auf Wiedersehen: Moving on (to new adventures)



So long, farewell, auf Wiedersehen, goodbye
I leave and heave a sigh and say goodbye

(The Sound of Music)

This all started back on a dark and not very stormy night way back in 2008. It was pretty late when the four of us got together in a nice little café in Mumbai and decided to (finally) take a plunge into the world of entrepreneurship.

From there on it was entire weekends dedicated to ideation, arguing, going around in circles, consuming copious amounts of coffee while we narrowed down on how we were going to make the world a better place.

We started in a small corner of the employee engagement domain with our beloved corporate library platform and never looked back. We got funded in a year the world was imploding because of the financial crisis and moved rapidly into the employee recognition space. Technology evolved along the way and we invested heavily in it. The iPhone redefined the way people used mobiles and “Instant recognition” took on a whole new meaning. It was a roller coaster ride and we held on tight, delirious in sheer delight at the excitement of it all.

We laughed, we cried, we fought, we high-fived on wins large and small, we lived frugally, we spent everything we had on building the company and the brand. Along the way, more intrepid adventurers joined us. They left better-paid jobs (or job offers) and came along for the ride. Some worked part-time for us. Some worked for free when we couldn’t afford to pay them. Some counselled us. Some berated us (in a very nice way). Most stayed on, some parted ways – but in our hearts and minds, they will always be family.

Before I tear up and start blabbering, let me get to the point of this post.

A decade after starting the company, Kwench has been acquired by O.C.Tanner. We now join a much larger global family of people just as passionate about employee recognition as we are. All of us involved in the recognition business of Kwench (including the founders) will join the O.C.Tanner family. It is the end of one adventure and the beginning of several more.

To all the clients, partners, associates, investors who placed their trust in us – a big hug. Mere words can’t express the love we feel for you in getting Kwench to where it is.

Every journey has to come to an end. Every new journey begins with a small step.

It’s goodbye for now.

New trails await. Onward!

The official press note on the acquisition follows:

SALT LAKE CITY, April 14, 2019 /PRNewswire/ — O.C. Tanner, the global leader in employee recognition and workplace culture, announced today it has acquired the recognition and rewards technology and business of Kwench, an India-based company that delivers cutting-edge, easy-to-use corporate recognition solutions. The agreement will combine the global footprint of O.C. Tanner and the software-as-a-service (SaaS) technology platforms of Kwench to enhance value to clients everywhere.

Kwench is a market leader in India and works with more than 500 companies across 63 countries.

“We’ve enjoyed tremendous success with our O.C. Tanner India team, and the addition of the Kwench team and technology will combine the strengths of two market leaders to help us better serve our collective client base,” said Dave Petersen, CEO of O.C. Tanner. “While we’ve largely focused on multinational clients, the Kwench focus has been primarily on companies headquartered in India, so this acquisition will fuel even greater growth.  We measure progress and success by how many employees and workplaces we can positively impact through our recognition programs and strategies – and we are very excited to welcome the Kwench team into our global organization.”

O.C. Tanner’s existing footprint in India, including a headquarters in Mumbai and a second location in Hyderabad, will be bolstered by Kwench’s local presence and nearly 50 employees.

“We are truly excited to join the O.C. Tanner family and see it as a perfect meeting of minds, culture and aspirations. It is indeed a validation of India’s market potential and Kwench’s capabilities that the world’s largest recognition company has chosen to make this acquisition,” said Sunder Nookala, CEO of Kwench.

“As one of the fastest-growing economies in the world, India is an exciting place for business today,” said Managing Director of O.C. Tanner India Zubin Zack. “Employee recognition is fast evolving as a key focus area as companies fight to attract and retain the best talent. These are exciting times for Kwench and O.C. Tanner to combine strengths and bring global best practices to the Indian market.”

About O.C. Tanner
O.C. Tanner is the global leader in software and services that improve workplace culture through meaningful employee experiences. Its Culture Cloud is a suite of apps and solutions, including recognition, service awards, wellbeing, leadership, and celebrations that help people thrive at work. O.C. Tanner provides these and other services for thousands of the most respected companies in the world. For more information visit

Media Contact
Lindsey Nikola

SOURCE O.C. Tanner

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The Section #377 Ruling: A new dawn for employee engagement


The Supreme Court ruling on the draconian British era-law has ushered in a new dawn for companies to better engage with their workforce. India Inc has responded wholeheartedly to this landmark ruling – calling it a ‘great victory’ for justice.

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Diversity and Employee Engagement

Research has proven that inclusive and diverse organisations tend to be the most successful ones as well.

However, the definition of what constitutes diversity has been fluid over the years.

While companies today are delving into the minutiae of encouraging diversity at the workplace by focusing even on matters like communication and thinking styles, sexual orientation has typically been a taboo. The data would suggest that diversity beyond gender and race – like that in sexual orientation and a global mindset would also likely bring some level of competitive advantage for firms.

Unseen effect of the Law:

In his classic essay “The Seen and the Unseen”, Frederic Bastiat refers to the hidden economic impact of events and decisions

Traditionally companies have focused on complying with various laws that govern equal opportunity in the workplace. While progress has been made in ensuring diversity based on gender, physical abilities and representation of backward classes – the law of the land dealing with homosexuality has always been a barrier to true inclusiveness.

With lack of clarity on the legal issues surrounding this topic, it has always been a challenge for the management of any company to take an open stand on the matter.

The power of diversity

 Diversity helps organisations to:

  • Win the War for Talent: Technology is having a massive impact on the type of talent that is now sought after by organisations. Even in emerging markets, the war for talent is intensifying. Restrictive laws on matters like sexual orientation can have a direct and indirect impact in excluding top talent for joining an organisation.
  • Strengthen Customer Orientation: The research points out that women and minority groups often have a significant impact on crucial consumer decisions. Having the ability to include members from all sections of society explicitly gives companies a competitive advantage in fine-tuning their customer orientation.
  • Increase Employee Satisfaction: Increasing diversity in the workplace reduces conflict between groups, has a positive impact on collaboration and increases loyalty to the organisation.
  • Improve Decision Making: Research has established that diverse groups often outperform ‘experts’. Diversity has a substantial positive impact on bringing in new perspectives and approaches to solving critical problems.
  • Enhance the company Image: Companies that are seen as being inclusive and socially responsible are also viewed as employers of choice. With a multi-generational workforce and global teams, this is becoming more important than ever.


Starting new conversations:

 The supreme court judgement marks the end of the first chapter in a long drawn out battle for social legitimacy by the LGBTQ+ community. Dynamic companies now have an opportunity to provide a massive boost to employee engagement and gain a competitive advantage by modifying their people policies to reflect this grand new reality.



  • Diversity Matters, McKinsey and Company, February 2015
  • This is the beginning of the end of prejudice: Supreme Court, 06 Sep 2018, LiveMint
  • India Inc applauds ‘great victory’ for justice, 06 Sep 2018, LiveMint


5 Tips to Better Engage with Millennial Managers


Millennials have long been a challenge for leaders who have been seeking to improve engagement and productivity in the workplace. With a preference for transparency, direct dialogue, better work-life balance, the millennials have challenged established organizational practices like no generation before them.

Now as the millennials take on managerial roles at the workplace, organizational leadership has to come up with strategies to better engage with them. Here are five tips based on what we at Kwench have learned from working with hundreds of companies on their employee engagement programs.

Tip 1: Listen Closely to your Millennial Managers.

Millennials are more candid at voicing their opinions, and they don’t necessarily seek anonymity to do so. Even in cultures where the power distance is higher as in India, the millennials are more likely to state their stand on issues upfront. Neither do they hesitate to show dissatisfaction by walking out of the organization. Surprisingly unlike previous generations, millennials don’t seem to change their approval of the organization as they move up the ladder (unless something changes fundamentally to alter their perception). Companies thus must institute mechanisms like open collaboration and communication platforms that adequately capture the opinions of the millennial managers and the vox millennia must be listened to.

Tip 2: Promote a culture of equality.

Studies have shown that millennials as a generational cohort demonstrate far higher levels of sensitivity to inequality than any of their predecessors. Managers in this generation like to win like anyone else, but they don’t necessarily agree to ‘win at all costs.” To better engage with managers of both genders from this generation, the workplace must be seen as one that is fair and equitable in all matters ranging from job allocations, pay, and promotions.

Tip 3: Get the employer branding right.

The millennial generation has proven to be one of the most astute and conscious generations when it comes to employer brand. One study shows that millennials who are proud to tell their friends and families about where they work are almost 20 times more likely to have an extended career with the company. Companies must thus use all means at their disposal to promote their brand internally to the employees as well. Technology platforms today let companies customize layouts and encourage employer branding in ways that were previously not possible. It is time for HR to take a page out of the Marketing team’s playbook and better engage with their ‘clients’ – the employees.

Tip 4: Leadership has to Walk the Talk

The millennials have demonstrated time and again that they prefer transparency over hierarchy. For millennial managers to be convinced of the direction the company is headed and thus to be able to better engage with their teams – they need to see authenticity from the leadership. In short, leaders now have to ‘Walk the Talk.’ When leadership tells their millennial managers that ‘they care,’ they better mean it. Research has shown that Millennials respond well to leaders who show a genuine interest in them.

Some of the questions most often asked of leaders by the millennial managers are:

What makes our company unique?
What makes us different and what do we do that will make us win ethically?
Why does leadership seem to say one thing and do another?
When the going gets tough, how do we stick to our stated principles?

Honest answers to these are the minimum threshold leadership needs to cross to convince Millennial managers to better engage further on with their teams.

Tip 5: Leverage Technology to facilitate bi-directional conversations

Millennials don’t like very much to be ordered around. They prefer to participate in conversations around topics, even if some of those are contentious and uncomfortable ones. Moreover, as a generation, they believe far lesser in power distance from the top management. As millennials move into management roles, they are increasingly showing a preference for platforms that enable them to receive real-time and transparent feedback not just from their superiors but also from their team members. Technology platforms like Instapat, today empower companies to get those conversations going seamlessly. This generation has been referred to as the ‘digital natives,’ subjecting them to formal, hierarchical unidirectional/top-down communication isn’t going to do much towards engaging them.

To sum up, I think the most uncomplicated framework leaders can use to better engage with their millennial managers is the one question asked by author Simon Sinek in his book ‘Start with Why’:

“Very few people or companies can clearly articulate WHY they do WHAT they do. By WHY I mean your purpose, cause or belief – WHY does your company exist? WHY do you get out of bed every morning? And WHY should anyone care?”

9 Aspects of Effective Employee Recognition

Employee Recognition is essential. Everybody gets that part. What goes into making recognition effective, however, is mostly guesswork. And that is not all bad – because there is no template for doing recognition right. What works for a young e-commerce start-up with 20 somethings hacking away day and night might not make sense for an SMB in the technology space and definitely won’t make sense for a large manufacturing conglomerate.

So yes, recognition is unique to the company, its work culture, its dynamics, and its value systems. But having said that, there are a few core aspects that one might consider while designing the Rewards and Recognition program, which would go a long way in making recognition more effective and help in building a culture of recognition at the workplace.

#1: Aligned with Values:

Recognition that is tied to actions or outcomes that align with organizational values has a far higher impact that one given in general. To know the difference, contrast the impact of a broadcast message saying “Shout out to the entire team that made our Annual Picnic happen” with “Hey Alice! Great work on solving that knotty bug with the customer form. Our largest customer just loved the blazing speed at which you fixed it.”

When employees know how their actions are impacting the overall organizational goals and when the recognition reinforces the alignment with value systems it helps drive desirable behavior.

#2: Instant and Relevant:

In today’s hyper-networked world where news, rumors, and memes spread like wildfire, it seems ridiculous that one would have to wait for a monthly town hall (if not a longer duration) to receive recognition for an achievement.

Recognition is more impactful when it is given soon after the action or achievement of the team member you wish to praise.

#3 Frequent:

The frequency of recognition, especially when married with point #1, has a big impact on shaping behavior in the workplace. This is one of the most crucial aspects to be considered when designing Rewards and Recognition programs. In most organizations, there is an established program around events – Annual Days, Founding Day, Monthly Town-halls when great work is recognized. And then there are the rewards around specific events like “Safety Week”, “Health Awareness Week” and so on.

Establishing a culture of recognition entails going beyond the limited opportunities offered by “events” to incorporating recognition as a part of daily work practices. When people managers (and peers) are empowered and encouraged to recognize good work, the concept of recognition gets instilled in the organizational culture.

#4 Managed Formality:

A lot of the awards that are currently included in organizational rewards and recognition program don’t focus on building connections. Employee of the Month/Quarter/Year has to be an award that does the most to divide rather than unite the employees. On some criterion (mostly subjective), people managers choose one person out a team and declare her to be the best among the lot. Not a lot going for engagement there!

Consider other formal awards like Long Service Awards celebrate just people for “being there” rather than performance. In the new world of work that doesn’t offer job security and requires constant reinvention, this is the equivalent of using a cuckoo-clock to tell you the time. Looks good, but not very practical.

On the other hand, personal one-one recognition helps to establish a connection between the giver and the receiver. When others can participate in the conversation (it’s all social these days) it adds to impact.

#5 Recognition Setting and Context:

Now that I have gone on and on about how “social” everything is these days, let me flip that idea on its head. Here is the truth: Not everyone likes the attention. The reason you are recognizing someone in the team is to make her feel special, and yet you can’t be bothered to consider her personality. Hmm…

So don’t go social blindly. Choose between a quiet note of appreciation left on the keyboard versus an announcement on your favorite social platform, depending on the personality of the recipient. But yes, one thing is common to all types – they like recognition to be personal, not boiler-plate.

#6 Significance of who is recognizing:

In organizations getting an appreciation from senior management is often seen as an achievement in itself – especially in the more staid, formal setups.

But here is the thing – you can’t fool the recipient. If the recognition is of a public nature, and broad-strokes, big-picture “you saved the company by fixing that big issue” type recognition then the higher up the ladder it comes from more the engagement. But if it is something that delves into the nuances of say assembly level code fix that changes the way the graphics accelerator chip renders 3D images a recognition by the reclusive senior architect might resonate far higher than one from the President of Sales. In fact, when it comes to personal recognition it seems Peer Recognition rates over Supervisor/Management recognition.


#7 Sincerity:

“Annie, Great job on that account”, “Richa, Great job on account Y”, “Vikram, Great job with our oldest account”, “Gita…” you get the picture. There are people managers of every hue. At one extreme are the ones who don’t see any value in recognizing, and at the other are the ones who jump in with boilerplate “Great Job” to all and sundry (or worse – are biased towards a certain set of team members).

The value of the recognition you give is correlated to the sincerity with which you give it (and it is very difficult to fake this). Scaling back on recognition is better than handing them out like candy.

#8 Value to the Recipient:

Coming back to the point of really knowing the person you are recognizing. Each team member is unique and so too is their perspective on the value of the recognition. Some value tangible things like trophies and medals over a citation whereas the others might be exactly the opposite. Some might want bragging rights in the office (e.g. a ceremonial cap/lanyard) which lets everyone identify them as a recipient of something special, while others might want a dinner voucher to take their spouse out for a great meal. If the recognition is to resonate, the format in which it is delivered must be thought through as well. Broad strokes approach rewards/recognition can’t drive engagement beyond the bare minimum in the long-term

#9 Peer Validation:

Appreciation and recognition by the superiors have always been valued, but as organizations become flatter, more competitive and roles become more amorphous and complex – peer validation of recognition has taken on a whole new level of importance.

The Last Word:

Your supervisor might feel that you have done a great job, but your peers really know how you did it! And when they show support for the recognition it is a true validation of the achievement. Technology today (did I mention ‘social’) lets everyone ‘participate in the discussion’ around individual recognition. Mass Mails followed by “Reply-all” spams have been replaced with social feed and likes/comments.


Applying Design Thinking to Employee Engagement


Design thinking is now taking center stage in improving Employee Engagement and Experience at the workplace. Marketers have long obsessed about the Customer Experience (CX) journey.  HR teams at leading companies are now adopting the same principles to better manage and improve the “Employee Experience”.

Continue reading “Applying Design Thinking to Employee Engagement”

Employee Engagement Strategies from Mom

I was down at the local supermarket today morning. As usual I was loitering in the candy and cookies section (a section that is supposedly off-limits for me) when a little girl ran into me and nearly knocked me over. She was so focused on some candies on a shelf way beyond her reach that she just didn’t see me standing there. A couple of hops and a full body stretch but she still couldn’t reach them.  I decided to help her and handed her a few. She gave the collection in my palm a very detailed check and nodded her head. She wanted the one with a bright yellow wrapper. And as soon I handed it over, she was off like a rocket. I shrugged and turned to get on with my grocery shopping. Seconds later she was back, a little out of breath. “Mommy says I have to say Thank you. Thank Youuu!”  A big impish smile and she was off again.

Be sure the next time I meet that girl in the store; I will sort through the entire rack to pick out as many yellow wrapper candies she wants me to.  The payoff: An impish smile and a thank you.

On my way back, I started thinking about all the stuff mothers teach kids. A whole lot of it sounds like best practices in employee engagement strategies. Here’s a quick refresher of stuff your mom already taught you (but then you forgot as you grew up in the big bad world)

Read the full post

#FridayVideo: Challenging Jobs as an Employee Motivator

I am starting a new series of short videos on Fridays (and hopefully will keep posting).

We would all love to have work that keeps up engaged and motivated. There are several dimensions to what drives engagement and the “job role” itself contributes very heavily to motivation levels. Put another way, if you are underpaid to do a lot of challenging work, you might still be pretty engaged (all startups pretty much work in this state) but if you are a smart person paid a ton of money to do nothing – chances are you will want to quit (fast!).

Here is the first in the Friday Videos series with some tips how managers can create Challenging roles to keep Employees motivated.

The Power of Story Telling: Get Employees Excited about your Company’s vision


Having a meaningful vision to work towards, is a strong source of motivation for employees. Companies can use the psychological underpinnings of story-telling to better communicate and reinforce the organizational vision.

Most workers, many of whom are millennials, approach a role and a company with a highly defined set of expectations. They want their work to have meaning and purpose. Gallup, SOAW 2017 Report.

Continue reading “The Power of Story Telling: Get Employees Excited about your Company’s vision”

When people Quit: Intelligent timely interventions can reduce employee attrition

A lot has been written about why employees quit; with people managers taking a brunt of the blame. But precious little has been discussed about the “when” and unsurprisingly managers can’t do much about most of those timings – or can they?

Continue reading “When people Quit: Intelligent timely interventions can reduce employee attrition”

Employee Recognition through Celebrating Failure.

Summary: Failures are bad. Learning from them is easy. Right? Well not quite. Organizations need better ways to go beyond superficial or self-serving learning and recognition might be just the right solution.


“I have not failed, I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work” – Thomas Alva Edison.

Continue reading “Employee Recognition through Celebrating Failure.”

n:gage Leader Speak August 2017: Interview with Archana Kumar

For this month’s n:gage interview I posed questions to Archana Kumar, CHRO at Ireo. A lot of leaders tend to have extensive experience in a particular industry – banking, IT, manufacturing.

Archana has had a fascinating career spanning over two decades (almost three) across multiple industries. She was also in the thick of two massive acquisitions (Reliance Industries and IPCL, CMC and TCS) – and we know how much fun those are for HR considering diverse work cultures in organizations.

This is one n:gage interview you wouldn’t want to miss!

Download your PDF copy here.

If you prefer to read online in our flash format head over here.

Money can’t buy happiness, but can it influence employee motivation?



Research has shown that more money doesn’t necessarily make employees happier. Money does seem to influence motivation – but is that impact positive or negative? The short answer is: we aren’t quite sure. The disclaimer? Yet!

Continue reading “Money can’t buy happiness, but can it influence employee motivation?”

The difference between Employee Satisfaction and Employee Engagement

Employee satisfaction and engagement are deceptively similar sounding attitudes when seen superficially. Many people tend to use these terms interchangeably but there are clear differences between these two and it is important for business leaders to know the nuances. In fact in some organizations, shaking up satisfied employees might be the key to growth!

Continue reading “The difference between Employee Satisfaction and Employee Engagement”

The ABC’s of Attitude, Cognitive Dissonance and Echo Chambers

Attitude, is a much used and equally abused word in daily life – both in the workplace and outside of it. It is often used to dismiss those who don’t ‘play along’ with broad stroke classifications of ‘having a wrong attitude’.

But therein lies the rub. Very few dig in deeper to understand what causes the positive or negative attitude. Take a moment to think about it – the attitude a person has is not something he is born with; it’s not something that is coded into his genetic material. So where does it come from?

Continue reading “The ABC’s of Attitude, Cognitive Dissonance and Echo Chambers”

n:gage Survey August 2017 (and you could get complimentary Amazon Gift vouchers)

The n:gage August 2017 survey is live. We are gathering opinions from professionals in India Inc. on what they think is the Impact of Rewards and Recognition on Employee Engagement.

Take the n:gage August 2017 Survey >>

This is a quick multiple choice survey and won’t take more than 3-5 minutes of your time. As always we look forward to your inputs and thanks in advance for spending the the time.

PS: In case are among the first 100 respondents to the survey who opt-in to be considered for the gift voucher code, you could win a Rs 50 Amazon Gift Voucher.

In case you don’t wish to participate in the survey, but still want to sign up for n:gage updates, please head over here

Mapping the Employee Engagement Grid


“Do you ever feel already buried deep
Six feet under, scream
But no one seems to hear a thing
Do you know that there’s still a chance for you
‘Cause there’s a spark in you
You just gotta ignite the light
And let it shine” – Firework, Katy Perry


In the previous post (Identifying Engaged Employees) we had taken a peek at the psychic and behavioral traits of an engaged employee. Now we go a step further and try to extend the same mapping logic to everyone and see what can we use to identify the degree of engagement across the workforce. This is obviously imperfect, after all engagement is a complex fluid phenomenon and can’t be boiled down to single digit values without being partially (or at times, completely) wrong. (After all employees aren’t products on an ecommerce website to be given star ratings on a scale of 1-5. You see how neatly I sneaked in an anti-bell curve appraisal comment there. More here)

At the same time, imperfect as it may be, it does give leaders some sense of what might be going on with their team members and helps them take action to intervene and fix the problem – useful when done in (near) real-time, and utterly useless when done as an annual exercise.

Continue reading “Mapping the Employee Engagement Grid”

Identifying Engaged Employees


There are only three measurements that tell you nearly everything you need to know about your organization’s overall performance: employee engagement, customer satisfaction, and cash flow. – Jack Welch

Almost everyone is in a perpetual quest to identify ‘engaged’ employees. Leaders want them so they can deliver results, HR wants them so leaders can deliver results, Team managers want them on their teams so they can meet targets and leaders can deliver results, Team members want them because … you get the picture.

Surely these rare creatures walk among us. So how does one identify those employees who are truly engaged – separate the wheat from the chaff metaphorically speaking.

Continue reading “Identifying Engaged Employees”

n:gage: Interview with Indraneil Roy, Head Strategic Hiring, Wipro Technologies.

In the June issue of n:Gage leader speak, Indraneil Roy, Head Strategic Hiring at Wipro Technologies weighs in with his views on the challenges faced by organizations in attracting (and retaining) top talent. I posed a range of questions from the challenges he sees in the current environment of uncertainty faced by the IT industry to managing diversity at the workplace.

Here’s a teaser

…at the very beginning the leadership in Wipro build a vision for having an all inclusive organization as diverse organization had better productivity, better connect with stakeholders and innovated better. We went ahead and hired a female board member so that the commitment was clearly visible across the organization. Also the leadership was involved with ensuring business objectives are enabled with D&I and every Business Head would ensure there is adherence to this policy. In parallel an equitable cultural environment was created with leaders driving it personally in their business units.

You can read the good old PDF version here or read the digital magazine version (requires Flash installed on your browser) here


Employee Engagement: Focus on the right Symbiont.

kwenchBlogBanner_RightSymbiont_I ain’t some dying dog that you can kick /
So f* off /
It’s so easy to fall into that hole /
And you’re the one who cast me in that role / (Social Parasite, Alice in Chains)

We often hear comparisons of organizations with organisms. In his book ‘The Living Company’, Arie De Gues compares companies to living organisms by arguing that just like them, companies learn, evolve and eventually cease to exist. The traditional view point of the contract between an employee and the organization/employer has been that of two principals who are inherently in conflict; but in order to maximize their self-interest they engage in co-operation with each other. Employee-employer relationships have come a long way from the Master-Slave days and so has the implicit contract between them.

Continue reading “Employee Engagement: Focus on the right Symbiont.”

Architecting Strategic Rewards and Recognition to reinforce Organizational Goals


There’s so many different worlds /
So many different suns /
And we have just one world /
But we live in different ones (Brothers in Arms, Dire Straits)

One of the biggest challenges faced by HR professionals is to design Rewards and Recognition programs that help align individual goals with that of the organization. A well designed program helps to align individual tasks and achievements with the overall business strategy of the organization and also reinforces organizational values in everyday activities. Companies can thus gain competitive advantage in the market place if their Rewards and Recognition programs are architected correctly through a complete understanding of business goals, organization structure, organizational culture and tailored to meet individual psychology. Continue reading “Architecting Strategic Rewards and Recognition to reinforce Organizational Goals”

FLIPping VUCA through Strategic Employee Recognition


Livin’ on the edge / You can’t stop yourself from fallin’/ Tell me what you think about your situation/ Complication, aggravation is getting to you

If chicken little tells you that the sky is fallin’/ Even if it wasn’t would you still come crawlin’ back again/ I bet you would my friend  

(Living on the Edge, Aerosmith)

It has become nearly impossible to access a news site off late without coming across a report or opinion piece on how layoffs are imminent in the Indian IT/ITeS sector. Experts, who understand this sector much better than I do, seem to attribute the negative sentiment among companies in the sector to rising protectionist sentiments in traditional markets, impending rise of AI and ML and subsequent loss of jobs to automation. Some even feel that the entire sector was ‘lazy’ and that the loss of jobs was a foregone conclusion. And all those share buy-back offers by IT majors? Now that simply has to be the ultimate proof that things aren’t going well at all!

If all this fearmongering makes you want to scream out loud, join the line. As Aerosmith put it so well – it feels a bit like ‘Living on the Edge’! Continue reading “FLIPping VUCA through Strategic Employee Recognition”

5 Employee Engagement tips from the Baahubali Saga

5 Employee Engagement tips from the Baahubali Saga





Baahubali 2: The Conclusion has been making waves at the box office. Everyone wanted to know why Kattappa killed Amarendra Baahubali. A story of intrigue, ambition, greed, love, loyalty and everything in between.

Like all good stories, there are nuggets of wisdom embedded in there that leaders can put to good use. So here are five employee engagement tips from the story. (Spoiler Alert: If you haven’t seen the movie, and are planning on seeing it, you might want to skip this post for now and come back later once you have seen the visual treat) Continue reading “5 Employee Engagement tips from the Baahubali Saga”

Engage with the gift of time


It’s just another manic Monday
I wish it was Sunday
‘Cause that’s my fun day
My I don’t have to run day
It’s just another manic Monday (Manic Monday, Bangles)

On a Monday morning most employees glance at their calendars for the week, see the myriad patchwork of colored blocks staring back at them from their chock-a-block calendars, heave a long sigh and head for the coffee machine in the hope that caffeine will make it all go away.

And this is just the ‘planned’ part of the week. Continue reading “Engage with the gift of time”

n:gage Leader Speak Series #2: Interview with Kavitha Balasubramanian, Director – Human Resources, GreenPoint Global


In the second issue of the Leader Speak series, we publish an interview with Kavitha Balasubramanian, Director – Human Resources, GreenPoint Global. Kavitha too responds to questions on the importance of recognition in engaging the modern workforce and the challenges she sees in implementing a successful engagement strategy.



