Study: Engage Employees and Middle Managers

By Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR Oct 4, 2010

Executives from around the world say that enhancing employee engagement is one of four “most critical HR topics” to focus on in volatile times—along with managing talent, leadership development and strategic workforce planning—according to a survey conducted by the Boston Consulting Group (BCG), a business strategy firm, and the World Federation of People Management Associations (WFPMA), a global network of more than 70 national personnel associations, including the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM).

An online survey of 5,561 executives from 109 countries was conducted between December 2009 and March 2010 and was followed by detailed, face-to-face interviews with 153 senior executives, mostly from multinational companies. A similar study was conducted in 2008.

Leaders from countries as diverse as Canada, France, Russia, the United Kingdom, Saudi Arabia and the United States placed engagement on their lists of their top four HR issues, ahead of managing change and cultural transformation, and improving performance management and rewards.

The study considered 21 areas of focus for HR professionals, including topics such as:

  • Managing labor costs.
  • Improving employer branding.
  • Becoming a learning organization.
  • Transforming HR into a strategic partner.

Each topic was placed into one of three, color-coded zones, based on the importance of the area to respondent and the current capability of their organizations to manage the issue in question. The four critical HR issues identified by respondents were placed in the red zone— suggesting a strong need to act—although organizational capabilities to handle the issue were perceived by respondents as low.

Four other topics, such as managing labor costs, were placed in the green zone, because respondents saw little perceived need to act on those issues. The remaining 13 areas fell somewhere in between, in the yellow zone.

Some items in the yellow zone, including work-life balance, diversity and inclusion, managing globalization, and corporate social responsibility, were “sidetracked both by the economic crisis and by increases in perceived corporate capabilities” according to the report’s authors. “However, we would argue that they are highly relevant for future success, because of long-term demographic and social trends,” the authors added.

The report noted that employee engagement—described in the report by K.K. Sinha, group HR director of Jindal Steel & Power in India, as “the glue binding employees together in a common purpose”—moved from the yellow zone in 2008 to the red zone in 2010.

“Employee engagement suffered during the past two years because of layoffs and other cutbacks,” the report continued. “Companies are now trying to restore a sense of pride and trust.”

The Role of Middle Managers

“Many companies had to take drastic action during the recession in order to survive. Now that the worst of the downturn appears to be over, they should start reconnecting with their employees,” said Jean-Michel Caye, a partner and managing director in the Paris office of BCG and co-author of Creating a New Deal for Middle Managers: Empowering a Neglected but Critical Group, a joint BCG-WFPMA publication released June 13, 2010, in advance of the full study. “The best place to start is with the middle managers, who historically have not received adequate support or authority and yet play critical roles in the company.”

Middle managers play a key role in employee engagement, communicating company values and the day-to-day business of any organization. But they need to be empowered by being given larger responsibilities, trained for their expanded roles and more involved in strategic decisions.

BCG recommends that employers energize middle managers by:

  • Assigning larger, more exciting roles.
  • Giving them appropriate authority.
  • Accelerating leadership development efforts.
  • Asking them to convey the corporate mission and vision and help transform the organization.

Rebecca R. Hastings, SPHR, is an online editor/manager for SHRM.

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