    I liked Tim's version! Eyeballing what you don't want is a good way of realising what you really do want.

  2. Managing People
    Entirely agree with your list but can I add:
    ‘Don’t allow a culture of Bullying, Harassment, Discrimination and Stress to continue or spring up. Especially after a round of redundancies. Watch for it and tackle it. After all you are the Manager, so manage!’

  3. joining & leaving differences
    Nice piece Tim – well written & engaging in itself.
    People join Businesses but leave Managers is a truism that I have observed frequently over my career. I have no stats to offer but hopefully the thought will resonate sufficiently with any reader’s experiences. Key point for me is that you need to enlist the support and engagement of all managers with the whole engagement toolkit – it is not just an OD project that can be implemented and then move on.
    Alan Thomas

  4. You Have to Really Want Engagement
    There is nothing in what Tim says to disagree with, but in my experience most organisations do the best they can to consult, train, set an example and so on. The problem is that you can do all these things and still have a disengaged workforce.

    We have found that engagement doesn’t come from actions; it comes from belief. Going through the motions of an appraisal, for example, can be worse than no appraisal at all. If both parties do not believe in the process, if it is not founded in common values and if genuine, beneficial outcomes for both parties do not result from it, then it is simply a waste of time.

    That belief cannot be achieved by surveys, consultation or policy: it must come from the people themselves.

    How often have you sat staring at the wall and asked yourself, “Why don’t they see it my way?”. The answer is, in all probability, because your beliefs, values and objectives are simply not the same as theirs. Until you align them, expect disengagement.

    Jim Quixley

  5. Employee Engagement – What Not To Do
    The activities which surround Employee Engagement with ability/skill.

    The skills of playing football are reasonably straight forward, but not everyone who learns rules, techniques and tactics of football can apply them on the field.

    Employee engagement has a range of rules, tactics and techniques which need to be mastered – knowing them is not enough – and then skillfully applied.

    Employee engagement suffers where there are not enough skilled practitioners!!

    See my website

  6. what not to do – employee engagement
    Tim has rather “engagingly” told us all the things not to do in order that we can think about whether we do them or not! As an independent HR consultant I walk into so many businesses with de-motivated staff (particularly at this time) and the owners wonder what they are doing wrong. They are generally doing a combination of what Tim tells us not to do!

    All these solutions are quite simple and easy to implement in their basic forms – problem is it takes time to manage and motivate people succesfully and sometimes we are too busy “running the business”.

    Thanks Tim!

    see my blog:


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