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A woman dancing in the street.

A woman dancing in the street.

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Your Company Will Either Engage Employees or Perish

There is an interesting — and growing — body of research that supports new ways of looking at recruitment. Generation X and Generation Y will select their place of employment according to how a given company ranks in terms of its social values, and whether or not the potential employer is interested in providing people with real opportunities for personal development and meaningful work.

Towards the end of 2016, the software maker Adobe carried out a broad survey of over 5000 adults of various ages in the US, UK, France, Japan, and Germany to measure the sentiment people had towards broadly understood creativity, especially in relation to broadly understood success. The survey, titled State of Create 2016 and released under the headline “Creativity Pays” found that investing in creativity bears measurable benefits. In the US, 85% of all respondents reported that creativity was a substantial factor in attaining what they deemed "success," both in the work sense and in personal life.

In an interview with Inc., Mala Sharma, Adobe’s VP of Creative Cloud, noted that this research is a kind of canary in the coal mine for traditional business practices. “This survey provides a big wake-up call to businesses that they need to think differently and give employees the tools and freedom to be creative. [...] An investment in creativity and design is simply good business,” he said.

"Of course, she would say that," I hear you say. Yes, Adobe is the maker of PhotoShop and a lot of other software used by the creative industries so, of course, they will push creativity as a strategic value. But there is a lot more to this.

A growing groundswell

Creativity is no longer considered “something they do in the art department.” It has been a growing part of the larger vocabulary, and toolkit, of business in general. And with good reason. There are a number of tangible benefits to be derived from investing in creativity, including higher individual incomes, greater national competitiveness, and increased productivity.

Gen Z and Millennials see themselves as creative and want others to see them as such, too. This is a major opportunity for employers to provide value to these people. People are happier at work when their creative faculties are given a means of meaningful release. In the survey, three-quarters of businesses reported that investing in creativity “increased employee productivity” and resulted in “happier employees.” Interestingly, a large majority also agreed that it was “important for businesses to focus on good design” and that this was “more important than five years ago.”

Cynics will mutter that this is just Adobe telling its creative clients what they want to hear. A wiser perspective, perhaps, might be to consider these results a fairly strong signal. People want to contribute to something larger than themselves, something they feel a connection to.

Too bad that, as Gallup’s research has shown on several occasions, people feel precisely the opposite way — they are disengaged at work.

Just 34% of people feel engaged at their place of employment. This is particularly alarming when one considers that this is the highest engagement rate ever recorded. What's more, the survey noted that 16% of the population is "actively disengaged," while the remaining 53% of workers are in the "not engaged" category. And managers everywhere, regardless of geography or industry, are reporting a lack of motivation as a major issue in their employees.

A costly dilemma

This means tens of billions in waste and lost profits now, but what will it mean in a few years if the number climbs? Large companies may fight low morale by throwing ever-increasing resources at recruitment or buying expertise from outside providers. However, small and medium companies don't have quite the same momentum or cash reserves. Their journey between plummeting employee morale and going to the wall will likely be a short one.

And even larger companies must face an uncomfortable truth eventually. The usual method applied as a remedy for this is to motivate through various mechanisms such as more money, more perks, disciplinary actions, or hiring coaches and motivational speakers to somehow patch the problem. Unfortunately, these methods mean addressing the symptoms, not the cause.

Bribes or threats are short-term solutions while building engagement is a long-term process. You run out of both sticks and carrots long before you reach your goal. And no amount of motivational speaking will help inspire in the long-term. In the end, lack of intrinsic motivation will lead to more disengagement.

The conclusion every high-level manager must draw from this situation is the need to build a workplace that goes at least some way towards inspiring people. Rewards appear to be the factor that helps people complete projects, but intrinsic motivation seems to be what gets them started and sustains them through the medium- and long-term.

A new kind of culture

So, engage or perish. Innovative thinking cannot be deployed, it must be cultivated, and in order to be cultivated, it needs to be embraced, not imposed. A properly executed and well-communicated innovation thinking program, which starts out gradually and lets everyone become used to the idea, can change the mindset of entire departments, shifting the course of the company as a whole. Over time, the engagement needle can be moved back into the green. Again, peer support has been shown to work wonders in this area, and your workers can be expected to provide that support, guiding people towards tools and practices that they will use to build meaning into their work.

Geoffrey Moore, the author of Crossing the Chasm, asserts that we must “Abandon the notion of a hierarchical model where the middle manager takes instruction from above to deploy below and takes data from below to inform above. Instead, position the middle manager as master of the interfaces with the customer and the partners, empowering them to detect, analyze, and address mismatches through negotiation, adjustment, and reform.” We can see this going on already, in companies whose leaders see the value in empowering people to take ownership of projects, customer segments, or products. It makes them more effective, and it makes their job far more interesting, which does wonders for engagement. Ultimately it leads to what Professor Haim Mendelson of Stanford Business School calls “high organizational IQ” – a quality which is fundamental if your company is to be a nimble, learning organization that confidently faces the demands of a dynamically changing marketplace and the broader environment.

Companies with “high organizational IQ” find it easier to recruit the right people. The company as a thought leader, would that be a comfortable hat to wear? “This is a cool company, they do exciting things there.” Isn’t that an excellent thought to plant in the minds of people? Part of employees' remit must be to diligently communicate the good and interesting things going on inside the company through their social channels; not as vapid PR waffle, but as frontline reports from the life of a creative, dynamic organisation – living proof of the company taking courageous, bold steps to prepare itself for the future, and communicating this to potential recruits.


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