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Wandering worker eyes: Why it’s happening and how to fix it

Richard Hadden Published on 21 September 2011

Suppose you were to say to everyone in your company, “From now on, just knock off sometime Wednesday afternoon each week, and don’t worry about coming back in until Monday. But we’ll keep paying you for a full week.” What would happen?

I suspect that the initial celebration would be followed by a period of genuine concern over your emotional stability.

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After that, you’d have one heck of a time getting the animals fed, the equipment maintained, the feed mixed or anything else. Your operation would be like a rowing crew in which each rower was pulling an oar with only one arm or the other.

If that sounds far-fetched, consider that a raft of workplace studies conducted over the last few years suggest in strong terms that most organizations in America are in the same boat as our 50-percent crew. About half the workforce is pretty well unplugged from their jobs and are just biding their time until something else that seems better comes along.

You’re wise to ask: “Could that be happening here?”

The Conference Board, in 2010, said that only 45 percent of the workers they surveyed were satisfied with their current job. A 2011 study by global consulting firm BlessingWhite says less than one-third of workers feel engaged in their jobs, and 17 percent are actively disengaged (committed to doing the organization harm).

And the latest study, released by HR consulting firm Mercer, finds that 32 percent of American workers are seriously contemplating their escape from their current employer. Another 21 percent may not be actively looking to leave, but they view their employer so unfavorably and have such low engagement scores that they are doing scarcely more than taking up space and precious oxygen.

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Simple addition yields the conclusion that more than half the workforce are either looking for a new job or have mentally checked out of their old one.

And that’s in a still-struggling economy, with unemployment dancing month-to-month around the 9 percent mark. Just take a moment and try to fathom what will happen when the job market improves. The phrase “Katie, bar the door!” was coined for just such an eventuality.

And the greatest sting of all is that the best, most talented and hardest working will be the first to go.

So, how vulnerable are you now, and how vulnerable will you be in the future, with respect to worker satisfaction and engagement in your workforce? Do you know? If so, how do you know?

Do you regularly (every couple of years or so) take the temperature of your workforce through a professionally administered employee survey? If not, why not? If so, what did you do with what you learned from the survey?

If your workforce isn’t large enough to warrant the investment in a survey, are you at least out there watching, observing, listening and responding?

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If workers are less satisfied at work now than they once were, what are the reasons and the remedies?

Reason #1: Self-absorbed managers and business owners
And who can blame them? This economy has been tough on everyone, from top to bottom. However, front-line employees may feel, accurately or not, that the pressure has been exerted disproportionately on their rung of the ladder.

Most aren’t privy to (because we haven’t told them) how the business works from an economic standpoint, and aren’t fully aware of how business conditions affect the organization and what may be happening behind the scenes to keep things going.

If they see benefits and perks cut, flexibility reined in and salaries stagnant, without commensurate sacrifices at the top, who can blame them for having wandering eyes?

Remedies

• Adopt a policy that “Officers bleed first and most.” Get rid of the toys (dare I say corporate jets?); squeeze the corporate headquarters; eliminate the nonproductive privileges afforded to senior leaders. Take pay cuts disproportionately higher than the rank and file. Be sensitive to appearances.

• Engage in some business education. Teach people how the business model works, and what it takes to make a buck in your business. Tell them how they can help increase revenue and cut costs, then reward them when they do.

• Manage yourself first. People aren’t going to follow, let alone be energized and engaged by, a leader who is confused, conflicted or depressed. If you can handle this on your own, go for it. If not, find a coach or counselor to help.

Reason #2: Our work must matter, and in too many cases, it doesn’t
Author Daniel Pink probably struck the kernel of rising dissatisfaction when he tweeted earlier this year, “Meager money + Zero meaning = Record low job satisfaction.” Increase the value of either of the two variables on the left side of Pink’s equation, and satisfaction is likely to rebound.

Remedies

• Make less-meaningful work more meaningful:

1. Take all the unnecessary nonsense out of people’s jobs – unnecessary tasks, paperwork and garbage motivated by organizational politics.

2. When you ask someone to do something, use what they’ve done or quit asking them to do it.

3. Ask people to develop their own best ways to accomplish results, hold them accountable and reward them for hitting targets.

4. Give them a few more duties – valuable ones to the business – that also provide more immediate gratification. We all need to see the needle move.

• Shine a light on the meaning that’s already there. This is the more likely problem, and the good news is, it’s easier to fix.

• Create a clear line of sight between their work and real paying customers. Milkers should know how the accuracy of their work helps ensure sanitation and quality for the consumer who drinks the milk. And they should understand how speed in applying the milking units affects the company’s bottom line and, by extension, their livelihood.

These are only examples. Apply the same thinking to every function in your company.

• Here’s an assignment for today. As in, today. Ask each person on your team to articulate how their work is felt, ultimately, by the people who pay for what you do – customers, supermarkets and consumers, everyone in the supply chain – the people without whom the organization would not exist. If they can’t do it, see the above bullet point.

Reason #3: While leaders run around telling people they’re “empowered,” most of us are actually micromanaging people into less and less satisfaction
Why? Economic pressure to perform causes managers and owners to respond by exerting more control. A more counterintuitive approach might actually bring better results.

• Build in flexibility. If at all possible, let go of your concern with when people show up to do their work, and what they’re doing every minute they’re on the premises. Trust me. No one ever said “I hate my job. It gives me too much control over my life.” This one will get you major satisfaction points, if you manage it well.

• If work times must, by the nature of your business, coincide with the patterns of customers, co-workers and cattle, then ask your workforce to figure out a way to meet the needs of the business while providing themselves with maximum flexibility.

• In the areas of your operation where customer coverage and colleague coordination matters less, motivate people to accomplish results, not punch a clock, real or imaginary. If you employ adults, treat them as such.

Hold them accountable – really accountable – for excellent results, and let them figure out the best way to manage their schedules while meeting business needs. If you’ve hired the right people, they’ll love their jobs. PD

Hadden is co-author of the new book Rebooting Leadership . His company conducts leadership training and employee surveys.

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Richard Hadden
Co-founder
Contented Cow Partners LLC

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