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Mar 8, 2012

Over the past decade or so we have learned a lot about what contributes to work environments where people work hard and are committed to the success of their employer. There have been multiple studies of high performance by academics as well as consultants.

In that period, the idea of employee engagement has become a buzzword. There are new articles and blogs, it seems, every few days. The only drawback is it’s a construct that, like beauty and weather, does not have a universal definition. Every consultant has their own way to make it happen.

In a world of work that is increasingly dominated by knowledge jobs, it is very clear that some people perform at levels head and shoulders better than their co-workers. The difference is readily apparent. The stars stand out just as they do in sports and entertainment.

Engagement carries over to life outside work

A side issue is that productive, successful people always seem to love their work. At times they work long hours, go home exhausted, but are anxious to return the next day. It’s not work for them.

For many their satisfaction carries over to their lives outside of work. They can have bad days like any of us but their family benefits as well as their community.

I developed a book on high performance in the mid-1990s. In hindsight, it was not a great book. I’ve also published articles on related issues and discussed performance issues with anyone who would listen.

All of that is relevant here only to suggest this has been a professional interest for a long time. Actually it goes back to those summer jobs when I was in college 40+ years ago. I’ve seen the highs and lows of performance as a consultant over those years. Sometimes the commitment is palpable.

Every day working those summer jobs convinced me to stay in college. That experience is important today because I worked with a lot of talented people who had no emotional attachment to their jobs or their employer.

The problem starts with management

HR specialists come in daily contact with employees who, to use Gallup’s categories, are “not engaged” or “actively disengaged.” Neither group is fully productive. Gallup surveys show 7 out of 10 workers are in those groups. The problem starts with the way they are managed.

In developing my book, it became clear employers are ignoring a significant opportunity to improve performance beyond the often reported single digit percentages. One study done two decades ago concluded it is completely reasonable to realize at least a 30 to 40 percent gain with a different work management paradigm. The study generated a long list of “action levers” that can be managed to improve performance.

An added idea is the argument that I first read in a book also published about 1990. The author argued that people are the “only sustainable source of competitive advantage.” Technology is important but in time the competition will develop better technology. Money can be obtained with a sound business plan. Other resources are available for a price.

With the mushrooming importance of knowledge workers, this argument is far more relevant today. The success of organizations that remain great over time – companies, hospitals, universities, even government agencies like the FBI – is attributable to their people.

Scientific management doesn’t work today

Our workforce problems can be traced back a century to people like Frederick Taylor, Frank and Lillian Gilbreth and others responsible for the principles of scientific management and the lack of trust I often see. That approach to management was important in the early factories, but it certainly does not add value today.

Unfortunately it is still reflected in the organization and management of work processes. Their thinking is responsible for management practices that suppress creativity and individual initiative.

The thread that runs through virtually every workplace that reflects traditional practices is that there are far too many employees who never get a chance to demonstrate their full capabilities. They are rarely challenged and often bored. They represent a severely underutilized resource.

The problem – developing action plans to tap those capabilities and raise performance levels – is a people management problem and that expertise is the domain of HR. No one outside of HR can claim the expertise to address workforce problems. We need to demonstrate this is where we can add value.

I drafted an editorial making this argument for the journal I edit, Compensation and Benefits Review, and sent it out for comment. Ed Lawler responded and attached a recent article of his, Human Resources: It’s Time for a Reset, in which he makes essentially the same argument. Since I refer in the editorial to Dave Ulrich’s book, The HR Value Proposition, I sent it to him as well. He also supported my conclusion.

Ulrich argues that the HR practices related to the “flow of people” (talent management), and the “flow of performance management” (performance and rewards management), add value. HR will always be responsible for administration and compliance, but there the goal is to minimize the cost and time.

Changes should start in HR

Added value, from my perspective, means the organization benefits; those practices contribute to better performance – or should. But many HR offices would be hard pressed to show the organization or its sub-units perform better because of the way those practices are planned and managed.

It is for that reason that I recommend that HR organizations conduct an operational audit of these practices – and if the linkage is not confirmed, to rethink the practices.

There are also a number of people management practices – my count is 30 – that influence employee performance but are not controlled by HR. Those are the action levers that have been identified in the studies of high performance.

In the typical organization, no one is responsible for these practices – they evolve over time and happen. They should be managed systematically and coherently. Again, an operational audit will help to identify those that need to be strengthened. The logical home is HR.

The research findings are consistent. When these practices are managed effectively, it can raise performance levels significantly. There should be a single focus, an individual or team responsible for the needed changes.

For political reasons, the changes should probably start in HR and confirm HR’s added value. The team should also assume responsibility for partnering with managers to build employee engagement. Everyone in the HR community stands to benefit.

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