Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Of employee engagement and the 'survivor syndrome'

Employee engagement has been one of the key themes that we have been exploring in this blog (see Employee engagement and the story of the Sky Maiden, Passion for work and anasakti, The curious case of the object and subject of employee engagement, Appropriate measures for organizational commitment , The series on salary negotiations and psychological contract , Architects of meaning & Of owning and belonging for some of the examples). In this post, let’s look at employee engagement in the case of survivors of corporate restructuring/downsizing exercises(who often suffer from the so called ‘workplace survivor syndrome’ with symptoms like anxiety, depression, decrease in performance, poor morale and increased propensity to leave)  

At the heart of the survivor syndrome lies two emotions- guilt (“I didn't deserve to survive when my friends didn't”) and fear (“Next time, it could be my turn”). So, when it comes to employee engagement, the organization's best response is to help the survivors to deal with these emotions so that while the scars can't be erased, productivity can be restored to a great extent.

Guilt can be reduced by convincing the survivors that they deserved to survive (e.g. by following a transparent process for restructuring and for identifying the employees to be separated) and by ensuring that the employees who were separated have been well taken care of(e g. by providing a generous separation package & adequate transition support).

Fear can be addressed to some extent by publicly communicating (if possible) that the staff cuts have been completed and there is no such possibility in the foreseeable future. Providing the survivors the opportunity to receive psychological counseling/ stress management training with a focus on coping  strategies can also help. Of course, constant communication with the employees at all levels that addresses the stated and unstated concerns has to be continued. Another type of fear is regarding increased workloads and new skill sets required. This can be addressed through careful work planning and capability building. People managers can be trained to look for signs of stress in the employees and to manage the employees in a supportive manner. Of course, any tendency among the people manages to use the residual fear to drive productivity ('blackmailing' employees to work harder) should be curbed.

What is perhaps irreversible from the employee engagement point of view (especially for the next few years) is that the employer- employee relationship moves to a purely rational plane (whereas most definitions of employee engagement include the aspect of deep emotional connect that the employees have to the organization). This is because, layoffs are often perceived as a breach of the psychological contract. This would be more so in those organizations that have been communicating messages like ‘our company is one big family’ to the employees.

This would mean that, after the restructuring, companies would have to rely more heavily on rational means to retain and motivate employees (e.g. highly competitive salaries & performance-linked incentives, gain sharing schemes etc.) as well as investment in capability building to ensure 'employability'. Yes, the emotional connect can drive discretionary effort and lead to remarkable (business) results. But, organizations should engage the emotions of the employees only if they are willing to look at employee engagement as a relationship (and not as a tool) and are willing to reciprocate (in terms of going out of the way to care for the employees, beyond what the employment contract requires)!

In a way, the way out of the survivor syndrome is through a psychological transition process. So, actions that can facilitate the transition process like clearly explaining the need for restructuring and the process that would be followed, helping the employees to acknowledge and deal with their feelings of fear and guilt (as detailed above), clearly articulating the new vision for the organization and the possibilities it creates for the survivors and getting the survivors actively involved in rebuilding the organization and the social networks within the organization(that would have suffered because of the loss of social capital) are perhaps the highest leverage actions that organizations can focus on!

Wednesday, October 3, 2018

Mission without Vision?!

Recently, I tried to do some sort of ‘life planning’. Conditioned by the two decades spent in the management domain, my first impulse was to try to write out mission and vision statements for myself.
When I tried to do this, something interesting happened. I was able to write the mission statement very easily. But, somehow I couldn't write the vision statement! 
This surprised me quite a bit. Usually, mission (purpose) and vision (snapshot of the preferred future) go together. Then why am I able to write the mission statement so easily but not the corresponding vision statement? 
What deepened the mystery was that when I had attempted to write my mission and vision statements a decade ago (as part of a training program that I was attending) I didn't face any such difficulty in writing a vision statement.This left my wondering what happened during  the intervening decade that made writing the mission statement much easier and writing the vision statement much harder.
May be, what is happening is that I am becoming increasingly aware of the unpredictable nature of life. I have realized that fixed definitions of success can become more of constraints than enablers - not only what you planned for doesn't come through but also you miss out on other (sometimes 'better') opportunities because you were not open to them.
So a mission (which is more like a compass) fits in much better with this dynamic scheme of things as compared to a vision (which is more like a static picture of the preferred future)! Of course, one can set goals so long as the goals don't make oneself not open to the emerging new/better possibilities that are in alignment with one's purpose(mission). As opposed to goals, visions tend to me more permanent (and with a longer time frame or without a specified time frame). So, the problem is only with putting a 'picture of success' on a pedestal and adding unnecessary rigidity to it by calling it a vision. 
Life experience often gives you clues on 'who you are'  by showing you 'who you are not'. Of course, life experience also gives you clues on 'what you are designed to do' and 'what is important to you'. This definitely helps in  sharpening one's understanding of his/her purpose (mission) and that is probably why I was able to write my mission statement much more easily this time (and felt it to be more accurate). 

