The Decline Of Employee High Commitment (And Loyalty) At Work

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Empowerment. “Thinking like an owner.” Shared leadership. Employee engagement surveys and practices. High involvement. Those and other efforts to build high commitment from the workforce — one of the holy grails of enlightened management thinking for the last 40–50 years — suddenly seem not so very relevant to the workplace realities of today.

It appears that because of the pandemic and its many unexpected aftershocks, much of the “psychological contract” between employer and employee has been altered. We are now allegedly in an era of “ The Great Resignation,” with employees willing to jettison their jobs and their employers to meet a newly found set of personal needs and priorities. People have quit without even having another job lined up. Allegiance and loyalty to one’s employer have taken a big hit.

For many employees at many levels, “How can I help?” has been replaced with “What have you done for me lately?” Others have gone further and adopted the refrain from Johnny Paycheck’s 1977 song: “Take this job and shove it!”

How Did We Get Here?

This decline of people’s emotional connection to their employer — is this simply a temporary phenomenon that will pass when the work world gets back to “normal” whatever that might mean? Or is this a historical inflection point in which people see themselves almost as free agents and throw their talents and their energies into whatever employer is seen as meeting their personal needs at the time?

But it’s not just about employees losing their enthusiasm and loyalty to their employers. Most commentators and employees would agree that for some time there has been a parallel lack of loyalty or emotional connection on the part of employers to members of their workforces. For years companies have defended layoffs and downsizings with the explanation that “it’s not personal, it’s business. We have to make tough choices in the interest of the enterprise. Bye-bye.”

Well, in this post-pandemic economy it’s the employees that are now adopting that same mindset. “Hey, employer, it’s not personal. I have to make tough choices in my own interest and in my family’s interest. Bye-bye.”

Obviously, people make job and career choices all the time and it is part of the normal human condition to want to satisfy personal needs in a job, whether those needs are driven by money, the nature of the work, status, work-family balance, etc. But this seems bigger than that. Widespread use and acceptance of a phrase like “the great resignation” suggests not just an interesting “trending now” point but instead a defining spirit of the times. A new zeitgeist.

We’ve Come A Long Way — Until Now

It’s taken much effort over the years by forward-thinking leaders, academics, and consultants to change the traditional command-and-control DNA of most organizations and there’s been much success from those efforts. We’ve come a long way. We’ve seen empowered work teams; employee involvement; shared leadership.

We’ve experienced engaged employees willing to expend passion and energy because they want their project or their work unit or division or enterprise to be successful. In fact, a consulting industry has grown up and flourished around employee engagement, culture change and participative leadership. As a consultant for many years, I was part of that industry and find this recent development personally dismaying.

Consider the business case for why this has been important. Being committed to one’s work/employer often leads to what is called “discretionary effort.” That is, an employee will be inspired or driven to go above and beyond what is expected in order to achieve a desired result: ensuring an on-time delivery; solving a confounding production problem; helping others without being asked to do so to solve a customer conundrum.

A popular way many management thinkers and writers have expressed this is “thinking like an owner.” Why? Because business owners or entrepreneurs almost never utter those dreadful words “it’s not my job.” Instead, the orientation is more like “whatever it takes” because of the psychological importance of success.

High commitment employees/managers (remember — managers are employees too) sometimes sacrifice their own interests for the interests of the work unit or the customer or the enterprise itself. That could mean coming in on the weekend to take care of an important work issue even though the person would rather be at home doing something else.

They come in on that weekend not because they were told to, or because they feel a sense of guilt or obligation. They come in because they are passionate about what they do for a living and perceive that the company’s values and their own values have considerable alignment. Mutual needs are being met. Mutual trust is present.

They come in on that weekend because the organization and/or the boss have created the right conditions — the right playing field — that activates both “can do” and “will do” orientations on the part of the people doing the work. It’s been said that committed employees contribute their hands, head, and heart.

High Commitment Is A Win-Win

So, as hackneyed as it might sound, high commitment is a win-win. And people who are highly committed (and engaged) tend to stay longer with an employer.

