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August 2010

Engaging Employees in Challenging Times

The Baldrige Program possesses a wealth of data gleaned from the performance of a broad cross section of U.S. organizations for the last 22 years. Recently, the Program has made some of these data available to researchers. I am fascinated by the potential these data provide for someone to look for correlations among Baldrige Criteria Items to see if there is a statistically relevant relationship among different areas of organizational performance, for example, the often-touted correlations between employee engagement and both customer engagement and profitability. I hope that someone will use the Baldrige data to perform such studies.


My interest in this potential for determining true correlations was reignited by some recent readings on employee engagement and its general decline in the past year or so. A report just released by Hewitt, the large human resource consulting and outsourcing company, indicates “a significant drop in employee engagement levels at the end of the June 2010 quarter.” Hewitt states that this decline is the largest it has observed in 15 years of measuring engagement. It attributes the decline to the tension caused by many companies’ current finances and a lengthy period of stress for employees. In a separate analysis, Hewitt determines that companies with low engagement had total shareholder returns that were 44 percent lower than the average.

A recent issue of the Gallup Management Journal reports specifically about engagement among middle-aged employees and concludes that the ratio of engaged to actively disengaged employees was lowest among employees in the 40–49 age group, based on a sampling of 7,700 randomly selected U.S. workers. Workers in this age group were one and a half times more likely than those aged 18 to 29 or over age 60 to be actively disengaged. The factors in the Gallup survey that appeared to drive employee disengagement are related to personal development. Unfortunately, organizations’ commitment to employees’ personal development frequently suffers during tough economic times. Yet aren’t these the employees with the organizational knowledge and culture that we need to rely on in tough times?

So what does it take to engage employees in challenging times? Here is my list of ten recommendations and considerations based on the Baldrige Criteria for Performance Excellence and some of my recent (and not so recent) readings:

  • Demonstrate high ethical standards: People want to work for an ethical organization that has clear values. Furthermore, they expect their leaders to demonstrate these values in their activities and interactions. Do the opposite, and you can disengage employees quickly.

  • Have a vision: People want to work for an organization with a clear vision for the future. While tough times will require a significant degree of short-term focus, do not let this need diminish a continuing focus on the long term that is clear to employees.

  • Segment your workforce: All employees do not have the same expectations or desires. Understand the needs of different workforce groups and segments, and pay attention to those individualized needs.

  • Provide learning and development opportunities: One of the most powerful motivators of engagement is the opportunity to continue growing through training, coaching, and new opportunities. Make the learning relevant to the person and the organization. This will show that you appreciate and need the employee.

  • Encourage career progression: Particularly in tough times, when new opportunities are infrequent, look for the ability to promote from within and reward employee development and loyalty.

  • Never lose focus on employee health and safety: If you value your employees, you value their health and safety above all else. Demonstrate a lack of concern in this arena, and you disengage employees.

  • Provide a sense of ownership: Let employees own their work processes. Also, make sure they clearly understand the link between their work and what is important to the organization so they have a sense of ownership in the organization’s success. Encourage them to fully participate (with heart, hands, and mind) in the organization and to be sources of innovation.

  • Reward and recognize: Even, and maybe especially, in tough times, leaders should find the time and occasions to recognize the contributions of employees. An organization relies on its employees, who are probably experiencing some added stress in uncertain times.

  • Draw from diversity: An organization with a diverse workforce, diverse ideas, and diverse thought processes gains from capitalizing on this diversity. It demonstrates that all opinions are valued and strengthens the organization.

  • Communicate, communicate, communicate: Leaders need to be visible, especially during a challenging time. They need to be open and transparent in their communications, truthfully sharing information about the organization’s status and challenges. They also need to be good listeners in order to gain insights and be responsive to peoples’ ideas and needs.

These tips may seem simple, but I am always amazed at how many organizations seem to avoid some of these obvious guarantors of employee engagement.

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Dr. Harry Hertz photo

Dr. Harry Hertz, Director
Baldrige Performance Excellence Program

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