John Cleary: When staff attendance becomes engagement

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The average kiwi firm employs 23 per cent of people engaged in building it, whilst 15 per cent are actively degrading it, and 62 per cent are just sleeping through the day.
Photo / Thinkstock
Photo / Thinkstock

It is expected to be a golden period for New Zealand this year, in which we expect a growth rate which will catapult us up the OECD chart. Picture this, you are back at your desk, holidays are fading into your distant memory. It's not too hard to picture, because it's a reality.

Is your business ready to take advantage of this golden year? Or will you be passed by and sitting in the same position next March.

How do you know if you are ready to enjoy the opportunities this year may bring?

There are so many places you could look to for the answers - KPIs, industry trends, economic data, culture, employee/customer surveys, even something as 'simple' as turnover and profitability.

What gives you both a 'future' and a 'now' perspective on your business' performance without making it so complicated that you and your staff have disengaged before you know where your business stands?

For the purpose of this article, I will focus on engagement of staff.

Great you say, 'a management concept that is poorly defined, measured or promoted but always sought.

First, we need to define it and understand it, and second, look at how we can improve it.

Simple definitions are best, I am going with: 'Engaged staff bring discretionary effort to their roles and the organisation.' We used to say they went the extra mile, above and beyond, and really 'get' what the business is about. These people create and inform the folklore, the stories, the heritage and narrative of organisations. They are what makes a business great. They don't just build the brand, they are the brand.

The Big Paddle Company chief executive John Cleary
The Big Paddle Company chief executive John Cleary

Engaged staff bring discretionary effort to their role and organisation. They are what makes a business great. They don't just build the brand, they are the brand.

A Gallup survey recently indicated that New Zealand sits well in terms of overall engagement of staff in countries surveyed. It had 23 per cent engaged. A virtual draw with Australia at 24 per cent, but lagging against the US at 30 per cent. This is good news compared to the average of countries surveyed, which had an engagement rate of only13 per cent.

This coin, however, has a flip-side. The same surveys showed that 15 per cent of New Zealand workers are 'actively disengaged'. These are not just the wrong pegs (square or otherwise) in the wrong holes, they are actively undermining the work that engaged staff are doing. These people are destructive. The need to seek these people out needs no further discussion.

A large group of employees (from the survey of New Zealand work units) sit in the benign category of 'not engaged.' They are not actively destructive, but are likely to do just enough to adequately perform their roles. They do the bare minimum; they are uninspired and have little or no concern for the company's performance. They have no investment in customer satisfaction. They try to stay under the radar, thinking about last night, tonight or their next break.

In New Zealand, according to the survey, we have 62 per cent of our employees falling in this category. A huge pool of mediocre performances, sustaining similar organizational and economic performance.

The average New Zealand organisation, employs 23 per cent of people engaged in building it, whilst 15 per cent are actively disengaged and degrading it, and 62 per cent are sleeping through the days waiting to get on with life when the workday is finished, doing just enough.

The "holy grail" would be to nationally engage this group, and give John Key (and others) what they want - top quartile OECD positioning in an election year. But that is too much. Let's take this to where you live. Your individual organisation's performances and individual level of engagement is a much more achievable target.

How can we build or improve our organisation's particular mix of engaged staff, improving on the average of 23 per cent while also reducing the number of sleepers or drones average 62 per cent. We need some framework to understand what things have a positive impact on engagement. What do people get out of it that helps them feel good about 'stepping up' within the organisation?

If you want to understand more of the science behind this survey, pursue Gallup Q12 Meta-Analysis, 2012.

Firstly, people seek security, self-worth and significance, to differing degrees and in different ways. This provides a good initial compass on which to judge the validity and direction of our efforts to impact engagement.

Secondly, let's look to selection of staff and the process. This governs the value of human capital in your business, i.e. the quality of your people. The better the quality and fit of your selected staff, the easier the engagement and development of them.

The time spent on selection is a key investment. You need to be open, real and thorough in your interviews. Be an active listener. Ask searching questions and listen carefully to the answers.


The strengths people have, combined with their attitude, are the key measures of their potential for alignment with the organisation.

The strengths people have, combined with their attitude, are the key measures of their potential for alignment with the organisation and their suitability for the particular role. Remember round pegs in square holes damage both peg and the hole. Unfortunately many business owners and managers keep on hammering due to bad process in hiring and staff selection.

The more time people can operate in their strengths, within their appointed roles, the greater the mutual benefit; increasing productivity, self-worth and satisfaction. Operating in your strengths involves performing at a superior level on an ongoing basis.

To that end, the value, culture and vision of the organisation needs to be a positive fit for new and existing staff. Have a narrative or story that encapsulates the key aspects of the culture and vision you are trying to align your business with. This way current and potential staff get a clear understanding of expectations. The leadership and management style of an organisation also needs to be clearly outlined. Staff respond to various styles of management and leadership. We need people to be comfortable and compatible with the organisation to best fit it's outcomes.

The most sought-after leadership traits are authenticity and integrity. You must deliver on what you say. Walk the talk with your employees. People today have a nose for inconsistency and insincerity and this is a major dis-engager for all employees, especially the millennials rising up through our workforce.

The communication you engaged in at selection time needs to be continued and grown within the organisation. People cannot become more involved if they do not know what is going on. Whilst staff do not need to decide issues they like to be involved and gain significance through this process. People still understand that organisations are not democracies. Yet your staff will feel more significant if they know what is happening and have had an opportunity to contribute, even if the decision is not their choice, the process will have encouraged their engagement. Through this communication and discussion, you will be surprised how innovation and creativity come through your organisation.


Staff will feel more significant if they know what is happening and have had an opportunity to contribute, even if the final decision is not their choice, the process will have encouraged their engagement.

Innovation, productivity and creativity all involve change and change is best facilitated by significant, ongoing two-way communication. We want everyone on this bus. However, it is a tough route for people if they do not know where the bus is or where it is going and why.

Innovation and creativity are fostered through diversity and safe environments where ideas can be floated and discussed. Does this characterise your workplace?

Engagement, for all the management 'babble', comes down to relationship between the person and the organisation (a group of people). It requires overlap of interests (vision, values, skills, strengths and salaries and productivity), involvement and mutual support (through communication, respect and consideration). It also requires a physical environment that enables rather than oppresses productivity and delivery.

These things promote significance, self-worth and security for all involved. Engage with your staff, make the workplace the most positive environment you can in light of the productivity you are seeking to achieve. Select people through deep communication aligning strengths, skills, attitudes, vision and values.

Do this, and you may just have created an organisation that will blow the averages on people's engagement and contribution. As the bonus of delivering a more engaging and enjoyable workplace for all the people involved in it, you'll have the right formula to optimise all that 2014 brings to your door. Good luck.


John Cleary is a business leader and consultant with a degree in engineering, a masters in organizational leadership and over 30 years of experience. Currently he is principle of the Big Paddle Company NZ.

- NZ Herald

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