Employee Engagement

Birds of a Feather

featherDon’t let key talent fly away. Ignite passion in your existing workforce with these six strategies.

By John Hagel and John Seely Brown

KimChi Tyler Chen doesn’t shrink from challenges. In fact, she might be described as having a fearless, take- no-prisoners approach to pursuing her goals. As a communications manager at Intuit, she recently acted as the executive producer of a successful TEDxIntuit event, a role which demanded long hours and took her well out of her comfort zone. It is also a role she asked for. “Getting opportunities like TEDx is the reward as far as I’m concerned,” she says. “Intuit gives me opportunities, but also supports me -for instance, by making sure I had access to and support from the previous executive producer. As long as you don’t fall too hard, you get new opportunities.”

Chen is a dream employee, one that searches for new, better solutions to challenging problems; takes meaningful risks to improve performance; executes better each year; works the hours needed to get the job done; is well connected to others internally and externally who work in related domains; and cuts across silos to deliver results. If you’re lucky enough to have this type of worker, who exhibits the attributes Deloitte defines as the passion of the explorer -questing, connecting, and commitment – then congratulations are in order. In today’s rapidly changing environment where skills easily become obsolete and the imperative is to constantly develop employees, this type of worker is a rare asset.

Passionate workers are on a quest to continuously learn and acquire new skills that drive innovation and sustained performance improvement. This passion can help the organization build resilience to withstand and grow stronger in the face of continuous market challenges. Unfortunately, this is a rare find: 88 percent of America’s workforce doesn’t have passion for their work. That’s a big number and one that should give HR professionals pause. Plus, research shows this rare passionate employee is also more likely to leave your firm. Even worse, the potential benefits of such an employee or the risk of losing them is unlikely to show up in the annual talent or engagement survey.

If passionate workers are so valuable to their organizations and so hard to find, what’s an HR professional to do? One of the key findings of Passion at Work -Deloitte’s annual survey of more than 3,000 full-time United States workers -shows that much of the workforce has one, two, or three attributes of passion already. The good news is that these attributes, and the potential to be passionate, lurk in all types of workers, regardless of age, position, education, or location. These attributes can be developed in anyone -great untapped potential lies within your existing workforce.

Work Environment, Worker Passion, and Talent Development: Three Sides of the Same Coin
Unfortunately, the practices and policies of many organizations actually discourage the types of employee behaviors that companies will need to thrive in tomorrow’s business environment. Left over from a time when companies could succeed based on predictability and standardization, these practices discourage risk-taking and variance, and penalize employees who pursue challenges and learning opportunities. Faced with the frustrations of such an environment, the best talent will either flee and redirect their passion to external pursuits, leaving the organization with holes to fill.

In our survey analysis, we identified four organizational components that strongly predict the respondent being an explorer:

1. Workers are encouraged to work cross-functionally (40 percent increase in likelihood to be an explorer)

2. Workers are encouraged to work on projects they are interested in, even if they are outside of their responsibilities (34 percent increase in likelihood to be an explorer)

3. Workers are encouraged to connect with others in their industry (17 percent increase in likelihood to be an explorer)

4. The company often engages with customers to innovate new product and service ideas (14 percent increase in likelihood to be an explorer)

Individuals with passion are likely drawn to these aspects of an organization and these work environment characteristics are also more likely to cultivate passion within a workforce. When employees are encouraged to work cross-functionally and connect with others, they tap into their connecting disposition. When workers have the opportunity to participate in projects they are interested in -rather than just those they are assigned to -they become more engaged. When employees are encouraged to engage with customers and other network partners to innovate together, they have a view into the impact they are making, helping to cultivate commitment and loyalty.

Tactics for Developing and Retaining Employee Passion

Consider some of the statements we heard repeatedly in our interviews with high-performance workers:

  • I get restless often;
  • I move on if I don’t feel I can learn or be challenged;
  • I don’t ask permission;
  • I want my work to make an impact on something important to society;
  • I like to know that what I’m doing matters to the company; and
  • I have a series of mini-failures every day.Does your work environment acknowledge and support employees with these attitudes? Does it penalize or discourage such expressions?

