HR Management & Compliance, Talent

Employee Recognition and Empowerment Are the Most Critical Business Leadership Skills

Thinking about employee engagement as a customer service issue can create some real opportunities for improvement.

Disengaged Employees Means Bad Customer Service

Most people have experienced bad customer service. Maybe you phoned a call center, and the person at the other end didn’t understand your issue—or, perhaps the agent couldn’t do anything other than read lines on a prepared script. Or perhaps, in a business context, your organization bought a product or service, but the postsale experience didn’t measure up. The “help” desk needed inverted commas. When you complained, you were made to feel as if it were your fault for being too stupid to make it work right.

All too often, those experiences come about because the company’s representative in this interaction doesn’t feel any real sense of ownership. He or she is disengaged from the work and has little voice within the organization. This person does not see himself or herself as an active participant in a shared endeavor, and that sense of disempowerment comes through in his or her interactions with customers. That’s why it was no surprise to me to see a graph in The Economist recently demonstrating the strong relationship between engaged employees and customer satisfaction. The chart also showed that having engaged employees appears to correspond to a higher company valuation.

That makes sense because when employees are systematically disempowered, they don’t actively participate in making the business a success. This undermines, in a fundamental way, the vision being discussed in the C-suite or pitched to investors. There is a riveting account in former Chairman Risto Siilasmaa’s book Transforming Nokia of a situation like this. All kinds of things were going wrong within the phone company, but they were not communicated to the board. Nobody wanted to be blamed for the bad news.

Employees Are a Business’s Biggest Asset

The people who work for any organization are its biggest asset. They are at the sharp end, dealing with customers on a daily basis and putting into practice the organization’s mission. If employees are in the loop about where the business is, what the goals are, and what their contribution to it is, they will be in a much better place to achieve this. Research shows that the majority of employees care deeply about how their organization is performing—they want to work for a successful and growing business.

Employees also see daily where the plan that was drawn up in the boardroom is colliding with reality. They know, for instance, when work that was supposed to take a certain amount of time is likely to take longer and why. They see firsthand where there is room for improvement. Organizations that don’t give employees a voice miss out on their valuable insight and ideas.

Formalizing the ‘High-Trust Network’

Many small and young companies naturally operate in what are called “high-trust networks.” They are set up by people who share a vision of what they want to achieve; they are small enough so that communication is easy, and everyone can make a contribution to the conversation about how the business is doing and how things could be improved. But, as organizations get larger, they tend to become more hierarchical. Decision-making becomes concentrated at the top, and the leaders of the company get further away from both the employees and the customers. They don’t see the reality of what is happening on the ground. These “low-trust networks” are ones that disempower staff. These kinds of organizations then may find it hard to retain highly motivated individuals who want more control over their work.

In larger or in growing businesses, leaders have to think harder about how to give employees more say. People want access to information about how the company is doing, and all-company meetings can be an opportunity to share this. Presentations from different departments don’t have to come from the managers; they can be done by more junior members of the team.

People at every level in the organization can be given more responsibility—a junior member of a team can take control of the budget to manage an event, for example. But where people are being encouraged to do new things, innovate, and take responsibility, there has to be an understanding that they will inevitably make mistakes, learn from them, and improve. In an organization with a “blame culture,” people will resist taking responsibility.

It is also important to recognize and reward people for doing things the business values, such as creating value for customers. Unfortunately, in many businesses, people actually seem to be rewarded disproportionately for an internal focus or for pursuing some highly paid person’s pet project.

When it comes to ensuring that employees feel fully involved in the business, communication is key. Create opportunities for people across the organization to share their views and to flag up risks and issues at an early stage. Don’t have a culture in which people are afraid to raise a red flag until it is too late to do anything, as in Nokia’s case. Instead, make sure all workers feel they are part of a winning team.

Mark Robinson, serial entrepreneur and cofounder of Kimble Applications, has more than 25 years’ experience in the IT consulting industry. In addition to founding the company, he also serves as Chief Marketing Officer where is he is responsible for business development, channel management, and market analysis. Mark started his career in management consulting before working for Oracle Corporation where he witnessed first-hand their rise from start-up to software giant. He started his first IT Consultancy Company, Fulcrum Solutions, in 1997 and cofounded IT consultancy Edenbrook in 2001.