Enhancing Employee Commitment: One Size Does Not Fit All

By Adam DiPaula, Mary Bacica and Julie Winram

Another company retreat with the standard elements: There’s the obligatory ‘friendly competition’ where co-workers divide into teams and cooperate to reach a common goal, the ‘make yourself vulnerable session’ where co-workers share some embarrassing moment from their past, the long ‘our vision’ session, and even the ‘team walk’ in the woods.  This all costs about $20,000 and HR is expecting a big bump in employee morale.

And HR does get some wins. But not everyone emerges with a renewed sense of purpose. Denise appreciates the company’s effort, but feels that she really didn’t get a chance to share her point of view. Dave thinks that the retreat is an insincere company ploy to make employees feel like the company actually wants their input. Dolores enjoys the time away from the office and thinks that the pastries and lunch buffet were a big step up from last year.

A Mored Varied View of Investment
All employers know that their workforce consists of employees who differ in their level of commitment to the organization. In trying to promote a unified corporate vision, employers tend to rely on a one-size-fits-all approach; they tend to make the same kind of investment in each employee, regardless of that employee’s current level of engagement with, or commitment to, the organization.

This is done for for one of two reasons: organizations either want to keep a level playing field so that everyone feels treated fairly—or they already know that commitment among employees is triggered by different incentives, conditions and opportunities. However, they assume it’s not practical to develop a HR management system tailored to providing employees what they need to enhance their commitment.

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Furthermore, managers often assume that the same degree of investment should be made in each employee in an attempt to increase their commitment. However, what if you were able to identify those employees that were highly unlikely to be moved by any investment—and frankly didn’t deserve it?

In this article, we present a model that helps managers understand what drives commitment, but also helps them engage in selective retention—identifying and acting on what triggers commitment among employees worth keeping, and shedding employees who are not.

Along with providing a full suite of employee engagement research services, Sentis brings a consultative and action-oriented set of recommendations to each and every study. We look deeper, make connections and give HR managers the insight they need to truly affect positive change in their organization.

Engagement is Not the Same as Long Term Commitment
Engaged employees are certainly more likely to commit to an organization over the long term.  However, Sentis’ Employee Engagement model illustrates that having engaged employees doesn’t necessarily translate into strong intentions to stay. As well, having disengaged employees doesn’t necessarily translate into strong intentions to leave.  It’s a combination of both these factors.  Our model identifies these groups and sizes them within the organization.

We identify four distinct employee segments by crossing level of engagement (‘fully engaged’ vs. ‘less than fully engaged’) with length of time an employee is expecting to stay with the organization (‘short term’ vs. ‘long term’).

In a recent BC-wide survey Sentis conducted among 750 full-time workers across all industry sectors, we measured the prevalence of each of the four segments—Committed, Strivers, Disgruntled and Detached.

As an HR manager you can likely slot many of your organization’s employees into these segments right away, but here is a quick description of each group.

Committed: These are the organization’s most ardent supporters. They believe strongly in the company’s direction and vision and feel that they belong.  They are the ones who emerge from the retreat shouting ‘ask not what your company can do for you, ask what you can do for your company’.

Strivers: While they may only represent 9% of the workforce, they have a disproportionate impact on the organization’s fortunes, as they are the segment most likely to occupy management positions. They are engaged, but easily disappointed.  These employees can impatient and high maintenance because they are constantly looking for a way to get to the ‘next level’.

Disgruntled: The Disgruntled tend to view everything the company does or say through a highly cynical lens. They feel slighted, unfairly treated, marginalized. When they leave the organization they’re the ones likely to be muttering “You won’t have me to push around any longer.”

Detached: Sometimes called ‘Lazy Lifers’, these employees intend to hang on and put in their time until their pension kicks in. They are going through the motions, but don’t really see themselves as part of the organization, let alone, part of the solution to any problem.  They can be a very toxic group because their apathy coupled with their tenure can make them a particularly negative influence among more impressionable employees.

One important note before you read further. These segments can be more similar than different when it comes to key demographic characteristics.  However, while Strivers are often Millennials, not all Millennials are Strivers. Given this, our model cautions managers to avoid simply managing to generation.

