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Workers flee bad bosses, experts say

July 15, 2007|By MICHELE HIMMELBERG

SANTA ANA, Calif. - In a nation where more and more emphasis is placed on productivity at work, only three in 10 employees are highly committed, industrious and passionate about what they do.

Those figures astounded Terry Bacon, who read the Gallup semi-annual employee engagement index in 2005 and realized that means seven out of 10 workers are most likely sleepwalking through their work.

Even worse, they could be malcontents and cynics who poison other workers around them.

Bacon, who coaches executives, is CEO of Lore International Institute, a human resources company that specializes in talent management and executive education.

The Gallup index inspired him to collect his own data, in surveys of 500 workers.

He writes about the results in "What People Want: A Manager's Guide to Building Relationships That Work" (Davies-Black, $27.95). Bacon talked about the value of giving employees what they want, as a retention and engagement tool.

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Q. You discovered that workers are most engaged at work when they have good relationships with the boss and co-workers. Why does that matter so much?

A. The key for me is that good people don't quit bad companies, they quit bad bosses. You have to treat people like human beings. They have dreams, hopes, fears and anxieties. If you treat them like human beings, they will be far more committed to you.

Q. Why is it so tough to be a good boss, and how can they adapt?

A. We don't do a good job of educating managers. We teach finance, planning, economics and business strategy, but we don't teach people skills. The other reason is that they're often good at what they do technically, but not good at managing people.

Q. You say the cost of workers being "actively disengaged" could run as high as $350 billion a year. How can companies get more out of workers?

A. The surveys show that 87 percent of workers want to be trusted and recognized as competent. I assumed there would be a lot of frivolity, like "I want a good friend." But they don't want their boss to be their friend. They want a boss who is professional and has a good work ethic. They want a great place to work - a place where they're challenged, trusted and respected, and I think any company would be able to give that to them.

Q. Of the seven things that people want most, why is trust No. 1?

A. Trust is fundamentally a part of our self-esteem. We want to feel that we are competent. We want people to believe our word. The trust killers are credit hogs, who want to take all the credit, and the lone rangers, who don't want to share. The passive-aggressive types don't want to work with you and then talk behind your back.

You have conflict avoiders, brown-nosers and ego-maniacs, people who don't own up to their mistakes. That destroys trust. But I really think those are exceptions. Most people are trustworthy. Managers tend not to trust. They give an assignment and then nit-pick how it's done. To the employee, it feels like you are not trusted.

Q. Is there a danger of giving workers too much of what they want?

A. If they start violating boundaries, you have to stop giving them what they want. They may try to delegate up, to give the decision back to you: "I'm not sure what we could do here. What do you think?" If the boss says, "OK, do this," then the boss takes responsibility and, if it goes badly, the employee can say, "This is what you wanted." When employees take advantage repeatedly, you should get rid of them. It has to go two ways.

Q. What else jumped out at you in the survey data?

A. It was illuminating to see differences in the generations. The millenials (20s) wanted rewards and recognition, but the boomers focused more on the trust and respect. It was comforting to hear that people said they really wanted fairness, to be heard and to feel valued. They're not clamoring for more money. Money is a hygiene factor - you have to have it - but once that need is met, it's not the prime motivator.

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