How not to be average

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Glenn Elliott doesn’t want people to be robots – instead he’d like to see more people be encouraged to be more, well, human. 

There’s a simple law of maths involved in everyday life. By definition, the majority of any one thing is average, including people. Much as we’d all like to have the best doctor, surgeon, architect or CEO, most of us must have an average one, some of us a great one and some of us a really awful one.

This often comes to mind when a CEO asks me, ‘Is employee engagement actually beneficial to the business?’ or ‘What data d o you have to prove the link between employee engagement and business bottom line?’ The answer is lots actually. Imagine there were two teams you could lead. Team A understands what you are trying to achieve, is excited by that, has interesting, fulfilling roles, which they understand, good middle management and are enthusiastic about the challenge. Team B doesn’t know or care what the organisation is trying to do, has been worn down by years of internal politics and behaves like a litter of badly treated puppies, keeping their heads down most of the time, with the occasional bout of unexpected aggression. Would you need someone from a university to give you evidence of which team was most likely to do the best work? No, I didn’t think so either.

The problem is that we’ve lived with crappy jobs and awful workplaces for so long that we’ve become institutionalised to them. There are legions of people who cannot imagine work as anything other than a drudge that you have to bear. And we’re used to corresponding low levels of productivity and profitability.

Official UK stats show that productivity has just about stalled since 2008. We actually have productivity improvements in manufacturing, transport and construction, where technology is getting more out for fewer workers in. But they are cancelled out by the state of productivity in the information-heavy industries where most of our economic growth is – services, finance and tech.

We’ve been on a march from manufacturing to services, technology and creative economy for decades. In manufacturing, productivity largely comes from improvements in plant, machinery and tech. But in the new economy, technology is largely a commodity – none of us thinks our competitive USP is better laptops or a better cloud storage? And we can all buy the same tech – Slack isn’t on a VIP-only list.

In our new economy, we’re reliant on the creativity, decision making and hourly and daily choices of our people. What will they say to the customer when the process says NO but they know and feel the right thing to do for that customer is to say YES? What will they do in the meeting when the boss is advocating one thing, but they have that niggling feeling that he or she is missing something? Will they speak up? Will they open a discussion about an alternative? Will they fight for what is best for the customer?

Or just keep their head down because no one wants to rock the boat and you only get promoted if you’re a yes man?

When you strip a leader’s role right back, what do they have to make their businesses successful other than the people that they lead? When we were a manufacturing economy, we did everything we could to make the machines more efficient – laying out the factory carefully, making sure the machinery was well tuned and maintained in great condition. In those days the people were less consequential – disposable, replaceable parts were required to run the machines. And maybe part of our engagement and productivity problem is that we’re still treating people largely as we did back then.

Treating people as parts of a machine is a surefire way to misery, disengagement and low productivity. There’s a fundamental difference between people and things – an injection moulding rig doesn’t have personality, emotions, hopes, dreams, feelings and opinions. Its performance is consistent, not variable depending on its mood. Everything I’ve learned about people tells me that they make pretty awful components in a machine, however convenient it would be if that were different.

It took me nearly a decade of being CEO before I really twigged that all my role required was to use every influence I had to create a workplace where people could and wanted to do their best work. Combine that with a strong sense of who the customer is and what they want and you’ve got a winning formula. It’s the only long-term way you can drive bottom line growth – I know that because, trust me, staring hopefully at the spreadsheet doesn’t make the sales numbers grow by themselves. But building great products that solve for the customer, marketing them sensitively and connecting your business with customers that love you – that delivers amazing results and that requires people who care.

Glenn Elliott was CEO of employee engagement specialist Reward Gateway from 2006 to 2017 and now advises businesses on company culture, leadership and growth. He is the author of Build it – The Rebel Playbook for Employee Engagement (Wiley, 2018).