Thursday, September 27, 2018

The sticky case of ‘the stickiness of potential ratings’!

In this post, we come back to one of the most amorphous areas in HR – potential assessment, its uses and its implications. As we have seen in Using assessment centres for evaluating potential – A leap of faith?’ and in The paradox of potential assessment’, there are multiple perspectives on even the most fundamental issue related to potential assessment – ‘potential for what?’ For the purpose of our discussion here, let’s focus on ‘the potential for taking up higher level jobs in the organization’.

Now let’s come to the issue mentioned in the title of this post – stickiness of potential ratings (i.e. the extent to which the potential rating of an employee remains the same as he/she progresses in his/her career in the organization). This is not an ‘academic issue’  as the way define and interpret potential has very significant implications for both the employees and the organization.

In a way, the core issue comes down to the following questions

  1. Can the potential of an employee change during his/her tenure in the organization?
  2. What are the implications if potential is not a modifiable factor? 
  3. Even if potential can’t change, can the potential rating change?
Let’s start with the first question (Can the potential of an employee change during his/her tenure in the organization?). The answer depends on how we view the alchemy of potential. If we consider potential as some sort of stable personality trait then the potential of an employee should remain the same during his/her tenure in the organization. If we consider potential to be a modifiable factor, then the potential of the employee can change if the employee works on it.

Since potential often gets linked to important decisions like promotions, development investment and compensation, this assumption (on the modifiability of potential) has important  implications. For example, if the potential of the employee corresponds to his/her current role/level, and if we assume that potential is not modifiable, the employee can’t get promoted. It also means that the organization can’t put this employee in the succession plan for a higher position. If the employee continues at the current level for a long time, it is possible that the of the employee becomes too costly a resource for the contribution possible at that level. So, in a way, both the employee and the organization are stuck. The only hope for the employee to move to a higher level position is to find another organization that measures potential differently! On the contrary, if we assume that potential is modifiable then both the employee and the organization can take steps to develop the potential and this makes promotions possible.

Now, this brings us to the most important question. Can potential change? While there are differing views on this, most of the current thinking tends to gravitate towards the position that potential is at least partially modifiable. So there is hope for both the employees and the organizations!

Now let us come to the third question (Even if potential can’t change can the potential rating change?). The short answer is that it depends on our definition of potential and the norms we agree on. For example, if we define ‘high potential’ as someone who can go two responsibility levels up in the organization (from the current level he/she is at) and the person gets promoted by one level, then the potential rating can come down by one step (e.g. to something like ‘advancement potential’) unless the person has (or has developed) more potential to still go two levels up (from the new level after promotion). However, this kind of an approach (of reducing potential ratings on promotion) can lead to inconsistent investment in  (and inconsistent engagement with) the people who were rated ‘high potential. Considering that this is usually a very small (and very valuable) population this can lead to significant negative consequences. 

Hence, my opinion is that unless we have a very good reason to do so (e.g. we have a lot of new data to show that we had made a mistake when we rated the person as ‘high-potential’), we shouldn’t down-grade the 'high-potential' ratings. Yes, it will make the high-potential ratings more sticky. Of course, since we are considering potential as a modifiable factor, an employee can work on developing his/her potential with help from the organization and hence move up from  the ‘advancement potential’ category to the ‘high-potential’ category. This can also help the organization to grow more talent internally to take up the senior positions in the organization!

Any comments/suggestions?