At many leadership training sessions over the years, I’ve led discussions about the value of creating high commitment in the workplace and the mutual benefits of doing so. Regardless of the industry, I can’t recall many leaders pushing back on that even though it is difficult to create and sustain high commitment. Almost all leaders I’ve worked with embrace the concept even when it is largely aspirational.

At those training sessions, I would also regularly share one of my favorite quotes I stole from someone along the way: “People tend to be committed to those things they have helped to build.” That means high involvement. Most people want to be at least the partial architects of their own future. They feel invested in an outcome if they have been authentically consulted and even better if they can see evidence of their own fingerprints on a solution.

Again, it’s good for the organization and it’s good for the employee.

The pandemic, though, has altered that landscape. Employees are reflecting on what they want out of a job or an employer or a career. And how and where they want to work. And in many cases, they are no longer willing to invest their energies and their talents in their current situation.

In a piece I published last December, I suggested that because of the pandemic-driven Work From Home (WFH) phenomenon that we should re-think the idea of “engagement” and that perhaps “satisfaction” is now a more meaningful organizing principle for thinking about the relationship between employee and work. It’s Time to Rethink Employee Engagement for Work From Home (WFH)

Quality Of Work Life (QWL)

However, I now believe the new mantra for many employees goes beyond satisfaction. It’s more about their “Quality of Work Life” (QWL), a concept popularized in the late 1970s and 80s, especially in union-management settings. It is akin to the broader concept of “quality of life” but pertains to the degree that members of an organization are able to satisfy their important personal needs through their experiences in that organization.

And like “quality of life” there is not a precise one-size-fits-all definition because everyone has their own personal meaning of what’s important to them about a job or an employer. That said, when QWL was a popular concept, it usually included components such as a safe work environment; the means for self-fulfillment; appropriate working time; participative decision making; workplace equity/fairness.

In 2021 QWL also includes flexibility of working arrangements.

The restaurant industry, I think, is very short-staffed these days because of QWL issues. Sure, there are some employees who don’t want exposure to covid customers, but I think that many food service employees have simply decided they didn’t like the long hours; the oft low pay; the frenetic pace; the occasional obnoxious customers; the lack of much “say-so” over their working conditions and decisions which affect them; the limited options for advancement.

In other words, they opted out of the quality of work life they were experiencing and are looking to do something else. Other factors have become more important than simply a paycheck. And it is playing out in other industries as well.

This neo-QWL or whatever people prefer to call it is indeed a “thing,” a mindset, and it’s contributing to The Great Resignation. Employers need to be savvy about how to navigate this new world order, as it impacts all of the stages of the employee life cycle: acquiring, developing, and retaining the right people. Finding the right balance between “Have it your way” and the need for some common practices and policies to support the mission of the enterprise will be difficult. Even free agents need to work within parameters.

However…

And there’s another variable in the employee equation: not everyone wants to devote their passions and energies to their employer. It’s a perspective that devalues the importance of QWL beliefs and principles and is one in which employees see work primarily in a transactional way — it generates a paycheck, period. It’s a means to pay the rent and to support a family. You do the work and you go home and get fulfillment from the non-work part of your life. As an employee once told me, “Don’t enrich my job, just enrich my paycheck.” To that point, Amazon, for example, has thousands of eager applicants for well-paying warehouse jobs that have been widely reported (such as in a recent Wall Street Journal article) to be very low on QWL factors.

These are interesting times…

About the author: Mike Hoban is a business topics writer and leadership coach/ advisor. He is actively working at becoming a world-class grandpa to his five young granddaughters. In addition to his 35+ years experience as a leader, consultant, and business owner he has also published extensively in Fast Company and wrote a business column for 12 years. His recent commentaries — including many about leading during the COVID crisis — can be found on his LinkedIn page: https://www.linkedin.com/in/mike-hoban-b5756b6/He can also be reached at mjhoban99@gmail.com.

Originally published at https://www.linkedin.com.

Mike Hoban is a West Michigan-based leadership coach and advisor who also writes about business topics.