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Do Your Employees Feel Alive?

Disengaged employees are as good as pieces of wood and talent management strategies make them valuable. Here is how it's done.

Employee Engagement
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10 Min read
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Last Updated on
February 12, 2021

When in New York I rarely miss traveling down to the river Hudson and walk the stretch of the river which saw the strangest of sights of a commercial plane being flawlessly landed on its icy surface. On January 15, 2009, shortly after lifting off from LaGuardia Airport, US Airways Flight 1549 struck a gaggle of geese. The geese were then sucked into the plane's twin engines, causing total engine failure and the loss of thrust causing Flight 1549's Captain Chesley "Sully" Sullenberger to face extreme crisis and grapple with a variety of challenges. Not only did he have to keep the plane under control, but he also had to quickly decide whether they could make an emergency landing at a nearby airport - or find another alternative to get the plane down safely in one of the most crowded regions in the United States of America.

Back home in Bengaluru, recently, a student of mine, who heads Talent Management for a reputed organization, called me with a not so strange request, considering her job role - What suggestions do I have to help her manage talent in her organization? Attrition rates were spiralling and important projects were negatively impacted!

I spun her a curveball - What are your incumbent talent management strategies? Well, she said with some asperity, we do the following:

  1. We pay people well
  2. We have flexibility at work and work from home
  3. We give them an annual bonus
  4. We take them out on TGIF parties (Thank God for Its Friday)
  5. We have in-house entertainment gigs

Fantastic, I said, but do your employees feel alive? Do they feel energized and exude enthusiasm in coming to work? The silence was deafening! The fact is that employees are engaged and involved only when they are thriving. To thrive one needs to be alive and believe that one is alive. For this to happen humans need to be creative and have the requisite autonomy to exercise that creativity. More importantly, the employee needs to believe that their contribution is not only useful but impactful. This goes to explain why some professions have employees who are highly engaged - the Armed Forces, Medical and Allied Services, Teachers.

Eventually, talent management is not only about money, partying, or entertainment gigs. It is more about creativity, innovation, impact, use and the ability to see oneself in a positive light. Finally, an employee needs to be alive and thriving to stay engaged.

I eventually told my former student - Ask your employees if they feel alive and whether they are thriving? Do they like to come to work? That should take care of talent management! This is easily done by using employee satisfaction surveys or during exit interviews.

Thriving employees are less susceptible to stress and burnout - and are much healthier, overall. When employees are thriving, they are not satisfied with the status quo and behave proactively to impact their job environment in ways that enable more thriving amongst their peers. When employees thrive, they feel alive, energized and committed and are constantly looking for opportunities to make a difference. They not only drive themselves but their peers too – they have a vitality that is hard to miss. Importantly people who thrive also have a great thirst for learning and try to alter the incumbent and grow all the time. Growth is sustainable because the person is learning fresh skills and competencies at every turn.

A great example of how people who thrive work and live is the brilliant Capt. Sully Sullenberger, air force veteran and commercial pilot. Chesley Burnett "Sully" Sullenberger III (born January 23, 1951) is an American retired Air Force fighter pilot and airline captain. The act of safely landing his stricken aircraft in the Hudson and saving the lives of his passengers and crew is often described by aviation experts as a sheer genius and the act of an inspired person. Sully thrives. Sully's story is one of dedication, hope, and preparedness, revealing the important lessons he learned through his life, in his military service, and his work as an airline pilot. It reminds us all that, even in these days of conflict, tragedy and uncertainty, there are values still worth fighting for—that life's challenges can be met if we're ready and prepared for them. Capt. Sullenberger, thought of only one thing in life – flying. It was his dream, his life and his hobby!

Research indicates that people who are thriving invariably do better at work, their performance is more sustainable and they display greater acts of organization sustainable behaviour; that is, they are ready to travel beyond the normal call of duty in getting a job done. OCB is a rare trait these days where selfishness and short-sightedness permeate the workplace. What is it that enables thrivers to do so well? It is found that invariably they have personal missions of excellence, are better team players and create solid bonds with their team fellows and value relationships at work and very importantly are extremely resilient in the face of hardship and difficulty. People who thrive, more often than not, have high levels of self-efficacy and confidence and can deal with the rigours of work with panache. It is said that Capt. Sullenberger displayed great clarity of mind and icy calmness in landing his plane on the Hudson. The confidence of a person thriving brings passion and calmness and allows them to make decisions' that are more often than not right.

Statistics around thrivers are staggering – they miss fewer days of work, are healthier, visit a doctor less, collaborate better and communicate more clearly and the important point is that they are vastly superior problem solvers. Thrivers create more of their kind at work and are great leaders as they signal vitality and passion to their subordinates and peers. Thriving is infectious and creates employees who are engaged and consistent high performers. People who thrive have an innate ability to prioritize their goals and, in an emergency, jettison the least important ones while zeroing on the most important, a critical trait for high performing and engaged employees. This is called goal sacrificing! Sully valued the concept of goal sacrificing. He instinctively knew that goal-sacrificing was paramount on Flight 1549. "By attempting a water landing," he says, "I would sacrifice the 'aeroplane goal'—trying not to destroy an aircraft valued at $60 million—for the goal of saving lives." At that critical moment, he was right in his decision making.

So, my student shot back at me, what makes an employee thrive? Well, the answer is obvious but rarely understood and followed – healthy personal habits, regular and nutritious meals, sound sleep over eight hours, regular exercise and getting breaks from work to re-energize which includes decluttering the mind. Organizations must create a culture and nudge their employees towards leading healthy lifestyles.

Thrivers also have meaningful jobs and it is an open secret that it is the quality of the job that keeps employees engaged. The well-researched job design model looks at four questions that high-performers ask in delivering great results.

  1. What resources do I control directly within the organization to get the job done? (span of control)
  2. What measures will be used to evaluate my performance? (span of accountability)
  3. Who do I need to influence to achieve the goals for which I’m accountable? (span of influence)
  4. How much support can I expect when I reach out to others for help? (span of support)

In having engaged employees and managing them organizers must create an environment which is conducive to innovation, autonomy, a free-flow of ideas and have an enabling culture that is conducive to learning. However, the stable business environment and captive talent pipelines in which such practices were born no longer exist. It's time for a fundamentally new approach to talent management and organizations need to create new paradigms in managing their talent in what is turning out to be an extremely complex and changing world where uncertainty is a norm. Carefully selected employees who are then mentored and coached need to be retained, not by pampering them but by painting and presenting challenges that pique interest and keep employees excited. Unfortunately, mundane, TGIF gigs are passed and do not work anymore. As Herzberg would say – go for the motivator and not the hygiene factor! Ensure that your scarce talent feels alive.

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