Cultivating a Mission-Driven Workplace Through Positive Leadership

Become a Positive Leader to Accelerate Positive Change | Focused Programs | IESE Business School

Workforce disengagement is a worldwide problem. So what can global firms do to create a culture of engagement? | Illustration: Norman Gracia

It’s no secret that employee engagement is the primary driver of corporate performance, yet its importance had never been quantified until relatively recently.

The numbers speak for themselves: in their research of more than 400,000 global employees, Gallup and Queen’s School of Business were able to draw a direct line between firms with engaged employees and lower rates of absenteeism, turnover, safety incidents and quality defects.

At the same time, their “good numbers” were up: these companies reported higher productivity, profitability, customer satisfaction and share price. Positive word-of-mouth was an added bonus: firms with motivated workers received 100 percent more employee applications!

While the benefits of an engaged workforce are indisputable, most firms are failing miserably at cultivating them, as evidenced in another global study. Its findings: a mere 13 percent of employees are engaged and 61 percent describe themselves as disengaged. And no company wants the type of employee in the remaining 26 percent: “actively disengaged” workers whose efforts and attitudes actually undermine corporate objectives.

While there were variations across geographic regions – engagement was highest in the U.S. and Canada at 26 percent and lowest in China and Hong Kong at a paltry 2 percent – its conclusion was unequivocal: workforce disengagement is a worldwide problem!

So what can global firms do to create a culture of engagement? In her research on career contexts, Prof. Amy Wrzesniewski of Yale School of Management has identified three core strategies that firms use to motivate their employees, each with varying degrees of success:

1. “My work is a job.”

Firms often focus on the “lowest-hanging fruit” as motivating agents: they increase salaries, provide better perks, offer flexible work arrangements and fire the lowest performers.

Based on an exchange relationship –  “I got what I want so I’ll stay engaged” – this approach typically yields compliance but not long-term commitment, since employees will leave for greener pastures if they’re offered better conditions.

2. “My work is a career.”

Building on the first strategy, this approach leverages social and intellectual capital to motivate employees, providing additional perks such as coaching, mentoring, rich social networks, career development and teamwork opportunities.

Employees in these organizations espouse an attitude of “I’m better, or can become better, so I’ll stay engaged.” While committed to the organization, they also perceive the relationship as exchange-based and are more likely to leave if better opportunities arise.

3. “My work is a calling.”

Transcending individual benefits, organizations that are mission-driven integrate their corporate purpose in their day-to-day operations and strive to create a legacy beyond the company’s lifetime.

Employees in these firms identify strongly with the corporate purpose: “I care deeply about this so I’ll stay engaged.” Incidentally, they give lesser weight to salary benefits and other perks mentioned in the first two approaches, seeing themselves as part of a greater whole.

A joint initiative between IESE and Michigan Ross, the Become a Positive Leader to Accelerate Positive Change program targets human resource professionals, executives in change or career transformation processes, and leaders who aspire to develop creative, committed and constructive teams. IESE’s Barcelona campus will host the next edition on March 30-April 3, 2020.


Written by business communicator and editor Suzanne Hogseth

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