Human
Potential
Untangled
Achieving
successful
engagement
means removing
several obstacles
that keep good
people from
doing great
work.
By Kevin J. Sensenig
54 | T+D | april 2009
Three generations of management
theory have defined how organizations develop human potential.
First, under the functional management approach, development was
aimed at getting people to follow the
standard processes established for
each function. The assumption was
that employees just needed to be
trained to follow the correct processes
to be engaged and successful.
The second approach to development was founded on the hierarchical model of organizations, whereby
developing potential was viewed as
taking people up through the ranks.
The third model emphasized organizational systems. People were trained
to manage systems (such as finance,
sales, or operations) to make sure they
flowed correctly within the overall organizational structure.
While each of these approaches
has its merits, they have two common
disadvantages. First, development
around a process, system, or
advancement to the next level keeps
employees too narrowly focused on
their individual jobs. This can prevent
them from seeing the bigger picture
of how their performance fits into
the broader organizational context.
Second, by focusing on function
and process, these approaches to
development neglect engaging the
person as a learner.
At the other extreme from the three
traditional, methodical approaches to
development was Peter Senge’s vision
of a “learning organization,” in which
people are continually enhancing their
capabilities to create the results they
truly desire. This model was perceived
by many to be too “soft”—utopian even.
The best approach to unleashing
human potential lies in the middle
ground between the two extremes.
Neither too lockstep nor too loose,
Photo by Media Bakery
Do not assume that
tangible rewards
are required. It’s not
either/or, but the
right combination
of tangible and
intangible rewards
that most effectively
engages employees.
such an approach might be called
the “value model” of development
because its goal is to get the best value
each person has to offer. It combines
methodical key steps people can
follow to advance in their careers, with
learning organization concepts that
respect individual differences. One
of the first steps in developing each
person’s full potential is knowing why
people don’t perform and what to do
about it.
Why employees don’t perform …
and what to do about it
There are five obstacles to performance that should be carefully distinguished, because each has a different
solution. If the source of nonperformance is not correctly identified, good
employees may be passed over for
promotions, be fired, or leave on their
own, while less desired employees,
who will never buy in or simply cannot
do the job effectively, are retained.
Obstacle 1
Not knowing what to do. It’s dif-
ficult for employees to perform if they
don’t know what to do.
Solution: Educate them. Set the
foundation during new employee orientation and the on boarding process,
or later through education and development opportunities. Unless people
have clarity on what they need to do,
they will make mistakes or work on the
wrong tasks.
Obstacle 2
Not knowing how to do it. Employees who know what to do, but not how
to do it, cannot accomplish the tasks
assigned to them.
Solution: Train them. Take people
through the step-by-step process of performing tasks and show them how the
correct execution of those steps creates
success for them and the organization.
Photo by Getty Images
Obstacle 3
Not believing they can do
it. In this situation, employees
know what the task is and the steps
to accomplish it, but don’t believe
they can do it. This is usually because
they lack self-confidence, are riskaverse, or just don’t think they are the
right person for the task.
Solution: Coach them. Coaching is
not just a matter of cheering employees on, but of helping them see why
they have been selected to perform the
task or why they have been appointed
to the team. Instill in them a belief in
themselves and the confidence to use
past successes as a stepping stone to
future opportunities.
Obstacle 4
Not knowing why they should do
it. At times, people know what to do,
how to do it, and believe they can do
it, but don’t understand why the task is
important for them, their supervisors,
or the organization. Consequently,
they procrastinate and assign the task
a low priority.
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April 2009 | T+D | 55
A system for bringing out
the best in people
If the source of
nonperformance
is not correctly
identified, good
employees may
be passed over
for promotions,
be fired, or leave
on their own,
while less desired
employees, who
will never buy in or
simply cannot do
the job effectively,
are retained.
Solution: Establish a vision for
them. A senior leader’s vision for
the organization is a good start, but
employees also need to know how
they fit into that vision and why their
organizational processes are critical to
accomplishing the vision.
Obstacle 5
Not wanting to do it. Often, employees know what to do, how to do it, believe they can do it, and know why it’s
56 | T+D | april 2009
important, but they just don’t want to
do it. Typically, this occurs when one
or several of the other obstacles are
present. Supervisors frequently jump
to the conclusion that an individual is
unmotivated, when there is really another reason for nonperformance.
Solution: Inspire them. If people
know what to do, how to do it, believe
they can do it, and know why they
should do it, nonperformance must
be due to some other barrier that
may not be immediately discernable.
Look at how the organization is
inspiring its employees. Are they
being kept busy without knowing
how their activities relate to
the mission or vision? Inspired
employees have the internal desire to
achieve the vision.
The nonperformance model builds
from the bottom up, starting with
the lowest level, “I don’t know what
to do.” Managers sometimes assume
their people lack motivation, when the
problem is really caused by one of the
lower barriers.
Using the wrong solution for any
one barrier because the employee’s
nonperformance is not understood
leads to failure. It would be pointless
to attempt to engage employees whose
nonperformance is due to obstacles 1
thru 4. Once the four lower obstacles
have been overcome, the right forms of
motivation will foster engagement.
The traditional forms of motivation
are compensation and benefits. The
problem with these tangible rewards
is that they are short-term motivators. The more people get, the more
they develop an entitlement mindset.