An excerpt:

Many companies set ad-hoc goals for recognition and often fail to achieve them I believe that the goals must be articulated well enough for them to be achieved.

First and foremost, an overall philosophy that needs to be defined and have the buy in of all stakeholders. This needs to be followed up with a well thought out strategy, process, goals and tasks to achieve those goals.


To read the complete interview please go here or copy the URL ( into your browser.

In case you have difficulty in accessing our digital magazine, you can download a PDF version here

To make sure you don’t miss any of the insights we bring you under n:gage, please do sign up for the series updates here and spread the word among colleagues who you think would be interested in learning from top leaders of India Inc.

n:gage Leader Speak Series: Interview with Anirban Das, CPO, Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan














The n:gage banner has been around for a couple of years now. We have done surveys, banners, a couple of eBooks in the past but it has been always a bit sporadic. We are now changing that and making n:gage our overarching theme for all the exciting information out there in the world of Employee Engagement – with a focus on India.

Starting this month we bring you the Leader Speak Series – where we reach out to top HR professionals and business leaders to get their opinions and ideas on how to better n:gage with the workforce in today’s (extremely) challenging business environment.

LeaderSpeak_AnirbanDas_In the first issue of the series, Anirban Das, CPO, Lakshmikumaran and Sridharan responds to some questions I posed him in an email interview.

His detailed responses have nuggets of wisdom that are very relevant – especially to those in the services industry. To read the interview please go here or copy the URL ( into your browser.

In case you have difficulty in accessing our digital magazine, you can download a PDF version here

I hope you enjoy reading the interview and have useful takeaways from it. The second interview under the series will follow shortly as well, stay tuned for that.

To make sure you don’t miss any of the insights we bring you under n:gage, please sign up for the series updates here



Building ‘Antifragile’ organizations through recognition


“Antifragility is beyond resilience or robustness. The resilient resists shocks and stays the same; the antifragile gets better.” – Nassim Nicholas Taleb

 Organizations are not very different from living organisms – they are born, learn, evolve and die (sooner or later). If one were to take the analogy one level deeper, employees would be cells and you could (in some ways) compare teams to the organs – where people come together to do a particular function.

Companies that do well over a long period of time will need to survive shocks that the markets throw at them ever so often. Fragile companies will fall apart on shocks whereas the robust ones will survive. The winners however will be the ‘Antifragile’ ones that learn from the shocks, adapt and come out stronger. Continue reading “Building ‘Antifragile’ organizations through recognition”

Candies or Charcoal: What is Santa rating your engagement skills as?


You better watch out, you better not cry
Better not pout, I’m telling you why
Santa Claus is comin’ to town
He’s making a list and checking it twice
Gonna find out who’s naughty and nice
Santa Claus is comin’ to town

(Santa Claus Is Comin’ To Town, Lonestar)

Children around the world are told all year round that if they misbehave, On Christmas day Santa will skip the candies and give them charcoal instead.When companies carry out their annual employee engagement surveys, some managers too get their lumps of charcoal. Surveys and studies comes back with the clear message that ‘People leave managers, not companies

Continue reading “Candies or Charcoal: What is Santa rating your engagement skills as?”

Peer Appreciation: The big happiness booster!

Recognition. We all want it, we all take steps to get it and we all feel good when someone gives it to us.

Recognition can be something as simple as a pat on the back for a job well done, a sincere compliment about something we did well, or just being noticed for the hard work we put into our tasks.

This validation of our efforts is important in all aspects of our lives, and can be especially vital in the workplace. Continue reading “Peer Appreciation: The big happiness booster!”

3 tips to ‘power-up’ timely recognition at the workplace.


Employee recognition is an extremely effective way to empower your best workers. Whether you recognize an employee with a raise or just a quick email, it’s important to let employees know when they’re doing well. However, recognition alone isn’t enough. Continue reading “3 tips to ‘power-up’ timely recognition at the workplace.”

4 smart ways to engage with Millennials in India


The psyche, work ethic and life choices of millennials are dissected and discussed continually by everyone from opinion columnists to psychologists to economists.

The millennial generation, whose members, born from 1980 to 2000, grew up during an unparalleled digital revolution, has a unique position in history, coming of age simultaneously with the rise of the internet, social media and all the other huge technological and communication advances we’ve seen in the past few decades.

These advances brought with them globalization, drawing the world in closer contact, and opening up new lifestyle and employment possibilities unimaginable just years before.

Because millennials grew up in an age of such progress and possibility, there is a lot of talk about how to engage them in the workforce.

By 2020, millennials are projected to make up 50 percent of the global workforce, and a whopping 75 percent by 2025.

In India for example, a country of over one billion, nearly 65 percent of the population will be of working age by 2026. This striking number of individuals will not only drive India’s progress, but also supply human capital around the world.

Companies around the globe are aiming to provide the kind of work environments that attract and motivate millennials.

Of course, not all millennials can be painted with the same brush; culture plays a huge role in motivational factors and personality.

In that case, what are some key motivators for Indian millennials?

Titles and avenues for progression

Millennials in India are ambitious and conscious of titles. Providing an organizational structure with designated roles and the opportunity for upward movement is key.

Mentor programs

Mentors make millennials feel valued and looked after by an organization. Effective mentor programs show fresh employees there is a path to promotion, and give them guidance for continued success along the way.

Skill development

Millennials have grown up in a society that is constantly reminding them of the need to stay relevant. Many do not want to stay in one role, or even one place, for too long. Offering training programs and skill development courses which allow them to multi-task and fulfill a variety of roles over time will keep them engaged.

Feedback and recognition

Communication with management is vital for millennials. They want to feel challenged and recognized, in order to feel they are an integral part of the organization, and that they are making a positive difference within the company. Give constructive criticism when improvement is needed, but make sure to equally dole out praise for a job well done.

Millennials, with all their quirks, are here to stay in a big way.

Therefore, it’s imperative to harness their collective power, understand what makes them tick, and motivate them for maximum productivity, on their terms.

Here is Sanjay Behl, CEO Raymond with his thoughts in the BusinessWorld Kwench HR Masterclass on how to engage the Millennials.

Do leave your thoughts and comments in the section below. I would love to hear your opinions on the topic.

Related Posts:

Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 1 – the Hero Generation)

Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 2 – The chasm)

Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 3 – The strategies)

10 Ways to Truly Appreciate Your Employees


The first Friday of March is Employee Appreciation Day!

Great! But I have always wondered why we need to have ‘Day’s’ to do what you should be anyway be doing every single day of the year? And how is it supposed to work if you are a crabby boss all year round and host a team lunch on this one day?

Well frankly it won’t. But don’t despair: all is not lost!  Continue reading “10 Ways to Truly Appreciate Your Employees”

The one BIG idea for Employee Engagement in 2016!

Looking for one transformational idea for Employee Engagement in 2016? kfit: the Employee Health and Wellness platform from Kwench might be just what you are looking for!

I have always dreaded the last week of December. Christmas and New Year get-together and cake eating binges aside, there is always the dreaded mental review of another year gone by.

Ever since I landed up on the wrong side of 30, “Loose Weight” and “Exercise Regularly” have been on top or near top of my New Year Resolutions list and are always the items with a red cross against them in my year-end review. And somewhere along the year I would have inevitably invested in exercise gear that cost way more than I could afford, gym memberships that cost even more than the above mentioned exercise gear, and last year even a high-end water-proof watch – you know, for when I do the 25 laps in the pool. Several consecutive years of this pattern, and tens of thousands of Rupees later – I was fed up.

So I did what was seemed most obvious thing to do – I headed to the café and discussed my problem with others! (With a large latte and a chocolate donut on the side). Now what is interesting is that the story seemed to be pretty common across people I talked to. With all the stresses of just barely balancing daily work and family life, exercise and diet more often than not takes a back seat. Even drinking adequate amounts of water can be a challenge and the sugar in all the cups of coffee reflects pretty quickly on the waistline – if not worse! My colleagues at Kwench pretty much confirmed the challenges and so did a lot of our friends, family and even clients to whom we posed the question.

There is no doubt about it. The more we asked around the more it seemed that India Inc. has a serious health problem. We dug around for some data and this is what we found.





Well that’s just one part of the problem. You see from an organizational perspective, there is a lot at stake when the wellbeing of its workforce is not quite up to the mark. Loss of productivity due to more sick days, absenteeism and worse presenteeism.

If there is so much at stake for both the employee and the employer, why don’t Workplace Wellness programs work? Research on enterprise wellness programs by Guidespark reveals the top reasons why these programs don’t achieve the required results. While ~70% of employees feel that wellness is important, less than 10% actually take full advantage of such programs. Employees don’t participate or the end results are not as expected because they are too busy with work, the programs don’t suit their lifestyle or that they are not fully aware of what is on offer. Almost half of them felt that their biggest wellness challenge was insufficient activity followed by stress and poor nutrition.

Clearly any wellness initiative that hopes to succeed in the workplace must have a solution to all if not most of these issues.

One of the really cool things of working at Kwench is that problems are not left unattended for too long. Anything that touches on Employee Engagement obviously piques our interest. And if we think we can use technology to fix that problem them it excites us to no end.

We took the problem, pondered over it, did our homework, drew the sketches, put the engineers and designers into one big room to do their magic and created kfit – a comprehensive employee health and wellness platform that leverages the magic of social, gamification and mobility to help companies raise the health quotient of their workforce. kfit uses micro interventions coupled with technology to bring about positive and long lasting behavioral change.

Excited? We sure hope so, because we are very excited about the possibilities this platform holds in transforming the health and wellness landscape of Corporate India.

If you are looking for one BIG idea for your Employee Engagement program for 2016, then look no further.

If you want us to get in touch and explain more about how kfit can help transform your company’s wellness, please send us an enquiry.

If you want to know more, here is a quick guide to why this is the one BIG Idea, that you can download and it is titled (Surprise, Surprise): The One BIG Idea for Employee Engagement in 2016!



Oh and I am glad to say this year I won’t be putting a cross against “Loose Weight” and “Exercise Regularly” on my resolution list from Jan ’15.

2016 promises to be a whole new year – in more ways than one! Join us in changing the world – one step at a time!

PS: Reminder – Get in touch with us and we will be glad to talk about Employee Engagement Ideas for 2016!


Ongoing Conversations: Time to Bring Stay Interviews to the Fore

interview: /ˈɪntəvjuː/ noun
a meeting of people face to face, especially for consultation.

It is that time of the year. Annual performance appraisals are underway. The dreaded bell-curves will be created. Feedback sessions will be held with employees and then the resignations will come pouring in. And here is something that I have always found hilarious: when employees leave they are asked to attend an exit interview – or worse fill out a form – conducted by a junior employee who clearly would be just checking some boxes.

So lets see: there are multiple rounds of interviews when the employee applies to the company for a position. A single (perfunctory) round when the employee leaves. And here is ‘funny’ part – no “interviews” during her entire stint, which might run into decades! Somehow like a bad marriage the conversation just seems to dry up between the employee and her manager(s) till it really is too late.KwenchBlog_StayInterview_Banner1_

Most managers seem to be flummoxed when they get the resignation email (or instant message at times) from their team members. They seem to have no idea how the employee really felt about the work they were doing and often get upset about the resignation. Reactions range from ‘Nobody is indispensable’ to the nasty – refusing to accept the resignation, refusing to release the resource, making the exit of the employee as painful as possible citing pending projects that absolutely need to be completed.

The really smart managers avoid this situation by actively engaging their employees in a continuously ongoing conversation about their work, the organization, their engagement levels, challenges they face and everything else in between. That is, these managers conduct stay interviews regularly, get the pulse of what the employees are thinking and act on it!

First the Do-Not’s:

Do not couple with performance reviews: This is tempting and in fact many companies already do it;  but in my opinion it is not a good idea. An annual performance review in itself is an inefficient event and understandably stressful for both the employee and the manager – siince there would be a lot of ground to cover and there is bound to be differences of opinion of what did or did not happen in that time. Besides the employee is going to be focused on a single number – the rating on the bell curve and would hardly be giving honest and unbiased opinions on how they feel about work and the organization.

Do not outsource: It might be tempting to setup an online survey or tell HR to conduct the stay interviews, but that simply defeats the purpose. The primary objective of a stay interview is to determine the engagement level and immediate concerns of the team member – something that is best understood (and appreciated) by the immediate manager. Immediate supervisor(s) or someone higher up in the direct chain of command of the employee must conduct stay interviews.

Do not cherry-pick: There is no two ways about this. You have to talk to everyone in your team while doing the stay interviews. If you talk only to a select set of people – what ever be the criterion you decided, it will be perceived as discriminatory. If at this point you are wondering about how to talk to the 50 odd people reporting to you, then you have a different problem. If your span of control is more than 10, fix that first!



Now the Do’s:

Do look for what “makes ‘em tick”: Talk to everyone on your team, especially the high performers and try to ascertain attributes that make them successful. If the only common thing you can find is that they are all smokers and join you in the smoker’s zone, then you might want to take a deep look inwards. Jokes apart, find out what motivates the top performers about working for the company, how do they tackle the challenges that others are not able to, etc. This information is not only helpful for you to guide the less engaged employees but also useful when deciding new hires.

The magic of engagement does depend a lot on the personality match of the employee with the organizational culture. For example if the culture is in-your-face-aggressive then hiring the most qualified introvert won’t really help.

Do use the same questions: Ask everyone you are talking to the same set of questions. Only then will you be able to determine the differences across top performers and the rest and be able to help the others engage better.

Do wrap it up quickly: Don’t extend the exercise beyond a couple of weeks at maximum. If you take a few months to get around to talking to everyone lots of things would have changed – most of which would be out of your control. The stay interviews are like a snapshot of the present and it should be done quickly enough to be a true representation of what your team is thinking.

Do close the loop: The sales professionals live by the ABC mantra – Always Be Closing. Well it applies to you too – take the feedback you receive (directly and what the collated data tells you) seriously. The zone of engagement depends on the overlap of what the organization and the employee wants, and if your insights can help increase the overlap – everyone wins! (See the figure above)

The final word: Remember, stay interviews give you an opportunity to connect with and take genuine interest in what motivates and engages your team members. If you come across as just ticking off boxes, then a golden chance would be missed. You couldn’t do much worse than having a 1-hour conversation, take notes and then do absolutely nothing.



Bouncing Back (when you get the boot!)


On a street level, I’ve heard that losing your job is like a death in the family. But personally, I feel more like the people I worked with were my family and I died. (Terminated Employee, Up In The Air, 2009)

Lets face it – ‘It’ happens. You get called into a conference room. You boss is sitting there with a sombre face, so is the lady from HR. Maybe you saw it coming or maybe you didn’t. Bottom line, you are out of a job! It doesn’t matter if George Clooney delivered the message to you or not – this is the end of your daily routine as you knew it.

In India there (unfortunately) continues to be a stigma attached to losing one’s job. You resign and you are a hero – “showing the big bad management who is boss”, you get terminated and suddenly you are persona-non-grata! You can’t do much about the social dynamics, but what you can do is go about finding a new (hopefully better) job without falling apart.

The journey from the time you were handed over your termination notice (in whatever colour of paper) to the time you get an appointment letter can be short and painless or long, drawn out and depressing – the choice is entirely yours. I call it the 4C process.

4CProcess_Contextualize: Take some time out and put the situation in context. Try and understand why you were asked to leave. Maybe the entire department was made redundant or an entire product line was shut down, and there was nothing you could do about it. Maybe the company ran out of funds for future research and all it needed was people to man the call-centers leaving no room for a hot-shot engineer. Or then again maybe it was you. Possibly you were in the wrong position, you didn’t quite enjoy what you were doing and that eventually showed or in an extreme case your boss just didn’t like you and he screwed you over.

Bottom line is: get over the initial pain and impulse to lash out and think it through. Logout of your twitter and facebook accounts for a few days. Lashing out at your (now former) employers on social media is the worst thing you could do. Talk to your closest friends and take your family into confidence.

Correct: Once you figure out what went wrong, accept it and move quickly to fix it. If you conclude that there was nothing much you could do in the first place (CEO went on an acquisition spree and company ran out of cash) then there might be little for you to change right away other than read the papers in the future and get out of the company in time. On the other hand if you think you need to reskill – either in your domain or in soft skills – do it! Go attend a few coaching sessions, read a few books, watch videos, ask your friends and family to help you out.

An important aspect to correct at this point is your own perception of ‘limitations’ – You can only work in IT, you can only work in an office, you can only work in Mumbai.

Ask yourself why – brutally!

You have worked only in IT in the past. So what? You are sales professional!

You can only work in an office? Why? Telecommuting is the least stressful way of working.

You can work only in Mumbai? Are those friends whom you think you will miss looking for a job as well?

Take your personal “Only” list and tear into it!

Connect: Once you have done the first two stages diligently and honestly, you are now ready to hit the job market. Logon to your social media accounts especially LinkedIn and carefully craft your profile. This is a good time to not indulge in loose talk, stay away from commenting on controversial topics and keep focused. Companies are looking for professionals not loose canons.

Get your profile (and posts) checked by someone you know has good language skills – typos and bad grammar are big killers in a job search! Be upfront with your friends and connections (without being desperate and pushy) and ask them for help in scouting for openings.

Add the new skills you have acquired. Start posting or blogging about topics you want to be known as being good at. Contribute to forums and online discussions. Take up part-time roles/projects. Freelance. But don’t do nothing and just spam everyone with your resume’ – that approach as they say is #BigFail!

Research companies you would like to work for figure out positions that may open that those firms and apply. This might be a good time to take a contrarian view and look at dynamic young start-ups where your skills are useful. Avoid the parental trap of “secure job in a big company” – there is no such thing anymore. Flipkart was not offering a ‘secure job’ in a ‘big company’ in 2008!

Now this stage might drag on for some time – much longer than you expected. Be mentally prepared and don’t lose your cool and your manners. If someone sets up an interview for you and you don’t get the job, have the courtesy to still thank your friend for the effort. An important aside is to avoid getting bogged down. Exercise, stay connected with your friends, and socialize to ensure that you don’t go into a ‘cave’ overwhelmed with the job search process.

Capitalize: Finally you see light at the end of the tunnel – People are looking at your LinkedIn profile and possibly job offer(s) are already coming your way. This is the time to (again) take a deep breath and capitalize on your experiences. Maybe you don’t like political bosses and the next one seems just the type. Do you really want to take up the offer? You might be tempted to capitulate depending on your personal circumstances, but don’t let EMI’s drive your decision. Would you take that job if you didn’t have to pay the EMI for your fancy car? Do you really need that car right now? You might need to go back to the ‘Contextualize’ and ‘Correct’ stages and take another look at your drivers for taking up the new job.

Getting terminated is not the end of the world. It is a small bump in a long journey. Instead of shutting yourself off from everyone, this is the time to take solace and support from your friends and family. (You will be surprised at how approachable your retired father, who has worked only for one company ever, is on the topic) Hopefully with the 4C process you will come out stronger and land that job you never knew you would like so much!

PS: Certain parts of this post, were quoted in an article in the Economic Times:


Image courtesy of iosphere at

[Webinar] Best Practices in Compensation and Benefits


Radhika Singh joined Tata Steel as the Head of Total Rewards for the group. Prior to Tata Steel, Radhika led Rewards for the Oil and Gas and SCM (manufacturing and sourcing) business of General Electric (GE) – South Asia. At GE, Radhika worked on several initiatives in the areas of variable pay harmonization, flexible benefits launch, harmonization of allowances and employee branding of total rewards and workmen compensation. Radhika also worked with Exl Service and Aon Hewitt . Radhika is a post graduate from the London School of Economics and Political Science (LSE), and has completed her graduate studies from Lady Shri Ram College, Delhi University.

Ms Pratichi Choudhary heads Global Compensation & Benefit and HRIS for Wipro BPS. She has been working with Wipro since 2003 and has experience in all HR Verticals – Talent Acquisition, HR Operations, HR Analytics & Business HR. Prior to working with Wipro, she was working with TCIL. Pratichi is a Post Graduate in Human Resources and has a total experience of 15 years.

Mr Purushottam Singh has overall 15+ years of experience in Human Resources. Joined CSC in 2004 from one of the top Confectionery companies Cadbury India. Handled factory HR including recruitment, training, TPM implementation, Recognition Model, Skill-will matrix, Union negotiations, and liaison with Govt. authorities. Have done multiple roles in CSC starting with college hire program, MIS & reporting, SAP HR & Financials implementation, Automation of HR, Implementation of shared services at Chennai , lead for Compensation and program management for HR transformation.

Webinar Registration Details:

Thursday, February 26, 2015 at 1500hrs.

Theme: “Best Practices in Compensation & Benefits”

Registration URL:

A Pareto Curveball on Employee Performance

ID-100176404I can’t feel nothing but this chain that binds me/Lost track of how far I’ve gone/ How far I’ve gone, how high I’ve climbed/On my back’s a sixty pound stone/ On my shoulder a half mile of line (The Rising, Bruce Springsteen)



Curveball: a slow or moderately fast baseball pitch thrown with spin to make it swerve downward and usually to the left when thrown from the right hand or to the right when thrown from the left hand

The “Bell-Curve” has been the mainstay of performance ratings for a very long time now. The distribution of employee performance is forced to align with the assumption that the organization has a few high performers, a few low performers and a vast majority clustering around the ‘average’ performance level. The whole idea of trying to fit everyone on to a ‘bell-curve’ is thus based on the assumption that performance in an organization tends towards ‘average’ – and I guess you can immediately spot the inherent problem with this assumption.

No organization would like to be configured to be average; yet, everything from compensation distribution to employee engagement strategies continues to be guided by this basic rule of thumb.

Popularity or Performance?

The rather uncomfortable question that needs to be asked is what is the core driver behind the performance evaluation numbers/ranking? Increasing the rewards substantially between the top performers and the rest raises the possibility of a vast majority being disgruntled. Rewarding a few much more than the rest poses challenges for traditional notions of fairness and equality in the workplace. Not making enough distinction removes the incentive to strive for better performance – especially for the outliers.

The crux of the issue lies in the question: what portion of the employees is actually driving the business results.

In an a series of interesting studies, involving 633,263 researchers, entertainers, politicians, and athletes – researchers Ernest O’Boyle Jr. and Herman Aguinis concluded that performance follows a power law distribution more closely than a Gaussian distribution. Put in other words – a few outliers are responsible for a majority of the output.

Pareto’s rule, a popular example of power law distribution – is often referred to as the “80-20 rule” i.e. 80% of the output can be attributed to 20% of the causes. Often subjected to abuse, this ‘rule’ still remains an easy way of summing up the conclusions of the power law distribution.

This insight has interesting challenges for how HR will deal with evaluating employee performance and contribution in the future.

In a traditional setup, the typical manager grapples with one or more of following while doing an evaluation:

  • Lack of clear quantifiable goals for the employee: Goal setting, an exercise often considered a mere formality and carried out with minimal participation from the employee and the manager comes back to haunt both when its time to evaluate performance.
  • Lack of a proper understanding of ground-realities: Managers are humans and are victims of their own perceptions. In the absence of intelligent means to capture customer and peer feedback combined with the previous point of incorrect or inadequate goal, managers often have an incorrect or skewed opinion of performance – especially in large teams.
  • Directive from HR to fit team into a bell curve: Small wavelets build up into a large wave, but small bells don’t make a big bell! The basic requirement that every team must have a Gaussian distribution borders on statistical absurdity – but continues to be a popular practice.
  • Fear of (increased) attrition: The team member has been working on the customer account for most of the year. The training is time consuming and team members take almost a month to start contributing. Too low a rating might increase attrition and the manager will need to find replacements – which will again need to be trained! Putting everyone near average is much safer from the manager’s perspective.

The ‘Bell-Curve’ to some extent lets the manager play-it-safe with his evaluations. A Power-Law assumption takes away that safety-net increasing emphasis on getting the evaluations spot-on. Put another way – the Gaussian assumption lets the organization be popularity focused and dilutes engagement, while the Power-Law assumption goes to the other extreme and focuses heavily on performance – posing a major challenge to established notions of engagement.

It might seem tempting to abandon the existing (flawed) system of force fitting employee performance ratings into a Bell-Curve in favour of a Power-Law distribution, but such a move would be fraught with potential pitfalls.

 Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.

Remember that much of employee disengagement revolves around a sense of justice and fairness. The organization should not only do but also be seen as providing the required tools and facilities for the employee to succeed at the task, the organization should able to and also be seen as being able to correctly evaluate how the employee is performing at the task and then finally the organization should and also be seen as adequately recognizing the contribution made by the employee. Stumbling on one or all of these will lead to employee disengagement sooner or later.

In the power-law distribution a vast majority of the organization will be rated as “below average” The new assumption in no way implies that an organization should be only made up of only top performers – in the long run this is impractical for organizations of any size. The useful insight that can be gleaned from the new distribution is distinguishing between the employees who are vital and those who are not. Alarming as it may sound, when taking decisions of whom to retain or promote, making this distinction becomes a critical success factor.

Performance systems that can highlight top performers serve as powerful tools in the hands of HR and leadership of companies looking to engage with their employees and establish a culture of high performance. The impact of interventions based on inputs from a power-law trend of individual performances will expectedly be far higher and more meaningful compared to traditional systems. The challenge however will be eliminate bias in the evaluation – the impact of any such bias will be disproportionately higher in a Paretian distribution, with potentially disastrous consequences – a true curveball!

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

The bell curve is a myth – most people are actually underperformers, Michael Kelly, May 2012, BusinessInsider

The Best and the Rest: Revisiting the Norm of Normality of Individual Performance, HRMA Research Briefing.

5 predictions about Employee Engagement in 2015


It’s the almost the end of 2014 and we have seen momentum building in the world of Employee Engagement. The approach is maturing. More people are actually talking about it as a strategic requirement. Growth is picking up in markets across the world.

Employees matter more than ever. Workforces are now a complex mix of generational cohorts in transition. Based on what I have seen – trends, surveys, feedback from our (rather large) client base, and the “buzz” we hear, I am going to take a stab at predicting the five things I expect to happen in the world of Employee Engagement in 2015.

The quick list:

  1. The Bell-Curve will still rule (and continue to disengage)
  2. SaaS adoption will increase in HR, especially in world of Employee Engagement.
  3. Gamification will make inroads into mainstream processes but diffusion will hurt impact.
  4. Health and Wellness will (finally) become an Employee Engagement topic.
  5. Employee Engagement will go beyond just handing out Rewards.


5_PredsEE_2015_LowRes copy 2The more colorful fun (and detailed) version is here (Use the Presentation Mode, its really awesome)

The downloadable single image version is here. (Feel free to chop into pieces and use in your own presentations etc. I only ask that you link back to this post or the kwench website)


Employee Alignment-Zone: “The Time Element”

The Architect – Precisely. As you are undoubtedly gathering, the anomaly is systemic, creating fluctuations in even the most simplistic equations.

 Neo – Choice. The problem is choice. (Matrix Reloaded, 2003)

On this blog and in quite a few conversations, I have pointed out the risks of overtly relying on cohorts or grouping of employees to formulate an employee engagement strategy. Using segments and cohorts to understand broad behavior and drivers of engagement is okay, but trying to engage the individual based only on those conclusions is not the best approach.

As ‘Neo’ puts it in the movie Matrix Reloaded , the ‘problem’ is Choice or to be more accurate, in this case – individuality. Every employee is an individual with her own priorities, preferences, fears and responsibilities.


Work, forms an important part of an employees life – and the emphasis I place is on ‘part’ and not on ‘important’ because that aspect is the one that often gets missed out when employee engagement strategies or initiatives are designed. As an individual with family, friends, interests, hobbies, ambitions and aspirations – responsibilities at work represent just a fraction of the things that matter to the employee.

There are a bunch of things that are important to the employee (health, financial well being, spending time with family, a social life, learning new things, new experiences) and there are things are important to the organization (employee well being, profits, playing an important role in the society, innovation).

