Cary Cooper: Creating a vision employees connect with


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What is it that engages us? It’s a question that sits at the heart of any modern HR department.

In fact, we think of engagement inside organisations as completely distinct to issues outside of work. This can often be unhelpful if the language of engagement and performance ends up obscuring the real human issues.

It’s not just HR professionals trying to find answers. Turn on the TV before 7 May and you’re likely to find reports of apathy and cynicism in the run up to the general election. But what can HR learn from the unforgiving world of political campaigning?

Despite all the big data collection and think tanks, there is only one tried and tested route to engaging people, and perhaps even to changing their dyed-in-the-wool intentions. That is, quite simply, to meet them face-to-face. Analysis by Campaign It shows that doorstep campaigning is the best way to go, and that it’s more successful if you have a single, powerful – and preferably local – cause at heart.

Much of the research on what makes workplaces tick boils down to a similar conclusion. A powerful leader is a visible one, and organisations that make us work smarter and harder give us a strong sense of purpose. In an economy where ‘change for change’s sake’ is quoted as the biggest barrier to employee wellbeing, and therefore performance, UK businesses could do worse than remember these two simple principles.

Research into the state of the banking industry by Robertson Cooper and the Bank Workers Charity gives one of the starkest illustrations of the power of an individual sense of purpose at work. Those employees with the strongest sense of purpose are also the most engaged  (40% of the variance in engagement can be attributed to sense of purpose alone). The banking industry has been beset by complexity, regulation and media scrutiny in the past 24 months, so employees on the shop floor could be forgiven for having lost some of that sense of purpose. However, it’s more important than ever to rebuild trust and sustainable performance in the sector.

Smart leaders operate an open door policy and make time in their day to talk with employees at all levels. This comes from a genuine desire to interact with staff, clarify goals and find out whether individuals have the right resources and support to fulfil their potential.

Like any political candidate, leaders have to create a vision that works for their people as well as the marketplace. A sense of purpose has to be ingrained within each member of staff so that they know the importance of their role and how they can contribute to expected outcomes. So how we do that?

Getting employees to buy into an internal brand is the first step. Lloyds Bank, for example, has recently decided to scrap sales targets for staff. Instead, the new model focuses on the quality of the conversation that its staff have with customers – a sign of commitment to the community it serves. It’s a subtle change, but one that fits with a new sense of purpose for the whole organisation – something that filters down to individual staff.

So, perhaps there is a different perspective to take on the upcoming election and the politics of HR? I’ve talked about the need for outspoken HR directors, but if they are to sit at the board table, they’ll also need to remember that connecting with employees is the soul of effective engagement.

Cary Cooper, distinguished professor of organisational psychology and health at Lancaster University Management School. He is ranked first on HR magazine's HR Most Influential UK Thinkers list.

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