Article - Issue 20, August/September 2004

Potential, motivation and results

Albert Humphrey and David Robinson

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Although the main focus of business news is on large companies, in most countries, the main driving force of the economy is the many thousands of small- and medium-sized businesses – the SMEs – many of which, in financial terms or in market position, enjoy a success far beyond their physical size. In the majority of such enterprises the staff is small in number; recruitment has mostly been done through some personal contact; everyone knows everyone else, and things go along quite happily. There is, however, frequently a disadvantage in such an environment where a certain level of comfort develops – a routine which can be, and often is, inimical to development and business potential. Indeed, in the increasingly competitive business environment, settled routine is the first milestone of decline on a road to stagnation and ultimate oblivion. Sad confirmation of this fact can be seen by looking at the large numbers of bankruptcies and windups. On the plus side, however, start-ups – almost exclusively in the SME category – are constant.

It can be inferred that what distinguishes the successful from the unsuccessful is failure to maintain a sharp competitive edge. Closer consideration reveals that among the successful are those which manage to draw on the resources of all the staff – their dormant capability. Regardless of hierarchical position, everyone has something to contribute; by this means, human resources are transformed into human capital.

A Gallup organisation survey in the United States in 2001 determined that only 30 per cent of an average company’s workforce was fully engaged, 55 per cent not engaged (they just functioned) and the remaining 15 per cent were positively disengaged and, by their actions – or inactions – positively detrimental. No matter how broadly applicable, it is an indication deserving consideration in any company. The challenge of management, therefore, is truly to motivate the ‘workforce’, having well in mind that this is not an ‘us and them’ situation, but that the ‘workforce’ is a total entity, from the Chairman or CEO to the most junior and recent employee.

A key factor in motivation is participation in the activities of the company. Not the participation of merely doing a particular job, but by having a positive holistic interest in the activities of the company and its plans for the future. This sense of participation is not created by declarations from top management, or newsletters – although they can play a part. Wholehearted participation is inculcated by direct involvement in planning and the implementation of agreed decisions. A useful adjunct to such a policy is the opportunity, through coaching, for individuals to assess their own attributes – however modest - to their lasting benefit and improved employability, even should they move on.

If employee participation is a key element of commitment, and consequently a factor in business success, why isn’t it done more often? Is it no more than a nice theory more problematic than beneficial in application? Employee involvement is indeed part of the policy of a great many companies to some degree. That is, however, just the point ‘to some degree’. Additionally, in order to be successful, it is a policy better undertaken carefully, with top management support, and within the framework of a specific methodology. When this approach is taken results range from very good to outstanding.

Albert Humphrey and David Robinson

BPD

Albert Humphrey and his colleague David Robinson are with the London-based consultancy Business Planning & Development (BPD), which has developed the Team Action Management methodology based on the ideas expressed in this opinion piece.

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