When an employee is at work, he is operating in the intersection of these two spheres – there are things that matter to him which align with what matters to the organization. When this overlap is driven by the correct factors (alignment on the larger picture, the direction the company is taking, quality of work, the work culture etc.), there is a zone of alignment that is sustaining (and empowering).


When what matters to the organization (as perceived by the employee) starts to drift away from what matters to the employee as an individual, this overlap reduces, the zone of alignment starts to shrink and becomes unsustainable. This is when disillusionment sets in eventually leading to Disengagement if corrective measures are not taken.


Too much of something:

The logical question that follows is what when there is perfect alignment – shouldn’t that be the ideal state? To borrow (somewhat incorrectly) from that age-old adage, “Too much of anything isn’t good for you”

A situation where an individual is completely (and only) aligned with what matters for the organization makes him dysfunctional in other things that should matter to him. If the last line reminds you of the uptight, always-on-the-edge, hard driving, ranting and screaming executive, you are bang-on.


The other (unintended) consequence of such a situation is that individual then subsumes his discretion to what seems best for the organization. Being too focused on one aspect inevitably leads to a myopic vision of what is correct. It is the healthy balance of all aspects in ones life that helps drive a balanced approach towards challenges – both personal and at work.

A ‘super-mom’ I know uses negotiation skills learnt at work with her 1-year-old infant (works most of the time) and then takes the lessons learnt from handling the concerns of parents, her husband, siblings back to work to engage with her multi-generational team. Imagine what would happen if she tried a time-sheet driven approach with her infant or never took time out to spend time with her parents or spouse but focused only fixing “issues” at work (of which there never seems to be any dearth).


The Time Element:

Unlike organizations, what ‘matters’ to an individual is in a state of flux. I am not talking of value systems, or ambitions – those are (hopefully) rather fixed. I am referring to the drivers of what is a priority. Companies and Institutions have stated goals at time of creation and (usually) those drive everything they do. People on the other hand have changing preferences and changing events and these affect the overlap and consequently the alignment they have with the organization.


If the organization stays rigid on how it interacts with the employee, then the extent of alignment is bound to change. Again an increased degree of alignment is not necessarily a good thing.

A few years ago I got chatting with a senior executive at a party. He was really good what he did, and totally disengaged. He was so efficient at what he did that the organization was reluctant to consider what his own personal aspirations were and had kept him doing the same thing for years on end. “The Gap of Disengagement” was very clear and he was looking to quit because he realized that by staying on he was damaging himself and the organization through his disengagement. I ran into him two years later in a busy airport and was surprised that he was still with the same organization in the same role. When I quizzed him, he confessed that he was still disillusioned but a personal crisis had made it impossible for him to look for other possibilities. His efficiency gave him more time at home and so he compromised his ambitions to stay on with his employer. The executive’s alignment with his employer had increased, but it was driven purely by convenience.

Smart organizations would avoid this situation by being aware of various dimensions of what drives each employee. DIY Pulse surveys are a good way; Managers who listen to their team members and do something about their concerns are even better.

A static employee engagement program is not enough neither is a “one-size-fits-all” approach. Like ‘generically designed’ antibiotics can have unexpected nasty side-effects in patients, employee engagement strategies designed for ‘masses’, ‘cohorts’ or ‘segments’ can induce the reverse effect. The pharmaceutical industry has woken up to the importance of pharmacogenomics to counter the ill effects of ‘universal-design’ for medicines – its time for HR professionals to follow suit.


Post title inspired by the Twilight Zone series (1958)

Impact of Role Relevance-Competence Fit on Engagement

Every hour and every day I’m learning more/The more I learn, the less I know about before/The less I know, the more I want to look around/Digging deep for clues on higher ground (Higher Ground, UB40)

In my post yesterday I talked about the ABC Drivers of Intrinsic Motivation. (Achievement, Belief and Camaraderie). A sense of achievement is something you derive by, among other things, being in the job/role that is right for you and then being very good at it.

The 2×2 grid (yes, blame it on the B-school stint) below shows how where you lie on the Role-Relevance and Role-Competency axes will determine your sense of achievement.

RRRC_Matrix_Relevance:Low, Competence:Low – Disengaged Employee: If an employee is in the third quadrant i.e he is placed in a role that he doesn’t like and also does not have the skills to perform then he is effectively being setup for failure and will be highly disengaged as he has little motivation to do a good job. If an employee finds himself in this situation then it is a failure of the organization and specially his immediate supervisors more than his own.

Relevance:Low, Competence:High – Efficient Employee: If an employee finds that he has a role that he doesn’t like but is good at then he is efficient at his job but is not engaged. He will do assigned tasks well and deliver on time, but will not be motivated to put in discretionary effort. Good managers can make a difference by listening and understanding what truly motivates their team members and finding a way to move them from Q1 to Q2 or Q3

Relevance:High, Competence:Low – Motivated Employee: When an employee is in a role or team which he wants to be in but is not trained for then he is motivated (but not competent). By providing the right training and support, employees who are in this quadrant can be easily moved into the ideal situation – into Q2.

Relevance:High, Competence:High – Engaged Employee: This is when employees are motivated to give their best to the job. They are in a role they want to be in and have the required training and competence to deliver results. When employees are in this quadrant, their sense of achievement is the maximum.

 Companies on the 2013 list of Fortune 100 Best Companies to Work for, offered 66.5 hours of training annually for salaried employees, with around 70% of those hours devoted to employees’ current roles and nearly 40% focused on growth and development.

Organizations that are not bound by rigid hierarchies and siloed org-structures have the flexibility to, better engage their employees by investing in training and having the opportunity to move them to roles they prefer. These are exactly the kind of facts that a good Employee Engagement Survey should throw up.


It is not a coincidence that a majority of the top rated employers also have the highest investments in learning. These organizations know that investing in engaging employees with the right role and competency fit, also prevents a ‘brain-drain.’ Employees in all age-groups and roles need continuous support to expand their skills. Investing in skills and knowledge training, of employees communicates a sense of commitment by the organizations in the future of its employees and goes a long way towards fostering a sense of achievement.

The ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation


Yes, ‘n’ how many years can some people exist/Before they’re allowed to be free?/Yes, ‘n’ how many times can a man turn his head/Pretending he just doesn’t see?/The answer, my friend, is blowin’ in the wind/The answer is blowin’ in the wind. (Blowing in the Wind, Bob Dylan)

When we talk about Employee Engagement, the discussion is essentially about motivation. Engagement is in fact, at some level a consequence of Motivation – a sort of end state if you may.

When I meet senior executives in organizations, a common lament is that ‘quality’ talent is so difficult to find. And if it’s a group of executives, then you can be assured a passionate discussion on a broken education system, exorbitant pay packages offered by rival companies, attraction to go abroad etc. will ensue

I usually try to bring up the topic of motivation and get them to talk about it. It works sometimes, but sadly more often than not – it gets pooh-poohed. One (very smart) executive recently told me bluntly – ‘ the very act of accepting the job offer represents motivation to work here. Why should we need to keep providing additional motivation? Nobody was motivating me with badges and games all these years!’

The lady had a point. Her conclusion was erroneous but her premise was not totally incorrect.

Accepting the job offer represents the first step in a journey with the organization (and with everything else that comes as a part of the deal – managers, peers and the organizational culture.) When the job offer is taken up, chances are you have crossed the hygiene hurdle of adequate compensation, so I am not considering that in my discussion for the moment.

The paycheck only comes around once a month, but the employee has to deal with the effect of organizational culture, his peers and his managers every single minute that he is at work (and sometimes even when he is away).

In my opinion, there are three questions every executive should try to answer honestly

  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with me?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work with my team?
  • What intrinsic motivations can this candidate have to work in my organization?

Note that I ask you think about the ‘intrinsic’ motivation. Compensation, Job role, Profile, Designation, Bonus is extrinsic motivations.. Focus on understanding the intrinsic motivations.

Take a few minutes and answer the three questions before reading further. Chances are when you answer each of these questions candidly; you will already know why you are not attracting top talent.

The ABC Drivers:

From all the literature I have pored over and the people (team members, managers and leaders) I have talked to, three main drivers of intrinsic motivation stand out – and I call them the ABC drivers of Intrinsic Motivation.

A: Achievement – A sense of accomplishment is a major driver for motivation for anyone who gets up in the morning and goes to work- taking time away from family and battling traffic. Its human nature – If you don’t have a constant sense of achievement, an idea of how you are contributing to the larger ‘story’, your engagement levels crash. Then you are doing ‘something’ with no clue ‘why’ you are doing it (a very common comment I hear!). Managers and leaders who want the best out of their team have a duty to set the context, explain how the tasks are contributing to a larger whole, give constant and constructive feedback and help provide a sense of accomplishment. If any of these pieces are missing, the engagement picture will remain incomplete for the employee.

At some level, your answer to Question 1 as a Manager should address this aspect. If you are a manger who is successful in providing your team members with a sense of achievement, they will always want to work with you!

B: Belief – Employees are highly motivated when they believe that the organization enforces a level playing field. They are motivated when they know that they have the authority to take a decision to solve issues. They are motivated when they know favoritism has no role in decisions taken, when team members are not promoted for being a ‘smoking buddy’ of the manager and when the organization stands behind the employee for doing the ‘right’ thing. A belief that the organization really cares about its stated mission and its employees really does wonders for employee motivation.

This driver should appear in your answer to Question 3 on why should someone want to work for your organization.

C: Camaraderie – Would you want to go to work in an organization where secrecy rules the roost? People in such organizations are afraid to share any information or to collaborate on projects because compensation and career progression depends on information asymmetry. Favoritism, Secrecy, Coteries, Mistrust drives a general feeling of apathy among the employees and engagement levels will be abysmally low. All the bonuses in the world can’t fix this problem.

A sense of camaraderie and teamwork is critical for driving engagement. Employees look forward to work when they get to work along side peers who support and empower them to achieve organizational goals.

This driver should appear in why people would want to work in your team. What kind of team-culture do you have? Do team members support each other? As a manager, do you pave the way for your teams to leverage everyone’s strength or do you ‘divide and rule’?


In Conclusion: If you want to increase employee engagement in your organization, then as managers and leaders – at some point, you will need to ponder over these three questions and see how aligned you are towards enabling the ABC intrinsic drivers among employees. And note that, these are in a way the only things that you need to do, but these should underpin all your thoughts, actions and efforts – otherwise everything you do will ring hollow in the long term.

The Impact of A$s*@!#% on Organizational Performance

AbusiveBoss_The Indian media is at present abuzz with discussions around the ‘Rohtak sisters’. That video, of two fragile looking girls lashing out at men who tried to harass them on a bus (while other passengers just sat there watching them) – got me thinking about the effect of another kind of harassment – workplace bullying.

At some point or the other, we have all had to put up with unpleasant people at the workplace – The kinds who seem to get away with anything because they are ‘rainmakers’ or perceived as ‘too powerful.’ Workplace bullying unlike the pedestrian kind seen on the streets comes in various shades and some of the forms take on a garb of sophistication that makes it very difficult for the victim to attribute as bullying. The term ‘workplace bullying’ often conjures up mental images of a manager who is ranting and screaming or of snide and tangential remarks directed at women in the workplace. These are but just a part of what constitutes workplace bullying and it is by no means limited to Type A aggressive ambitious men (who are incorrectly portrayed as always being extremely aggressive) playing a winner-takes-all game.

‘It is terrifying’

In a study that revealed some startling insights, psychologists at the University of Surrey compared personality profiles of high-level executives with those of criminal psychiatric patients and found that three of the eleven personality disorders were actually more common in the executives.

The executives seemed to be prone to the following three maladies:

  1. Histronic Personality Disorder: People who suffer from this disorder demonstrate a pattern of excessive attention seeking. They tend to show superficial charm, insincerity, and egocentricity and often indulge in manipulative behavior.
  2. Narcissistic Personality Disorder: People suffering from this type of personality disorder are excessively preoccupied with power, prestige and vanity. They are seen to have an exaggerated sense of self-importance and have a strong need for constant admiration.
  3. Obsessive-Compulsive Personality Disorder: These are executives who are overtly focused on perfection. They tend to come across as extremely devoted to their work and tend to be rigid and stubborn with dictatorial tendencies.

In his book Corporate Psychopaths: Organizational Destroyers, Clive Boddy identifies two types of bullying in the workplace:

  1. Predatory Bullies: These are people who enjoy tormenting others just because they can – they are no better than their roadside variants. (The ones that gang up on a soft-spoken member of the team, the ones who pass snide remarks at women in the workplace, the manager who gives a team-member lower rating for no particular reason)
  2. Instrumental Bullies: These are the smart ones. Their bullying is always to further their own goals. More often than not these bullies are narcissists.

Narcissists in the workplace usually resort to indirect (and sophisticated) bullying. Typical tactics include withholding information, leaving team members out of the loop, getting others to keep doing work below their competence level, gossiping and putting down others behind their back.

‘They walk among us’

In his book “The No Asshole Rule” (and the inspiration for the post’s title), Robert Sutton lists down twelve everyday actions that he feels Assholes use:

  1. Personal Insults
  2. Invading one’s ‘personal territory’
  3. Uninvited physical contact
  4. Threats and Intimidation: Verbal and Non-Verbal
  5. ‘Sarcastic Jokes’ and ‘Teasing’ used as insult delivery systems
  6. Flaming e-mails
  7. (IM) Status slaps intended to humiliate others
  8. ‘Status Degradation’ rituals
  9. Rude Interruptions
  10. Two-faced Attacks
  11. Dirty Looks
  12. Treating people as if they were invisible/Ignoring people.

Everyone who has been in a high-pressure situation at work has demonstrated one of more of these behaviours at some point or the other. Sutton points out that psychologists make a distinction between ‘states’ (fleeting feelings/actions) and ‘traits’ (enduring characteristics).

Surveys and research has shown that workplace bullying is not isolated or restriced to a few unlucky ones. In her dissertation titled ‘Workplace Bullying: Aggressive Behaviour and its Effect on Job Satisfaction and Productivity’, presented by Judith Lynn she says:

“The data in this study found that 75% of participants reported witnessing mistreatment of coworkers sometime throughout their careers, 47% have been bullied during their career…”


The (real) impact on Organizations (that put up with A&$*@!#%)

In the past companies (read top management) used to often look the other way when people reported about badly behaved superiors. There are several reasons why this happened. Maybe (and this is often the reason) the intolerable executive was delivering numbers or maybe he was the rainmaker and leadership felt they couldn’t afford to loose him. Sometimes the person is the leader and the culture then percolates down to lower levels of the company.

In his book Sutton gives the example of Linda Wachner, former CEO of Warnaco who would ‘dress down’ her senior executives and made them feel ‘knee-high’. To make matters worse former employees allege that the attacks were ‘personal rather than professional and not infrequently laced with crude references to sex, race or ethnicity’. He also talks about ‘Chainsaw’ Al Dunlap, former CEO of Sunbeam who is described as ‘like a dog barking at you for hours…He just yelled, ranted, and raved. He was condescending, belligerent and disrespectful’

How engaged do you think people working for these leaders felt?

Organizations are waking up to the risks of putting up with people that are mean or ones who sideline people to further their ‘divide and rule’ strategy.

Research has shown that at the very least workplace bullying leads to increase stress among the workforce, which causes disengagement, productivity loss and even health issues. All of these have a real measurable impact on the bottom line at the end of the day. In some extreme cases, that victims display Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder (PTSD) – usually associated with severe trauma like rape or being in a conflict-zone.

That’s not all. Companies have to put with the associated costs of increased attrition – not only of the victims but even those who witness it.

Based on replacement cost of those who leave as a result of being bullied or witnessing bullying, Rayner and Keashly (2004) estimated that for an organization of 1,000 people, the cost would be $1.2 million US. This estimate did not include the cost of litigation.

The cost of workplace bullying represents a ‘Clear and Present Danger’ to responsible organizations that are looking to foster a motivating and innovative work culture. It will be nearly impossible for organizations to attract top-talent when a lot of their energy is wasted in managing the fall-out of aggressive behavior or petty-politics.

Good leaders realize this and are starting to take the ‘bull by the horn’. Work Culture is clearly defined and those who seek to undermine it are not tolerated – no matter how important they might seem to the organization. They might be critical today, but the damage they do in the long run will far outweigh any gains they provide.

‘Do you believe your manager/supervisor indulges in manipulative or divisive behavior?’ is a question that might soon start appearing in Employee Engagement Surveys.


In case you are interested, here are some related Tools:

You might feel that none of this applies to you (and you might be surprised). You can take the ARSE (Asshole Rating Self-Exam) here (

If you strongly feel that your boss is the problem, then test your theory. Take the BRASS (Boss Reality Assessment Survey System) Test here (

If you want to get a peek at the Financial Cost of Organizational Conflict, check out the online calculator based on the research of Dr. Dan Dana here. (


Acknowledgements and References:

Image courtesy of


The No Asshole Rule, Robert Sutton, Piatkus

Narcissism in the workplace, Wikipedia References

DIY Employee Engagement Surveys (Part 2): Moving beyond Analysis Paralysis

AnalysisParalysis_Congratulations! You have completed the task of designing and rolling out the survey. It has been a hectic few days while you kept things going smoothly. Now the posters and mailers exhorting people to tell what they really feel are pulled down. The entire organization has stepped up and answered the questions diligently over the last few days.

You whistle a preppy tune as you walk into office and settle down in your chair to take a look at the data. But before that you see that you have a mail from the HR Head: ‘Congrats on getting the survey done, can’t wait to get our long pending Engagement issues fixed based on your insights. Meet me tomorrow.’

Your heart skips a beat.

Tomorrow? Actionable insights? In one day?

This is a common enough situation that once the first hill of designing and conducting a survey is done; senior executives want things to move fast. By the very act of conducting a survey, you have raised the expectations of both senior management and the employees that ‘something’ will be done – and fast.

And that is where you, the survey and data expert, have to separate the wheat from the chaff. (Don’t be perturbed; this is exactly how experts are crowned.)


Sidestepping Data Pukes:

It is fairly straightforward to check the statistical validation of your testable questions. Stats101 at your B-school (you were paying attention weren’t you?) or even some high-school background will suffice. (or dust off your old statistics text book and brush up on Mean, Median, Standard Deviations and Confidence Intervals)

The time consuming part is analyzing the responses to your open-ended questions. Some of the sites like Surveymonkey provide you with a decent free-text analysis in their paid version. There are tools available online that will easily crunch through a few MB of data and spit out what seems to be on top of people’s minds. At the extreme end if you are really on a shoestring budget, import free-text into an Excel sheet. Split Text to Columns, remove the ‘noisy’ words and do a frequency sort. Voila! You have a (pretty imperfect) list of top concerns – but at least you know where to start focusing your attention.

But that is hardly enough. Quite often this is where executives (and consultants) stumble. An elaborate report with responses to every question represented in fancy looking frequency distributions is dumped onto a bewildered HR Executive.

At the end of the day this report has little or no value. It is just a “data-puke” which represents text in graphical format and conveys little in terms of insights or actionable information.


Slice and Dice:

The real insights won’t come from presenting data, but from looking at it in intelligent ways. In a way your data’s ability to actually provide you with intelligent insights has a lot to do with how well you have thought through your ‘research questions’. (No shortcuts here, sorry!)

Some of the intelligent ways to look for insights is to segment the responses based on criterion that have bearing on engagement drivers.

  • A Generational Slice: Todays workforce is like a melting pot of seemingly entirely different eras. The ‘independence’ babies are retiring. Gen-X is moving into senior management roles. Gen-Y is starting to constitute a substantial chunk of the workforce in companies. Chances are there are substantial differences in the responses given by people in each of these cohorts – not just because of their past experiences, their understanding of how things are or should be, but also because of what motivates them, and their perception towards concepts like collaboration, team-work, transparency and organizational loyalty.

Any survey dashboard, which looks at the workforce as one homogenous entity, is going to get it wrong. Each generation needs a different shade of engagement actions for it to resonate and extracting that insight from your data can be a very useful first step.

  • Department/Geographical Dice: Senior management likes managers who deliver business results. But they may not be the ones who are good at engaging their teams. It might be possible to obtain short-term gains derived by driving teams hard and establishing an authoritarian management style, but it is sure to hurt in the long term. Your survey might just throw up such ‘surprises’ and a deep dive into data will uncover such managers. Such insights are priceless in helping top management correct employee engagement snafus brought about by perceptions.
  • A Gender cut: Very useful when used in the right way. Very easy to get it all wrong and spoil your entire analysis. Differences in Gender attitude towards the research questions have to be dealt with correctly. Validate the data and stick to what the data is actually saying. It is easy to let popular perceptions or personal beliefs cloud your judgment while presenting the analysis. But having a proper understanding of what each genders perception of issues are will go a long way in establishing a truly equal opportunity workplace – with facilities and processes that help employee rise to their true potential.

Beware of Pyrite:

These just three of the possible ‘cuts’ you can make of the data. I must warn you that this can be pretty addictive and there is a risk of getting carried away and starting to look at the data from all kind of angles. Yes, those angles exist, but always bear in mind that at the end of it, any data/insight you present should be actionable within a realistic time frame. Don’t let this become an exercise to show number crunching or graphing abilities.

Presenting an ‘insight’ on the lines ‘67% of Gen-Y employees are disengaged and more than 80% of those disengaged feel disconnected with their manager, feel that the company is not working on correct technologies, is not competitive in pay and doesn’t have adequate work-life balance’ is liable to get you strange looks.

The real nuggets of insight are what matter. Fool’s gold is easy to find, but can send everyone on a wild-goose chase with nothing to show for all the effort.


Walk the Talk:

You have done a survey; you have analyzed the data and now its time to commit to action. The absolute worst thing you could do is taking no action. The trust deficit inaction would create will be nearly impossible to overcome.

  • Communicate: Before setting up teams to plan and monitor actions, communicate the results and insights from the survey – and ensure that top management gets involved in talking about it. Mailers, Intranet blog posts, Town-hall meetings the options are endless. The channel does not matter, the message does. When senior leadership is seen standing up talking about issues that are affecting engagement, insights they have gathered and what they plan to do about it, employees are reassured that the exercise was not done to tick off some checkbox in a ‘Best Employer’ participation requirement.
  •  Plan and Communicate: One way to make sure most (if not all) bases are covered is to set up a team that will plan the action calendar and monitor progress. Ideally this team should have representatives from all relevant cohorts (Generational, Geographical, Departmental, Gender) and be lead by some one in senior management. (You will need some firepower to get things moving at times when the usual priorities of sales, costs, projects etc. take over.) To keep the motivation within the organization, establish a transparent communication process, which shows what is planned, when and how much has been achieved.
  •  Check the Pulse: The follow-up detailed survey should not be done for at-least a year because the impact of most initiatives will take a long time to be felt. But pulse surveys – short surveys covering a few key questions (essentially a subset of your larger survey) are very useful in getting a sense of what people are feeling about the actions being taken and also providing positive reinforcement that the organization is serious about making change. To the team in overseeing the changes, these surveys provide valuable input to do any necessary midcourse-correction. Pulse surveys should avoid new or differently worded questions or it will be difficult to compare with previously obtained results.


These guidelines should help you design, conduct and analyze an insightful survey. But remember that a survey is a tool, like the thermometer. You might use an old mercury based one to get an approximate feel or a new digital one to get double-digit accuracy.

What really matter are the diagnosis and the treatment that follows.



Image courtesy of

DIY Employee Engagement Surveys: Bootstrapping your way to insights. (Part 1)


Tell me what’s on your mind/ What you feel, what do you believe/What is inside you that makes you scream? / There’s something I need to say before you walk away – Tell Me, Failed Flight

The very first (and sometimes the only thing) most organizations do when they embark on the Employee Engagement journey is to conduct a survey. An in-depth and well designed organization wide survey still is the best way to capture what employees think and establish a baseline for current levels of engagement. (Till neuroscience catches up, but that’s still some way off)

Do you need an outside ‘expert’ to come do your survey? Maybe. But that depends on various factors.

How large and diverse is your organization? If you are a multinational spread across multiple countries with a large multicultural workforce, then maybe you are better off getting someone who truly knows his stuff. Getting an external source also usually gives you the added advantage of providing industry benchmarks.

Do you have resources to pull off a detailed survey? If you are a small or middle-sized organization, chances are your tech team is already stretched to the limit with work. There is always some new feature to roll out, some bug to fix. Telling them to setup the required tech for an employee engagement survey might not go down too well. On the other hand there are enough online resources that let you conduct your survey quite professionally with minimal effort. (Surveymonkey, Google Apps are two good options)

And the third (perhaps the most important question irrespective of size/budget/resources), do you know what to look for? Or rephrase it as do you know how to design a good survey?

To help answer that third question, let me dive a bit deeper into the two aspects of the survey that will determine its efficacy and ultimately determine ROI of years of effort and money that the company will put into Employee Engagement.


The first question that most people try to tackle is how many questions does one ask employees? Are 5 enough, or do we need 50? And then the next question pops up: About what all aspects do we ask questions on?

If these questions are popping into your head – Stop! You are making the mistake of “putting the cart before the horse”. Before thinking of questions, focus on the goal. This means thinking deep into what factors you think drive employee engagement in your organization and then determining what about those drivers are you seeking to establish from the survey.

Start off by capturing the broad and general goals of the survey. For example you might come up with something like “We want to discover how employees feel about: (a) Compensation (b) Work Life Balance (c) Management … and so on.

If you are a startup in growth mode, Work-Life balance may not be a smart thing to ask employee about. (Chances are very few of them have anything remotely close to a balance. It comes with the territory of a startup) You might be better off checking if employees feel they are aligned on the larger goal because that is a critical success factor. But if you are fifteen year old mid-sized family run firm whose top-management insists they still ‘think like a start-up’ then Work-Life balance might be definitely something you want to think about.

This is the first stage in designing your survey and likely will take a few days and multiple iterations to cover all areas that might have an impact on employee engagement in your organization.

And Well-Designed:

Once we establish the goals of the survey, we take a deep breath; get a big cup of our favourite brew (best to stick to coffee and tea at this point); roll up shirtsleeves and dive deep into designing the survey!

The next step is for you to establish the ‘research’ questions. These are not the actual questions, but the questions that you are seeking to answer. If you have established the goals of the study this part should be a snap.

There are essentially two types of questions (statistically speaking)

  • Testable Questions (or Close ended Questions): These are the questions, which can be eventually boiled down to a point that can be validated/answered by a statistical test. For example a check to establish any significant relationship between the age of an employee and engagement is a testable question.
  • Non-Testable Questions (or Open ended Questions): These on the other hand are, you guessed it, questions that cannot be answered by performing a statistical test on the responses. They are typically used to collect information for which there could be a multitude of responses – for example, ‘What are things employees would like changed to improve their productivity?’

A good survey will usually have a mix of both close-ended and open-ended questions. Too many close-ended questions risk rendering your survey presumptive, since you will have to come up with all options and won’t have a chance to capture ideas and opinions. Too many open-ended questions might make your analysis phase a nightmare since dealing with free-text is anything but easy when the survey has hundreds or thousands of respondents.

“… the null hypothesis is never proved or established, but is possibly disproved, in the course of experimentation. Every experiment may be said to exist only to give the facts a chance of disproving the null hypothesis.” R. A. Fisher

In the final stage before you start thinking of questions, you need to convert each of your ‘research’ questions into a null hypothesis.

A research question ‘Is there a (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement?’

becomes a research hypothesis just by flipping the order of the first two words, ‘There is a (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement.”

One cannot test a hypothesis in statistics, so we convert the research-hypothesis into a null hypothesis: “There is NO (significant) relationship between active mentoring by seniors and employee engagement”

The corresponding question in your survey might be “Do you feel more engaged with your job role when you are mentored by a senior resource?” and have a response option on a Likert Scale with Five or Seven levels. A typical five-level Likert item is as follows:

  • Strongly Disagree
  • Disagree
  • Neither Agree nor Disagree
  • Agree
  • Strongly Agree

You might choose to remove the “neutral” option (c), and create an even-point scale to use a “forced choice” method.

