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Confusing engagement with happiness, and 4 other human resources mistakes that will cost your business

Confusing engagement with happiness, and 4 other human resources mistakes that will cost your business

All organisations have problems, and they always involve people. Indeed, talent management issues are a major cause of organisational underperformance. For example, a recent report by Deloitte, based on data from over 2500 business and human resources leaders from more than 90 countries, shows that employers around the world are poorly prepared to tackle key human capital challenges such as “leadership, retention and engagement, the reskilling of HR and talent acquisition”.

I see five specific bad talent habits over and over again. They all threaten the effectiveness of the modern organisation.

1. Being unaware of the company culture


Senior managers, executives and founders often agree in their evaluations of an organisation’s culture. Unfortunately, these views bear little resemblance to how most employees see the culture. Viewed from the top, culture looks a lot like the public relations blurbs found on company websites – for instance, “We are passionate believers in diversity, innovation and corporate social responsibility.”

Viewed from the bottom – when the values of an organisation are crowdsourced by surveying most employees – organisations look rather different; that is, not so great. Open-source websites, such as Glassdoor, which record employees’ experience of their working environment, provide a much needed reality check for self-deceived leaders.

2. Confusing staff engagement with happiness


Although employee engagement deserves all the attention in the world, the concept has been hijacked by the self-help industry, which equates engagement with happiness. However, the main purpose of work is not to make people happy, but productive. And engagement matters precisely because of its connections with productivity, which are twofold.

First, engaged employees feel more energised and see work in a more meaningful manner, which makes them more productive; and second, when employees are given the opportunity to be productive, they are proud of their achievements, which in turn boosts their engagement levels.

Notice that happiness can be left out of the equation here. In fact, many employees are engaged and productive without being happy; and it is equally feasible for employees to be happy without being engaged or productive. In short, managers should try to create meaningful challenges for their employees, instead of worrying about their happiness levels.

3. Ignoring the toxicity of office politics


All organisations are political, but most underestimate just how political they are, as well as the degree to which politics eclipses smart and rational decisions. For decades, psychologists have been studying office politics – defined as those informal, illegitimate and largely invisible forces of influence intended to maximise the self-interest of certain individuals at the expense of the organisation’s interest.

These studies provide compelling evidence for the adverse effects of politics on employees’ productivity and well-being. Most notably, perceptions of office politics have been linked to higher levels of stress, turnover intentions and burnout, as well as lower levels of job satisfaction and employee engagement. Most of these associations are found across different job sectors, age groups and cultures, which makes organisational politics a global epidemic.

4. Misunderstanding leadership


Few topics are more widely discussed and researched than leadership. However, popular views on leadership are out of sync with the science of leadership, and HR professionals are much more influenced by the former than the latter.

As a result, there is a big difference between what organisations actually do about leadership and what they should do. For instance, most managers – and this is also true for senior leaders – are selected for either technical expertise or personal charisma, when the quality that really matters most is their ability to build and engage teams. To make matters worse, charismatic leaders are often too narcissistic to put the interests of their teams and the organisation above their own interests.

As a result, good leadership is rare, and managerial incompetence is the norm. Consider the following facts: the average chief executive is on the job for only 18 months; disengagement is a global epidemic (with as many as 70 per cent of employees reportedly not engaged); the top causes of disengagement and most widely cited reasons for underlying turnover intentions all have to do with people’s direct managers; and self-employment rates have been rising steadily, mostly because people are fed up with poor management.

As a Harvard University poll recently demonstrated, 70 per cent of Americans believe there is a national crisis in leadership, and yet spending on leadership development programs has doubled in the past two decades to $US14 billion ($15 billion). It is time for organisations to select and develop people with actual leadership potential, as opposed to picking individuals who are good at navigating the corporate landscape, advancing their own career and self-interests, or fitting the popular stereotype of charismatic and Machiavellian leaders.

5. Relying on intuition instead of data


This is arguably the deadliest of all talent management sins, because it underlies the previous four points. How can you properly manage talent if you don’t know how talented your employees are? Despite the wealth of data and evidence available on leadership, management and organisational effectiveness, most organisations play it by ear, and make promotion and hiring decisions based solely on the intuition of their leaders, board members and managers.

Although reasoning biases are universal to all human beings, they are particularly pronounced in managers, not least because they tend to be more overconfident than the average person. Allowing intuition to proliferate unchecked by metrics allows prejudices of all types to flourish while undermining true talent.

To be sure, intuition does sometimes work, but only when it is grounded in expertise. The issue, then, is not to completely eliminate intuition, but to align it with facts and reason in order to make intuitive decisions more effective than they are for the average novice.

In short, to the extent that organisations are able to accurately evaluate their culture, energize their staff, minimise the influence of office politics and properly assess leadership potential, they will be more likely to outperform their competitors. And the best way to achieve that is not by trusting their leaders’ gut feeling, but by following a rational, data-driven and scientifically informed approach.


*Original Article by Tomas Chamorro-Premuzic: