Imitation won’t drive engagement

A professor from Harvard University’s Business School recently expressed his views on how to build a workforce of committed employees

Imitation won’t drive engagement
Retention has always been, and continues to be, a top priority for HR – and it is unlikely to decline in importance any time soon.

According to Michael Beer, Harvard Business School professor and director of TruePoint Partners, a management consultancy that works with senior executives to develop effective high performance and commitment organisations, there is no single component that guarantees engagement.

“Employee commitment to the company has been in decline for decades,” Beer wrote in a recent Harvard Business Review article.

“Yet we know that trust and commitment are essential for high individual and corporate performance.”

“Only a minority of companies have managed to buck this decline and have built companies worthy of the human spirit – how do they do it?”

He began to address the question by outlining what he believes does not work.

“Incentives or other extrinsic rewards—individual bonus schemes, promises of nice offices and titles, and other tangible benefits—create transactional relationships, not deep bonds to an employer,” Beer suggested.

“Indeed there is a good deal of evidence that using such individual incentives actually creates self-interest, lowers trust, results in poor teamwork, and diminishes commitment.”

Conversely, giving employees a sense of purpose by granting them “real responsibility, meaning, caring, fairness, and authenticity” has been shown to increase commitment, he claimed.

“To create a company culture that evokes these human emotions in your employees, you can’t simply copy policies and practices from another company – though knowing about them is helpful,” he said.

“They must be consciously designed to your business’ values and cultural objectives.”

However, Beer conceded that “a careful mix of mission, management, and culture” were common to companies who have a committed workforce.

Starting at the top

According to Beer, if a company’s CEO does not believe in and articulate a “higher ambition”, they cannot persuade their employees to commit.

“It must be deeper than only making money for shareholders and managers,” he said.

“A higher ambition purpose must articulate some meaningful contribution to the world so people to feel their collective efforts will make a difference.”
Maintaining standards

Secondly, he said, organisations that have committed employees are dedicated to high individual and organisational performance.

“They create standards of behaviour and performance and hold people accountable for them,” Beer wrote.

“They recruit, select, evaluate, promote and terminate people based on their alignment with company purpose and values.

“Though they value bright and competent people and try to hire the best in a given field, their recruitment and selection process starts with an assessment of the individual’s character, and their alignment with company purpose and values.

“Managers are trained, developed and evaluated to lead people in accordance with the human values top management espouses.”

Anti-silo organisations

Thirdly, wrote Beer, companies driven by values of commitment, teamwork, caring and fairness prevent organisational hierarchy from undermining performance.

“Employees are given a voice through a number of means—employee surveys, open employee forums and open door policies,” he said.

“And when circumstances demand layoffs and cost cutting, senior management takes a significant cut in pay.”


His final suggestion was that high commitment companies work hard to maintain that culture.

“They realise that protecting it is as much of a challenge as building it in the first place,” Beer said.

“Several types of practices help to keep a company and its many leaders on the journey.

“Employee engagement surveys can help assess alignment of leaders’ multiple business or geographic units with company purpose and values.”
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