Ironing out the creases:

When you are done designing your survey, there is one least thing to be done before you unleash it on the organization – get rid of or correct the confusing statements in there. When you have been immersed in creating the survey for days together, you might put statements in the survey that might seem obvious to you but might be confusing to an employee. And in any decent sized organization there will be no chance to correct it once the survey is live.

There are essentially two ways you can pre-empt this (in the best possible way).

  • Use Statistics (again): Send out your survey to a sample of 30 or more people and see their responses (and feedback). Make changes to those areas of the survey that seem confusing to the respondents.
  • Take a hands-on approach: Select a few respondents who are representative of the various segments in your organization (Age/Gender/Role) and be present when they take the survey. This will enable them to ask you questions when they are stuck or unsure of something in the survey. Any question a respondent asks is a defect – in the final version there will be no opportunity for respondents to ask questions. You can then fix those issues right away with a tight feedback loop.

My, my, just look at the time:

One last point about your survey – keep note of the time people take on an average to complete your survey. 2-3 minutes seems to be the sweet spot. Anything more than that and chances are your respondents will get fatigued and just click through without really paying attention. Less is better – as long as your respondents don’t feel underwhelmed and start to wonder what just happened when the Thank-You page pops-up. (The perception of a shallow survey can do more damage to your employee engagement efforts than you assume)

These broad guidelines should help you design a thorough Employee Engagement (or any other) survey for your organization. In the next (and concluding) part on DIY Employee Engagement Surveys, I will talk about the post-survey analysis.

Estimating the cost of employee engagement: A Leader’s Guide.


You stole my money honey/You’re cold your blood’s stopped running/And know you’re buying your new life/Can’t help but find you funny: You Stole My Money Honey, Stereophonics

Companies worldwide agree that they are paying the price for having disengaged employees on their workforce. But what is often not clear is the extent of impact disengaged employees can have on the financials of the organization. Considering the heavy costs of disengagement (and investments supposedly made into employee engagement), this might seem pretty surprising to most. Not so, if you consider that the effect of disengagement is difficult to quantify at the least and nearly impossible to isolate at worst.

Can the CEO attribute the failure of a major product launch to disengagement? Maybe the market research got it wrong. Maybe the bugs were introduced because of the crunched timelines. Maybe the communication that went out didn’t convey the correct messaging. Maybe the products were not innovative enough – but was that due to caliber of the team or were they just not motivated enough to think things through? Maybe the business leader was overbearing with is ideas and no one cared enough to stand up to him?

As you can see, unlike clear financial and sales metrics or project timelines, identifying the extent of disengagement and its contribution to failure is a Herculean task. Herculean – Yes, Impossible? No.

Lets try and break down the costs in the typical areas where employee disengagement impacts the organization.


Part 1: The short-term/immediate impact

The productivity cost:

Research has concluded that engaged employees are about 31% more productive than their dissatisfied counterparts. Engaged employees will find ways to fix customer issues, reduce costs, improve processes that disengaged employees will not. When faced with a problem, chances are disengaged employees will throw the company rule book at you while engaged employees will go and find ways to fix it – sometimes using mechanisms that are not there in the rule book! (in a good way of course – in fact that is another impact covered in a later point)

So lets factor in (A) up-to a 31% productivity cost due to disengagement.


The sales topline impact:

According to CSO Insights’ Sales Compensation and Performance Management Study, at organizations where less than 50% of the salespeople were actively engaged, only 39% achieved their quota. This number almost doubled to 63% achieving their targets when 75% of the sales staff was engaged. A disengaged sales force might see issues ranging from macro market situation to a problem with the product, the sales collateral, the brand positioning – whereas engaged employees will figure out what it takes to get the sales. They won’t tell you the sales collateral is all wrong, they will talk to the marketing guys to point out exactly what is wrong and get it fixed.

So if you don’t have a full engaged sales force factor in (B) up-to 50% shortfall in sales targets being met.


The employee replacement cost:

Disengaged employees are more likely to quit – now that’s hardly news. What is astonishing is the fact that surveys shows they are 87% more likely to quit than their more engaged counterparts. Would you take a flight that is 87% likely to fail somewhere along the way?

So the organization gets saddled with the cost of replacing these employees at some point in time. The SHRM estimates that considering the costs of find a replacement, training, and productivity loss et al., the employee turnover costs in an organization ranges from 100-300% of the departing employees base salary.

Lets consider the midpoint and add that to the costs of disengagement (C) around 200% of the cumulative base salaries of employees who have quit.


Part 2: The medium-term impact


Higher healthcare costs

When the company workforce is engaged there are up-to 50% fewer accidents and up-to 41% lesser quality defects. Gallup research shows that the top 25% engaged workers in an organization in addition to having the fewer accidents; also have significantly lower health costs. If we consider the Gallup report on “The State of the American Workplace” as a reference, the Health-Related Cost to the Employer is almost 3 times for disengaged employees versus engaged ones ($11.7k vs 4.3k). Engaged employees have less days off due to illness and are more productive when they do show up at work.

The added healthcare costs have a direct impact on the bottom-line of the company and lets add that to the costs – (D) Up-to 3x the average healthcare costs when compared to engaged employees.


Repeat Business from Clients

It is a well established fact that the cost of selling to an existing customer is far lower that acquiring a new client. Research has now established a strong link between the levels of employee engagement and degree of customer satisfaction and loyalty. Customers are more likely to give repeat business (and recommend a business to others) if they have had a positive experience with the organization – and this experience is a combination of the product, the service and frontline staff interactions over a period of time.

Harter et. al, (in their 2009 meta-analysis) established that business units that were in the top quartile on their engagement scores, had customer ratings that were 12% higher than those in the bottom quartile.

So now lets add the cost of a lost client and the additional costs of acquiring new clients (just to replace lost business) to our list – (E) Additional costs due to need to acquire new clients to fill out lost business from existing clients.



Part 3: The long-term impact

 The very existence of the organization (or Cultural Rot)

As you can imagine, it is extremely difficult to gauge the financial impact of long-term impacts of disengagement. In fact any of the areas I mentioned prior could be seen as having both a short-term and long-term impact.

But the most troubling impact of a disengaged workforce (which can include the leadership) is the possibility of the organization itself ceasing to exist. Any one of the factors like losing clients, not innovating enough, not controlling costs, not having enough sales can balloon up to the point where things get uncontrollable and the organization cannot exist in its current form. It then becomes a target for acquisition (with the associated “right sizing”), or it runs afoul of regulators and the law (when leaders get desperate and no one cares enough to stop them or blow the whistle), or it just loses the battle in the market place and becomes a shadow of its former self (or just gives up the ghost)



In conclusion:

The costs of disengagement are anything but intangible. They are very real, very tangible and can be determined with a fair degree of accuracy – assuming the company has the will power to do so.

Determining the costs, however, is only the tip of the iceberg. The bigger question that the C-suite of an organization faces is – what next?

A true introspection about the causes of disengagement can throw up conclusions that are uncomfortable (at the very least) and need a serious investment of time and will power, more than money to set right. Sometimes the task seems so daunting that the most determined and ambitious of executives might give up even before starting. Building truly great organizations is not unlike nation building. You might have the vision, but if your employees aren’t on board that vision is going to remain just that – a vision. Just as you can’t hope to build an impressive structure if the foundation and the core are rotten, you can’t hope to build a great organization if your employees are disengaged.

The cost of disengagement in the long term?

Pretty much everything!





Acknowledgements and References:

Image courtesy of

 Impact of Employee Engagement on Customer Loyalty, October 2012, Insync Surveys

 Why Employee Engagement has a Direct Impact on Business Bottom Line, Tolman and Wiker, Blog

A Cure of Rising Healthcare Costs? Employee Engagement, Chuck Gose, October 17, 2013, RMG Networks Blog

Employee Engagement’s Impact on Quote Attainment [Data], October 31, 2014, Emma Snider, Hubspot

State of the American Workplace, Gallup

Measuring and Mitigating the Cost of Employee Turnover, Kim E. Ruyle, SHRM Webcast, July 17, 2012

Positive Intelligence, Harvard Business Review, Jan 2012 Issue, Shawn Achor

Workplace Happiness: The High Cost of Unhappy Employees (Infographic), Lisa Chatroop, Blog, November 13, 2013

Do you know the cost of employees leaving your organization, Hay Group Blog, Satya Radjasa, December 03, 2013

Mindlessness: Its impact on Employee Well-being and Performance

Boss-Employee Mindless Conversation

mind·less    (mndls) adj. Giving or showing little attention or care; heedless

If you have been unlucky enough to work with a supervisor who seems to be miles away when you approach him for help or clarity with an issue or maybe worse one who nods off or keeps checking his phone in the middle of a discussion with his team members, then you know exactly what this post is about. Mindless (or rather the lack of a mindful approach) supervision is increasingly seen as a major cause of stress and employee disengagement.

A sense of Interpersonal Justice:

In a study carried out by researchers of the Max Planck Institute for Human Cognitive and Brain Scientists, researchers showed that infants as young as three months are able to pick up social cues when processing objects in the world around them – scientifically referred to as Social Referencing.

Given that even infants can pick up expressions, its easy to understand how a conversation or an interaction between a supervisor and the team member goes beyond the formal structure or stated intent. Kinesics is the interpretation of body motion communication like facial gestures and expressions. Often when a person says something and doesn’t mean it, the reality is betrayed by subconscious cues.

For example, lets say a team member is in a unaided discussion (i.e. no PPTs or Videos, or audio-visual aids) with her supervisor, going over the performance of a product in the marketplace. The lack of any audio-visual distraction means that she is observing her boss instead of looking at a screen. The discussion starts off with her supervisor launching into a long diatribe about how “we” need to fix the problem, and how “he” will support in any way and how “what has to be done has to be done, lets do it”. Then it’s her turn to tell her thoughts on the issue, and the supervisor is already checking his mails and nodding his head randomly. “Keep going, I am listening,” he says while his non-verbal signals convey an entirely different message all together. Needless to say the team member is not going to have a very good feeling about the conversation or her supervisor.

Mindfulness, or more colloquially the ability to be in the “here and now”, is often associated with improved relationships. When the supervisor is ‘fully present’ in the course of an interaction or conversation with a subordinate, the person feels more valued and as being treated with respect – amounting to a heightened sense of interpersonal justice. Various research studies have found a positive correlation between a sense of interpersonal justice and higher job satisfaction and organizational commitment.

Mindfulness, Employee Performance and Employee Well-Being:

In a rather interesting study done by researchers from Cambridge, NUS and Imperial College, an attempt was made to determine the interpersonal effects of mindfulness in the workplace. The study is different from any done on the impact of behavior of leaders on employees in that it focuses on “how leaders’ quality of awareness and attention influences their employees”

The first hypothesis that the study tested was to check if the trait of mindfulness is positively associated with various facets of employee well being (the study looks at four of them – Employee Emotional Exhaustion, Work-Life Balance, Overall Job Performance and Deviance (Negative/Undesirable actions at work))

The study determined that leader mindfulness was significantly related to both employee well-being and performance measures.

When the supervisor is more mindful,

  • The employee’s emotional exhaustion is lower (r=-0.4)
  • Employee Work-Life balance improves (r=.28)
  • Overall job-performance improves(r=.32)
  • Employee Deviance is lower (r=-.57)

The relationship of mindfulness with various dimensions of employee well-being and performance points to the potentially important role of leading mindfully in organizations.

Tips for leaders to be more mindful at work:

Being mindful is not a fad. Several Silicon Valley Technology firms and Wall Street firms are among those who take it pretty seriously. Google employees have access to an internal course titled “Search Inside Yourself”, which is designed to help them manage their emotions – ideally making them better workers in the process. The cofounders of Twitter and Facebook who have moved on to start new enterprises place a great deal of emphasis on contemplative practices – with regular in-office mediation sessions and optimizing work schedules to maximize mindfulness of their employees.

If you aren’t lucky enough to work at one of these more aware companies, try following one of these tips outline in the book Mindfulness: A Practical Guide to Finding Peace in a Frantic World authored by Dr. Penman.

  1. Keep a three-minute breathing space in between work:

In the course of a work-day there are several events that can be a source of (unnecessary) stress. The easiest way to counterman the effect is to find a quiet place (this could even be your desk), stop whatever it is you are doing and just breathe deeply for three minutes. Couple this with the act of consciously unplugging from all the devices that are constantly throwing a barrage of information and updates at you. The text message, tweet, email, WhatsApp, Facebook update can all wait a few minutes. Don’t eat your lunch in front of your laptop and leave your phone behind. Go to the common area and have an actual conversation with your team member. It will do wonders to the level of engagement.

  1. Make “strategic acceptance” a part of your solution:

When you feel stressed out about something, Dr Penman advises that you don’t try to fix it but forcing yourself to be happy or calm. Just accept how you feel as it is. He does not say you should accept a bad situation, but just accept your feelings and them focus on what you can do to improve it.

     3. Tune into the distractions:

With the advent of open-workplaces and a general lack of real-estate, one has little or no privacy at work. You will have phones ringing, people talking, printers whirring – all of which can be sources of stress. Dr Penman says that instead of fighting the noise and trying to shut it out, tune into it. Notice the sounds around you and try to see if you can isolate the effect they have on your body. The very act of noticing the sound, robs the sounds of their ability to distract and stress you out.

Being more aware of yourself and being mindful will help you engage successfully with your peers and your subordinates in a more effective manner. A 2010 Survey carried out by the Economic Intelligence Unit found that 84% of respondents believed that alienated employees are one of the biggest threats to their business. A quarter of the employees in a survey done by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health said that their jobs were a major source of stress in their lives.

As a leader, manager, supervisor, you owe it your team to not become the boss everyone hopes will “get removed or kicked upstairs” soon. All it takes is three minutes of deep breathing and some conscious effort.

Acknowledgements and References: 

Image courtesy of

Reb, J., Narayanan, J., & Chaturvedi, S. (2014). Leading mindfully: Two studies on the influence of supervisor trait mindfulness on employee well-being and performance.

How being mindful makes for a happier workplace, Jul 29,2013, Rachel Nickless, Financial Review

In Silicon Valley, Meditation Is No Fad. It Could Make Your Career, June 18, 2013, Noah Shachtman, Wired

Mindfulness At Work: 5 Tricks For A Healthier, Less Stressful Work Day, June 24, 2013, Carolyn Gregoire, Huffington Post

Study shows 3-month-olds are sensitive to emotional cues referring to objects in the world, June 10, 2008, (e) Science News.

Re-engaging with engagement, Economist Intelligence Unit

Bad bosses can be bad for your health, August 5, 2012, Sahron Jayson, USA Today

Study: Indian Women Are the Most Stressed on Earth, Rachel Goldstein, July 13, 2011, TIME

People to Algorithms: “Back Off. We want to make our decisions!”


“It can’t be bargained with. It can’t be reasoned with. It doesn’t feel pity, or remorse, or fear. And it absolutely will not stop, ever, until you are dead.” from the Terminator (1984)

Analytics is the hottest, absolutely-must-have corporate buzzword these days. Out with the fuzzy and in with hard data. Leaders and Managers have been known to repeat Deming’s quip (and wrongly get credit for it at times) “In God we trust; all others must bring data” when faced with business proposals that are based on ‘intuition and gut-feel.’ Finance and Operations have been using advanced modeling techniques for years, fine tuning the art of showing that big revenue spike (or cost saving) just around the corner. (Hasn’t happened in the last 10 years, but next two quarters are going to be huge!) And now it’s the turn of HR. People Analytics is the next big frontier and machines are being primed to crunch numbers on human attributes and ‘go where no machine has gone before.’

Correct Data is good, Intelligent Analytics is even better. I have had enough experience with gut-feel and arbitrary extrapolation driven disasters in my life to have a deep respect for both Data and Analytics (with the qualifiers firmly in place). I also know that modeling human behavior (or worse projecting it into the future) is something best left to Ethan Hunt.

‘Let’s collect all possible behaviors about employees, get a bunch of statisticians and lock them in a room till they come up with a formula to predict who is good and who is not,’ sounds like a good idea. Only problem – seems people don’t like it. And not just any people – top notch engineers at Google who live and breathe data and analytics.

“Not only must Justice be done; it must also be seen to be done.”

Promotions are a big deal at any organization. It represents an acknowledgement of the company’s belief that you have done an excellent job in your current role and so are ready to take up further or different responsibilities. Nominating the wrong person for a role can be one of the most disengaging acts in an organization. The person(s) who lose out in the race often choose to leave the company and walk right next door to the competitors HQ.

Google has a rather elaborate process involving self-nominations, committees and appeal process for promotions of engineers. As you can imagine this process is costly, time consuming and can be tedious at times. With the rather noble intention of saving a bit of effort for everyone, the People Analytics team decided to explore the possibility of getting an algorithm, which they can use instead.

They did come up with one. And statistically it was awesome!

No possibility of bias, absolute transparency, much less effort, very accurate (based on fitment with past data). One might expect everyone (especially engineers) to love the ultimate solution to getting promotions right. All the disengagement rising from favoritism, bias, perception out of the window in one masterstroke.

Guess what happened.

The Engineers hated it!

“They didn’t want to hide behind a black box, they wanted to own the decisions they made, and they didn’t want to use a model.”

At the end of all the research, the ultimate takeaway for Google was that ‘people need to make people decisions’ Analytics serves an important role in providing the decision makers with data points and insights, but it can never replace them. It is highly unlikely that we will ever reach (or accept) a situation where algorithms and black boxes are seen as taking decisions (even if you put a human face on the screen). [See Prasad Setty talk about it in the video at the end of this post]

Speaking of algorithms and disasters: Remember the Black-Scholes Equation and 19 October 1987 (Black Monday)? And for those with shorter memories there is the Gaussian Copula function and the 2008 meltdown. And those are failures when modeling movement of financial instruments (and therefore indirectly just one aspect of human behavior which ultimately drives price of those instruments).

It has taken us decades finally realize the tyranny of the “Bell Curve” in performance evaluation though most organizations still are stuck to using what is essentially a convenient misuse of statistical formulation.

Hopefully business leaders will appreciate the pitfalls in giving into the lure of expecting everything to be boiled down to an algorithm. (Elon Musk is rumored to have referred to AI as “summoning the demon”) Even if I don’t quite share Elon’s assessment of the scenario of doom (yet), in my opinion hoping to click a button to decide people’s career path is bit of science fiction, wishful thinking and lazy management all rolled into one.

But if you are a math wiz, don’t care about what old geezers like me have to say about “free will” and social cognition, then your mission, should you choose to accept it …

(Unfortunately this blog post will not self-destruct in 5 seconds)

Acknowledgements and References for this post: 

Image courtesy of 

Google came up with a formula for deciding who gets promoted—here’s what happened, Analyze This, QZ India, Max Nisen, November 20, 2014

Recipe for Disaster: The Formula That Killed Wall Street, Tech Biz, Wired Magazine, Felix Salmon, February 23, 2009

The mathematical equation that caused the banks to crash, Mathematics, The Observer, Ian Stewart, February 12, 2012.

Will the machines take over? Why Elon Musk thinks so, Science, The Christian Science Monitor, Anne Steele, October 27, 2014

[Webinar] Business and Society: A Time of Transition.



Theme: Business and Society: A Time of Transition

The ‘and’ in the title indicates a hitherto conventional notion that business and society are separate…and that the relationship between them is one of social contract that is legislative and punitive in spirit. However, the global trends and patterns of the last couple of decades indicate that a fundamental transition is happening – a transition where the ‘And’ is progressively moving towards ‘In and For’. The notion of a ‘Responsible Business’ today is much more widespread and well established. The talk will examine the various facets of what a ‘responsible business’ means and the fine dividing line between business and social responsibility. The central role of people in ushering in deep rooted change of this kind and in steering this crucial transition is also discussed.

Speaker: P.S.Naryan

Narayan5P.S.Narayan is the Vice President and Head of Sustainability at Wipro Ltd. He has been instrumental in the creation of Wipro’s sustainability initiative and has stewarded it since its inception in early 2008. Wipro’s sustainability charter is built on the core principle that business and social purpose must reinforce each other in addressing several key challenges around ecology and the environment, education and communities.

A graduate in Electrical Engineering with a post-graduation in Management, Narayan has more than twenty years of cross-disciplinary experience in consulting, business development, Enterprise Systems and most recently, in Corporate Sustainability. In addition, Narayan is guest faculty at the Azim Premji University where he teaches ‘Ecology and Development’ as part of the Masters in Development course.

Prior to the current role, Narayan was the global head of Information Systems for Wipro’s IT business, when he was chosen as one of CIO’s global 25 Ones to Watch in 2007.

Webinar Details:

As always registration for the webinar is free.

To register please click here

Webinar ID: 104-057-275



3 Strategic Axes of Employee Engagement that Leaders must focus on

Considering the impact that disengagement can have on innovation, profitability, customers, and attrition it is clear that top leadership focus on employee engagement is as important (if not more) as on revenue and bottom-line.

But more often than not a discussion on Employee Engagement veers towards the operational aspects. The focus is on What to measure, How to measure, techniques of transparent Communication, Design of Employee Surveys, Ideas on Gamification et. al. While all of these are critical to implementing an effective engagement initiative, there is another dimension to Employee Engagement – the strategic aspect that sometimes doesn’t quite get the focus it deserves.

There are three axes that help in visualizing the strategic dimensions of Employee Engagement.

  • Leadership
  • The Larger Purpose
  • Organizational Culture/Internal Branding

3 Strategic Axes of Employee Engagement


I call these the “strategic dimensions of employee engagement” and not “dimensions of strategic employee engagement” because to me, by default, all of employee engagement is strategic. If one considers employee engagement to be a “project”, an “initiative” or a “To-Do Item”, then you are almost sure to fail.

All three of these dimensions have immense bearing on the extent to which employee engagement will succeed. None of them are short-term activities or projects. All three are interconnected and have to deeply embedded in the DNA of the organization to deliver. There is no way to really measure the extent or direct effectiveness of any of these dimensions on an ongoing basis. But when there is true commitment to these and the right balance is achieved, they have a multiplier effect on the effectiveness of activities undertaken to drive engagement.


Leaders are the ones who set the direction for the organization. (Stephen Covey’s famous jungle metaphor where the managers are down below efficiently clearing a path and the leader clambers up a tree and figures out they are in the wrong jungle) To get employees to really feel motivated about doing a good job, you should be guiding them to the right jungle in the first place. While the metaphor does serve to drive home a point, consider the impact it will have on employees when leaders walk into the first clump of trees they think “looks like the right place to go” and then a few hours later decide to survey and say “oops!” When it comes to defining and following organizational principles leaders have to get it right and stick to the path – even when the going gets tough (especially when the going gets tough).

The best leaders are those that clearly define and live the organizations principles. They enable engagement by using every opportunity they get, using every communication channel and touch point at their disposal to reinforce their commitment to employee engagement. It’s a continuous sustained two-way communication that yields results with employees believing that the leadership is truly committed to engaging with the workforce and not just mouthing platitudes.


 “Nobody gets Mars right on the first try. The U.S. didn’t, Russia didn’t, the Europeans didn’t. But on Sept. 24, India did.”

TIME Magazine rated the ISRO Mangalyaan as one of the top 25 inventions of 2104. One of the primary reasons the team of scientists and engineers managed this stupendous achievement is their larger sense of purpose.       Imagine what would have happened if their mission had been to “get something out there.” If the purpose had been to “try for Mars, maybe we’ll get to the Moon worst case” chances are the bottom of the Indian Ocean is where the spacecraft would have ended.

In order for employees to align their personal goals and ambitions with that of the organization they need to understand the mission of the larger whole, the very purpose of the organization. It is only when the purpose is crystal clear that the employees can appreciate the role their own job plays in achieving that purpose. When there is no clarity on what the organization stands for, what it is doing now, and where it is heading chances are the employees are confused about how they are contributing to the success of the business.

Taking the previous axis of Leadership into consideration, if employees sense that there is a difference in the stated vision, values and purpose with how the leadership actually functions, then it leads not just to reduced engagement levels, it actually fosters disengagement! You can be rest assured your ‘A’ players will want to leave at the first possible opportunity if you either don’t have a clear purpose or if there is a disconnect between your actions and the stated purpose.

Organizational Culture (& Internal Branding)

Companies have dedicated budgets (often huge) for building their brand in the marketplace. Great care is taken about what is communicated to the customers and the media. Every word is pored over and experts spend millions on A/B testing to get just the right shade of blue on the logo. But what about the employees?

To an extent there is a rub-off on all the investment in external branding on and employees sense of pride and belonging. But the real challenge is in making the employees truly attach to their organization. The “What”, the “Who” and the “Why”

The sales and marketing team of most company focus on the “What” – The products, the inventions, the innovations, and the service the company provides. This tells the customer what he can get in return for the money he spends. Companies who believe that they are more than just the products they sell and their employees truly matter also focus on the “Who” – the engineers designing the products, the customer service executives supporting the customers, the managers who make sure projects run on time and finally the leaders who steer the organization in the right directions.

Truly engaging firms additionally focus on the ‘Why’ – the raison d’etre. Why does the organization exist in the first place? And when you turn the lens of “Why” onto the organization, things change drastically. “Making money by mis-selling to customers so that we can get fat bonuses” suddenly doesn’t seem a good enough reason for a company to exist in the long run and for top talent to join it. This dimension blends in deeply with the larger purpose and mission of the company that we discussed in the previous point.

Conclusion: Employee Engagement is one of the most complex challenges that face the organization while also being the most critical. Market studies, Sales strategies, Revenue, Profit, Share price are all indicators of how well the leadership and management is tackling the challenge. Motivating employees is a complex activity that requires transparency, true-values and years of sustained effort.

Among all the questions that leaders of organizations must ask of themselves and answer in a convincing way, is “Why do we exist?” If the organization doesn’t have a good reason to exist, it cannot possibly provide a good reason to others to be a part of it!

Halloween Special: Scary Myths about Employee Engagement

_Kwench_eBook_Scary_Myths_about_Employee_Engagement_Oct2014_It’s Halloween time again. I see children in my apartment block all excited about the sugar rush they will get tomorrow. While we wait for all the mischievous goblins and vampires to come knocking, I thought it would be interesting to take a fun look at some of the popular (and scary) myths about employee engagement.

Click on the link below to download the ebook version. It’s more colorful (and scarier) than a blog post can ever be. You will meet the Cash Demon, The Fad Vampire and The Budget Ghost in there. Not for the faint-hearted!

Download Scary Myths about Employee Engagement

Please do let me know in the comments section which you think is the scariest myth of all and how you think it is playing out in your organization.

Credits: Image courtesy of, Icons and images used in ebook courtesy of,

Disengaged Workforce? Maybe your CEO’s pay has something to do with it!

EmpProppingUpExecutive_“It’s a very personal, a very important thing. Hell, it’s a family motto. Are you ready, Jerry?

I’m ready.

I wanna make sure you’re ready, brother. Here it is: Show me the money. Oh-ho-ho! SHOW! ME! THE! MONEY! A-ha-ha! Jerry, doesn’t it make you feel good just to say that! Say it with me one time, Jerry. ” (Jerry Macquire, 1996)

You might be forgiven for assuming the dialogue I picked up from the movie Jerry Macquire was a conversation between a CEO candidate and the board member sounding him or her out. The increasing disparity in compensation packages commanded by CEOs to that of, the average employee has been a source of much debate and frustration.

Ben & Jerry’s Ice-Cream Company made a social pact with their employees when the company was founded. The company put a cap on the pay ratio between the top paid executive to the lowest-earning worker at 5:1. They held on to that ratio for 16 years. Then when it was time for Ben Cohen (the Ben in Ben and Jerry’s) to retire, they went hunting for a successor. They couldn’t find a single executive willing to accept the cap. The cap was raised to 7:1. Nada. The cap continued to be raised till it reached 17:1 over the next six years. Finally the company was acquired by Unilever USA in 2000 and nothing more was heard. The shroud of corporate secrecy descended on compensation details.

