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Thought Thursdays
Employee engagement in future flatter structures

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Employee engagement can be very challenging for a manager tangibly to gauge and measure. The process of disengagement, however, is sometimes dramatic and distinct, for instance Thandi doesn’t get the promotion she thought was on the cards, or the company merger deals a nasty blow to Brendon’s sense of significance – and they suddenly seem distant and aloof. In other cases, the disconnect is a slow creep.

Forbes columnist Kevin Kruse provides the following definition: “Employee engagement is the emotional commitment the employee has to the organization and its goals.” 

I am going to set out a brief matrix by revisiting Patrick Lencioni’s profound insight into the three primary reasons why employees disengage. I will then expand on his third point by looking through the lens of the emerging workforce and flatter organisational structures.

Lencioni, in his book, The Truth about Employee Engagement pens three foundational principles that smart managers need to reflect on:

  1. Anonymity: the sad conclusion workers reach when they realise that their manager is primarily interested in them for their output, and shows little interest in them as human beings, their life context, interests or future aspirations.
  2. Irrelevance: this takes root in employees’ minds when they cannot see how their contribution is making a difference. People need to know that they are making an impact somewhere: be that with a client, with a co-worker, or with lightening a supervisor’s load through their excellent execution.
  3. Immeasurement: this is Lencioni’s descriptor when workers are unable to assess how they are contributing to the success of the organisation. These employees are not able to quantify their efforts objectively on a given day or week.

Flatter structures are on the rise and appeal to the emergents. There are fewer layers, less bureaucracy, more autonomy, flexi-hours, tangible outputs, small high-performance work gangs …  However, in a flatter organisation, it can be harder to mark promotion and progress, and to know when someone should be paid more.

While enjoying a cup of coffee with a friend, he happened to remark that when he started out as an auditing clerk, there were 17 different, clearly identifiable roles between junior clerk and partner. Twenty years later there are as few as seven big steps to the top. 

In personal conversations I had in the process of interviewing 30 employees in a company, some of the younger staff who were thriving in the flat structure were appealing for their equivalent of Google Map Route – to navigate promotion in their dynamic organisation. Future talent is not preoccupied with titles, but they do need their significance and contribution to be recognised.  Understandably, there is an obvious connection between contribution, progress and remuneration.

An additional resource that I found useful outlines how a company can plot someone’s journey and contribution on a graph with the descriptors: Novice, Advanced Beginner, Competent, Proficient and Expert on the ‘Y’ axis and Executor, Leader, Manager and Strategist on the ‘X’ axis.

Here are some questions to ask yourself as a member of a management team:
  1. What is important to us? What are we going to measure? How are we going to measure?
  2. What competencies are needed by our various technical specialists and project/talent managers?
  3. What descriptors can we use to recognise different levels of:  expertise, IP, working knowledge of our company and industry, and our clients?
  4. What creative solutions can we use to differentiate the remuneration that specific employees receive?
  5. What ultimately motivates our workforce?
Task your emergents to answer these questions, too. Including them in this exercise could catapult their engagement.

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Iain Shippey is a part-time faculty member at USB and a partner at Change Partners. He has 25 years of experience in the field of leadership and has pioneered and coached start-ups. He is passionate about people and organisations, about understanding what makes them tick, and upskilling them to realise their potential.  







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