Companies take steps toward understanding employee commitment

Two companies used different methods for assessing, then increasing, employee commitment. Here are the methods they used and the results of their assessments.

Your organization grows in spirals. It grows well for a certain period, and all visible signs of productivity, innovation, and customer orientation are good. Good employees are not leaving you, your deliveries are okay, customers are placing repeat orders to indicate their general comfort with you, and your stock is also doing well. But the industry and stock market sees you as an organization in the so-called tier 2, composed of mid-size IT firms growing either at the industry average rate or a tad lower. In other words, not a star, but not a laggard either.

I recently had a consulting assignment with two organizations that wanted to move from tier 2 to tier 1 in two to three years. During this assignment, we developed a tool for diagnosing employee commitment. Both firms wanted to use increased employee commitment levels as a major tool to catapult themselves into tier 1. One succeeded, and the other fared just about average.

Both of the organizations recognized that unless all the employees put their shoulders to the wheel, the movement into tier 1 was going to be difficult and would take much longer to achieve.

Firm A was into niche segments and focused business on what could be called high-end IT and product R&D services. It developed embedded systems software, software tools, and mobile applications on technology such as WAP. It had more than 500 employees but with a relatively weaker marketing setup. It was led by a technical person and managed mostly at the executive level by people known more for their technical skills than their business skills. It had grown quite easily so far, due to its product and delivery differentiation.

Firm B, with more than 600 employees and similar revenues to Firm A, was into the mass IT markets but focused on the enterprise applications market by going after implementations, systems maintenance, and high-end system integration work. It pushed toward on-site work due to the attractiveness of higher billing rates. It targeted three to four major business verticals and had a business/marketing savvy team at the helm.

Pillars of building commitment
Our experience and industry literature suggest that employee commitment can be measured by the two Rs: retention (whether the employee retains himself or herself in the organization due to positive reasons), and recommendation (whether the employee thinks highly enough of the organization to recommend to others that they join).

We went about interviewing both firms' employees in informal settings, starting with the leaders, trying to conclude what would be the engines for reaching high levels of retention and recommendation.

We found that an employee is likely to be far more committed to a firm if the following three commitment pillars or engines are nurtured.
  • The employee's assessment of the quality of the company's leadership is high. We realized that employee commitment can't just be built "bottom up." Some leaders think they can delegate their role in building commitment to the supervisors or managers below. That's not delegation, but an abrogation of your role.
  • The employees' evaluation of the development opportunities available within their organization is high. As a leader, before you expect your employees to be committed to the organization's cause, you display your commitment to them. There's no better way to do this than by providing them with opportunities to develop their abilities and skills, and allowing them to realize their creative potential. When companies invest in their people, their people invest in them. It's a two-way road.
  • The employees' judgment of whether they are sufficiently empowered to carry out their work effectively is high. High-commitment organizations feel free to vest authority in their employees. Employees are made to feel free to express their views or exercise their initiative. Companies achieve high levels of commitment not by telling employees what or how to think, but by listening to what they have to say.

Lessons from the experience
Here are conclusions that we drew after studying these two companies.

Employees want to see a connection between what they do and the larger realities in the industry. Both firms provided opportunities for the employees to work on the latest technologies, but Firm B managed to communicate the "connect" of what employees were doing with the industry developments. Firm A could communicate that to only a few people at the top who could see the commercial impact of the breakthroughs they were making. Others were lost in their own small but exciting technical "well," which every few months would run dry.

Employees are keen to see who among the ranks—top management or the middle managers—talks about commitment. Building people is a line responsibility—top management has to accept that expending energy is part of their job. Firm B ensured that this culture was part of all line managers' jobs, but Firm A expected the HR department to be a major catalyst in this process. Since the HR department is not in a close working relationship with employees, it was able to do an honest but superficial job.

Employees want to see leaders who can walk their talk. Convincingly holding forth the mission, vision, and core values of the company is a necessary condition, but not sufficient. It should percolate in a top-down manner. For instance, Firm B named one of the values as "transparency in all we do." Failures were openly discussed, admitted, and no one was made to feel that it was a personal failure. Firm A was different. Failures, especially when they happened at middle or junior levels, often resulted in finger-pointing and responsibility fixing. So there was one rule for the senior group and another for the rest. This caused a mindset divide between the "leaders" and the "led."

Employees want to see how lack of commitment is handled. How does the organization deal with the lack of employee commitment? Firm B developed a method of handling this. Employees lacking in commitment were counseled in a one-to-one setting, which was then escalated to small group briefings where polite censures were used. All this time, if skill or knowledge was a problem, training was provided to allow the employee to do better. Firm A wrapped itself up in lobby-oriented handling of these less-committed employees.

Employees don't want to trade their future for their present. Firm B provided their employees with an open and clear roadmap about how they would do in the industry, even if they left the firm, by saying that the firm was "with the market" on several engagements. The message was that employees need not commit themselves in blind faith. The majority of Firm A's middle and junior levels felt that they would compromise their future in the industry if they committed too much of their present to the company.

Employees don't want to climb "ant hills." If you want employees to stay committed, give them ambitious goals. Tell them they can do it. Tell them why they can do it. Tell them it's okay if they fail sometimes in the pursuit. Firm B realized this. Firm A was more into incremental, less-risky goal setting.

Employees want to be told about what else they can do. They want to see that people around them are interested in them. They then feel assured that they can do much more. Firm B kicked off several job-rotation schemes, which had a good effect on the overall climate. Firm A was more orthodox in its approach and wanted people to specialize and become experts in one or two areas.

Employees like to hear "let's figure this out together" before they commit themselves. Firm B realized that people don't want a place that has "figured it all out." It provided people with collaborative, exploratory workspaces. People don't want to follow your culture—they want to jointly contribute in building a culture.

Employees like to work for a "happening" company. Firm B realized early that packaging the company environment is as important as the content. The leaders constantly asked themselves what kind of company people would want to work for. Building challenges and the ability to create constructive confrontation is essential.

Employees like a good "take home." Employees commit themselves more to an organization if they're able to articulate their company's brand to their friends and family. Firm B built a bond with a constant exchange of information, merchandise, and visits. Firm A was more straitjacketed in this respect.

Employee commitment can be tough to understand, but it can be achieved in a gradual, transparent, and honest manner.

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