For example, give an employee an
extra day off this month for excellent
performance, and he or she will expect
two extra days next month to feel
connected.
Adding more and more tangible
rewards does not necessarily increase
motivation or engagement. However,
taking away tangible benefits or entitlements really de-motivates or disengages people. For example, employees
who always had their health benefits
paid for and are now being asked to
chip in become very dissatisfied and
often lose motivation.
On the other hand, intangible rewards, such as a “thank you,” “good
job,” or effective coaching let people
know their managers care about them
and value their contributions. The
more intangible forms of motivation
the better—they raise engagement levels by helping people feel connected.
The additional advantage of using
intangible rewards is that while offering them greatly increases levels of
engagement and motivation, withholding them tends not to have a significant
long-term de-motivating impact. Additionally, intangible forms of motivation
are not costly to provide. So for a small
investment of time in showing appreciation, the resulting improvement in
engagement and connectivity can be
huge. The key is in giving credible, sincere, and respectful appreciation. There is a proven-effective format
for giving sincere appreciation that
brings out the best in people. More
than an obligatory pat on the back, it’s
a system to express gratitude not just
for what the person has done, but for
who they are (their internal attributes
and characteristics). When appreciation is not about a task the employee
has accomplished, but about who the
individual really is, its power to motivate is much greater.
Photo by Getty Images
Step 1: Tell them what you appreciate about them. Say, for example:
“Alice, what I really appreciate about
you is that you’re a very good listener.”
Step 2: Give evidence. Say, for
example: “The reason I say that is
because when I discuss a new project
with you, you always probe, ask additional questions, and give good feedback. This tells me that you’re engaged
in what I’m saying.”
Step 3: Ask an open-ended question. The natural response to step 2
would be for an employee to return the
favor by saying something nice about
the manager who is paying the compliment. However, that is not the desired
outcome in this format. The idea is to
let the employee absorb the appreciation being given. So the next step is
to ask an open-ended question. For
example, “How did you develop such
good listening skills?”
Let the individual talk about experiences and jobs that have helped her
develop her professional character.
This keeps the focus of the appreciation on the person, where it should be,
so she can enjoy in it, feel its sincerity, and build on her strength. She will
know that the point of expressing appreciation was not to get something in
return, but because the manager really
cares about her.
This format for targeted appreciation removes from employees the
feeling that they are just getting a pat
on the back before being assigned
to the next project. At some point,
tangible rewards may follow, such as
a gift certificate for a dinner out for an
employee who put in an extra 40 hours
last month, an extra day off, or being
advanced to the top of the list for the
next promotion.
However, do not assume that tangible rewards are required. It’s not
either/or, but the right combination of
tangible and intangible rewards that
most effectively engages employees.
The three-step system for expressing sincere appreciation is also effective in training. For example, Universal
Hospital Systems (UHS) conducted
formal training to help its subject
Photo by Media Bakery
matter experts present leadership and
sales training in a more effective way.
Trainers observed the presenters in action and used the three-step
process to provide comments about
the trainees’ strengths (for example,
strong opening remarks, fielding questions, or using gestures appropriately).
“It made the trainers’ feedback more
powerful and successful,” says Walter
Chesley, UHS’s senior vice president of
human resources.
UHS also uses a range of other intangible means to engage employees.
“We don’t believe business information should be only in the hands of
senior managers,” says Chesley. “It
should cascade down to every employee. Our senior management team
is very committed to going out into the
field and communicating organizational strategies and plans to employees in person,” he states.
“Every time we do, employees thank
us for being visible rather than just
sending a written communication. Employee surveys also go a long way toward
recognizing employees as key contributors,” Chesley says, “provided you follow
up by telling them what actions will be
taken based on their suggestions.”
As part of its “celebrate excellence”
program, the UHS HR department
sends electronic thank-you cards to
employees who demonstrate excellence. “Our CEO also sends personal
notes to new hires. He did not want to
do that electronically,” says Chesley.
Department members are highly
committed to a thorough onboarding
process. They provide each new hire
with a buddy or mentor to accelerate
their assimilation. As a more tangible
way to motivate employees, they
are encouraged to pursue learning
through in-house training initiatives,
or externally through UHS’s tuition
reimbursement and professional development funds. UHS also sponsors
charity events in the community to
give employees an opportunity to act
on their desire to help others.
Do not use intangible rewards as
a permanent substitute for tangible
rewards. If a particular individual is
constantly being rewarded intangibly
for doing more and more, it should
be an indication that this is a highpotential employee who should be
given recognition on a broader level.
For example, the appreciation might
be given by the CEO to highlight the
employee’s contribution to the rest of
the organization. Ultimately, the highpotential employee will be next in line
for a tangible reward such as a raise,
promotion, or bonus.
A new model for developing
human potential
The only sustainable competitive
advantage is found in engaged individuals, but traditional methods have
not always succeeded in developing
people to their fullest potential. Some
approaches have been too lockstep,
and others, too soft. The value model
of development combines the best of
traditional approaches to bring out the
best in people so that they can drive
the organization toward its goal.
Knowing the specific reasons behind nonperformance and the precise
actions to address each one is the
foundation of the new model. Using
this model, systems can be built to
engage employees and unleash human
potential. t+d
Kevin J. Sensenig is global brand champion with Dale Carnegie & Associates;
[email protected]
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April 2009 | T+D | 57
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Human Potential Untangled