I listened to a talk the other day by Mark Robb, a former member of the M&S business recovery team – the firefighters who got the retailer out of the hole it had fallen into during the late nineties. He spoke knowledgeably and entertainingly about how to make good connections with customers and employees. Some very telling statistics emerged.
This, for example: the biggest single reason given by customers for not returning to a particular product or service – a whopping 68 per cent – was that they had met with an ‘attitude of indifference’. This compared with only nine per cent for dissatisfaction with price and 14 per cent for dissatisfaction with product.
Less surprising perhaps when you also consider this: according to a 2003 Gallup survey, 60 per cent of the UK workforce were ‘not engaged’ with their work, while 21 percent were ‘actively disengaged’. Not engaged is defined as being ‘not psychologically committed to the role, may leave if opportunity presents itself.’ Actively disengaged means ‘disenchanted, vocal or militant in showing negative attitude toward work’ – in other words, as Mark put it, ‘a pain in the ass for everyone else’.
How can you appear anything but indifferent if you’re not engaged with the task at hand, let alone actively disengaged from it? No wonder then that with only 19 per cent of the UK’s 27 million employees considering themselves engaged, employee engagement is one of the grails of modern business. Gallup describes this happy state as one of being ‘loyal, productive, finding work satisfying’.
But what is that engenders that feeling? What puts a spring in the corporate step, gets people out of bed and off to work in the morning with enthusiasm? What helps them feel they’re doing something worthwhile, for an organisation that’s going somewhere?
Good leadership, said Mark unequivocally, with which he turned the pyramid upside down so that the CEO stood at the bottom, the balancing point, directing all his or her energy upwards in support of the staff, ranged along the top, customer-facing surface. It was a neat way to visualise this confounding of conventional leadership wisdom.
All very well. But that’s still the leadership perspective. Who asks the followers what they think? Here came the most surprising, but also the most reassuringly human, piece of information of the morning. A recent study, the only one of its kind, has revealed that out of seven possible qualities, what followers most want from a leader is that they show ‘a genuine concern for others’. Not that the leader is tough or determined or visionary or decisive or charismatic or approachable, not even that they’re honest or consistent, but simply that they take an interest. They don’t have to be soft and over-sympathetic, but they do have to acknowledge the people who work for them in a human way.
The point was underlined by a further piece of research. When it comes to communication, leaders put more than 80 per cent of their effort into ‘formal’ activities such as speeches, presentations, reports, but these tend only to receive about five per cent of their employees’ attention. Conversely, leaders commit only about five per cent of their effort to those informal, largely sub-conscious things such as style and behaviour – the markers of organisational culture, one might say – which register 80 per cent of their employees’ attention.
The consideration a leader shows for his or her employees, the way his or her personal style sets the tone for the whole business – these are nowhere more evident than in the language they use. It’s why John Simmons and I called our book Room 121. Communicating as if one-to-one is the only way to make a proper human connection with your audience – ask any speechwriter.
The leaders that speak (and write) directly, conversationally and empathetically are the ones whose staff are most likely to feel engaged, and whose customers are least likely to meet that brick wall of indifference.