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Employee Management: Motivating Employees When the Pressure's On

A GMJ Q&A WITH CURT COFFMAN, PTI   November 12, 2003
First Published: 11:28 IST(15/11/2002) | Last Updated: 15:24 IST(12/11/2003)

In this persistently sluggish economy, companies face the daunting challenge of trying to maintain high morale and productivity. It sure isn't easy. But businesses that can retain or increase the number of "engaged" employees -- those who are fully committed to the company and their work -- while minimizing the impact of the "actively disengaged" employees -- those who are fundamentally disconnected from their work -- will thrive. In fact, their performance may even significantly improve, despite market conditions.

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As always, great managers are the key to keeping employees focused and committed in bull or bear markets. We asked Curt Coffman, Global Practice Leader for Workplace Management and co-author of Gallup's best-selling book on great managers, First, Break All the Rules (Simon & Schuster, 1999), and Follow This Path (Warner Books, 2002) to share insights from the world's greatest managers.

GMJ: Many employees are jittery about their futures right now. What can managers do to keep them committed and engaged?

Curt Coffman: No employee is immune to stress. But we know from our research that people who have a best friend at work cope with stress more productively than people who don't. Great managers understand this, and they encourage their employees to develop strong networks that support and encourage them. Significant relationships are a key element here because they keep people in a city, in a church, in a neighborhood, or in a job. And the degree of trust that exists in those relationships will determine how employees get through difficult times.

GMJ: What are some ways that managers can encourage strong, supportive relationships?

Coffman: First, managers should encourage employees to name their best friends at work and help them think of ways to nourish those relationships. Second, they can encourage employees to think about the people in their lives -- inside and outside the company -- who help them to grow and develop. The Gallup Organization calls this concept your "Career Board of Directors." Who are the people you trust, the ones who will help you explore your progress, your goals, and your strategies? Who cares about where you're going in your career and wants to see you succeed? Managers can get employees to name these people and to build opportunities to intentionally network with them. And managers must build their own strong relationships with their employees.

GMJ: Are there warning signs managers can watch for? And what should they do if they see them?

Coffman: Employees can get caught up in worrying about "what if?" situations, often when they can't see how they can control or influence those situations. For example, employees may start worrying about their company's stock price. When this happens, great managers refocus their teams by saying things like, "You know, we can't control the stock price. But here are specific things we can influence every day as a team and as individual employees that will make us more productive." Great managers reenergize employees with what they can actually do: "How can you affect a customer to create 'emotional attachment?'" "Is there a way you can make our work environment more productive and pleasant?" "How can we operate more efficiently?" They don't let employees founder in a sea of helplessness about what they can't do or can't control.

GMJ: Anxiety about change feeds helplessness, and in a turbulent economic climate, the threat of negative change is always in the air.

Coffman: Yes, but remember that today's business environment is never without change. Right now, many businesses are experiencing changes from the economic slowdown, but growth also brings its own challenges and changes. So does competing in a global marketplace. There are any number of situations that can cause change, and a down economy is just one.

Remember also that not all change is the result of outside forces acting on a company. Sometimes, businesses make decisions -- when they relocate, reorganize, or restructure --that force change on their employees. The best managers are adept at keeping employees focused and productive in spite of any number of stressful distractions. Communication about the intended outcome from the change is the key.

GMJ: Give an example.

Coffman: OK, your manager comes to you and says, "We're going to move you, and now you're going to be in an open area with eight other people." What's the first question that comes to your mind?

GMJ: "Why are you moving me?"

Coffman: And if you don't get much of an explanation -- just, "Do this!" -- you'll probably fight that change. Employees will fight change if it's not accompanied by a clear reason or purpose.

Now let's say your manager comes to you and says, "We're going to move you into a room with eight people for three months until we move to our new location. We're really sorry. But we're all going to have to share space until the new location is ready. In fact, I'm going to be in a room with three other managers." What's your reaction now?

GMJ: I'm still not thrilled about it, but I can handle it because I know it's only for three months.

Coffman: Right. Too often, when businesses try to communicate about change, they fail. Why? Because they don't tell employees the reason for the change -- but more importantly, because they don't individualize the change for every employee. And the best person to help an employee understand how change will affect her is her manager.

GMJ: But when companies announce changes, typically the CEO is the first person to communicate the change. Is this the wrong approach?

Coffman: Let me give you an example. I worked with a Fortune 100 company a couple of years ago when it went through its first restructuring. The CEO, who is one of the best in the world, wanted to do it right. He communicated two times every week by e-mail. Throughout the process, he was on the company TV network every week explaining the changes to his employees. His goal was to communicate, communicate, communicate. And what happened? He actually created more confusion because he couldn't speak specifically to each employee's situation. His employees needed their managers to help them understand how the change would affect them personally.

When companies announce a change, senior leadership must provide the broad direction, then equip the local managers to explain its purpose and how it relates to each employee. That's the only way change happens effectively. Employees need their managers to help them understand how the change will affect them personally, because a manager is the best person to help employees sort through their questions.

GMJ: How do engagement levels affect how managers help employees cope with change? Do managers need to work with engaged employees differently than they work with their not engaged or actively disengaged employees?

Coffman: Managers should focus first on helping their "engaged" employees -- those who are highly committed to the organization -- understand change because they can serve as "change agents" within a workgroup.

Sometimes engaged employees will struggle the most initially with change if they don't understand why it's happening. Remember, they are a company's most committed employees, and they want that commitment returned. They want to know all the details about why the change is happening and how it will affect them. While some managers might interpret their reaction as negativity, a great manager will help them understand what's happening so they can serve as agents for that change. By the way, only 29% of the U.S. workforce is engaged, according to Gallup's most recent survey, so there sure aren't enough change agents out there.

GMJ: What about the "actively disengaged" group?

Coffman: Actively disengaged employees -- 17% of U.S. employees -- are consistently against virtually everything that happens. Interestingly, they may actually like or thrive on the confusion that comes from change because confusion meets their emotional needs. They love to have a reason to get together to say, "See, we were right all along. This place is really screwed up." They will "clot" together during times of stress, and they can become a very powerful negative force in an organization if a manager can't mobilize the engaged employees to neutralize their effect on the employees who are "not engaged."

GMJ: Talk about who these employees are and why managers need to be concerned about them.

Coffman: "Not engaged" employees typically take a "wait and see" attitude toward everything, including change. They hang back -- but they can be influenced. That's when the ratio of "engaged" to "actively disengaged" employees in a workgroup becomes critical.

GMJ: What do you mean?

Coffman: If there are four actively disengaged employees for every one who's engaged, that workgroup will dig in its heels and resist change. But if there are four engaged employees in a workgroup for every employee who's actively disengaged, that workgroup will be highly adaptive to change. Those engaged employees will help nudge the "not engaged" employees toward becoming more comfortable with change, too.

                                   .................................

Interviewed by Barb Sanford

Copyright * 2002 The Gallup Organization, Princeton, NJ. All rights reserved. Gallup®, A8(tm), CE11(tm), Gallup Management Journal®, GMJ®, I10(tm), L3(tm), Q12®, SE25(tm), SRI®, The Gallup Path(tm), The Gallup Poll®, and StrengthsFinder® and the 34 StrengthsFinder themes are trademarks of The Gallup Organization. Reprinted with permission.

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