All that is about to change.

A few days back the Securities and Exchange Commission finally voted (with a narrow majority) to bring into effect a rule that will require companies to state their CEO pay as a ratio of the average worker’s pay. The hotly debated Dodd-Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, is making a lot of senior executives very uncomfortable. Under the section, “Investor Protections and Improvements to the Regulation of Securities”, subtitle E refers to “Accountability and Executive Compensation.” The clause in question is as follows:

Shareholders must be informed of the relationship between executive compensation actually paid and the financial performance of the issuer, taking into account any change in the value of the shares of stock and dividends of the issuer and any distributions as well as:

  • the median of the annual total compensation of all employees of the issuer, except the chief executive officer (or any equivalent position)
  • the annual total compensation of the chief executive officer, or any equivalent position
  • the ratio of the amount of the median of the annual total with the total CEO compensation

India is a bit ahead on the curve on this one. Under the new Companies Act 2013, the provision which had been incorporated by SEBI, for Listed Companies already requires them to start disclosing this information. Reporting on this, BusinessLine states that “Under the Companies Act, 2013, every listed company shall disclose in the board’s report, the ratio of the remuneration of each director to the median employee’s remuneration and such other details as may be prescribed.”

So, why have governments decided to wake up and start tracking compensation paid to top executives? The financial collapse of 2008 and the subsequent fallout did seem to have a lot of influence on getting governments to finally act. The ‘Occupy Wall Street’ movement with its emphasis on the remaining ‘99%’ forced lawmakers to sit up and take notice. The increasing disparity in compensation between a select few and the vast majority seemed to be boiling over into a social flashpoint – any government’s nightmare!

So, how exactly do the numbers really stack up?

To get a sense of how good or bad the compensation ratio is currently; let us first try to understand what an ideal ratio in people’s minds is. The late Peter Drucker, believed that the ratio should be 20:1 (a downgrade from his earlier number of 25:1). During the time of the Dodd-Frank Law debate, Rick Wartzman wrote to the then SEC Chairperson Schapiro. He pointed out Peter Drucker’s opinion on the issue:

“I have often advised managers that a 20 to1 salary ratio is the limit beyond which they can not go if they don’t want resentment and falling morale to hit their companies,”

In a 2004 interview, Drucker elaborated further: “I’m not talking about the bitter feelings of the people on the plant floor… It’s the mid level management that is incredibly disillusioned” by king-size CEO compensation.

 At the World Economic Forum, in 2010, UNI Global Union General Secretary Philip Jennings warned of ‘gathering storms’ if the CEO gravy trains are not derailed. He said that the bloated pay packets are a source of ‘systemic risk’ and added that he supported the ‘Drucker Principle’ of 20:1 pay ratio.

In this context, let us take a look at what reality is.

In their paper titled “How Much (More) Should CEO’s Make? A Universal Desire for More Equal Pay”, Kiatpongsan and Norton state that their references point that the ratio of CEO compensation to that of the average employee increased from 20:1 in 1965 to a whopping 354:1 in 2012! The ILO has a ‘slightly’ different number they arrived at from studying the ratio in the largest firms. They say that the ratio was 508:1. The corresponding ratios in Germany – the European business powerhouse was 190:1 and 150:1 in Hong Kong, China.

Actual, Estimated and Ideal pay ratios of CEOs to unskilled workers in 16 countries (Source: How much (more) should CEOs make? A Universal Desire for More Equal Pay)
Actual, Estimated and Ideal pay ratios of CEOs to unskilled workers in 16 countries (Source: How much (more) should CEOs make? A Universal Desire for More Equal Pay)

Closer home, global management consultancy, Hay Group released the ‘Top Executive Compensation Report 2013-2014,’ which analyzed 2524 jobs across 176 organizations and found that CEO’s in India earn around 78 times the salary of an entry-level professional. And as companies show an increased preference to recruit CEO’s from outside the internal senior management pool; this number seems bound to rise even further.

But if you pay peanuts you get monkeys!

 But do you really?

Writing in the New Yorker, James Surowiecki states that, executive compensation rose 876% or nearly 9 times between 1978 and 2011 in the US. By extension one would assume that, it is 9 times more difficult to do business now than it was four decades ago!

Then, what could possibly explain this exorbitant rise in pay? According to Surowiecki it’s a combination of factors. The first is a shocking side-effect of increase transparency. With increased transparency required by law and amplified by the business press, boards at companies fall for ‘peer-benchmarking’ to determine executive compensation. And boards which are too ‘cozy’ with the CEOs, are reduced to being rubber stamps who approve pretty much anything the CEO tells them – including the justification for an outrageous compensation package. To make matters worse, this system gets played by the ‘leapfroggers’ – the CEO’s who are either extraordinarily brilliant or just plain lucky to earn huge salaries. These, then become the benchmark for others and the spiral just goes on growing!

Just how bad can it get? Roger Martin, former dean of University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management, in an interview to Bloomberg said “When CEOs switched from asking the question of ‘how much is enough’ to ‘how much can I get,’ investor capital and executive talent started scrapping like hyenas for every morsel. It’s not that either hates labor, or wants to crush their lives. They just don’t care.”

Hmm..How’s that for employee engagement?


But CEO’s also increase investor wealth! Surely they deserve the cut?

If the financial collapse and the bonuses handed out to top executives in ‘too-big-to-fail’ is anything to go by, the assumption that bonuses and pay are necessarily linked to performance is not true. Studies published in the Economist and by others state that there is no clear correlation between CEO pay and company performance. Quite a few studies seem to have concluded that the correlation is in-fact negative!

A paper by Bebchuk, Cremers and Peyer, in the Journal of Financial Economics, titled ‘The CEO Pay Slice’, analysed the performance of companies, in relation to the proportion of what the CEO took, as a ratio of the total pay of the top five executives. It seems that the more the CEO took compared to the executives pay, the worse the company did!

In the report by Hay Group, they found that MD/CEO’s in India take close to 3 times the pay of those in Business Enabler Roles (HR Head, CIO, R&D Head etc) and Business Core Roles (Head – Sales & Marketing, Head – Manufacturing/Operations, BU heads etc)

Just when you think things couldn’t look worse, here is one final data point. It seems CEO pay is in fact strongly correlated with one metric – the number of people they fire!


Long Term vs Short Term!

 SEBI in the discussion paper on CEO compensation had stated “… on an average, the remuneration paid to CEOs in certain Indian companies is far higher than the remuneration received by their foreign counterparts and there is no justification available to that effect,”

In addition to the quantum of payment, there has been much discussion around the way executive pay is structured. The incentive structure holds the key to actions taken by CEOs. Organizations in mature markets are increasingly moving away from basic incentives like, stock options and restricted stocks to performance-linked long term incentives like performance equity, performance-based restricted stock among others.

The Hay Group finds that, Indian companies unfortunately lag far behind their global peers in this aspect. The chart below on CEO Compensation mix points out the stark difference in the structuring of pay in India versus their peers in US or Europe. (The mix is fractionally better than, that for Asia on average)

CEO Compensation Mix Across Geographies (Source: Hay Group)
CEO Compensation Mix Across Geographies (Source: Hay Group)

With companies being now required by law to state compensation for top executives, and the ratio of that compensation to the average pay, the fallout on engagement levels will depend on how responsible (or otherwise) the top management is.

CEO’s who have taken over 100% pay increases in years where they have given zero or minimal pay increase to the average employee who is battling runaway inflation at home and increased pressure at work (because the company has not met its performance targets!) will find it increasingly difficult to justify their stand.

There is enough research (an visible social backlash) to clearly establish that there is widespread consensus that, the gap between the top executive pay and entry level pay in an organization has to reduce – substantially so, if the current trends are to be believed. Compensation forms an important component of the need for ‘Safety’ in Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs but, it should not become the ultimate goal.

As Jack Ma, puts it succinctly – “We only eat three meals a day, we only sleep on one bed, how can you spend money? Where’s the opportunity?”

So if you are wondering why your team is looking despondent despite of all the effort you put into motivating them, the answer just might lie buried in your company’s annual report.


References and Acknowledgements:

Image in beginning of post courtesy of

Graphs data/image sourced from sources mentioned against the images.

  • A Sweet Solution to the Sticky Wage Disparity Problem, Aug. 10, 2013, Mitchell Weiss, ABC News
  • What Jack Ma plans to do with his Alibaba billions, Svati Kristen Narula, September 23, 2014, Quartz India
  • UNI: In Davos, UNI warns of risks from Private Equity, CEO pay, 28 Jan 2010, ITUC CSI IGB
  • Dodd–Frank Wall Street Reform and Consumer Protection Act, Wikipedia
  • Executive Excess 2010: CEO Pay and the Great Recession, By Kevin Shih, Sam Pizzigati, Chuck Collins and Sarah Anderson, September 1, 2010, Institute for Policy Studies.
  • What’s the best way to set CEO pay?, 03 June 2013, ILO
  • Study: Tech CEO Pay Doesn’t Match Performance, Baseline, 17 Jul 2006
  •  Executive pay and performance, Feb 7th 2012, Economist
  • Open Season, James Surowiecki, October 21, 2013 Issue New Yorker,
  • CEO Pay 1,795-to-1 Multiple of Wages Skirts U.S. Law, By Elliot Blair Smith and Phil Kuntz, Apr 30, 2013, Bloomberg
  • Why CEO Pay Will Keep Rising to Even More Insanely Unjustified Levels While Ordinary Workers Get Squeezed, October 14, 2013, Yves Smith, Naked Capitalism
  • Top Executive Compensation Report 2013-2014, global management consultancy, Hay Group
  • US follows India on disclosure of CEO-staff pay ratio, Sept 19, 2014, BusinessLine
  • CEOs in India earn ’78 times the salary of an entry-level professional’, January 27, 2014, NDTV Profit
  • What’s the right ratio for CEO-to-worker pay?, By Jena McGregor September 19, 2013, Washington Post
  • The CEO pay slice, Lucian A. Bebchuk,J. Martijn Cremers, Urs C. Peyer, Journal of Financial Economics, Volume 102, Issue 1, October 2011

Murmuration: Infosys gets its employee (re)engagement strategy right!

ID-100248393I got something to tell you / I got something to say
I’m gonna put this dream in motion / Never let nothing stand in my way
When the going gets tough / The tough get going

I’m gonna get myself ‘cross the river / That’s the price I’m willing to pay
I’m gonna make you stand and deliver / And give me love in the old-fashion way (Billy Ocean, When The Going Gets Tough, The Tough Get Going)

I have been following the Infosys story with fascination over the past few months. The company has been in the news, usually making headlines for- arguably the worst possible reason –record levels of attrition. The media reports would have you believe that employees, at all levels, are leaving the company in droves. There have been enough interesting movements at the top as well, with Narayan Murthy coming back for a while to find a CEO, and Vishal Sikka finally taking over as the first non-founder CEO in August. One expected things would improve from then on, and though all the right noises are being made, its early days yet. Course correction measures that NRN will have put in place, would possibly still need time to show results and Vishal has been at the helm for just over a month – even middle level managers are given 90 days to get going!

In spite of media and analyst reports stating that the company continues to be in denial about their attrition problem, I was quite impressed with the moves that the current CEO and his team seem to be doing – to stem the flow of employees and bad publicity. (Nothing saps employee motivation than, opening the newspaper everyday to find some more news about how the company is losing people at record rates).

Though I wasn’t excited with the hikes and the mass promotions (I am sure there was enough data justifying that action), the decision to crowd-source suggestions for improvement (and calling it murmuration was a masterstroke!), the call to increase frequency of promotions were all clearly the actions of a CEO who wants to put his finger on the pulse of the organization and is on the job at fixing it!

I thought things were shaping up nicely till I came across an article(reference #3), outlining how employees who “hit the exit button on the company’s internal e-separation system receive an automated mail from Sikka, that captures the transition underway to re-energize the $8.2billion IT firm.”

Now that one made me go hmm…

One wonders why only the employees who have decided to quit, are the ones getting a peek into the transition plan. Another media article had earlier reported that Vishal will unveil his growth plan in Mid October.

Maybe the article (reference #3) left out more than it told, but if this is true, then I think the auto-mailer is a mistake – one that can undo a lot of the good, that the management is doing towards engaging the workforce at this point in time. Automated mail-responses silently scream “don’t really care”, even if they have been sent with the best of intentions. In my opinion they are good for acknowledging that your complaint about the phone bill has been received, not so much for retaining an employee!

The article goes on to state the mail does ask the exiting employee to schedule a chat with unit leadership ..’should they want further clarity.’

Double hmm….

(Disclaimer: Infosys didn’t respond to queries from the paper, so its my assumption that the mail and its stated content are accurate and have been verified. That assumption of course might be misplaced.)

Employee engagement in difficult times:

The challenges of engaging with the workforce, when the company is going through a phase of internal turmoil, are very different from those that come when the market conditions are tough. A cynical view of the situation is to assume that, employees who are ‘good’ will leave a troubled organization and the those staying put are the ones who can’t get a better offer anywhere. Let’s be clear, that is pure nonsense.

A more realistic opinion is that, even when employees leave an organization in turmoil, it’s mostly because they are not able to see a clear picture of the future. It is up to the management to paint the picture and make it attractive. So those employees are literally leaving the managers, not the company. And when that is the driver for attrition, sending an auto-mail may not quite cut it.

Employee Engagement is often oversimplified by stating that, higher engagement automatically leads to better productivity. Engagement is not a unitary construct and is more an overarching theme, which includes job satisfaction – but is not just that.

There are a few things that companies can do to engage with their employees when things aren’t quite going the way it is supposed to. Here’s a short list:

Ask employees for candid feedback (and act on it!): Asking the employees candid feedback on what they think is broken and what they think needs to be done to fix it, is the easiest way to get to the root of the problems. It is imperative for the leadership to strip away the layers separating them from the ‘guy-on-the-frontline’ and get a sense of what everyone feels. Town-hall meetings are a good way to get the ball rolling, but these have limitations in efficacy, especially because a vast majority tends to be non-vocal and it’s not always the ones who talk the most who have the best ideas or feedback.

Today companies can easily leverage the power of technology and have an online feedback system where people are encouraged to post exactly what they feel and they can choose to be anonymous if they so prefer. Again, the top leadership should be seen participating directly! (Steve jobs may not have been the most polite customer service agent, but his very public email ID helped him keep close tabs on what people were saying about his company and its products.)

Having a plan to act on the feedback received is critical – especially in an organization where employees feel that the leadership is not in synch with them. When employees sense that, their concerns are not just being heard, but also acted on – it works magic for their motivation and for organizational outcomes. For feedback that can be easily fixed, the leadership should cut through the organizational red-tape (Yes! There will be plenty of that even when everybody knows it’s a crisis) and make it happen. For suggestions that can’t be implemented there has to be an open and candid explanation as to why it can’t be done. These actions will go a long way towards assuaging the immediate concern that, most employees will have that “management doesn’t listen”.

Create a long term plan and paint the picture clearly:

As I mentioned before, companies don’t become a bad place to work overnight. Uncertainty about the future is like flu – it is extremely infectious and it puts people out of action. Eventually when things get really bad, they start to quit. Nobody wants to work for an organization that doesn’t have a plan. If the only target you are looking at is the next quarter’s numbers and you don’t care if those numbers are met by writing software or selling stuffed toys, then people will leave you! (Maybe the ones good at selling stuffed toys might stay back, but you don’t get to be an industry bellwether that way)

Bad times don’t last forever. Unfortunately people tend to forget that bit and everyone paints the gloomy picture in a slightly darker shade with each passing day. As a leader your primary task is to show your dedicated and loyal workforce the light at the end of the proverbial tunnel (not just the ones who are leaving you).

Its hard work! It is not enough to paint a picture with broad brush strokes; you have to paint one that is inspiring enough for people to repose their faith in you. The challenge here is for the leader to understand that people who are committed to their jobs and are good at what they do may not be necessarily committed to the organization and those who are extremely committed to the organization may not be the right ones to fix the problems.

 Kill the “What’s in it for me attitude”, commit to your core values:

Shake-ups are good, but only when they are aligned with the core values and vision of the organization. When employees and leadership are aligned around the core of what drives their actions, the superficial concerns about pay, promotions, uncertainty about the future et. al. fall by the way side. The discussion then becomes about what the company is doing on a daily basis and how that matches up against the stated values and vision. If your base is flexible and open to interpretation depending on the latest crisis, either internal or in the market place, then there is little for employees to anchor their faith in.

Empower the managers and create a groundswell of engagement:

In times of crisis, a common reaction of leaders is to consolidate and centralize all decision making. While this approach is correct in certain times (e.g. you have been hit with a big lawsuit), in a situation where you are battling employee disengagement, this might actually prove counterproductive. In fact by empowering managers and team-leaders way down the hierarchy to recognize and reward good work will help to dispel the perception that the organization doesn’t care. As I have written before on this blog and other places, cash and large annual bonuses is not the solution. The rewards and recognition have to be open, transparent, public, relevant and timely. There is enough research to prove that employees value peer recognition much more. Companies can easily leverage technology platforms to provide, social recognition to their employees, irrespective of where they are based and dramatically improve the efficacy of their rewards budget.

One last thought on compensation. When a company is facing a problem that is expected to be fixed by pay-rises and mass promotions, it would not be a far-fetched assumption that employees have issues with pay discrepancies. When companies grow large, pay-revisions, adjustments, salary pegs to which graduate school you went to, one-time adjustments, bonus payouts, retention payouts etc all make the pay structures a convoluted mess. I have seen many cases where people go to HR complaining about they pay being (far) lesser than a colleague (usually a lateral hire) doing exactly the same task. And often the response they get is – ‘compensation is confidential information, why are you discussing it?’ You can see what this is going to do for motivation!

A crisis also offers a hidden opportunity for leadership to clean up and become totally transparent about their compensation policy. You may not want to go to the extremes of the start-up Buffer, but if your compensation policy is good, then nobody is going to have a problem with it when you make it public. If it sucks, then well, hiding it isn’t going to solve anything.

Communicate, Communicate, Communicate!:

There really is no way around it. Uncertainty is worse than bad news communicated clearly. Not telling staff and investors the realities of the situation and the action being taken to solve it, breeds mistrust, suspicion and fear. If you expect your staff to place their faith in you and stick with you while you guide the ship out of choppy waters, then it’s fair that you repose your faith in them to understand ground realities and appreciate being informed upfront. There is nothing worse for engagement than having to read, about a drop in revenue, profit or increased attrition in the morning paper while just the previous evening your manager was assuring you that everything was “just-hunky-dory.”

And finally,

Publicly support your employees:

There is no time like a crisis to reinforce the message to the employees that, the company cares. Use the social intranet (you do have one, right?) to spread messages of success stories. Make the customer wins a big deal, not just a number to be counted towards the sales target. Open up and let everyone know how the deal was won, what the challenges were, and what strengths helped the company to win the deal. These stories go a long way to help employees get over their doubts about how the company is doing and give them a constant source of motivation. The visible support – especially in tough times – builds trust and generates loyalty and goodwill for the company.

The last word:

Employees are the most critical assets a company has and involving them in the overcoming challenges that the company faces will serve to deepen their commitment and creates the foundation for long-term success. When leaders can instill a sense of confidence and accomplishment in employees during difficult times, it helps to break the downward spiral that is often fuelled by inaccurate media reports.

Engaged employees lead to better performance, which leads to increase commitment to the organization and sets in motion an upward-spiraling growth cycle.

While stemming the flow is definitely a matter of priority, the real focus should be on the ones that are staying put. They are ones who are giving the organization a second chance, the ones who believe that whatever is happening is a short-term problem and that the company will emerge better and stronger from the crisis.

Vishal and his team have their task cut out and I am sure Infosys will once again emerge as a much admired company – minor hiccups like automated emails aside.

Interesting times lie ahead.

References and acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of

  1. Engagement special: Veronica Hope-Hailey on defining engagement, HRMagazine, 09 Apr, 2013
  2. Introducing Open Salaries at Buffer: Our transparent formula and All Individual Salaries, Joel Gascoigne, December 19, 2013, Bufferopen
  3. Vishal Sikka reaches out to exiting Infosys employees, Shilpa Phadnis, Times of India, Sep 11, 2014
  4. Vishal Sikka shortlists 70 ideas from crowdsourcing initiative, The Economic Times, Sep 11, 2014
  5. Infosys is like my middle child, says NR Narayana Murthy, Dibeyendu Ganguly, The Economic Times, Sep 5, 2014
  6. Infosys riding on Vishal Sikka’s anticipated turnaround strategy: P Phani Sekhar, The Economic Times, Sep 4, 2014-09-13
  7. Vishal Sikka inherits an Infosys with strong cultural setup: KV Kamath, Ashish K. Mishra, Leslie D’Monte, liveMint, Sep 3, 2014
  8. Infosys to unveil growth plan by mid-October: Vishal Sikka, The Economic Times, Sep 2, 2014
  9. Vishal Sikka’s 5-point strategy a hit at Infosys, Varun Sood & Jochelle Mendonca, The Economic Times, Aug 18, 2014
  10. Attrition-wary Vishal Sikka promotes 5000 Infosys employees,, 08 Aug 2014
  11.  Confident of Infosys’s future: Vishal Sikka, Anirban Sen, liveMint, 31 Jul, 2014
  12. Infosys attrition at all-time high, The Hindu, 15 April, 2014
  13. Is employee attrition the biggest challenge for Infosys? Shishir Asthana, March 13, 2014, Business Standard

Rise of ERGs as an Employee Engagement Initiative.

ERGJoseph Wilson is an unlikely name to be associated with Employee Engagement. Yet the founder of the Xerox Corporation is often credited with having founded the first Employee Resource Group (of sorts).

Back in 1968, when violent race riots were tearing apart parts of America, Wilson wrote a letter to his managers, calling for an increased hiring of African-Americans. This move, which led to the establishment of BABE (Bay Area Black Employees), was a ground breaking approach towards addressing the issue of discrimination and achieving equality in the workforce. You can imagine how inspired people would have been to work at Xerox after this!

While ERGs were an excellent tool to help employees find a voice in large organizations, they were often seen as threatening by managers. Over time with changing demographics and the evolution of technology used in the workplace, ERGs (also known as affinity groups or employee networks) seem to be undergoing a resurrection of sorts.

So what’s with the renewed interest in ERGs?

ERGs require commitment of both time and money of the workforce to be successful, in addition to being aligned with the overall company goals. A study by Mercer in 2011, states that companies are spending well into six figures every year, not including the cost of the technology that enables collaboration between employees across the organization, including those in remote locations.

Research, surveys and studies attribute the renewed interest in ERGs to a combination of factors.

  • The investment in technology and communication (and the rise of social networking): Considerable investment in the technology and platforms to enable collaboration between the members of ERGs and the increased acceptance of social networks in the enterprise has improved communication and reach of ERGs. Coupled with dedicated efforts of HR team to make new recruits and teams aware of ERGs over the years , the workforce is now more aware of ERGs and this has contributed to increased memberships.
  • Changing Demographics in the Global Workforce: With Gen-Y now becoming a substantial component of the workforce distribution; their work choices and preferences are contributing to the success of ERGs. Unlike the generations that preceded them, Gen-Y is digitally native and are comfortable working collaboratively and using social media tools – both of which are critical to the success of employee networks.
  • Evolution in the focus and activities of ERGs: Over the years, ERGs have evolved from just being groups focussing on mutual support for members to those making substantial contribution to the bottom line of the organization. ERG’s are now providing insights into the market place, teaching employees located in the remote locations nuances of doing business, acting as brand ambassadors for the organization and improving the company’s reputation through community contribution.


The 3P’s of ERGs

People: ERGs provide organizations with access to talent that is relevant and more engaged. For talent acquisition, evolved organizations put their ERGs to good use by consulting with them to recruit new hires. When ERG members connect with their alma-maters, provide testimonials and use their network, talk about the culture and prospects at the company, it helps to attract high quality talent. ERGs thus can be used for extremely targeted recruitment to hire like minded and high quality candidates who will be a good fit for the organization. In a survey conducted by Software Advice in the US, among the respondents, almost 70 percent of 18- to 24-year-olds noted that ERGs would positively impact their decision to apply, while over half (52 percent) of 25- to 34-year-olds said the same. The substantial difference between this age group and the others is an indication of the shifting winds in priorities of the future managers and leaders.

Likelihood to Apply at a Company With an ERG Program by Age
Likelihood to Apply at a Company With an ERG Program by Age

From talent retention stand-point, affinity networks provide a powerful medium to help employees stay connected, and overcome gaps by providing mentorship and guidance – lack of which is a key reason why employees leave organizations.

Likelihood to Stay at a Company With an ERG Program by Age
Likelihood to Stay at a Company With an ERG Program by Age

In the same survey, the data showed that well over half of respondents under the age of 44 noted they would be more likely to stay at a company offering ERGs.

Productivity: ERGs are an excellent way to keep employees engaged. By connecting people who share the same concerns, passions, and interests, ERGs help form employee networks that span the silos usually get created with the departmental hierarchy.

ERG Program’s Impact on Employee Engagement Levels
ERG Program’s Impact on Employee Engagement Levels

ERGs formed around topics/domains, help provide training and provide access to mentors to their members – an invaluable means of engaging and motivating employees who might otherwise find navigating the complex fabric of organizational hierarchy for information and advice, a daunting task. ERGs can also act as great tools for HR to help spot the ‘right’ talent required for various positions. For example, Air Products and Chemicals’ Asian American group developed the Building Bridges program to help Asian colleagues expatriated to the US make the transition and become more productive.

ERG Program’s Impact on Employee Engagement by Age
ERG Program’s Impact on Employee Engagement by Age

By providing members an alternative to the formal hierarchical system, ERGs can help employees to understand business nuances, organizational culture, provide mentoring to perform better at current tasks and also help prepare members to move up the corporate ladder to other roles – a matter understandably of substantial interest to the Gen-Y constituent of the workforce.

All of these advantages go a long way to help address engagement challenges and increase motivation and productivity of the members.

Profitability: At many organizations, resource groups have an important role as focus groups and innovators in understanding the market-place dynamics and providing insights which help the company launch new and successful products. Mattel used their African-American ERG to conceptualize and advice their product and marketing teams to launch a line of dolls specifically designed for African-American girls. Pharma major Merck created global-constituency groups in 2008 to connect with their local markets. McDonalds’s women leadership network had a major influence on the introduction of healthy menus in their restaurants.


ERGs ahoy then, is it?

Not quite. While ERGs do clearly have the potential to engage and motivate your workforce, it isn’t for everybody. Companies that are working with or planning to recruit and engage a younger workforce will find ERGs useful, not so much organizations that are formal, hierarchical and have an overwhelmingly older work force.

Companies with the most dynamic and successful ERGs attribute their success aligning the mission of the ERGs with the interests of employees and the executives. In addition these organizations are sensitive to the need for new ERGs that address multigenerational, multicultural, and other constituencies and work hard to actively market the ERGs to their employees and new hires.

ERGs succeed when they are adequately funded and held responsible for those funds. The leaders of these groups need to receive training and other support to manage the groups in a professional manner.

Glenn Llopis (subject matter expert and chairman of the Glenn Lopis group) underlines the importance of supporting an ERG in the company by having a senior executive who is fully invested in its success of the mission, lead the group.

Llopis goes on to say that the success of the ERG depends on a clear articulation of the mission:

“Our objective is to help our organization to best understand and leverage the unique talent, gender and/or cultural insights we bring to increase recruitment efforts by [X] percent, talent retention by [Y] percent and our employee community’s overall workplace engagement by [Z] percent.”

If clear and measurable objectives aren’t defined, Llopis says, the ERG “just becomes a social gathering that doesn’t add real value and makes it difficult to sustain participation.”

