Despite the buzz about employee engagement, there remains a missing link in human resource development today. Recent studies point to low levels of employee engagement and commitment among Singapore workers. Why is this so?

The decline of human relations

I blame work pressure for the decline of human relations in the workplace today.

Managers often fail to recognise the crucial role that the environment plays in the disengagement of their workforce. While office environments in Singapore may not be bad, there are many areas that can be improved upon.

The environment is a function of the job responsibilities and work tasks assigned to employees. So it is a recipe for trouble when the workload increases without giving employees corresponding empowerment or the proper equipment to complete the task.

These days, there is so much talk about productivity — doing more with less. While there is nothing wrong with the concept, managers need to realise that employees must be given the necessary time, resources and tools to achieve higher productivity.

These factors have to be taken into consideration as bona fide contributors to unhappiness at the workplace. They may also include favouritism of one employee over another, unreasonable demands and deadlines imposed on employees, harassment, criticising employees in front of clients or colleagues, poor communication, feedback that is primarily negative in tone, betrayal of trust and lack of team co-operation.

On top of these, there is the very real challenge of managing a multi-generational workforce comprising Baby Boomers and members of Gen X and Gen Y, and the downstream effect of all these factors is that interpersonal relationships in the workplace are bound to suffer.

Having a hierarchical organisational structure also contributes to employee disengagement. In such organisations, fear is used to intimidate employees into producing results. This can breed a dysfunctional work culture where employees only wait for instructions and do not show any initiative.

Although hierarchy may be useful in providing employees with a clear role and direction, overplaying it will negatively reinforce the message that “the boss is always right” and the employee may not make a move until he is explicitly told by the boss to do so. 

Many organisations also tend to centre their notions of engagement or performance on the “hard” stuff like key performance indicators (KPIs).

When organisations become overly focused on the these elements, the real emotional engagement — the “soft” stuff — breaks down. And that is what people want — to be listened to, spoken to more respectfully, and so on.

All these negative occurrences are counter-productive to the development of a positive and supportive work culture. Unfortunately, managers don’t receive enough training to realise that these intangibles actually have a huge impact on employee engagement and consequently, profits.

Clueless managers

There is an all-too-familiar refrain: “People join companies but leave managers”. Curiously, not enough organisations or human resource development teams are paying enough attention as to how they can deal with this problem.

Some managers lack the people management capabilities that range from how to communicate, coach and motivate to something as simple as effective listening skills.

To their credit, organisations often do recognise the importance of having a workforce that is united by a spirit of trust and respect.

However, the truth is that they are not sure how to go about doing it.  And packing your employees off for training as a quick-fix solution just won’t work. This is because there isn’t much point of them acquiring the right skill sets when the work environment remains plagued by systemic problems, and the environmental conditions are not conducive to creating lasting change.

Having identified the missing link in human resource development today, what can you do about it? 

The solution

Going back to your original focus, the key to improving workplace conditions and employee engagement lies in strengthening human relationships.

 This can be achieved when there is a “people appreciation of people” philosophy within the workforce and that going to work is not viewed as a transactional exchange of money paid for an agreed-upon number of work hours.

A positive and supportive work environment will emerge when individuals’ unique strengths are understood and appreciated. Exploring ways that the team can supplement potential areas of weakness is another way to create a more positive work culture.

Some degree of humility is also necessary. Too often, managers take it upon themselves to try to exert complete control over situations that are simply too complex.

The traditional management mindset will need to move from a bias towards managers as all-knowing individuals who create great results through their own thoughts and actions to that of better employee engagement.

This can be achieved through a bi-directional process, which asserts that employees have just as big a role to play as managers do in building an atmosphere of mutual support, trust and respect.