Editor's Page -- Wanted: Inspired Leaders, Engaged Employees

April 10, 2005
You have to level with employees if you expect to lead them.

We're leading in a particularly tough time in manufacturing, and it's questionable whether we're rising to the challenge. We want to be optimistic, shouting from the rooftops when the economic news turns favorable. We have to be realistic, telling our employees that the manufacturing world has changed, that there's no going back, and that, yes, they are going to endure the negative effects of that change. But we must find a way to deliver this news -- the good and the bad -- in a way that inspires employees, not in a way that engenders skepticism (dare I say cynicism?) or that demoralizes. The evidence indicates that we can do better.

The Conference Board earlier this year released a study, "U.S. Job Satisfaction Keeps Falling." It reported that "the decline in job satisfaction is widespread among workers of all ages and across all incomes," and, citing a supplemental survey conducted last fall, that related:

  • 40% of workers feel disconnected from their employers.
  • two out of every three workers do not identify with or feel motivated to drive their employer's business objectives.
  • 25% of employees are just "showing up to collect a paycheck."

It would be easy to dismiss the findings as some other company's problem or blame the results on a vocal bunch of malcontents, but the numbers are too big. We could also implicate lousy business conditions beyond our control. But that points the finger back to us. We expect true leaders to rise to the challenge in times of adversity.

The report's author identified rapid technological change, rising productivity demands and changing employee expectations as the culprits, but that sanitizes the truth. I encourage executives and public policy makers to view the list from an employee's perspective -- which we'll need to do if we plan to lead them. The list would then read: problems of persistent unemployment, flagging job growth and general economic uncertainty.

To an employee who is poorly led, technological change means that automation replaces the workforce, rising productivity means working one-and-a-half or two jobs for the same wage, and changing employee expectations means that increased competition will stymie the improvement of working conditions.

A host of you, I know, now have your hackles up. U.S. unemployment, you argue, is at a reasonably low 5.2%. The U.S. economy is growing at a rate above its long-term average. Most of the indices that track manufacturing are positive. Consumer and executive confidence are relatively high. And you're right.

But our employees see the other side. The share of unemployed who are long-term jobseekers (those who have been looking for work for at least six months) is now at 21.5% and inching up. The average length of joblessness is 19.5 weeks and growing longer. A significant number of workers have given up looking for work. Hourly wages are failing to keep up with inflation, while corporate profits and executive compensation have soared.

We can argue the statistics until our heads spin. However, we know we're experiencing a period of workforce disruption the likes of which we've not seen in decades. From what I've seen, manufacturing leaders have trumpeted the good statistics and have ignored or been dismissive of the bad. It's no wonder our employees aren't following our lead.

We need increasingly productive employees to ensure our success in an increasingly competitive, global manufacturing marketplace. Research shows that satisfied employees are more productive. It's our job to lead our employees through this tumultuous time, and to do that we must do better at forthrightly addressing their concerns.

Patricia Panchak is IW's editor-in-chief. She is based in Cleveland.

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