And it also depends where in the world you are:

Mercer in its study found that there are differences in the practices of ERGs depending on the location of the company. Companies located in or having its headquarters in the US tend to have a higher probability of having ERGs, while it’s a very new/non-existent practice in Asian countries.

The proliferation of social networks and other collaborative platforms in the enterprise environment coupled with the increase in presence of Gen-Y in the workforce will no doubt change the way ERGs communicate and recruit new members.

The best ERGs are those that create a safe environment where employees can discuss challenges, voice concerns and work on self improvement, career progression and self-actualization through community contribution. ERG’s are now evolving to help attract, empower, motivate and engage a diverse and younger workforce from diverse backgrounds and cultures, which has a direct and quantifiable impact on the bottom line in the increasingly global arena where boundaries are blurred and geographical locations are starting to hold lesser and lesser significance.

As Lopis says, “It’s about embracing the special skills and characteristics that may be attributed to one’s culture or to one’s ethnicity or to one’s gender that a company could be much more mindful of [while utilizing the] special intelligence … that particular group can deliver to the company’s overall strategy or business model.”

Acknowledgements and References for this post:

Image courtesy of, Graphs courtesy of HR & talent management technology resource Software Advice.

ERGs Come of Age:The Evolution of Employee Resource Groups, Mercer; Employee Resource Groups, Joseph C. Wilson, Wikipedia; Who Made America, Joseph Wilson,, The business benefits of Resource Groups, Diversity Inc; Your Secret Weapon: Employee Resource Groups, Linkage Leadership Blog, Xerox diversity timeline,; Survey: Employee Resource Groups help engage Gen-Y Workers, (Erin Osterhaus), New Talent Times.


Employee Engagement is Hogwash!


If you agree that all this noise about Employee Engagement is nothing but people falling for a fad, then I am sure you agree the following concepts are nonsense too:

  • Providing a secure and comfortable workspace for your employees.
  • Building a culture supportive of innovation and new ideas.
  • Being respectful of others’ ideas.
  • Encouraging teamwork.
  • Being inclusive in decision making.
  • Encouraging collaboration.
  • Being transparent about decision making and performance evaluations.
  • The idea that traditional cash bonuses don’t really work very well.
  • The concept that each generation of the workforce has different aspirations and requirements from the organization.
  • The idea that ethical behaviour needs to be the underpinning of all transactions.
  • The belief that employee health and wellness is very important for high productivity.
  • The concept that good management doesn’t mean barking orders at team members
  • The notion that leadership is not the same as ‘just getting there at all costs’

Here’s Scott Adams poking fun at employee engagement.

He’s joking, and so am I.

But then you knew that, didn’t you?

References and Acknowledgements: Image courtesy of, Dilbert comic strip linked to source at All image copyrights belong to their respective owners.

Inferno: 9 Circles of Employee Engagement Hell.

Sandro_Botticelli_-_Inferno,_Canto_XVIII_-_WGA02854Non è sanza cagion l’andare al cupo: (Not causeless is this journey to the abyss) – Canto VII, Inferno, Dante Alighieri

We often get to read about progressive companies that invest in and also get their employee engagement strategies right. But rarely do we talk about companies that don’t get it quite so right. It just so happened that I started reading Inferno recently (not the Dan Brown version), and it eventually got me thinking. We often have traits of Bosses from Hell, Employers from hell. But what would a hell of Companies who get employee engagement wrong look like.

Let’s take a look at how companies enter Employee Engagement Hell, shall we?

“Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”

First Circle: Limbo – Organizations go through this state as leaders aren’t quite sure if they want to get into employee engagement. “We do parties and town-halls, isn’t that enough?” As Dante would put it, this is the state where the “guiltless damned are punished by living in a deficient form of Heaven.” For some leaders, who don’t really believe in the long term pain and investment required to achieve true employee engagement, this is the least amount of damage they can do to the organization.

Second Circle: Lust – Some organizations are condemned to the second circle because, of their leaders lust for awards. A TV channel announces a new category of corporate awards and some companies suddenly see a spurge of activity. Budgets are “discovered” to spend on what they think will make employees “happy” and “excited” and much public blogging and tweeting starts. Approximately a year later, the company wins the category trophy at the awards ceremony, a page in the annual report mentions, what a great a place it is to work and then things go back to the usual. The twitter handle goes silent after a while, the blog gives up the ghost and ‘project deadlines’ take over.

Third Circle: Gluttony – A glutton is one who consumes inordinate amounts of food and drink. Some organizations try to adopt anything sold to them as ‘employee engagement.’ Every strategy, every product, every ‘tactic’ is consumed mindlessly without any thought to its relevance. The concept of engagement is driven by a few (with possibly unlimited budgets) and eventually employees tire of the disjointed activities and initiatives. With little in terms of results, such engagement projects become an indulgence of a few powerful executives. Dorothy Sayers describes it very aptly as “the surrender to sin which began with mutual indulgence leads by an imperceptible degradation to solitary self-indulgence.”

Fourth Circle: Greed – In Dante’s Inferno, this circle of hell is populated by those, whose attitude towards material goods deviate from what was appropriate. Companies who feel that handing out cash-bonuses and material awards is enough to, “engage” with their workforce are condemned to this circle. These companies forget that compensation is a combination of monetary and psychological. Big cash awards as carrots for performance can only take the company so far, and at some point the company culture will be muddied by the ambitious and the unscrupulous. Money should be used as a basic hurdle – employees should be compensated adequately for their contributions beyond that the culture depends on much more than the pay-check.

Fifth Circle: Anger – The companies that are in this circle of our employee engagement hell are “withdrawn into a black sulkiness which can find no joy.” The leaders find the whole concept of investing in employee engagement ludicrous. “We already pay them a salary and the job is what they signed up for. Why should we have to invest to ‘engage’ them all over again” they rant. And as the famous adage goes “they get what they pay for.” Customer Service employees read from a prepared text and product service engineers do exactly what the manual tells them to. Eventually the customers leave and the employees follow. In the long run, the executives don’t have to worry about paying or engaging with anyone at all.

Sixth Circle: Heresy –Leaders who go a step beyond the ones upset with having to “invest in employee engagement” and dismiss the whole notion as a fad, condemn their organizations to this circle. These organizations not only have no active strategy and plan to engage their workforce; they in fact oppose any suggestions to implement such a program. The notion of leadership tends to be very much top-down in such companies, with a few deciding what the company, the clients and the market place needs and commit the organizations to their strategic roadmap. “My way or the highway” is a good approximation of the leadership style.

Seventh Circle: Violence – Companies that tolerate leaders and managers who believe that a ‘bigger voice is better’ find themselves in this circle. They believe that the employees cannot be trusted to take decisions on their own and micro-management is the only way to ‘get things done.’ Understandably, all the good employees leave such organizations and the ones that remain are mediocre and eventually the company suffers the consequences. No innovation or sustained growth is possible for such companies, because they will receive hardly any feedback or insights into what the customers are thinking. As with Dante’s inferno for companies in this circle, “the portal of the future has been shut.”

Eighth Circle: Fraud – At the very bottom of our employee engagement hell, we head into the two circles that punish sins of fraud and treachery. In Dante’s version, this is where the panderers, the seducers and the flatterers are doomed to spend time for eternity. And so too for companies, where the leaders profess to care about their employees, but hardly walk the talk. The leaders talk about listening to the teams, but no follow through happens. Collaboration is bandied about as important, but org-charts and siloed approach towards working rules. Employee engagement gets talked about in town-hall meetings, several pages with pictures of smiling people are dedicated in the annual reports, but the employees are left feeling cold wondering what the hell the leadership is talking about. And of course with the faith in leaders eroded, even genuine statements and promises get discounted and the downward spiral towards disengagement and eventually disappointment is inevitable.

Ninth Circle: Treachery – At the very bottom is the ninth circle, where the companies with insincere execution of employee engagement programs are put. These are companies where employee engagement budgets and efforts are allocated ad-hoc with little or no oversight. This lets the middle-managers and team leaders who may not have bought into the concept to sabotage the entire program. Managers sit on budgets and don’t hand out the awards to team-members, instead showing the amount as cost savings, at the end of the year to get their own bonus. At the end of the year, the leaders are convinced that employee engagement isn’t really working and that it’s only the hard-working managers who are saving the day for everyone by somehow cutting costs. Eventually, all efforts are abandoned and the company regresses to the good-ol’ command and control approach. Guess who are the only ones smiling when that happens?

The concept of Employee Engagement Hell might be a bit dramatic. The point I wanted to make is that leaders have to put substantial thought into deciding what the organization stands for, what is the culture they wish to propagate and what the employee engagement goals are – before embarking on building out the strategy and deploying solutions. There is no quick fix for employee engagement. Employee happiness yes maybe. Employee Excitement too can be achieved in the short term with a radical overhaul. But engagement takes a long term view, a sustainable strategy and unwavering execution to achieve.

Does your organization take employee engagement seriously, or do you think it should be relegated to one of the circles of Employee Engagement Hell? Tell us in the comments section below.

Image Credit: Sandro Botticelli – Inferno, Canto XVIII – WGA02854, Source Wikimedia Commons.

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Let’s get rid of all the managers! But then again…

Examination of a Witch (1853), You drag it around like a ball and chain/  You wallow in the guilt/ you wallow in the pain/ You wave it like a flag / You wear it like a crown/ …The more I think about it/ Old Billy was right /Let’s kill all the lawyers managers / kill ’em tonight : Get Over It, Eagles.

 ‘Get Over It’ was a song that Don Henley, lead singer of the Eagles wrote to vent his frustration over people blaming their failures, frustrations, mental breakdowns and financial problems on others, and believing that the world owes them a favour.  (Trivia: The song references Shakespeare’s Henry VI, Part II. And the line that  I used with creative freedom  “Old Billy was right: let’s kill all the lawyers – kill ’em tonight”, echoes Shakespeare’s line “The first thing we do, let’s kill all the lawyers”.)

If you read most of the popular literature on how to engage employees, you would most likely be tempted to conclude that managers seem to be the cause of all the employee engagement problems in organizations. It would almost seem the world is full of leaders who know what they want and depend on managers to communicate it down to the teams (read workers and engineers depending on which industry you are in), and then there are employees who know how to do things, but depend on managers to tell them what the leaders want them to do. Therefore there has to be a problem with the middle layer called managers, who are incompetent in bridging the gap between the leaders vision and employee action. As the foul tempered character from Alice in Wonderland, the Queen of Hearts is fond of saying: “Off with their heads!”

 And it’s not that companies haven’t tried or aren’t trying. Google is – as one of the engineers puts it – “a company built by engineers for engineers.” So understandably, the definition of “real” work in the organization focuses more on designing products and writing code rather than effective communication and supervising others. In 2002, Page and Brin actually experimented with a flat org-structure. They just got rid of all the engineering managers. Goodbye bureaucratic fools, hello perfect giant company that works like a start-up. Erm..not really. That experiment apparently lasted a few months and once Page was inundated with questions on expense reports, interpersonal conflicts and all those things that used to be taken care of auto-magically, the managers were brought right back in!

Managers typically act as bridges between the teams and the rest of the organization. Since the days of the Hawthorne studies, where Elton Mayo stated that the “industrial world at the beginning of the twentieth century was more technologically advanced than ever before while being more socially incompetent than ever (Bendix & Fisher, 1949)”, interpersonal relations and group structure have been a matter of much debate, study and now in the twenty-first century a matter of concern. Mayo noticed in his studies that managers who had an understanding of social factors like group solidarity among the workers, had a greater ability to control and influence worker behaviour.

“In God we trust: All others bring data!”

William Edwards Deming.

Google, being Google, had the ability and the inclination to use data to decide what works best for the company. The company set up a people analytics team to tackle questions on employee well-being and productivity. One question stood out among all the others – “Do Managers matter?”

Enter Project Oxygen ,a multiyear research initiative to find answers to the questions that Google was asking itself. Instead of ending up being the usual MIS spewing team, the researchers in project Oxygen were “hypothesis-driven and wanted to help solve the company’s problems and questions with data”. The team was looking for evidence that better management mattered when all managers seemed so similar. The solution, arrived at using sophisticated multivariate analysis, showed that even “the smallest incremental increases in manager quality were quite powerful”.

High-scoring managers in the organization in 2008, saw less attrition than the others. The retention was strongly related to manager-quality than seniority, performance, tenure or promotions. The data also seemed to suggest a strong correlation between manager quality and workers happiness. Employees, whose bosses scored high on the ranking, consistently reported greater satisfaction in areas like innovation, work-life balance and career development.

So what’s the “happily ever-after” story?

 They boiled down all the data and research into eight key behaviours demonstrated by Google’s most effective managers.

A good (Google) manager:

    1.  Is a good coach
    2. Empowers the team and does not micromanage
    3. Expresses interest in and concern for team members’ success and personal well-being
    4. Is productive and results-oriented
    5. Is a good communicator—listens and shares information
    6. Helps with career development
    7. Has a clear vision and strategy for the team
    8. Has key technical skills that help him or her advice the team

Remember these are managers who have to deal with extremely smart engineers who are out to change the world – not an easy task. The interesting part is that, the data corroborated “the obvious”. When one looks at the list there is a bit of disappointment, a “duh!” moment. All that data, research, advanced stats and this is it? No magical formula or maybe an insight that the most effective managers are, only the ones who attended Ivy League B-schools in the US?

Well, thank God for Occam’s Razor. Good managers who have to manage complex projects with smart team members have to achieve a balance between managing the day-to-day operations and supporting them with their personal needs, professional development and career planning (All areas of major concern when employee engagement surveys come in). It might be an overkill (or practically impossible) for most organizations to devote time and resources to do the kind of advanced research that Google has done but there is nothing to prevent them from taking advantage of the results and improving the quality of their managers.

Of course in lots of organizations, the appointment of managers is based on their excellent performance in other domains (brilliant engineer, star salesman, great accountant) – a recipe for disaster. This often leads to the rise of frustration and informal networks form, which bypasses the formal hierarchy in order to get things done.  There is considerable existing and evolving research in (Social) Network Analysis that studies this phenomenon. The key takeaway from studies like project Oxygen is that, managers can be trained to be better at their jobs and it’s not rocket science.

And then there is Zappos

Obviously not everyone agrees. Zappos, that customer-service and employee focussed company, which works very hard to keep both customers and employees happy is also doing it. The company, in Jan of 2014, decided to do away with the traditional managers and will “replace the traditional corporate with a series of overlapping, self-governing ‘circles.’” The reorganization is based on the concept of ‘holacracy’, developed by management consultant Brian Robertson.

 But the organization is careful to note that “while a holacracy may get rid of traditional managers there is still structure and employees’ work is still watched. Poor performers, Robertson says, stand out when they don’t have enough “roles” to fill their time, or when a group of employees charged with monitoring the company’s culture decide they’re not a good fit.””

Elizabeth Kampf, a consultant at Gallup has weighed in with her opinion on the topic that, Zappos might be better off replacing bad managers with great ones. (In the article, she does mention that Gallup hasn’t studied the holacracy model specifically)  The article mentions that “Only about one in 10 people naturally have the traits to be a truly great manager … contributing about 48% higher profits to his or her company than average managers do. Great managers create a substantial business advantage for their companies — one that Zappos and other like-minded businesses stand to lose, if they drastically cut back on the ranks of their managers instead of focusing on hiring and developing the right people for the job.”

Zappos’ John Bunch, the person leading the transition to the new way of working says “says that while people have latched on to the idea that Zappos is getting rid of managers, what the company is actually doing is “decoupling the professional development side of the business from the technical getting-the-work-done side.””

Whatever is the real modus operandi, the fact remains that Zappos is the largest organization that has attempted something as drastic as this (but then Zappos has always done things differently) and the world will be watching with much interest on what happens – indeed the future of how organizations perceive the value of managers, depends on it.

References for the post:

Zappos says goodbye to bosses, Jena McGregor, Washington Post; How Google sold its managers on management, David A. Garvin, Harvard Business Review; Google’s quest to build a better boss, Adam Bryant, The New York Times, Can you really manage engagement without managers?, Elizabeth Kampf, Gallup Business Journal; “Get Over It”, Trivia – source Wikipedia.

Image Acknowledgement:

 Examination of a Witch (1853), by T.H.Matteson, inspired by the Salem Trials, source: Wikimedia Commons. 

Time, Love and Tenderness at the workplace.

TLT_So you say that you can’t go on / Love Work left you cryin’/ And you say all your hope is gone/And what’s the use in tryin’/What you need is to have some faith/Shake off those sad blues/Get yourself a new view (Time,Love and Tenderness; Michael Bolton)

I took some liberties with Bolton’s lyrics and plugged work instead of love in there, but it would seem he knew much more about employee engagement, that one would have given him credit for.

Sigal Barsade, a professor at Wharton, believes that “compassionate love” at the workplace is key factor to boosting employee morale, teamwork and customer satisfaction.

So what exactly is compassionate love you ask? According to professor Barsade, it is when “Colleagues who are together day in and day out, ask and care about each other’s work and even non-work issues. They are careful of each other’s feelings. They show compassion when things don’t go well. And they also show affection and caring — and that can be about bringing somebody a cup of coffee when you go get your own, or just listening when a co-worker needs to talk.”

The first data collection that Barsade and her co-author Olivia O’Neill did was through a 16 month longitudinal study at a long-term health care facility covering 185 employees, 108 patients and 42 of the patient’s family members. The aim of the study was to, measure the effect of compassionate love on:

  • the emotional and behavioural outcomes of employees
  • the health of the patients
  • the satisfaction of the family members.

A very significant finding was that a culture of compassion reduces employees’ withdrawal from work. To further check if the findings held good in other industries, they performed another study – this one involving over 3000 employees in seven different industries. The results again showed a positive correlation of compassionate love with job satisfaction, commitment to the company and accountability for performance.

So what are the potential benefits from creating a culture that supports ‘compassionate love’?

(1)  Decreased Absenteeism (and Presenteeism):  When executives and management focus on creating a culture where employees are encouraged to listen to their co-workers and show empathy to problems the other person is facing (at work or maybe an illness in the family which is in turn affecting work performance) they create a workplace, which employees look forward to. When employees feel more comfortable and appreciated, they tend to give their best to the task on hand.

(2)  Decreased Stress levels: An additional study by O’Neill and Nancy Rothbard of Wharton involved fire-fighters. It turns out that the high stress of their job results in higher levels of work-family conflict and the study determined that compassionate love helps to buffer the effect of  job stress on other outcomes.

(3)   Increased Customer Satisfaction: The last thing a customer wants to hear is “I have passed this on to XYZ team, they will look into it” – and this is typically the response that a stressed out employee who couldn’t care less about what happens to the customer or his employer, would give. A vast majority of customer problems require coordination between employees to solve quickly and effectively. In a culture buttressed by compassionate love that coordination will happen easier than it would in a stressful, competitive or angry one.

The research does raise some points for management to think about. As Barsade puts it

“Management can do something about this. They should be thinking about the emotional culture. It starts with how they are treating their own employees when they see them. Are they showing these kinds of emotions? And it informs what kind of policies they put into place. This is something that can definitely be very purposeful — not just something that rises organically.”

References and Acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of

(a) Why Fostering a Culture of Compassion in the Workplace Matters, Knowledge@Wharton

Even a brick wants to be something!

Pyramids At Gizah (Source Wikipedia)I got a call from an acquaintance the other day. After exchanging pleasantries, she got straight to the point. Her organization has an employee recognition program where the top performers are rewarded each in a grand town-hall gathering attended by everyone in the company.

But now she had a problem – the CEO had attended some engagement conference was ‘now bugging her’ to change their recognition program to ensure that every single employee was touched at least once a quarter by the program. ‘You are in all this “engagement business” right? Tell me how to make that happen without diluting the message.’ she ranted, clearly upset at having what she clearly thought was an absurd project – a whim of the CEO.

Now that I was in the ‘engagement business’ (as she put it) and the lady was looking for a quick fix over the phone I gave her a brief explanation of how she might consider thinking about each employee as an individual, and not just a team-member subsumed within a group classification. And then I made the mistake of quoting Pink Floyd, and told her – you know nobody wants to be another brick in the wall.

The line went quiet.

A few seconds later, she comes back on and says ‘Look, I do read your blog posts. Don’t give me that brick in the wall line. Let’s be candid – some of the guys in the company are just that – bricks! They want to be hidden in the wall. They don’t want to stand out. Now how do I engage with them? How do I motivate them in the absurdly short time frame my CEO wants me to?’

Now it was my turn to go quiet.

‘Are you there?’ her voice crackled over the line.

‘Louis Kahn said – Even a brick wants to be something.’ I told her.

More silence.

Taking advantage of the situation, I forwarded her link to the scene of the lecture Harrelson gives his students in the movie ‘The Indecent Proposal’. I haven’t heard back from her since. Maybe she got the message or maybe she thinks I am no good at this ‘engagement business’ but I stand by what I told her.

If as a leader you feel stuck when deciding the engagement strategy for your employees, you need to step back and ask yourself a very fundamental question – ‘Do you truly feel that every single one of your employees is worth the time, cost and effort that it will take to engage them?’ Remember, every single one of those people has ambitions, aspirations and capabilities, even the ‘bricks’. All you need to do is, think of a creative way to make those ‘bricks’ in your organization a part of something awesome.

Remote Working and Employee (dis)Engagement?

Remote_Working_“WFH!” came the terse reply from an engineer I had asked for a time to meet up and go over a rather tricky problem. The engineer in question worked for a large telecom company and I was then working for an IT services firm where “working from home” was severely frowned upon. Today that large telecom company is defunct and the IT services firm is a giant in its space. The flexibility of working from anywhere is pretty high on employee’s opinion of perks that a company can give to engage with them better. But increasingly companies seem to be turning ‘off’ that option – what gives?

With a quick hat tip to the near mandatory mention of Merissa Meyer’s decision to drastically curb working from home privileges of employees at Yahoo!, with a nod to the decision of Best Buy to follow suit I point towards Unilever which has over 58% of its 171,000 workforce working from ‘where they want, when they want.’ and companies like Automattic Inc (of WordPress fame) and Basecamp (formerly 37 Signals) that have a heavily (near 100%) distributed workforce. In fact the founders of Basecamp wrote a book ‘REMOTE: office not required’.

Research is increasingly pointing towards two key aspects of remote working that drive (or dampen) employee engagement. (a) The kind of work that the employee is doing (b) The time duration for which the employee has been working remotely away from her team members. Gallup research, in its State of the American Workplace report finds that among employees who never work remotely only 28% are engaged whereas that number shoots to 35% among people who spend 20% of their time remotely. But the trend is one of diminishing returns with the percentage of engaged employees falling to 29% for the set that works more than 50% of their time remotely.

Let’s break that down by taking a closer look at the most commonly mentioned pros and cons of remote working.


  1. A high degree of flexibility: working from home (or close to home) allows the employee to plan in personal activities into what would otherwise be ‘office hours’. Taking a sick child or parent to the doctor, getting some repair work done, or dealing with some government agency tend to be most common activities employees do in ‘working hours’ when they are not at office.
  2. Better use of time (and less cost): when your travel is a few feet from the bedroom to the living room, savings in the time wasted in traffic jams and fuel cost savings are immediate and easily quantifiable.
  3. Fewer interruptions from co-workers: Employees who support working remotely point to the fact that it is easier for a co-worker to amble over to ones desk and interrupt than it is to interrupt on chat/email/phone. This, the supporters say, lets them work more efficiently and also plan their tasks better.


  1. Lack of work/life balance: One of the usual complaints from employees is that when they spend too much time working remotely, or are working remotely just because they don’t feel like driving to the office, the virtual wall between work and personal life breaks down quickly. Eventually there is a visible drain on productivity as family members/friends get used to seeing one around the whole day and personal tasks (like dusting, grocery shopping) start finding their way into working hours.
  2. Lack of face-to-face interactions (and aha! Moments): This is the most common argument against working remotely (and indeed the one that Merissa Meyers used). Many managers feel that creativity and camaraderie get affected when team members work remotely and hardly see each other. Vint Cerf (regarded as one of the fathers of the internet), now Google’s Vice President and chief Internet evangelist says “We had people participating in teams, [and] they would almost never see each other face to face. Often they were in different time zones, which meant they had to work harder to stay in sync…So we started recompiling groups to make them, if not co-located, at least within one or two time zones of one another so that it was more convenient to interact.”(Quote from reference a)
  3. Heavy dependency on technology: The tools that let teams collaborate remotely also seem to create a lock-in in terms of the investment and the privacy needed to function effectively. Try having a Skype conversation with your manager with your kids watching TV in the room and the slow ‘faux’ broadband connection that your service provider has given you.

So should we start writing eulogies about remote working?

Not yet. All the literature and anecdotes about remote working and its advantages and pitfalls bring us back to the two factors that seem to govern the utility (and efficacy) of working remotely.

Company Culture plays an important role: Distributed teams are effective only when the tasks each person needs to do has been planned well and communicated clearly. If the managers can assign tasks/goals effectively and get out the way then this format can definitely succeed (Automattic believes very strongly in this approach). Understandably the distributed approach will fail in companies where planning is poor and/or there is a centralized and bureaucratic approach to decision making.

It should be the employee’s decision: The first fact that a company should recognize when trying to engage with employees is to recognize that each one of them is unique! Some people prefer to have a physical separation between their home and workplace. Others like to come in a few days to connect and then work alone to meet deadlines. And still others are most efficient when they work alone only. This will then boil down to the kind of work she is doing, her discipline to separate work and personal tasks, self motivation and the time/cost benefits of working from home. The choice should be up to the employee and the sheer flexibility it offers in times of illness or other important work is a strong motivator for employees.

Vint Cerf sums it up best, “There’s a limit to the utility of remote work … You’re seeing a positive response up to a point because people see that flexibility as a benefit, and then beyond that, you start to have less utility. So it’s not a black-and-white situation.(Quote from reference a)

References and Acknowledgements:

Image courtesy of

(a) Can People Collaborate Effectively While Working Remotely?, Gallup Business Journal, (b) Telecommuting Likely to Grow, Despite High-Profile Defections, SHRM, (c) How WordPress Thrives with a 100% Remote Workforce, HBR Blog Network, (d) Remote Working: Who’s Right?, Forbes.

126 Slides

250px-Yin_and_Yang.svgThis has been around for some time now (5mn+ views) and has been much praised (Sheryl Sandberg has called it one of the most important documents ever to come out of Silicon Valley)

No jazz. No sounds. No animation.

Just 126 Slides on how Netflix transformed itself by a no-nonsense walk-the-talk approach to building an amazing culture and nurturing talent.

Understated. Mostly common sense. No claims of “thought-leadership”. If you haven’t seen the deck, drop everything and see it now!

Flow ~ Just go with it!

ID-100224553Remember those days when you are just so immersed in work that you forget about everything – the irritating co-worker who is constantly talking on the phone (loudly!), the drone of the air-conditioner, even your lunch? Those are the days you were in what psychologists now refer to as a state of ‘flow’. Artists, composers are most often seen referring to a state of flow – at times when they have created some of their best work. Of course the years of practice to gain the required expertise for the task is a given. Its an almost universally accepted rule of thumb that about 10 years of deep immersion in a domain/subject is required before one can achieve the required expertise to make a significant contribution or improvement.

But even if you aren’t a maestro writing a new symphony there are moments when you just do brilliant work and write a piece of code, or make an outstanding creative for the marketing campaign. ‘Flow’ is where we would all like to be when we are doing our work – in an enlightened state, churning out the very best we are capable of creating!

