Safety professionals should be suspicious of many management trends. Over the last decade behavioural-based safety has been popular and more recently workplaces have been subjected to the application of amorphous concepts such as leadership and engagement. Many of these are dressing up old approaches to management in new jargon, some have little evidence to back up their claims.
At the end of April 2009 the Society for Industrial and Organizational Psychology (SIOP) identified limits to the application of employee engagement. A SIOP statement said
Study after study has shown that an engaged workforce is considered desirable in any organization and leads to greater productivity and profitability. In short, There seems to be no downside to employee engagement. However, Thomas Britt, an industrial-organizational psychology professor at Clemson University, cautions there are some limits to employee engagement that managers should consider.
Britt acknowledges that employees who are actively involved in the management and decision-making of their company provide greater productivity and profitability. In modern parlance, engagement is good. But he identifies several issues that should be considered.
“If [engaged workers] are not getting the resources they feel they need to perform at their best, their engagement may be diminished.”
So worker enthusiasm and initiative needs to be adequately supported.
Britt said performance could be restricted by
- lack of budget and equipment support,
- access to important information,
- work overload,
- unclear objectives and goals, and
- assigning employees’ tasks that don’t fit their training.
Britt’s research shows engaged employees are likely to become frustrated and dissatisfied and may blame their supervisors if they do not have the systems and support necessary to be effective. Given the higher pro-activity and energy levels of engaged employees, this frustration could lead to turnover as they begin to look for more supportive work environments. “The ones who stay behind may well be the ones who just don’t care,” said Britt.
Work overload can lead directly to burnout. According to SIOP, Britt said
“highly motivated employees are willing to go beyond the call of duty to help the organization, but when temporary overload continues and they repeatedly fail to meet their own high expectations, their motivation becomes directed at locating other job possibilities, leaving the organization at risk of losing key talent.”
The impediments to an engaged workforce can often be missed in the enthusiasm of the engagement evangelists It is important not to dismiss the enthusiasm but to temper it so that any benefits are long term. For any new management approaches to work, there must be adequate groundwork so that the participants know the reasons for change, this will help the new approach succeed.
In short, business needs to acknowledge that consultation is a basis for improvement not a communication method of telling people about change. As SafetyAtWorkBlog has said consultation occurs in preparation for change as well as during and after. Thomas Britt and SIOP have provided excellent ideas of the areas of threat for an employee engagement program.
More information may be available at www.siop.org.