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Are You Wasting Your Most Valuable Resource?

Nov. 4, 2014
Research shows that too many business leaders are failing to engage their employees. Gallup State of Workplace Report Harvard Business Review: The Impact of Employee Engagement and More.    

It's a lesson we've repeatedly learned, and yet the vast majority of business leaders still don't seem to get: Your employees -- even those you've never met (or seldom meet) -- are critical to your company's ability to build an impenetrable barrier to competition.

More specifically, how you lead those employees can either release their creative, innovative and entrepreneurial power …

Or snuff it out.

The research about the power of an engaged workforce is clear and convincing, widely acknowledged, but not broadly embraced.

Gallup's recent survey found yet again that the most engaged work teams "have significantly higher productivity, profitability, and customer ratings, less turnover and absenteeism, and fewer safety incidents than those in the bottom 25%." Worse, the research organization pegs the cost of disengaged employees in the U.S. at $450 billion to $550 billion.

How you lead employees can either release their creative, innovative and entrepreneurial power … or snuff it out.

Meanwhile, Harvard Business School Publishing research found that senior executives "recognize that a highly engaged workforce can increase innovation, productivity, and bottom-line performance while reducing costs related to hiring and retention in highly competitive talent markets." Indeed, 71% of survey respondents rank employee engagement as very important to achieving overall organizational success. Yet only 24% say employees in their organization are highly engaged.

These reports are just the latest in a long line of research that confirms the power of people, dating back decades.

We learned it in the late '80s, when In Search of Excellence's chapter on "Productivity through People" described the beneficial effects from such leadership tactics as "Treat people as adults. Treat them as partners; treat them with dignity; treat them with respect." (Page 238).

We learned it again in 1990, from The Machine that Changed the World, the U.S.'s introduction to the Toyota Production System. The book described how a start-up energized every person on the factory floor to focus on quality and continuous improvement in its successful challenge to out-compete America's Big Three. Toyota's focus on "respect for the individual" is now viewed as such an integral part of its success that many researchers note that the company's most important job is "developing people."

More recently, Gary Hamel is leading an effort to "reinvent management," compiling at the stories of leaders who have successfully replaced the old command-and-control system with an employee-centric approach.

But what gives? Why when the evidence is clear are so few leaders executing on the strategy?

I sometimes think leaders' reluctance to implement employee engagement best practices comes down to the answer to a simple question: Do you truly believe the workforce -- those largely unheralded front-line production professionals, administrative assistants and customer service representatives -- are smart enough to come up with ideas and solutions that will help move your company forward?

I think the honest answer from most business leaders is "no."

How else could we have devolved into what appears to be one of the worst times in history to be a wage-earner -- a time when it appears the workforce is barely tolerated, let alone engaged, at work.

I'm sure there are other reasons, but the important question is this:

What's stopping you?

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