So how would you know if you are in ‘in the flow’?  There are six factors that scientists identify as contributing to the state of flow (I am sure you will recognize that you feel all or most of them):

  1. intense and focused concentration on the present moment
  2. merging of action and awareness
  3. a loss of reflective self-consciousness
  4. a sense of personal control or agency over the situation or activity
  5. a distortion of temporal experience, one’s subjective experience of time is altered
  6. experience of the activity as intrinsically rewarding

And in case you think all this reminds you of the state after five hours of binge TV watching on Sunday, that’s not flow! Passive activities don’t put you in a state of flow. In fact research has shown that people can process only about 126 bits of information per second. Having a conversation takes ~40bits/second so when you are watching a movie on TV, a large part of your processing power is already gone. (So much for the myth of multitasking.)

Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi (last name pronounced Chick-sent-me-high-ee”) is widely recognized as the ‘architect of the notion of “flow”‘ and he refers to the notion of flow as:

Being completely involved in an activity for its own sake. The ego falls away. Time flies. Every action, movement, and thought follows inevitably from the previous one, like playing jazz. Your whole being is involved, and you’re using your skills to the utmost.

So how does one create the environment that promotes the state of flow?

Flow theory postulates three conditions that have to be met to achieve a flow state:

(1) One must be involved in an activity with a clear set of goals and progress. This adds direction and structure to the task

(2) The task at hand must have clear and immediate feedback. This helps the person negotiate any changing demands and allows him or her to adjust his or her performance to maintain the flow state.

(3) One must have a good balance between the perceived challenges of the task at hand and his or her own perceived skills. One must have confidence that he or she is capable to do the task at hand.

300px-Challenge_vs_skill.svgMihaly published a graph in 1997 which depicts the relationship between the perceived challenges of a task and the perception one has of one’s skills. The state of flow is more likely to occur when  the task to be done is a higher-than-average challenge and the individual has above-average skills. That is where the manager has to play to her role in clearly defining goals and matching the tasks to the strengths (actual and perceived) of her team members.

In 2013, Owen Schaffer broke down the prerequisites for entering a state of flow in the white-paper titled ‘Crafting Fun User Experiences: A Method to Facilitate Flow’ as follows:

  1. Knowing what to do: Goals are set clearly and communicated clearly to the employee.
  2. Knowing how to do it: The tasks allocated are matched with the competency of the employee to whom the task is allocated.
  3. Knowing how well you are doing: Frequent feedback on the progress against the expected outcomes of the tasks gives a sense of progress and keeps up the motivation levels.
  4. High perceived challenges: A feeling of a fairly high (but not impossibly high) challenge motivates the employee to put in extra effort to achieve the goal since it gives a sense of achievement – of having done something worthwhile.
  5. High perceived skills: The feeling that skills required to perform the task are perceived as high (not ordinarily available) gives an impetus to the employee.
  6. Freedom from distractions: This is where the manager contributes by ensuring that the employee can focus fully on the task allocated without constantly being distracted with lots of other activities/responsibilities.

And saving the best for the last: Here’s Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi himself, giving a talk about the notion of flow at TED.

References and Acknowledgements for this post:

Flow (psychology), Wikipedia, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Positive psychologist, TED profile, Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi: Flow, the secret to happiness, TED Talks, Go with the Flow, Wired, 

Image 1, Image courtesy of, Image 2: Source: Wikipedia

Annual Performance Reviews – All Noise, No Signal

Performance_Review_Back in university when I was busy studying communication theory, the one thing we obsessed over was the SNR or Signal-to-Noise ratio.

The professor in charge of teaching us the nuances of what was quite a difficult topic, used to rate the pop-quizzes he gave us on a range of zero to one in increments of 0.1. He gave one to answers that got to the point correctly with little or no fluff (‘Maximum Signal and little noise’ as the prof said) and zero to those that beat around the bush and got no where in particular (‘All Noise, No Signal’). Most of us, unsurprisingly, clustered around 0.5.

Years later, I ran into my professor again. Now retired, he was more chatty that he ever was in the classroom and we got reminiscing about those much dreaded pop-quizzes. “I have a confession,” he said, laughing out loud, “there was far too much garbage for me to read through in those answer sheets you guys handed in. Very little Signal and lots of noise I used to actually read only a very few, and then just handed out those marks based on what I expected the student to write. And since nobody ever challenged me, and I got the bell curve of grades fitted out perfectly, it worked out just fine.” My jaw dropped! I spent years thinking I was just hopeless and didn’t really get antenna theory and radio signal propagation. I couldn’t have imagined that the forced bell-curve fitting would affect me even as a young student.

Anyway, coming back to the present day. Yet another ‘financial’ year is coming to an end, and very soon HR teams in most organizations will get busy preparing for that annual carnival called ‘Performance Reviews.’

Here’s what typically happens:

HR gives managers over a month to finish appraisals for their teams and sends multiple reminders. On paper there seems to be enough time to finish the process. With several other priorities vying for the manager’s time, appraisals gets pushed to the back of the list everyday and nobody ever gets around to spending the planned few hours with every employee.

So now, on the last day before the badly-designed, overtly-complicated HRM software with a few dozen fields to be filled, closes the appraisal process, the HR team resorts to hounding managers to finish appraisals before the deadline. ‘Do it or face the wrath of the Corporate Office’ the HR head threatens, out of desperation when he sees the dismal percentage of teams that have completed the process.

The naked threat works, with hours to go, all client work comes to grinding halt and team-members and managers reluctantly get down to the task of completing their appraisals. The manager now has to evaluate thirty odd people in a few hours, pulls out the goal sheet setup an year ago, he goes “Hmm….lets see now…” And soon its out with data and in with the subjective, the bias and the perceptions. (There’s that bell-curve to comply with.)

Understandably most employees see this as a futile exercise since its is very rare that tasks and goals laid out a year ago would be relevant now. Chances are very high that the employee actually worked on something very different at several points along the way, doused a few dozen crisis situations during the year, came up with a couple of innovative ideas that may or may not have been implemented, put in hundreds of hours of overtime to make up for inefficiencies or just plain bad planning. And in the few minutes he has with the manager while being ‘appraised’, the employee feels threatened. He has to secure his next year’s pay based on what transpires in the next few minutes.

Annual performance reviews are a mind-numbing exercise that most employees in the corporate world go through each year. And mind-numbing is apt! Research has shown that when a person is threatened, activity diminishes in certain parts of the brain. David Rock, author of “Your Brain at Work” says when that happens, “people’s fields of view actually constrict, they can take in a narrower stream of data, and there’s a restriction in creativity.”

Critical feedback doesn’t quite work the way its assumed:

Jena Mcgregor, in her recent article in The Washington Post, points to research by psychologists at Kansas State University, Eastern Kentucky University and Texas A&M University where they studied how people respond to critical feedback they receive in an appraisal of the work done in the year.

The assumption was that people who are motivated to learn things on their own would welcome the critical feedback and use it to improve their work. Apparently not!

The study was based on conclusions of a prior study which concluded that people aspire to reach their goals in one of the following three ways:

  1. They try to prove their competence at work and get positive feedback.
  2. They withdraw from tasks where they might fail and avoid negative feedback.
  3. Focus on the learning and developing of their skills.

Obviously people who fall into the first two categories, didn’t take kindly to negative feedback in their performance reviews. But to the surprise of the researchers even those with a strong learning focus didn’t quite like the negative feedback.

When one considers all the cost and effort that HR (and the entire organization) puts into the annual performance review process, it would almost seem an utter waste of all that time and money.

Here’s the wrap up of how the annual performance review process ‘performs’ :

  • Based on the research mentioned above, it seems that what is intended to be a constructive and helpful discussion quickly falls apart when the appraisees hear critical feedback. (Even for those who have a strong focus on learning)
  • In a previous article, Jena points out that Leadership advisory firm CEB’s research found that two-thirds of the employees who are rated as the firms top performers are in fact not.
  • CEB research shows that managers feel conventional reviews only generate a 3- to 5% improvement in employee performance.
  • Only 23% of the HR professionals surveyed by CEB for their research study felt that their review process was satisfactory.

All signs point to the futility of the once-a-year performance review and yet we continue to persist with the ‘established way’. Come April-May and management is shocked when the resignations come pouring in.

As I have said in a previous post on this blog, It’s time to move on!

References and Acknowledgements:

Study finds that basically every single person hates performance reviews, Jena McGregor, The Washington Post;

The corporate kabuki of performance reviews, Jena McGregor, The Washington Post

Your Brain at Work: Strategies for Overcoming Distraction, Regaining Focus, and Working Smarter All Day Long, David Rock, ISBN-13: 978-0061771293

Image courtesy of

Increase the shadow of the future (among other things)

Before you hand out the badges and thank-you’s to all your hard working employees this week (You do engage with them, don’t you?), take a pause and think if you might actually be doing it all wrong!

Yes you should recognize (and reward) your employees for the hard work they do, for putting in exemplary performances but then again – are they doing too much simply because you haven’t done your job right? As business grow larger and more complex, managing that complexity correctly is also key to employee engagement (and therefore success, profit and everything good that flows from it)

In a very interesting talk Yves Morieux offers six rules for ‘smart simplicity’

1. Understand what your people do

2. Reinforce integrators

3. Increase the total power that people have to take decisions

4. Extend the shadow of the future: Here he talks about how people can be motivated to do a better job when they appreciate the future impact their work has. He gives the example of an automotive company which was struggling to control its warranty budget. They hit on an innovate idea and told their design engineers that once the car they were designing hit the market in three years time, they would all be moved to the after sales network and be put in charge of the warranty budget.  As he puts it “Much more powerful than 0.8 percent variable compensation”

5. Increase reciprocity

and finally

6. Reward those who cooperate and punish those who don’t

Do see the whole talk. The 12 odd minutes might just change your entire approach to business strategy.

Rewards that go boink! (or the folly of cash as an incentive)

Money_Trap_Mark Hanna:   The name of the game, move the money from your client’s pocket into your pocket.
Jordan Belfort:   But if you can make your clients money at the same time it’s advantageous to everyone, correct?
Mark Hanna:   No

(Dialogue from the movie ‘The Wolf of Wall Street’, 2013)

I have an article on how to ‘Engage the employee with the right reward’ up on People Matters where I continue to advocate the need for companies to find the right strategy towards rewarding their employees – doling out cash bonuses just doesn’t cut it.

This post however, is more about what I left out of that article (thanks to word-count limits and the need to stay focused on the theme). At the very beginning of the article I mention in passing how the financial collapse of 2008 exposed the flaw of a cash-bonus-linked-to-sales strategy. What I did not write about was the erosion of trust that the greed of a few caused. And lets fact it – this is true about any industry, not just banking. There are plenty of examples in other sectors like call-center employees cutting short or worse hanging up on customers, because their variable pay was linked to number of calls attended rather than issues successfully resolved, engineers using short-cuts to get automobile products out faster without adequate testing or known flaws leading to catastrophic failures or in some cases deaths.

The death spiral for the company arising out of perverse incentive structures is actually quite simple:

Wrong incentive structure -> Incorrect actions by employees -> Short term spike in sales/output->A select few get rich on commissions/bonus->Medium Term/Long Term problems come home to roost->Best case – the company/product brand takes a hit, Worst case company goes belly-up.

Jordan Belfort:   My name is Jordan Belfort. The year I turned 26 I made $49 million dollars which really pissed me off because it was 3 shy of a million a week. – (Dialogue from the movie ‘The Wolf on Wall Street’)

Pre-2008 some bankers just went (massively) overboard in pushing their banks hurtling down that spiral and got the whole industry in a mess since everybody ended up doing the same shenanigans to get massive bonus payouts.

Joseph Stiglitz in his excellent article ‘In No One We Trust’ talks in depth of this erosion of trust and says

“…We had created a system of rewards that encouraged short-sighted behavior and excessive risk-taking. In fact, we had entered an era in which moral values were given short shrift and trust itself was discounted.

… Bank managers and corporate executives search out creative accounting devices to make their enterprises look good in the short run, even if their long-run prospects are compromised.”

So do we take the money-is-root-of-all-evil approach and pay people in food coupons? No. Absolutely not, but neither can leadership of companies afford to take the ‘lazy’ route to establishing a rewards strategy but just resorting to cash payouts as a percentage of profit/sales/top-line. (Remember Enron anyone? Even as the company was imploding, its executives were rewarded with large bonuses for meeting specific revenue goals.) The problem here is not only the flawed rewards structure, but something much deeper. Something for which the whole organization exists in the first place – the very raison d’etre.

The real challenge for leadership in establishing a rewards strategy – goals:

Before you worry about ‘how to reward employees’, the greater challenge is in establishing ‘what’ you are rewarding them for. “Organizational Goals!” you say and full marks to you. Employees in an organization are working on their individual goals which eventually must meld together to achieve the organizational goal.  Employees at Enron were also being paid to achieve organizational goals but in hindsight it’s obvious those goals were all wrong!

Things can also go horribly wrong when impossible goals are set because, leaders shoot their mouth off or get visions of grandeur. Let’s take a short trip back in time. It’s the late 1960’s. The Ford Motor Company was fast losing ground to more fuel efficient cars the Japanese were cranking out. Lee Iacocca, a very smart man with lots of successful launches to his credit, (and the then CEO of Ford), announced the challenge of producing a new car that would weigh less than 2000 pounds and cost less than $2000 and would be available in the market in 1970. The result: skipped safety checks on the Ford Pinto that led to cars catching fire and eventually resulted in massive law suits.

 So we now realize that organizations have a more fundamental problem – with goal setting. That goal usually filters down from the top – which brings us to an interesting conundrum. Going back to what Stiglitz has to say in his article.

“So C.E.O.’s must be given stock options to induce them to work hard. I find this puzzling: If a firm pays someone $10 million to run a company, he should give his all to ensure its success. He shouldn’t do so only if he is promised a big chunk of any increase in the company’s stock market value…”

 Research has shown that the motivation that people will have to do the right thing or blow the whistle when things are not quite going the way they should is greatly enhanced when they feel they are working for a larger purpose than just monetary gain. When the only incentive one has is money, it tends to create the ‘stretch goal’ trap. Bigger goals – Bigger reward – Bigger bank balance! Forget everything else, all ‘that’ is somebody else’s problem. The ‘Big Whale’ trades, the LIBOR fixing scandal, the recent record fines paid by JP Morgan, Enron, the list just goes on and on.

“Of course, incentives are an important component of human behavior. But the incentive movement has made them into a sort of religion, blind to all the other factors — social ties, moral impulses, compassion — that influence our conduct.” (Stiglitz)

Setting the correct goals is thus fundamental to achieving the desired output from employees. Goals that are too narrow; are too many in number or have an inappropriate time horizon which eventually result in, higher risk taking and unethical behaviour by employees in an attempt to meet those goals.

So how do we set the right goals?

This, dear reader, is the trillion dollar question. The ultimate question of life, the universe and everything – the answer as we all know is 42! There we have it. Problem Solved. :)

With due apologies to Douglas Adams, there is no one correct answer for this. With incorrect incentives, the chances of the goals themselves being set wrongly go up exponentially. Add to that the fact that goals when applied to teams with have varied levels of challenge for its members.

In their Working Paper, ‘Goals gone wild’, Lisa D. Ordonez et al. point this out –

“Perverse incentives can also make goal setting politically and practically problematic. When reaching pre-set goals matters more than absolute performance, self-interested individuals can strategically set (or guide their managers to set) easy-to-meet goals. By lowering the bar, they procure valuable rewards and accolades. Many company executives often choose to manage expectations rather than maximize earnings. In some cases, managers set a combination of goals that, in aggregate, appears rational, but is in fact not constructive. For example, consider a self-interested CEO who receives a bonus for hitting targets. This CEO may set a mix of easy goals (that she is sure to meet) and ‘what the hell’ difficult goals (that she does not plan to meet). On average, the goal levels may seem appropriate, but this mix of goals may generously reward the CEO (when she meets the easy goals) without motivating any additional effort when the goals are difficult.”

Goal setting and the consequent rewards strategy are closely intertwined. Your rewards strategy might be well thought out, meaningful and beautifully executed but if they are being handed out for the wrong goals, it will still be meaningless in the long run. Rather than taking the easy way out of boiling the organizations goals down to the revenue numbers and profit figures of billions of dollars, its time leaders spent more time establishing meaningful goals that are aligned with the long term interest of the organization and all its share-holders.

The alternative of continuing with status-quo on goals and incentives is a scary proposition. Already there are rumblings of real estate and investment bubbles building up in South East Asian economies as a consequence of the Fed tapering. Another large financial shock just might be the proverbial last-straw on the camel’s back. On the positive side, we might get a few more entertaining movies.

References and acknowledgements for this post:

‘In no one we trust’, Joseph E. Stiglitz, NYTimes, 12 December 2013, Goals gone wild: The systematic side effects of Over-Prescribing Goal Setting, Lisa D. Ordonez and others, HBS Working Paper, 09-083, Image used in this post courtesy of Free Digital Photos.

Join the VLZ Webinar on ‘Leveraging Social Media for Employee Engagement’

VLZ_Jan2014_Mailer_v1_(3)Sign up for the 1st Virtual Learning Zone (VLZ) in 2014 where we will explore the topic of Leveraging Social  Media for Employee Engagement.

To register click here

The Speaker:

Anand PillaiAnand Pillai

Senior Vice President and Chief Learning Officer,

Reliance Industries Limited.


About the session:

In-house social platforms can help build new approaches to collaboration, co-creation, and act as a crucial tacit-knowledge attractor & collector. Organizations are increasingly using the secret sauce called “Social Media” in different ways to influence employee engagement and dramatically accelerate problem solving, productivity, and innovation.

Businesses bank on “good ideas” and it’s now within every business’s grasp to dramatically accelerate this process using social media. Good ideas will still originate from talented individuals, but now these ideas can be amplified and expanded with remarkable efficiency. Social Media should become a part of your “business as usual” – by employees becoming the voice of your brands – and that’s when you will say you have achieved optimum employee engagement!

Attendee seats are limited. Please register early. Registrations are on a first-come-first-serve basis and will be closed as soon as all the slots are filled.

To register click here

or paste the following URL into your browser:

Webinar ID: 153-194-035

n:gage Challenge #2: The Winning Entry

First things first. Have you taken the (completely anonymous, less-than-10-seconds) ‘kwench 1-Q survey yet? Please take a few seconds to click a couple of radio buttons if you haven’t already. Thanks :)  Here’s the link (

So now coming to the winning entry for the n:gage December 2013 Challenge (Squeaky Brakes). Congratulations to Chhavi Anand for the best analysis and solution of the case among all the submissions.


Chhavi’s Analysis of the problems with the reward system in Fast Brake:

(Points made by Chhavi are italicized and marked as CA. Plain text is what I have added, as additional comments or notes.)

CA: 1) Individual cash rewards in all geographies; overlooking the fact that the working culture in India(say) where collectivism is popular might not work in Americas(say) where individualism persists.

A very valid point. While making a rewards strategy that spans across multiple geographies, the one-size-fits-all approach often does not work. In many of the Asian cultures, collectivism is seen as a more dominant phenomenon. Things are changing with the impact of globalization and this cultural transition (or muddle as some might say) adds to the challenge of creating a recognition strategy. In a culture where the individual identifies more with the group, rewarding just one person instead of the group might actually have a counterproductive effect.

CA: 2) Giving control of cash to junior manager and team leaders; only top to bottom rewards are designed. There is no peer to peer reward system.

Surveys and research has repeatedly shown that peer recognition is rated far more meaningful and fulfilling than one from superiors. Especially in the knowledge economy appreciation from peers is perceived as more valuable since it goes without saying that the peers truly appreciate the effort or the challenge involved in the solution.

CA: 3) Approval from group presidents; the approval system in rewards might delay the process and lose the charm of reward and recognition.

Right on! Oversight is good, but it should not be crippling. And the moment very tight controls are placed, the fundamental idea behind an engagement initiative gets diluted. The hidden message then becomes ‘we like you, but we really don’t trust you’. Not a very good idea when you are trying to win the trust of your workforce.

CA: 4) Spot recognition; As the name suggests the recognition should be on the spot while the current system is quite opposite. The reward is reaching the deserving employee after one week and cash reward is not taken positively by the employee(as seen by the letter written by Dave). The charm of spot recognition is lost in the time period taken by the reward to reach the employee.

In addition to the delay, the quantum of rewards is another point to be considered. Dave points out that the amount he did get wasn’t much either. The CEO’s desire to reach the maximum amount of people is a good one, but his budget allocation doesn’t follow up on his intentions. You might be better off not giving any cash award with the recognition than appearing as a cheap-skate.

CA: 5) Congratulations Card; It is too formal in rewards system. It does not state the reason behind the reward being given to an employee. Thus it does not serve the purpose of “congratulating”.

True. Recognition has to be personal and reinforced socially to really mean something. A award handed out in a town-hall gets its effect from the fact that the recepient is singled out for the praise and everyone present gets to know about it. The problem though is that town-halls and company-picnics are few and far between events. Luckily technology today provides innovative ways to solve this problem without burning a hole in your pocket.

Chhavi’s proposed solution:

CA: To provide the online platform wherein an employee can be recognized immediately after an achievement. The recognition should not be only from managers/team leaders but also from peers. This prevents favoritism also. The recognition system can be clubbed with the cash rewards subsequently in the process.


This rewards and recognition system will keep the employees motivated. The engineers and sales staff will strive to achieve and break records. As clear from the R&R Budget Details, some budget is not being issued by the managers and if issued, is not redeemed by the employees. There should be proper training/user manual for the rewards and recognition system to be understood and utilized by all the employees in an effective manner.


Join in on the conversation. Leave your congratulations for Chhavi and comments on the solution below.

The n:gage Challenge #2: Squeaky Brakes

n_gage_Post_Header_Dec2013_Important Notes (well, kind of important anyway):

The n:gage Challenge answers should be submitted latest by midnight 29th December 2013. There is no minimum word limit for solutions; it can be just one line or even one word. One of the submissions as advice for Mahesh in n:gage challenge 1, was just two words: ‘Quit – Now!’. While it didn’t win the contest, we were laughing so hard for a very long time. The maximum however is 1000 words. If you hate writing and want to submit a doodled version, an illustration, a mind map, a flow chart – go right ahead. Solutions are solutions.

And now back to the main program: The challenge!

Bhaskar, the HR head of FastBrake was perturbed. He was looking at the MIS of rewards issued and redeemed across various offices and numbers looked quite bad. If there was any interest from the employees, in the awards that were being handed out, it was not evident. And add to that, the email that he just received from a service engineer based in London.

Dear Sir,

I am writing to thank you for the wonderful initiative of spot recognition that has been rolled out across the organization. Last week, I helped out one of our customers with a rather tricky problem they were facing with our ball bearings and my manager handed me an envelope today.

The card was nice I must say. But may I humbly point out that £5 doesn’t really buy much these days. Buying a pint of beer for oneself at the pub is hardly a celebration, wouldn’t you agree? I do appreciate the gesture though.

Yours Sincerely,


Bhaskar took a sip of his coffee and sat back in his chair. Last month his CEO, Natarajan had approved the largest Rewards and Recognition budget in the history of the company with the mandate that at-least 60% of the staff – globally- should be covered. The company had engineers and sales staff, spread across the Americas and Europe but a bulk of the workforce was based in Chennai.

Bhaskar and his team had decided that in the interest of time and ease of implementation they would hand out cash rewards. Each reward irrespective of the amount would be accompanied by a card with Congratulations printed on it and a printed signature of the CEO. The organization budget was split and allocated to the respective group presidents. They would in turn allocate the budgets to their managers, who would hand out their senior managers based on their requirements. Natarajan’s requirement of covering, a minimum of 60% of the team was clearly spelt out – the aim was not to give big amounts to a select few but to cover the maximum possible workforce.

The president of finance had pointed out to Bhaskar, that giving control of cash to junior managers and team leaders would be an invitation for scams. ‘This entire do-goody warm-fuzzy fad stuff Natarajan and you want is fine Bhaskar – it’s your call. In my time, when people worked hard, they got a bonus at the end of the year.  But remember when it comes to money – there will always be rotten apples’ said Swaminathan, the 55 year old who controlled finance in the company with an iron-fist.

Managers would take the approval of their group presidents for each award and then hand it out. To prevent problems, Swaminathan insisted that employees who received the award also sign a receipt, which would be maintained for accounting purposes and ‘prevent any smart-aleck from gaming the system.’

Bhaskar took another look at the R&R MIS and wondered what he was going to tell Natarajan in the next status update meeting.

The exhibits:

n_gage_2_FastBrake_Company_Snapshot_n_gage_2_FastBrake_Employeedistribution_n_gage_2_FastBrake_OrgChart_n_gage_2_FastBrake_RnR_BudgetDetails_n_gage_Sample_CongratulatoryCard_Dec2013_Disclaimer: Fast-Brake is a fictitious company and all people, events etc. described in this case are for illustrative purposes only and are not based on any real life company or people.

Your solution:

Write up your advice for Bhaskar in less than 1000 words and send it in before midnight of 29th December.(If you are facing issues in using the form, send in your solution to in whatever format you choose: text, image, pdf, ppt et. al. )

As always to be fair to all participants, we will not be answering any individual queries. If you feel some information you need to form your solution is missing from the challenge text, make suitable assumptions. Do remember to clearly mention your assumptions though.

Sorry, but we are different!

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

‘Yes but… we are different’ is an excuse I hear quite often when managers are confronted with the challenge of making radical changes. (or sometimes even not so radical ones)

A typical conversation about focusing on increasing collaboration and lowering barriers revolves around these lines:

Yes, we know collaboration is key to innovation, but…

– We are different

– We are unique

– Our teams work differently

– We are in a different marketplace. In fact we are the market creators there is no-one else

– We recruit only the very best and you know they all have egos so they won’t collaborate.

– We are so large that anything remotely transformational is difficult to execute.

And the list goes on.

In my book there are three types of organizations when it comes to getting their employees working with each other: the ones that don’t know what works, those who know and don’t do anything about it, and then there are the IBM’s of the world.

IBM is large (huge actually), they hire some really smart people (arguably smart is an understatement) and they ‘get it’. With Employee engagement being the critical area of focus, IBM isn’t letting its size come in the way of building ‘a more egalitarian workplace where employees feel they have more control over decisions’.

The company’s “Corporate Crowdfunding” system is an excellent platform to stimulate innovation and get small impactful projects off the ground without having to deal with permissions and approvals. The platform is all about collaborative innovation, which lets its 430k+ workforce spread over 170 countries connect and collaborate on small projects.  (Read more about the project at the BBC Capital Story: Sparking Innovation from the Bottom Up)

For all the “Yes…But…” managers who feel they need a CEO approved grand strategy and mega budget to get collaboration and innovation going, it’s time for a re-think.

n:gage November 2013 – The Challenge!




It was 8 am on bright sunny day in Bangalore, the city which FastVid called home. Mahesh was in early, in-spite of a late night conference call with his Sales heads in Singapore and Los Angeles. In fact it was the call that was bothering Mahesh. His company was starting to stagnate. The sales heads had blamed his tech teams for lack of innovation in the solutions they provided their clients anymore. ‘It’s always the same old thing. I don’t have anything worth talking about when I meet prospective clients’ lamented the President of Sales based out of the Los Angeles office. His APAC Sales head pretty much echoed the same sentiment.

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Mahesh pulled up the latest metrics from all his departments. Everything seemed to be on track – all of them seemed to be in line with expected trajectory to achieve their annual numbers. The targets seemed almost tame, but both his delivery head and R&D head had convinced him that given the present economic climate, expecting anything more would be impractical. His HR head had warned him of an attrition risk if impossible targets were set and as a result bonus payouts were withheld.

