2 minute read

It takes a lot of nurturing to engage both heart and head

Customers, staff engagement levels and profit are in decline. Competitors, taxation and wage levels are on the increase. The exhausted CEO seems to have no other tricks hidden in his tool kit. So how do you bring joy back to your organisation?

Heart and mind

In the company as a whole – and for a long time now – music and words don’t match. Everybody knows that talk of change and positive progress are little more than illusions. Senior managers are devising their escape plans. Some are simply burnt out with change fatigue.

Senior staff are either hyperactive with frenzied neurotic attempts to find and implement magic bullets at all costs, or hypoactive, moving and thinking like sloths or wombats oblivious to the crises around them.

So how to re-engage? How to bring meaning and joy back to a company? Should one simply 'pull up stumps', or are things really recoverable? There are lots of reasons that companies fail: poor marketing, planning, or location; cash flow problems; lack of finance; failure to exploit and embrace new technology. Some are more easily correctable than others. But manager problems are addressable. There is no doubt that management style has an impact on corporate culture which, in turn, influences productivity. Purging managers at all levels might backfire. The trick is teaching them some fundamental skills; changing their outlook; resetting their thinking and practice.

Everybody knows that talk of change and positive progress are little more than illusions. Senior managers are devising their escape plans

People are engaged when they find their work meaningful; when they have some autonomy in the way in which they work and when they receive regular accurate feedback on how they are performing. Most of all where they have some control over their working lives.

Some jobs are inherently more ‘meaningful’ than others. Compare a nurse with a parking attendant or a teacher with a shop assistant. But each has its function and its place. The assembly plant worker, the lollipop lady, the security guard are doing useful jobs. It behoves management to communicate this message regularly and clearly. To be alienated at work is…. to find work meaningless, to feel powerless and to feel rudderless.

People need some sense of control at work: ideally how, when and why they work. Some jobs offer more control than others. People on shift work swap shifts, which can be a major perk.

We know that stress at work is a function of three things. First, where demands (on time, energy, concentration, skills) exceed supply, too often. Second, where one has no control or autonomy over most aspects of working conditions. Third, if one is a nervous type.

But lack of stress does not mean full of energy and optimism. A person can disengage from a previously unstressful and fulfilling job. People have an acute sense of injustice at work. They deeply resent promises broken and favouritism. They shred and burn their psychological contract if they detect dishonesty, corruption, or speaking in forked tongues.

But of all of these are what psychologists used to call hygiene factors. All they do is prevent disengagement, alienation and that long string of behavioural consequences from absenteeism to theft.

Getting all the conditions right still won’t ensure engagement. Certainly some factors help. Some jobs are more intrinsically motivating than others. Some people are more positive, optimistic, more 'gung ho' than others.

But there remains the issue of morale. All good leaders know that one of the crucial aspects of the job is mood regulation. They need, regularly, to celebrate success. They need to be generous with praise. They need to publicly, openly, and regularly support their staff. They need to show pride, not so much in themselves, but in their staff and their brand.

And they need to do the vision inspiration stuff, the New Jerusalem message. You engage both heart and head. But it’s an unstable compound which takes a lot of nurturing.

Adrian Furnham is professor of psychology at University College London and a regular PS Contributor

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