Last November, Towers Perrin surveyed more than 85,000 people working in 16 countries on four continents, to assess their willingness and ability to “go the extra mile for their companies.” The study found that the vast majority of people are moderately engaged at best, with about a quarter actively disengaged and just 14 percent fully engaged.
Why is employee commitment so low? The Towers Perrin’s study concludes that engagement across countries is not a matter of economic, geographic or even cultural differences. Although employee practices and programs are important, the value employees place on salaries, training and development, and benefits can also vary significantly from country to country. The common denominator that drives employee engagement worldwide is leadership. But most employees feel that top management and their direct supervisors don’t deliver on the “guidance, direction, vision and clarity” they are looking for in their work.
How can executives and managers better inspire their employees to achieve peak performance? I believe that the best leaders appeal to both the minds and the hearts of their employees.
Cognitively, the best leaders make sure that employees understand the impact of their work on other employees and other departments. Equally important, they communicate a compelling vision – one that demonstrates how the company’s work affects customers, communities and the industry as whole. This is why we have embarked on the “Cross-Enterprise Leadership™ approach to business education and research at Ivey. Today’s leaders must have the capacity to predict, analyze, strategize and act upon issues that span the entire enterprise. And they must be able to bring this understanding to their employees. The most engaged employees understand how the different parts of an organization come together to achieve common goals and objectives. They know that the work they do has corporate-wide value.
Emotionally, the best leaders also treat people like they matter. They listen to their ideas and look to them for new ways of doing things. They reward employees for taking chances and they tolerate mistakes. They know that smoothing over problems stifles learning and impedes risk-taking, the key drivers of innovation and long-term performance.
Most of all, the best leaders are open, honest and true to their values. Only 40 percent of the employees in the Towers-Perrin survey believe their senior leaders walk the talk and a “mere third believe senior management communicates openly and honestly to employees”. As several of the articles in this edition of the Ivey Business Journal attest, this distrust stymies performance, inhibits change and ultimately damages the bottom line.
Warren G. Bennis, the founder of the University of Southern California’s Leadership Institute, was once asked what makes a good employee. He replied that: “The single most important characteristic may well be a willingness to tell the truth. In a world of growing complexity, leaders are increasingly dependent on their subordinates for good information, whether the leaders want to hear it or not. Followers who tell the truth and leaders who listen to it are an unbeatable combination.”
To achieve that unbeatable combination, a leader must be able to connect with people – to engage them, secure their commitment and gain their trust. That calibre of authentic leadership begins and ends with honesty, openness and integrity.