Big Elephant Called Employee Programs

Once there was a team of bond traders at a large investment bank. They produced millions upon millions in revenue for the bank and sometimes they were well compensated for it. But there was just one problem. New management, brought in from outside, was invasive, overbearing and even verbally abusive at times. On top of this, the Managing Director lacked a strong grasp of the business. Work-life balance was near impossible with the micro-management. The team made this clear in the annual 360 Review.

To solve the problem, they were put through hours of team building exercises, personality tests and diversity training. The MD was assigned a leadership coach. What happened the following year? As it was described to me, the team convened and agreed: “Give them all high marks. Let’s not go through that again.”

Management didn’t change their ways. Upper levels thought all was solved. After all the 360 Review showed it. Four months later the entire team left together. Another institution swiped them up…gave them the autonomy and actual support they needed, including senior directors that were experts in the area.

Hey, is anyone going to tell upper management that the 360 Degree Review Program is largely a waste of time? And that it is time to consider whether such programs are worth the time and resources at all?

We are not making many friends in HR with this discussion, but the elephant must be acknowledged, because you risk leading in the wrong direction.


Come on guys, you love me in spite of the results.

I’m talking about programs such as:

  • Retention Programs
  • Wellness Programs
  • Incentives & Rewards Programs
  • Recognition Programs
  • 360 Reviews
  • Personality Tests
  • Engagement Programs
  • Team Building Programs

What is tripping up management?

The widely held belief is that “employee programs” can improve or change employee performance.

The reality is that they don’t. The opposite of what management desires from these programs occurs, as the above story portrays and global surveys reveal, or the results are dismal.

If you look at Employee Engagement, available data shows no appreciable improvement over the past 15 years in spite of large amounts of money being spent on employee engagement programs.

And in survey after survey, CEOs say they are just as challenged now by employee motivation, innovation, and retention as ever. Improvement programs for these have a long, long history of soaking up resources with very little to show for it.

The appeal of these “programs” is understandable. Executives and others in senior management tend to be attracted to them because they sign off and believe the issue is being handled. The “programs” give management – HR and otherwise – the sense that something positive is being done. If anyone notices the program isn’t working, then try another or give it more time…hire another consultant perhaps with a revolutionary solution…a new Recognition App!

Admittedly, programs to improve such things as sales, products, finances, supply chains, and quality have generally produced positive effects. Those programs are about doing “things” better.

But people are not objects to be manipulated the way we manipulate ‘things.’

What you need is the right leadership.

There are two major problems with “employee programs.” First, they are directive in nature – “Do this and do that so we’ll have higher retention, productivity, engagement…” Second, they tend to be conducted by someone else, by staff or HR, and not by upper management or managers in general. Both reflect a gross misunderstanding of what leadership is and what it and only it can do.

People cannot be told or directed to be:

  • Highly motivated
  • Highly committed
  • Innovative
  • Engaged
  • Diverse
  • Better managers/leaders…

They can, however, be led to be that way.

So then, only through the right leadership will people decide to change their behavior. The right leadership is right simply because it proves to employees that management respects, values, and cares about them. Convinced of that, employees will devote everything they have to ensuring the work is done…to perfection. When that happens, management will rarely if ever need to spend time on actually managing “the work” because their people will do that.

You can’t hand leadership off. You can’t do it in an email, recognition app or through easily and rightfully rigged 360 Reviews.

Nothing beats hands-on, face-to-face leadership.

Don’t fall into the trap of believing a special “program” will solve your people management issues. What all managers must spend their time doing is providing the right leadership 24/7.

You want to “recognize” someone for a job well done? Walk over to them and tell them directly…in front of others!

You want to know what another team thinks of your people? Go ask them. Then take that input, positive or negative, back to your team.

Get out there, in front of everyone you manage and ask, “What can I do for you? What complaints, suggestions and questions do you have?” Listen intently then do all that you can to fulfill what they say they need to their satisfaction, not yours.

Think of all the time and money you’ll save!

P.S. This was a tough topic to cover. Even the smallest of companies use programs – like Rewards or Recognition – and the belief they are necessary is very, very strong.

So let the comments and questions fly. We are listening and want to hear your thoughts on this.

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