What Companies Really Want From Employees

August 13, 2010

Assessing employee performance is more than just, “Did Jane meet her goals for this year?” How Jane went about her work is equally important. This means that other wording works its way into the process, like:

Shows a passion for…

Takes ownership for…

And so on.

Wording like this underscores the desire to assess and understand the level of an individual’s involvement. If people are excited about their work, there is energy and passion that – provided the proper direction and support are in place – results in individuals reaching their full potential.

Words like commitment, ownership, motivation, passion, and engagement are fine, but as managers we must take care to understand and effectively communicate the context of these words.

For example, consider the following opinion offered in a ScienceDaily article, Engaged Employees Are Good, But Don’t Count On Commitment: “There is a difference between an engaged worker, meaning one who invests himself or herself in superior job performance, and organizational commitment, a worker’s psychological attachment to his or her organization or employer.”

The concept of ownership as it relates to employees doesn't translate to reality as simply as some would like, either. Let's face it, acting “like an owner” is actually very difficult when you don't have real ownership in the company. And because (meaningful) corporate gains aren’t typically being shared with the employees, is it reasonable to expect them to act like an owner?

I worked for a company that had a slogan, "Pride of an Owner." They wanted each and every employee to be thinking and acting like an owner; the problem was, they weren't rewarding employees like owners. Every year, the company surveyed its employees, and every year, I provided the same feedback: If you want employees to truly reflect the "Pride of an Owner," give them some ownership and let the employees share in the rewards of ownership. Since the company had gone public, this seemed like an easy enough task.

After four or five years, they listened. Everyone came in one day and found that they were the recipients of 100 shares of stock, with a catch. There was a five-year vesting period. Nice try, but I'll say that the gesture turned out to be less than meaningful to a majority of the employees.

For the average employee in most companies, my opinion is that the context of ownership is really confined to a narrower definition, one of assuming complete responsibility for day-do-day tasks and operating in the best interests of the company, even if that means stepping outside of the normal "procedure."

Engagement is the operative word, describing the level and combination of commitment, motivation and passion that an employee possess. A fully engaged employee is someone who takes full "ownership" (responsibility) for his or her work and is someone who places a premium on his or her performance. An engaged employee isn't focused as much on procedure as he or she is on achieving results. As a manager, I find this to be a distinctive, easily recognizable difference.

Under the covers, we also tend to seek something else that is often stated in other ways. We want resourcefulness. We want creativity, ingenuity, curiosity. We want individuals who have their wits about them. We want people who are able to deal with the difficult problems.

This is because routine tasks are increasingly being performed elsewhere; the day-to-day work is being moved where it can be performed less expensively. In today's tough, global, competitive economy, this has to occur. The difficult, complex problems remain. This means that we need capable, engaged, resourceful individuals to overcome those challenges.

Engaged and resourceful – that’s what we want. But it isn't what we get all of the time, is it? And there are plenty of ways that management and the organization at large can positively or negatively influence both. More in future posts...