Six years ago, FastVid called a tiny room in Mahesh’s three room apartment its office and had a total of three employees who wrote the first version of their path-breaking video compression software. The growth was explosive. Couple of VC funding rounds followed and in just under five years the company had offices in LA, Singapore and Sweden.  In technology there is hardly any time to breathe, yesterday’s poster child was now struggling to deliver innovative new solutions to keep in touch with the fast emerging mobile wave. FastVid had always maintained high standards of recruitment – taking on only the very best of engineers, most of them poached from the large technology giants where this talented bunch felt lost in the large organizational maze. Attrition was almost zero in the first couple of years and then what was a trickle was now definitely a brook. Mahesh had always believed in paying his team atleast 20% more than ‘market salary’ so compensation was almost never a reason mentioned in the exit interview.  What did come up more often than not is that teams at FastVid had become silos –sales teams often were clueless about what R&D was working on. R&D based out of Stockholm was not happy at how development teams in Bangalore implemented the new protocols and algorithms they came up with. His delivery managers were constantly complaining about how engineers just didn’t seem to be interested in thoroughly testing their code. All they seemed to do was write their bit of code and dump it onto others to use without really thinking about the overall product – it was almost every man for himself.

Mahesh swivelled around in his plush leather chair and looked down on the main road leading to the Technology Park where FastVid had its offices. The morning rush-hour traffic was building up. The sunlight bouncing off the windshields of the hundreds of cars inching their way to all the offices clustered around each other in the Technology Park. Technology giants had offices right next to each other here and in each of those glass offices smart engineers were working away, developing technology that could overnight change the market – much like FastVid had done with mobile video when it was founded six years ago.  Mahesh knew that he needed to get innovation flowing in his organization again, but how?

n_gage_MiniCase_Exhibit_A_ n_gage_MiniCase_Exhibit_B_ n_gage_MiniCase_Exhibit_C_

The challenge:

For the next one week you are an advisor to the Mahesh.

Come up with a strategic plan for him to get the teams at FastVid engaged and get them back to delivering innovative solutions.

Write your plan in less than 1000 words and send it in before midnight of 24th November. (If you are facing issues in using the form, send in your solution to in a word/text document)

To be fair to all participants, we will not be answering any individual queries. If you feel some information you need to form your solution is missing from the challenge text, make suitable assumptions. Do remember to clearly mention your assumptions though.

What are you waiting for – Mahesh needs your help!

Note: FastVid, Mahesh and the situation used in this challenge are fictional. Any resemblance to people or organizations in the real world is coincidence and not intended.

Are you ready for the ‘kwench n:gage challenge?

'kwench n:gage challenge

The ‘kwench n:gage challenge invites you to present your innovative solution for an employee engagement related conundrum.

On the 18th of November, the challenge will be posted on the ‘kwench blog.
You have till 24th November to send in your proposed solution.

We will select the best solution and publish it on the ‘kwench blog. In addition to the instant fame you get among the top HR leadership of the country you also get shopping vouchers worth Rs 2500 to celebrate the occasion.

So get out your thinking hats, dust off all those cobwebs gathered around the theoretical frameworks you memorized such a long time ago or just put on your spurs and get ready to take on the ‘kwench n:gage challenge 2013.

Stay tuned for more!

Make your job work for you!

Image courtesy of
Image courtesy of

Us and Them / And after all we’re only ordinary men / Me, and you/ God only knows it’s not what we would choose to do (Pink Floyd, Us and Them)

There is a lot of literature out there about how companies should develop strategies on engaging their workforce. (Well, if they want to survive in a competitive marketplace, they better be spending lot of thought on engagement.) But what about the employees – What can we do to get and stay engaged?

First let’s get the “Us” vs “Them” distinction out of the way. Engagement has to be ingrained in the workplace culture and that culture is made by participation from everyone – from the President to the trainee engineer. No hierarchies here – its one flat plane.

So let me reframe the issue as  – what can an individual in the organization do to improve his personal engagement levels?

At the Confucian level of idealism you could find a job you love so that you don’t have to work a day in your life. Great, if you can do it. But let’s be practical – a vast majority of us are not in a position to do exactly what we would love to. So you do the best you can. Find a job that pays your bills, but puts you in a city that you hate. You find a job that’s closer to home, but struggle to keep the bank balance above the minimum requirement the bank imposes on you. You get allocated to a department where there is no intellectual stimulation, but you dare not rock the boat – the economy is down the drain as it is and jobs are scarce. Every single day you groan when the alarm goes off, drag yourself to work and settle down into a spiral that eventually makes you part of the 31% of disengaged employees.

So how do you avoid getting into the disengagement trap?

In one line: Make your job work for you – what you are handed may not be motivating enough, but you always have the powers to turn it into something you love doing.

Here are some tips that might help you get your mojo in the workplace, irrespective of the support levels your organization offers.

Seek out energized and caring work environments:  Try to work in teams where people care about each other’s work and support their colleagues. If you are stuck in a team which just blindly does the daily tasks allocated and are micro managed, it’s hard to feel wanted. If you care about yourself, and really want to contribute to the organization, put in the effort to find teams that have an existing culture of co-operation and empowerment. It’s far easier to join in a team and be a multiplier for the energy levels than, to start off something in a stressed out team. It’s not impossible, just more difficult.  The battle you might have to fight in getting transferred to a team you would rather work with will be far less stressful than coming to work every day when you couldn’t care less.

Write your own JD: There is a job description that the organization or your supervisor sets out to establish your roles and responsibilities, and then there is the one you create for yourself. You can recreate the job to mean infinitely more than what was formally assigned. You can design everything that goes into achieving your goals and targets – you design the equation you have with your co-workers, you design your approach towards opportunities, you design how motivating your cubicle or table will be. Nothing stops you from designing the job to play to your strengths. And when you do that you become more productive. You get noticed. You get more responsibility and more freedom. You redesign some more with greater degree of freedom. The cycle starts all over again and eventually you are doing exactly what you want to do and loving it!

Create your own awards and celebrate small wins: Your organization may or may not have a formal recognition program and even if they have one it might the ancient annual awards setup. That doesn’t have to demotivate you. Set up your own goals. Break your task into small intermediate goals and reward yourself when you meet each one. Document it and track your progress faithfully so you can always see how far your personal progress bar has come.

Don’t get ‘married’ to your boss: Got your attention, didn’t it? I am not taking about personal relationships, but professional ones. Many people feel trapped with a supervisor who they would rather not be working for, but feel guilty about asking to be moved to another team. Why? If you want to make your workday meaningful, you need to have a boss who takes the trouble to understand what you are doing, engage with you and empower you to do your best. If your boss is not doing it, he is not doing his job and by sticking on with him you are doing yourself and the organization a disservice.  You can dramatically improve your motivation levels by seeking out supervisors who you think will bring out the best in you. People sometimes make temporary sacrifices to work with bosses they really want – by taking a lower designation and even a pay-cut. But this is always a short-term blip, because when the employee is putting out her best performance under the new boss it’s just a matter of time before she does far better than she could ever hope to in the previous role.

It’s easy to blame the environment, the organization, the culture, the supervisor, and even your co-workers for your daily blues. Maybe it’s time you took a tiny step back, peeked at the big picture and got going on your own steam rather than waiting for the ‘big bad company’ to fix things for you.

Lower the drawbridge

Castle with moat
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When a company is out recruiting, the HR is tasked with turning on the charm. Brochures with pictures of colourful ‘fun’ workplaces, happy smiling employees and lists of all kinds of best employer awards the company won, are handed out.

After all the wooing, the candidate decides to sign on, and out comes the ‘standard’ contract – you will not tell anybody about this offer, you will not leave us without a 1 month notice period, you will not work for competitors for several months after leaving, you will not do this, you will not do that, you dare not leave us once you sign on. While you do a double take at the contract, the recruiter smiles and adds “Oh, and did we tell you about the excellent employee engagement policies we follow, with total involvement from the senior leadership, no less – we have some really good consultants, who tell us what to do on engaging our workforce. Paintball wars in the parking lot every fourth Saturday and company picnics every quarter. It’s a riot!”

If you are sure you are a great organization to work for, you are sure you really do everything to engage with your employees, your projects are intellectually stimulating, your policies are realistic and employee friendly, the office culture is ROWE and not command-control, employee engagement is more than lip-service you do to win some award every year then dare to lower the drawbridge.

Do you dare to redraw your employee contract to let people leave when they wish, and join whichever organization they want to and do what they want to.

If you have a truly engaged workforce it doesn’t matter if the door is wide open. If not, filling the moat with legal crocodiles and pulling up the drawbridge won’t protect your crumbling castle – the good ones will leave – It’s just a matter of time.

“Un-fire” your employees – one day at a time.

Un-fire_EmployeesThere sure is a lot of stuff out there about “employee engagement” – 72m search results on Google. ‘Employee retention’ throws up around 12m. Search for ‘Employee Firing’ and you get 12m results again! Employee Hiring throws up a whopping 150m pages. Of course, Google search results are hardly the data point one should be looking for to decide employee engagement strategy, but it’s a good indicator of what people are thinking (and writing) about.

Assuming that you have done a good job of hiring your employees in the first place, engaging them is all about what I call ‘Un-firing’ employees – every single day. A chaotic workplace, lack of goal clarity, insensitive supervisors, indifferent senior management, working in silos with little or no idea of what’s happening around, being clueless about the big picture are all things that contribute to disengaging your employees – the equivalent of firing them a bit at a time. Disengagement in a workplace is like slow poison that throttles and chokes the life out of your organization. It starts at the water-cooler as whispers and finally shows up in your annual results in the form of missed targets and dismal financial performance. What follows is well-known. Projects are missed. Plans go awry. Investors get mad. The stock gets hammered because your competition pulls miles ahead of you. And then you pull out the financial-machetes and start ‘rationalizing the workforce’.

It’s a point I make time and again on this blog and in other forums – disengagement is rarely a result of one big bad experience the employee has. That bad experience you see listed as a possible root-cause in the exit interview form is only the straw that breaks the proverbial camel’s back. It’s the daily dose of small experiences at the workplace that add up. A bad or non-existent engagement strategy results in you ‘firing’ your employees every single day they show up for work.

The final act of leaving is just a formality. If you don’t engage your workforce every single day, they would have mentally switched off and fired you ages before they actually leave.

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Building a high-energy work environment

_Workplace_Motivation_Usually when people think of an office buzzing with energy with everyone in the ‘zone’ they think of start-ups. Small office, people sitting where they can, cheap furniture, lots of wires criss-crossing the floor from all the machines lying helter-skelter all around. For the record, the first “office” ‘kwench had was a living room and we had one-plastic table and a plastic chair (for guests).

Large offices with cubicle farms, cafeterias, grand lobbies typically evoke mental images of power and a large process oriented machine at work rather than energy.
Good generalizations for stock photography and movie plots, but hardly the reality. The energy you feel in start-ups doesn’t come from sitting on the floor or having doors as desktops, it comes from the motivation levels of those working there. Similarly the fluorescent lighting in the swank offices of a large organization isn’t sucking out the creative energy of the workforce, something else is.

There is a default environment in a young start-up that larger organizations with hierarchies, departments and processes need to consciously implement. The magic-dust that transforms a workplace into a high-energy work environment is, engagement.

Component_Target_In the book Employee Engagement, W Macey et. al, write that there are there are four components (or aspects as some would prefer to call it) held with the glue of engagement, that need to come together – – to enable a creative and motivating work environment. What follows is a slightly modified list.

(a) Employees should have the liberty to engage: ‘But who is stopping them?’ you ask. The answer, is ‘most likely – everything.’ Companies have processes and set rules to ensure that things get delivered on time with the required accuracy and this definitely is a good thing. But it is not the best thing. Employees following set processes and delivering as promised drive customer satisfaction; engaged employees deliver customer delight. But they should have the liberty to do so. The organization should be tolerant of creative solutions and possible failure – a confidence that failure will be treated “fairly”. If deviation from processes is always punished, innovation is unlikely to ever happen in your workplace.

(b) Employees should have the capability to engage: So you set the ground rules in your workplace and encourage the team to go the extra mile. But nothing seems to happen. They seem to be just doing what they have been doing all along! What gives? In order for people to really make a difference they should also have access to the required knowledge/information. If all the information is locked away on a “need-to-know” basis chances are very few will actually “know”.  Once you provide your employees the liberty to engage, support it by creating an open environment where they have access to information, where they get timely and open feedback on their work, and have the confidence that the organization will provide full support with everything they need to meet their goals.

 (c) Employees should have the motivation to engage:  An average employee spends 10-12 of their waking hours at work, add a couple more for getting to work and back. That’s 12-14 hours, of the 18 hours they are awake, away from their family. It’s important that you give them a very good reason to do so. When you provide the liberty and set the ground for capability for employees to engage within the workplace, the onus largely lies on the employee to step up and capitalize on the freedom. To motivate them however, the onus lies on the organization. Multiple surveys have shown that employees are most disengaged because they lack clear and specific goals and timely recognition for work done. From the organization perspective the requirements are clear (and fairly simple). Match the employees to the right roles – provide clear achievable goals – provide an open environment where the information required to deliver results is available – provide timely feedback and recognition.  When people have a sense of belonging and recognition of incremental progress they are making towards a larger, complex goal – motivation levels go up automatically.

 (d) Establish a transparent way of working to enable engagement: Once you have set up the first three layers, you have to enable positive reinforcement through an open and transparent culture. Make recognition public – this has a strong element of positive feedback and also ensures that there is no feeling of favoritism. Enable Peer-recognition and evaluation systems – Peers are usually in the best position to know exactly what work has been done. When the goals are clear, the combined effect of mini-evaluations over a period of time is more powerful and accurate than any detailed annual-appraisal can ever hope to be.  Be tolerant of open networks within the organization – enable a free flow of conversation and be open to constructive criticism. Typically social networks formed for a purpose tend to be focused and self-regulating. Any deviations are usually dealt with by the group without the need for active monitoring by a ‘higher authority’.

Engagement is what enables your employees to “see the big picture” and align their goals with that of the organization. But on a day-to-day basis it’s the work environment that provides the impetus for your employees to engage (or in the other extreme – disengage).

It is tempting to conclude that the onus lies on the senior leadership of an organization to do everything from establishing organizational business targets to driving an open and engaging work-culture to make sure those goals get met. While they have a large role to play, in a dynamic marketplace, waiting for senior leadership to decide every small detail is suicidal. The best way is be open and involve employees’ right from the planning process for establishing the organizations goals/targets for the year and continue to engage them throughout.

At 3M, one the world’s most innovative companies, the HR team provides the tools and processes but it’s the individual managers and supervisors who are in charge of engagement at the employee level. Accountability for establishing a culture of engagement at the workplace is done by embedding engagement into the list of leadership competencies. The company provides managers with engagement scores on company-wide surveys making employee engagement a key strategy to establishing competitive advantage in the marketplace.

References and Acknowledgements:

The “What” and “Why” of Goal Pursuits: Human Needs and the Self-Determination of Behavior, Edward L. Deci and Richard M. Ryan Department of Psychology, University of Rochester; Work Redesign and Motivation, J.Richard Hackman, Driving Performance and Retention through Employee Engagement, Corporate Leadership Council, Employee Engagement, Macey et al, Wiley Blackwell; Creating an engaged workplace, CIPD Report, January 2010.

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Mission Impossible – ‘Presenteeism’ Protocol

Disengaged_Gap_The world of banking has a term it dreads – NPA (Non-Performing Assets). These typically refer to loans that are at high risk of default.

Your employees are your most precious assets and their best performance is what you bank on to make the organization thrive. The Towers-Watson Global Workforce Study 2012 surveyed over 32,000 full-time workers across the globe and found that only 35% were highly engaged. The rest?

22% felt they were unsupported.

17% were detached.

And a whopping 26% were disengaged.

If you were a bank with over 25% of your assets at risk, the central bank would be all over you with audits, stress-tests and maybe even cancel your license.

If were a manufacturing firm with 25% of your plants breaking down all the time and hardly producing anything, you would declare the units sick and fix them or close them down.

If you were an airline with 25% of your planes flying practically empty you would reroute, optimize, or shut down the routes.

And yet even though over a quarter of your employees are disengaged, you still hope to meet your financial and business goals without a clear well-thought out employee engagement strategy.  Time to call Ethan Hunt?

References and Acknowledgements

The Towers-Watson Global Workforce Study 2012; Post title inspired from the Mission Impossible movie series; Image courtesy of

Presenteeism: “One central consequent of presenteeism is productivity loss, and scholars have attempted to estimate these productivity numbers. While examining productivity decrements, however, it is implied that losses are measured relative to not having a particular sickness or health issue. Furthermore, in comparison to being absent from a job, those exhibiting presenteeism may be far more productive. Nonetheless, a large study by Goetzel et al. estimated that on average in the United States, an employee’s presenteeism costs or lost on-the-job productivity are approximately $255.” (source: wikipedia)

The amplifying effect of peer-networks

LM741CN AmpYou hate the slow tedious testing process your company has for its blockbuster product. Surely there is a better way to do things. You get onto the company’s new collaboration platform and connect with like minded people across various departments in the company. Discussions around topics of mutual interest start. Ideas for some new software tools to improve product testing get thrown around. One of them really attracts attention. Someone suggests that you collaborate to build a prototype. Others in the company take notice and join in. The concept gets refined continuously. The conversation spreads. Quite a few people are hearing about it. The energy is electric. Everyone is checking their message feed to see what the latest update is.

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Celebrating small wins: Keeping the progress bar moving!

Celebrate_small_Wins_Have you ever felt frustrated, staring at your monitor while a large file downloads from the internet? I guess most of us have at some time or the other and the temptation to keep checking if the file is actually downloading is very high. You just need to know that it’s actually happening!

This is exactly why most smart websites, browsers (or file downloading software) provide percentage-completed progress indicators.  The filling up of the bar gives users a sense of progress (even if its misleading at times). Dr Brad A. Meyers in his paper “The importance of percent-done progress indicators for computer-human interfaces,” points out that “Practical experience and formal experiments show that progress indicators are an important and useful user-interface tool, and that they enhance the attractiveness and effectiveness of programs that incorporate them.”

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How to (not) create an engagement monster

_kwench_Engagement_Monster_Image_1You get an intern over for a few months. Ask her to google “employee engagement strategy” and make a report. She makes a laundry list of things that engaged companies seem to be doing. Borrow 10 techniques each from the top three most engaged companies on the global list that seem easy enough to do – Hand out a few badges, give a few vouchers, put a smiley sticker or two, spam everyone with “Thank-You’s” and voila – engaged employees all around, right?


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“Breaking Things” to engage better. A brave new world?

Facebook LikeYou better walk it / And talk it less you lose that beat
Better lose yourself mama / And knock yourself right off of your feet Yeah, if you’re moving too fast / Want it to last / You better walk it, talk it – Walk & Talk, Velvet Underground

 The company’s core product reaches over 1.2 billion users.

The average employee produces over $1.3 million in revenues and $120k in profit each year.

The stock price is on a roll.

Glassdoor rates it #1 in its list of Best Place to Work (2013)

Facebook has amazing employee productivity figures and it couldn’t do it without an engaged workforce. Yes it has some amazing perks – Free food, free ice-cream, happy hour’s on Fridays, but it’s not just the free gastronomic delights that’s getting Mark all the ‘Likes’ from his workforce.

Mark Zuckerberg plays the engagement game end-to-end and he walks the talk.

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5 tips for busy managers to engage with their teams

ID-10040313A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves. —Lao Tzu.

Let’s face it – there is no manager who doesn’t want an engaged outperforming team. What happens is that after getting the kids to school, eating a sandwich while stuffing the laptop into its bag, battling bumper to bumper traffic for an over an hour, sitting through a forty minute review meeting you finally open up your laptop to see over a hundred mails and four meeting requests – by around 11 in the morning, thoughts of engaging with the team goes out the door along with the decision to stick to a healthy diet and get in 30 minutes of exercise.

Sounds familiar?

And in a typical organization, this is the scene at all levels. Every day there are fires to fight, deadlines to meet, plans that threaten to go haywire, calls that interrupt you, urgent messages from the boss telling you to drop everything and start something new. Who has the time to place balloons on the desk of a team member who just fixed a major bug your largest customer reported last month.

Just thinking about it makes your pulse race faster, doesn’t it? Take a deep breath. And read on.

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Employee engagement strategies you learnt on your mother’s knee

I was down at the local supermarket today morning. As usual I was loitering in the candy and cookies section (a section that is supposedly off-limits for me) when a little girl ran into me and nearly knocked me over. She was so focused on some candies on a shelf way beyond her reach that she just didn’t see me standing there. A couple of hops and a full body stretch but she still couldn’t reach them.  I decided to help her and handed her a few. She gave the collection in my palm a very detailed check and nodded her head. She wanted the one with a bright yellow wrapper. And as soon I handed it over, she was off like a rocket. I shrugged and turned to get on with my grocery shopping. Seconds later she was back, a little out of breath. “Mommy says I have to say Thank you. Thank Youuu!”  A big impish smile and she was off again.

Be sure the next time I meet that girl in the store; I will sort through the entire rack to pick out as many yellow wrapper candies she wants me to.  The payoff: An impish smile and a thank you.

On my way back, I started thinking about all the stuff mothers teach kids. A whole lot of it sounds like best practices in employee engagement strategies. Here’s a quick refresher of stuff your mom already taught you (but then you forgot as you grew up in the big bad world)

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Employee engagement in tough times

Anyone can hold the helm when the sea is calm. —Publilius Syrus

The markets are going through a funk. The data in the reports from the central bank is depressing. The currency markets are more volatile than companies have stomach for. The markets seem to move only in one direction – down! Times are tough. Costs need to be pared. But before you reach for the good old financial-machete and start slashing ‘non-essential expenditure’ – take a moment and think. Do your employee engagement programs constitute essential or ‘good-to-have’ expenditure?

Let me put it this way, if getting the work done, surviving the market conditions and meeting your targets is ‘good-to-have’, then so is employee engagement. If you feel that your top-line and bottom-line targets are non-negotiable, then you better invest in your employees more than ever.

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The Ascent of Employee Engagement: A (very brief) history of motivation in the workplace (Part 2)

“There is an error; but it is merely the accidental error of mistaking the abstract for the concrete. It is an example of what I will call the ‘Fallacy of Misplaced Concreteness.’… It is not necessary for the intellect to fall into the trap, though {…} there has been a very general tendency to do so.” Science and the Modern World, 1926, Alfred North Whitehead.

The Hawthorne Experiments: “the great éclaircissement”:

Mention “Hawthorne Experiments” at a cocktail party and chances are some wise-crack will ask you trying turning up the lights to get the party going. Jokes apart the experiments done at the Hawthorne Works were extraordinary in the sheer scale and the time duration. The experiments represent a major milestone in the rise of the ‘Human Relations Movement’ and also the shift of ‘management’ from a linear ‘scientific’ approach to a multidisciplinary one.

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The Ascent of Employee Engagement: A (very brief) history of motivation in the workplace (Part 1)

Iron and Coal by William Bell ScottI like the dreams of the future better than the history of the past. – Thomas Jefferson

Employee Engagement as a concept is going through some exciting changes. As geographical boundaries collapse, and distances are reduced to meaningless numbers – markets are getting more competitive and brutal than ever before. And companies are increasingly realizing that the only thing that will help them survive (and thrive) is their key asset – their people.  Office buildings and computers will not innovate. People will. HR professionals and business leaders are waking up to the reality that extrinsic motivation can only do so much. Intrinsic motivation is what’s crucial to make the cut. The art of engagement is all about providing an environment where the intrinsic motivation of employees dovetails with that of the organization.

To make sense of where we are and where we are heading to, it’s useful to take a pause and look back for a moment. Over the next few posts I am going to outline the various theories which form the foundations of employee engagement today.

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Employee Engagement: Why doesn’t everybody just do it?

Farmer at the dentist _ Johann LissMakes you wonder doesn’t it? Everybody knows that engaged employees are much more productive and innovative. Even if you don’t quite believe the exact percentages often quoted, the concept is intuitive enough. Your employees are happy and so they go the extra mile to do a better job. You know you would. Why then would all managers and leaders in an organization not want to invest their time and energy in building a culture of actively engaging employees? Boggles the mind, does it not?

The answer to that question lies in the innocuous bottle of hand-wash lying on your bathroom sink.


Settle down comfortably. Get a cup of coffee. There is a long-ish story I need to tell you before getting back to the soap (and employee engagement).

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Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 3 – The strategies)

_Strategy_Success_This is the third and final post in the series. The first post is here, the second is here.

It was almost 6. Kaushik, as the HR director was called by all his peers in senior management was slouched in a plush leather chair in one corner of the bar in his club. The chair in front of him was vacant. Kamal, the director of operations was late, since he was battling some crisis at office. And just as well – Kaushik needed some time to think.

The atmosphere in Nymphaea (as the lounge was called) was muted. There was a smattering of people reading or chatting with friends ensconced in over-sized leather chairs and sofas. The lighting was dim and the view of the perfectly manicured gardens, with its lotus pools, soothing – A far cry from the tense atmosphere in office these days.

Kaushik took another sip of his drink and stared out of the large french windows. The spectacular hues of a summer sunset were lost on him as the impending discussion with his friend loomed. He knew that his initiatives to actively engage Gen-Y would be challenging, but he hadn’t expected an outright war. The senior management were people who had vast amounts of industry experience and were more than competent. To their credit they had built the company from ground up over the last three decades but they could not afford to be blind to reality. Growth was slowing. Costs were rising. Each time a trained employee left the company, it impacted the bottom line. The costs of training and bringing new employees up to speed was non-trivial and was a topic the CFO kept bringing up in the quarterly management meets.

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Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 2 – The chasm)

(This is the second post in a three part series. The first post is here)

 Gen_Why_InTheWorkplace_“Just another brick in the wall!” Arvind changed his facebook status message using his Smartphone and he knew the inevitable flood of questions from his network would follow. He was bugged. His status “Da man has arrived – now EA to the Prez!” a week back, had gotten him over 70 ‘likes’ – a personal record.  But it didn’t take a doctorate in human psychology to figure out that he was not really hitting it off with his boss. “The man just refuses to think differently or even consider there is a better way of doing things. He wants everything to be ‘thought through’. That approach is so-dead” Arvind ranted over a Whats-App chat session with his close friend. Arvind had slaved the entire weekend and come up with a detailed presentation outlining what he felt was a massive improvement over the current process. “Don’t try to fix what isn’t broken” is all that the president said when he shooed Arvind out of the room after having barely glanced at the presentation slides.

Up on the seventh floor of the corporate office: The president once again opened the presentation his EA had sent him. He was impressed with the way the young entrant had tried to use new technologies to reduce some of the inefficiencies in the process but what was also obvious was that the impatient young man didn’t have the depth of understanding required to overhaul the entire process chain. In the good old days a new comer would immerse himself for years before daring to come up with a plan to overhaul an established process and this was the fifth time in the last week alone that Arvind had come up with a ‘game changing’ plan – none of which was really necessary right now. There were more than enough burning fires that needed putting out. “This new generation thinks it can change the world overnight”.

The president shook his head as he picked up the phone to call the HR head.

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Engaging Gen-Y: The ‘Millennial’ Challenge (Part 1 – the Hero Generation)

I love Gen_Y_“You want to think about how to prepare the next generation to move into leadership and they’re already thinking about buying the company.”*

Arvind had just joined the company fresh out of India’s best B-school. The CEO himself was on the panel that selected Arvindt to join his company’s young leaders program. Quick introductions to the senior management over, Arvind is assigned to be the EA of the 55 year old President of Global Operations, a 20 year veteran.  A fortnight later, the senior man is in on the phone with the HR head. The “kid” is overconfident, he says. Arvind is pushy and impatient and worst of all, he wants to leave at 6pm every day. The president want’s the HR head to intervene and have a frank talk or he wants the “brat” gone by the end of the month.

HR professionals today have a unique challenge. The typical workforce for large and medium organizations now has the ‘Independence Babies (Boomers)’ retiring, Gen-X at the helm of affairs or in senior positions, and Gen-Y entering the workforce eager to take charge. To make matters more interesting, the behavioural gap between those in charge and the incoming workforce couldn’t be starker. Organizations can no longer hope to actively engage their workforce by having an undifferentiated ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach towards employee engagement.