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Janine Milne

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HRZone interview – Linda Holbeche, director The Holbeche Partnership


A chance meeting at a conference between Linda Holbeche, director of HR consultancy The Holbeche Partnership and Geoff Matthews, vice president for HR at Merck KGaA, led to a collaboration on a book that has become shortlisted for the CMI management book of the year.

The idea behind the book, Engaged, unleashing your organisation’s potential through employee engagement, was to explain employee engagement in a way that would entice the people on the frontline – the line managers – as well as business leaders.

But without the understanding and backing of line managers, then no engagement programme is going to achieve its full potential.

“Line managers get a lot of flak. They are expected to create a motivational environment, but have a tough time. HR knows about employee engagement and its benefits, but in practice the people who make a difference are line managers,” points out Holbeche, who has notched up more than 20 years research into employee engagement and people management.
Above all, it’s key for line managers to be fair and they must engage their staff on three levels: intelligence – making sure they know what the organisation does and their part in it; society – being part of a team with a manager that supports them, and lastly, emotion – do they care about what they are doing and do they feel cared for.
“Managers can make a huge difference by making people have more fulfilling working environment,” adds Holbeche.
Even if the organisation as a whole is a rather hostile environment to work in, one department or even one manager can make a massive impact, as their team will be the one everyone wants to work for.
“Being a manager is incredibly demanding and people are challenging and yet if you can learn how to do this – and it’s not being soft and cuddly, but using simple tools to use to take up challenge of managing people – then it is very powerful,” she says.
No longer faddy
Holbeche believes that engagement has moved on from being seen as “HR faddy” just a few years ago, but there’s still a lot to understand about putting into practice.
“Whereas three or four years ago, the business case was not understood, I think it is understood now," she says. "But there’s a real gap in people knowing what they can do.
"Yes, a business leader knows it’s important and wants to more of it, but there are issues of how do you create the context for engagement? What is the role of senior managers? What are the communications implications? What can management do to support it?”
Even so, many companies will not look at engagement until necessity forces them. “In many cases not taken seriously – they are not that bothered – we can get plenty more where they came from. It’s only here there’s a shortage of people that you start to get more focus,” observes Holbeche.
The book bases engagement on four key premises:
  • Connection
  • Voice
  • Support
  • Scope.
People need to feel connected to the organisation and their team, feel they are listened to, supported in the workplace and have a degree of freedom and the opportunity to stretch and grow. They also need feedback on the progress to stay motivated and in control.
It’s not just about getting more out of people, but balancing who does what: the problem for some people might be that they work too hard. “Many people are too difficult to motivate, so they rely on the engaged ones and then they have too much to and are no longer engaged,” she says.

Results of the CMI Management book of the year competition will be announced on 28 January 2013.

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