Understanding the Unique Triggers: Strivers and the Disgruntled
Comparing the four groups, we’ve identified some unique motivational triggers for each one. We now focus on two of these groups—Strivers and the Disgruntled—and illustrate how understanding their unique triggers can help HR managers retain the best and brightest.

Strivers and the Disgruntled are similar in that they don’t intend to stay around for the long term. Regardless, both want the opportunity to grow and develop within the organization and to be encouraged to learn new things.

They are also similar in several other important respects. While all employees need positive feedback, Strivers and the Disgruntled crave to be recognized. On our employee engagement survey measures, Strivers and the Disgruntled do not differ from their Committed and Detached counterparts in how satisfied they are with the regular feedback that they get from their supervisors. However, they are much less likely to agree that ‘when I do a good job my performance is recognized.’

Furthermore, Strivers and the Disgruntled more strongly equate a supervisor’s personal recognition of their performance as a sign that the company values their contribution—that they matter.

However, getting each of these groups to increase their commitment to the organization requires different strategies.

Strivers: What can you do to inspire me?
For Strivers, work is self-definitional. They don’t just have jobs, they have callings. They need to be inspired, challenged and feel that those they report to are enabling their development. These unique characteristics of Strivers become apparent when we compare them to their Committed counterparts on several survey measures. In our employee engagement survey we measure two aspects of supervisor performance—functional and inspirational. Strivers and the Committed don’t differ in their perceptions of their supervisors’ functional performance—both groups agree that their supervisors provide them with the ‘necessary objectives and direction to do my job’, ‘ensure that I have the necessary resources to do my job’, and that ‘my supervisor is generally available when needed’.

However, Strivers are less likely to agree that their supervisor ‘empowers me to be effective’, and ‘demonstrates interest in my well-being’. They’re not getting that feeling of inspiration that they thrive on.

Also, relative to the Committed, Strivers have a higher threshold for what they consider to be interesting and challenging work. They also need an environment where they feel they have a lot of discretion to make decisions and are encouraged to find new and better ways of doing things. In other words, they want the opportunity be innovative.

Disgruntled: Why should I trust you?
For the Disgruntled, it’s all about trust and fairness—more specifically, the lack of it. And it’s deeply personal. They feel isolated, an even a sense that they are being actively disregarded. We learned this about the Disgruntled after comparing them to their Detached counterparts on a number of our survey measures that tap feelings of trust, fairness and honesty.

The two groups tend to respond similarly to measures of how the company treats employees generally.  For example, they are equally likely to agree that ‘employees are treated with dignity, trust and fairness’, and that ‘there is sufficient face-to-face communication between managers and employees’.

However, the similarities end when it comes to focusing on personal experience. Compared to their Detached counterparts, the Disgruntled are much more apt to feel they are being treated unfairly, not getting open, honest communication from their supervisor, and be distrustful of senior management. Consequently, they are far less likely to support the direction that their company is taking.

Implications for Leadership
Understanding the various employee segments in your organization can help managers target and prioritize efforts/interventions. Specifically, it can help:

  • Identify problem regions and departments—that is, weak managers.  For example, if Department A has double the number of Detached employees it would explain the lackluster customer experience ratings in a department that has low employee turnover.  Conversely, another department could have high turnover, but stellar customer experience ratings due to a high percentage of Strivers.  Managers need to be provided with tools and options (e.g., a mentoring program, an additional training budget) that enable them to manage their unique group of employees.
  • Develop HR strategies and programs.  The benefit of identifying Committed employees in an employee engagement survey is that organizations can ‘peel back the onion’ and gain a deeper understanding of what drives commitment among this group.  This enables the HR department to harness that positivity and look for ways (through its communications and programs) to inspire other employees.
  • Target turnover where it is warranted.  Every HR manager expects a certain level of employee turnover or attrition each year.  However, what if that turnover could be targeted to those departments or other employee groups where there are high levels of Detached and/or Disgruntled employees?  Employee attrition is a reality for every organization, but understanding an organization’s unique employee composition can provide HR managers with some control over a historically uncontrollable variable.

Sentis founder Adam DiPaula, MBA,  VP Mary Bacica, CMRP and managing partner Julie Winram, CMRP merge their passion for employee research at Sentis Research (www.sentisresearch.com).

(PeopleTalk Winter 2013)

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