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Ian Lee-Emery

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Manging Director

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Talent management: why your approach can destroy employee mojo


Attempts by organisations to create ‘meaningfulness of work’ in a bid for greater discretionary effort, are often not effective and viewed cynically by employees.

But finding meaning in one’s work, we believe, is a fundamental foundation for overall engagement and needs consideration as part of our talent management processes. 

In a recent paper by Bailey and Madden, we learn that:

  • ‘Meaningfulness’ at work is largely determined individually but influenced by external influences or events.
  • The ‘destroyer’ of meaningfulness largely emanates from organisations and managers.

How can we in HR help create the moments of meaningfulness for our people – and avoid its destruction, leaving ‘meaninglessness’ in its place?

Bailey and Madden refer to the ‘Seven Deadly Sins’ of meaninglessness.

We’ve taken these and translated them into talent management practices – and looked at action we can take to avoid these deadly sins.

Deadly sin #1 – Disconnecting people from their values

Disconnection from values often arises when there’s a difference in underlying motivations for an action. For some, a ‘quick and dirty’ fix just isn’t worth doing and may create a sense of professional compromise.

Clearly if a disconnect persists then something is fundamentally wrong.

But we in HR do have tools to encourage a conversation (and hopefully a resolution) about conflicting values. Performance management conversations offer the employee and the manager the opportunity to talk through the how in the context of organisational values and the degree to which they are shared or observed.

And 360 degree feedback can help individuals to see how they’re perceived by others as it may not be an issue of values, but the perception of what is needed that’s misunderstood.

Deadly sin #2 – Taking employees for granted

This has to be one of the most obvious ways to erode meaning at work. Research shows that feedback and recognition is powerful and yet takes little time to deliver.

For many of us, we’re already on a journey encouraging our managers to provide recognition and feedback to their people but employees also want to receive and offer peer-level feedback.

Think about introducing a 360 degree feedback programme, tied to developing managers’ softer skills. A ‘manager as coach’ programme helps this journey as does inviting peer feedback or encouraging ad hoc feedback when something good happens.

Deadly sin #3 – Setting pointless work tasks

We all like to think of our role in HR as an enabling function to the key operations of the business. But are we sometimes guilty of creating tasks for manages and employees which might not seem that relevant?

Take the much debated performance management process. For some, it is a source of ‘meaninglessness’ and can be easily categorised as a ‘pointless task’ and when it’s ‘HR chasing form completion’ we are firmly the ones believed to be responsible.

Clearly we aren’t suggesting that we throw it away – and the evidence from the CIPD report on performance management strongly suggests that executing performance management well delivers organisational benefits over the cost of its implementation.

Take a look at designing a performance management process that includes values, objectives aligning with the purpose of the organisation, managing performance for the future and potential, all mixed with contextual feedback from co-workers, coaches and managers.

Deadly sin #4 – Operating unfairly

There seems to be two types of fairness – procedural (i.e. a fair process) and distributive (which we would paraphrase as a fair outcome when compared with others).

Research tells us that people perceive outcomes as fair when the process is considered fair.

This means that procedural transparency plays a part here and we need to consider the elements of our talent management processes which still seem shrouded in secrecy for employees such as talent reviews, concepts of potential and the whole gamut of ‘bias’ in decision-making.

Deadly sin #5 – Overriding employee judgement

We hire people to do their jobs to the best of their ability. If this is the case, then we should trust them to use their experience and judgement but when we discard, discount or deliberately contradict an employee’s view, we erode meaningfulness.

We need to ask ourselves and our managers about our leadership styles. We need to see if we can better use techniques that raise self-awareness of our impact on others and get feedback on our behaviours.

We need to make progress on the organisation’s values to preserve meaningfulness in our employees’ working days and ‘join up’ our performance management approaches to drive values, conversations and feedback.

Deadly sin #6 – Isolating employees

Given increasing mobile or home-based working, a sense of disconnection from co-workers can impact meaningfulness of work.

Clearly the issue here is broader than talent management, but we need to be mindful that, despite the benefits of technology to bring people together in forums and with collaboration tools, it is not a substitute for face-to-face interaction. 

We may need to look carefully at 360 or performance feedback given about a person’s behaviour by those met only ‘online’. Similarly, results and action plans resulting from engagement surveys need careful internal communications planning. 

Deadly sin # 7 – Making employees take unnecessary risks

Many roles contain an element of risk be they risk of physical harm or reputational and financial risk.

But there are other, more subtle areas of risk for employees which are more to do with some form of ‘comeback’. Perhaps concern about 360 feedback provided about a line manager or responses in an engagement survey?

We in HR tend to do two things to help minimise this risk of comeback; we keep some things ‘secret’, such as an employee’s ‘potential’ and we make noises about the anonymity of a survey.

But a claim of anonymity is often just not believed. So, what can we do to encourage and embrace feedback with no repercussions for the individual?

Two ideas: encourage leaders to demonstrate trust and confidentiality so that these cascade down the organisation over time. Secondly, ensue that talent management tools we provide employees with are robust, reliable and include intrinsic checks and balances to promote feedback that is thoughtful and considered.

But can we measure ‘meaningfulness?’ We’re not advocating a ‘meaningfulness’ survey! But if embarking on an engagement survey, why miss out assessing meaningfulness by not taking this perspective of ‘self’ into account? 

The seven deadly sins can be avoided. We challenge us all to take a closer look across our Talent Management approaches and see where we are eroding meaningfulness.

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Ian Lee-Emery

Manging Director

Read more from Ian Lee-Emery

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