Helping individuals understand the impact their work has on the company’s performance, the customer’s performance, and even the broader industry’s performance, can increase retention. What can organizations do?

  • Share the company’s key challenges with all workers, from the executive suite to the front line. Find
    ways to let employees at all levels work on aspects of those challenges if they are interested. Give employees latitude to dabble outside their job description or field of expertise.
  • Connect performance to impact. Corporate-wide performance metrics are often misaligned with the goals of specific departments. Let managers modify or interpret corporate metrics to make them relevant and meaningful for their teams.At Clif Bar, Diana Simmons, senior director of product commercialization and process and systems improvement, developed a matrix of competencies and metrics that she believed were most important for her influence-based, cross-functional product launch team. “We still use the company’s ‘Five Ingredients’ (connect, create, inspire, own it, and be yourself) framework. But it seemed obvious that we needed a unique set of skills and leadership tools for my team to succeed in this role.”

Allowing for experimentation and failure supports learning and development. What can organizations do?

  • Create experimentation platforms Environments that combine tools, processes, and management practices can develop prototyping solutions. At Intuit, the Design for Delight program allows teams to work directly with customers to address an issue through a rapid prototyping process.
  • Accept failures, especially if they are cheap and quick. Experimentation, by definition, often results in failure. Environments where failures are not an option, where predictability and efficiency rule, discourage any desire to experiment, especially if a worker’s job is at stake. Companies can still reduce risk by designing processes and products that allow individuals to experiment within a module without threatening the entire process or product.
  • Provide timely (as close to real-time as possible) and context-specific feedback. Then, give workers the opportunity for reflection and tools to capture and share lessons learned. The challenge is to make this process seamless and integrated into daily work.

Sharing knowledge, asking for help, and collaborating around solutions can lead to feeling connected to a company. What can organizations do?

  • Create environments -both physical and virtual – that help workers develop new connections and strengthen existing relationships. Both physical and virtual environments can be designed to foster serendipitous encounters. Many firms already build their physical common areas to encourage workers to “bump into each other.” Similar principles can extend into virtual settings. For example, cameras could be located in the common areas so that remote workers could see and interact with colleagues.
  • Develop platforms for collaboration. Automatically- generated reputation profiles can help facilitate connecting on these platforms. For example, RallyTeam, a start-up that presented at the San Francisco Tech Crunch Disrupt’s Battlefield competition, developed a platform that connects workers interested in learning a new skill with opportunities in need of extra resources. The results are automatically documented, and workers receive performance badges, share project snapshots, and receive additional “skills” on their online profiles.

Work environments and management practices that cultivate the behaviors we associate with worker passion will not only help stimulate and engage workers who are already passionate, but also allow others in the workforce to begin developing these attributes and discovering their own passion for work. When talent programs focus too much on attracting and retaining talented workers and don’t explore the underlying characteristics of the work environment, they will never achieve a sustainable, high-performing workforce. A work environment where employees can take on challenges, learn fast, connect with others, and make an impact is an environment that will attract and retain workers. Word will spread that the company develops workers more rapidly than anyone else and they will have people lining up to apply.

Take heed: Passionate employees are likely to leave your firm. It’s true that the passionate are more likely to report switching jobs, but it doesn’t mean they are inveterate job-hoppers and you have to reconcile yourself to losing them. In a hostile environment, the passionate will leave or their interest will fade, a losing proposition either way. If you have passion in your workforce, either hired or home-grown, you have to maintain it, monitor its health as you might currently track employee engagement, and cultivate it with deliberate intent.

John Hagel III, director in Deloitte Consulting LLP, is the co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge, based in Silicon Valley. John Seely Brown is the independent co-chairman of the Deloitte Center for the Edge.

Tags: December 2014

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