Workers' passion wasted

Is empowerment just another meaningless concept in British management? Roger Trapp reports
MOST EMPLOYEES in Britain's biggest organisations feel undervalued and uninvolved, and they lack confidence in their leaders and their visions, according to research published by the Marketing & Communication Agency (MCA).

Though the findings may not be surprising at a time when industry seems to be reverting to the policy of shedding staff at the first signs of trouble, the survey, carried out by Mori, suggests that these feelings translate into poor business performance.

Staff with high levels of commitment and understanding - termed "buy- in" by MCA and Mori - are more than twice as likely to say it greatly improves their performance. They are also a third more likely to act as company advocates by recommending their organisations to others.

Kevin Thomson - the chairman of MCA, who published two books, Emotional Capital and Passion at Work earlier this year - hails the research as justifying his view that the true differentiator between one business and another is the attitude towards people.

Many organisations are tackling parts of the issue, but for the moment he can think of none that have mastered the whole concept.

The study, The Buy-in Benchmark, finds that the problem may lie in the fact that levels of commitment and understanding are almost as low among managers as they are for non-managers.

As the authors point out: "If managers lack understanding and commitment, how can their organisation expect them to manage and motivate others?"

A further indication of the general level of cynicism is the fact that, after all these years of consultants, gurus and executives themselves talking about "empowerment", only 9 per cent of the 350 employees questioned last month strongly agreed that their organisation valued their views and participation. According to Susan Walker, managing director of Mori's human resources research, this indicates that "empowerment is largely a myth in British business".

Alternatively, it may show that what business describes as empowerment is not really that at all, but in fact some way of getting employees to take on extra responsibility.

In other words, it is a one-way process - and, therefore, much like companies' traditional view of communication. For most organisations, communicating means instructing or informing, rather than involving, says Mr Thomson. His view is that communication is vital. But it has to become more of a pull and less of a push, he says.

Few chief executives do not acknowledge the importance of communication in their job, yet over the past quarter of a century, organisations' scores in this area have tended to be stuck at around the level of six out of 10.

Where companies have managed to lift it to just eight out of 10, the level of buy-in can double, he adds.

His organisation typically uses marketing techniques to improve this area. Noting that even uncommitted workers are more enthused about customers than about their general work, he proposes that employees in different parts of the organisations see each other as customers that have to be sold to, hence the use of such terms as "buy-in" and "advocates".

Some might feel that this implies an unduly commercial arrangement between employees. Nevertheless, Mr Thomson is not alone in thinking that this could be the missing something that helps to explain why some companies succeed even in times of turbulence, while others that look very similar are forever struggling.

Mike Rake, UK senior partner with the accountancy firm KPMG, and Lord Marshall, chairman of British Airways, are among those who are endorsing the findings.

"This is a critical message for British industry. The study's findings illustrate that UK organisations are not nourishing their intellectual and emotional capital," says Mr Thomson.

The report adds that "this is a dangerous scenario" at a time of economic uncertainty.