Businesses pay the price for words without action

Almost every company has a document describing its mission, vision, or overall purpose.

These carefully written statements attempt to describe the agreed collective sense of what employees and management hold dear. In effect, they outline what the company and its stakeholders value. These can be measurable, tangible objectives.  And they can also represent intangible value, impossible to measure but vital to the overall health and direction of the business.

Over the past twenty years, companies have invested heavily in articulating who they are and what they stand for. With all this focus on organisational culture and wellbeing, it’s no surprise many are now asking why employees are suddenly walking out the door?

Called The Great Resignation, staff have left their jobs in record numbers, including four million who resigned in the US in one month alone this year.

At the heart of this movement is decision making – by organisations, individuals, and communities.  And what is driving it? A misalignment in the articulation of value and what is actually being delivered.

COVID exposed an uncomfortable truth

Here are two statistics from Gallup worth pondering:

      • 85% of employees are unhappy in their jobs and
      • 77% of leaders believe they are doing a great job of engaging their people.

These numbers are a powerful clue as to why The Great Resignation finally took off in 2021.

The pandemic exposed an uncomfortable truth: many companies like to talk about what they value, but too few live up to it.  It likely reflects the trade-off inside a company – what we think we should value (or that people expect us to say we value) compared to what we actually value.  When companies lack alignment in this area, we see dissatisfied staff and disenfranchised stakeholders.

To further understand how this happened, it helps to think of the pandemic in two parts:

      • It’s early 2020, COVID hits, markets take a pounding, companies start letting staff go, and lockdowns begin. Concerned about job security, employees take on extra work, with many going the extra mile to keep their companies afloat.
      • It’s now 2021, and economies begin to open, borders are still closed, in-bound immigration has stalled for over 12 months, and many industries suddenly have a shortage of skilled labour.

In essence, COVID brought employee concerns about flexibility, conditions, and workloads to the forefront. Staff could now shine a light on whether their organisations were committed to wellbeing and culture – something that staff themselves were realising they valued deeply. Businesses that failed to deliver on what employees care about, or value,  paid the price with staff walking out the door.

So, where did it all go wrong, and what to do about it?

The Great Resignation problem has likely been brewing for years, with management teams repeating one of the most common decision-making mistakes, believing they can (or should) largely ignore the intangible value because it is hard to measure.

As managers, we’d like to think benchmarking can be applied to every aspect of the workplace. However, when we attempt to invent markers for intangible value, we come up with poor substitutes.

Indeed, tangible value is easier to identify – it often sits on the surface. Intangible value tends to be deeper down and harder to describe but is no less important. The intangible informs our gut instincts, and because gut instinct drives individual behaviour, it is perilous to ignore it.

The best approach to identifying and delivering on intangible value isn’t in the form of a checklist. One of the biggest traps in decision-making is to make assumptions about what your stakeholders care about and narrow your options accordingly.

Take, for instance, the annual staff survey. As a way to track trends over time, surveys can useful aids to decision-making. However, used in isolation, surveys can become dangerous determinants of business decisions.  Choose your survey questions carefully, and allow for open-ended responses from your employees. 

Understanding and appreciating intangible value can be hard work, requiring a lot of listening and not always serving up easy answers. With this appearing so complicated, management teams often push intangible value recognition to the back of the priority list.

But, here’s the rub; focussing on the intangible pays off in the medium to long term. It’s undoubtedly true an employee’s commitment to an organisation can be a function of tangible incentives such as wages. Still, their commitment is also substantially influenced by the intangible value they receive through their employment.

Your organisation’s productivity levels reflect the calibre, capacity, and commitment of your workforce. Retention strategies matter because experienced employees are hard to replace. Consequently, taking all the value you offer to stakeholders, including employees, into account when making decisions will impact the bottom line.  

Therefore, management teams should explicitly and consciously consider both tangible and intangible value as part of their decision-making processes.

An excellent place to start is a health check of your existing strategies and initiatives – including those targeted at employee satisfaction. Do they reflect what your stakeholders actually care about? And is your company really committed to delivering on them?

Think about the next major crisis that could hit your business; it could be another pandemic, a natural disaster, or an economic recession.

Will the value you deliver stand up to these strains when the going gets tough?  Are they enough to have your workforce remain loyal to the company and its mission?

If the answer is no, then it’s time to revisit and rewrite your strategy. Or perhaps, to design new ways to fulfil on them. 

Remember, it’s not only what you can measure that matters.