Two Very Different Ways to Feel Lucky, by Leigh Branham

13 Nov

A post from my colleague and co-author Leigh Branham:

Surveys that have tracked levels of employee engagement since the recession started continue to confirm Quantum Workplace’s findings that employee engagement levels have declined in most companies.  Quantum’s results, based on a comparison of surveys completed in September, 2008, when the economy imploded, and just three months later, revealed that two-thirds of employers saw engagement scores go down, while the other third’s scores actually went up (for insights into how these employers actually increased engagement during tough times, see Chapter Two of Re-Engage).

Both Watson-Wyatt and Hewitt have released surveys showing significant drops in employee engagement over the last two years.  Hewitt’s research reported that 46% of organizations experienced a decline in engagement levels the quarter ending June, 2010, while just 30% saw an improvement.

There’s no longer any doubt that declining engagement among the workforce, triggered by layoffs, job insecurity, overwork of those remaining, reductions in benefits, and paltry pay increases, is having a longer-term detrimental effect.  When Mark and I speak with employees and audiences about engagement and retention initiatives in their companies, many still say that the message they keep hearing from managers is “You should feel lucky to have a job.” 

Of course, anyone with a job should feel lucky when one in ten are unemployed and another seven percent have given up looking for work.  An “attitude of gratitude” is psychologically healthy.  And it’s true that some employees have unrealistic expectations, exaggerated opinions about their own capabilities, and an excessive sense of entitlement.  These employees may need to be reminded to step back and consider their good fortune.  But what about the rest of the workforce?  When they hear those words, are they more motivated?  Apparently not, when most studies find that 60-75% of the U.S. workforce is not engaged.  What concerns me is that many managers seem to feel that telling employees how lucky they are seem to think so.  Even worse, they may even be thinking that saying those words is all they have to do.

It’s almost as if employers have been using the economic downturn as their primary retention strategy.  There is a price to be paid for this approach.  According to exhaustive workforce report released by Deloitte, about one half of the workforce are considering leaving their current jobs, and almost a third are actively looking for work elsewhere.  As the economy slowly recovers, a tipping point will be reached, and a new wave of employee turnover will begin.

In our analysis of “Best-Place-to-Work” winning employers during the last two years, we detected early on a very different message coming from the mouths of employees in these elite organizations.  That message–“I feel so lucky to work here,” reflects a different kind of gratitude.  Employees of companies with the highest engagement scores don’t just feel lucky to have a job, they feel lucky to work in a culture that truly values, respects, and develops them.

One of those winning workplaces is Winchester Hospital, in Winchester, Massachusetts, which built a great workplace by training their managers not to avoid difficult conversations by building their skills and confidence to have those conversations successfully.  They even used their HR staff as coaches, so when a manager needs to prepare for a difficult conversation, they  are available to “rehearse” the conversation with them.  The result–a culture of openness, honesty, and trust that has become the talk of nurses and hospital workers in the community.  Winchester ranks in the 90th percentile in the state in patient satisfaction, enjoys an 87% occupancy rate, an eight percent turnover rate, and an unheard of two percent nurse vacancy rate.  In spite of having to reduce patient volume during the recession, and having to reduce staff hours as a result, Winchester was named the Best Place to Work in Boston in its size category for the second year in a row.

Such practices are available to any employer, but it tales the right mindset to implement them.  At a time when many so employees at your competitors are feeling unlucky and despise where they work, what better time earn their loyalty and admiration?

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