Give them an inch

Mar 3, 2017 | 0 comments

8 minute read

The key to success in business is simple.

Or at least it is according to the authors of The Enthusiastic Employee (2005).

As I pointed out in a previous post, David Sirota, Louis Mischkind and Michael Meltzer conclude that any for-profit enterprise hoping to achieve some measure of commercial success should focus first and foremost on engaging their workers. Enthusiasm, they argue, is the key to it all:

Enthusiastic employees…search for ways to improve things rather than just react to management’s requests; encourage co-workers to high levels of performance and find ways to help them; welcome, rather than resist, needed change; and conduct transactions with…customers in ways that bring credit (and business) to the company.[1]

Sirota and his colleagues go on to argue that the best way for a business to generate such enthusiasm is, in their words, to give workers “what they want.”[2]

These “wants” include certain minimum expectations concerning the basic conditions of the workplace. For instance:[3]

  • a safe working environment
  • a workload that doesn’t damage physical or emotional health
  • satisfactory compensation and fringe benefits
  • reasonable degree of job security
  • reasonable accommodation for personal and family needs

They also include specific expectations of the job itself, such as:[4]

  • challenging work – and/or work that utilizes their intelligence, abilities, and skills
  • opportunities to perform, and acquire new skills
  • recognition for performance
  • a workplace where relationships with others are warm, interesting, and cooperative

But let’s be honest for a moment – how realistic is all of this?

For instance, it doesn’t take a certified public accountant to recognize that “satisfactory pay and fringe benefits” do not come without a cost – a cost that some businesses may not be able to afford (or at least not yet). And “job security”? In today’s fast-paced, ever-changing globalized marketplace? What’s that? As for “challenging work” that allows one to learn “new skills”? Well, somebody has to empty the wastebaskets at night. Right?

So this week, a closer look at the idea that “companies profit by giving employees what they want.” From an employer’s perspective, is this really true?

Or are worker’s expectations just too high (or people just too lazy), so that any real attempt to do so would simply break the bank?


The road to insolvency

Sirota and his colleagues seem well aware of this concern. As they acknowledge early on in their text, many might view their recommendations[5] as “a sure road to insolvency.”[6]

Nor do they allow for the possibility of any half-measures here. Paying employees more as a way of making up for an unsafe work environment, for instance, will not result in the same enthusiasm as addressing those substandard conditions. Worker needs in many ways are “distinct,” Sirota and his colleagues write, and “unfortunately cannot be substituted for each other.”[7] So satisfying some “wants” at the expense of others won’t necessarily get you anywhere.

The issue of compensation is of course likely to be of particular concern to managers and business owners alike, because it perhaps most directly affects the bottom line. Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer’s findings would seem to justify this concern. Compensation is seen by most workers as “extraordinarily important,” they observe, and it is rare for an employee to say that they feel overpaid.[8] As they warn:

Don’t believe anyone who tells you that money is ‘way down on the list’ of worker goals—that what they want is ‘appreciation’ (or whatever) and they clamor for money only when those other things are lacking. That’s psychobabble.[9]

So maybe what Sirota, and his colleagues suggest is impractical – or at least difficult for the average business to afford. Perhaps employers and their employees will always disagree on what should be given in exchange for a hard day’s work – the net result being that businesses who can’t afford to pay their employees well will never get the kind of enthusiasm from workers that they’d like.

Not so, according to Sirota and his fellow researchers.

In their eyes, worker’s expectations are not as unreasonable as we have perhaps been led to believe:

We use the term ‘reasonable’ frequently in our definitions [of worker wants and needs] because employees do not expect a level of perfection unrelated to the realities of our world. For example, the desire for job security does not mean that employees expect a lifetime-employment guarantee. They are not naïve…[10]

This is true even when it comes to the tricky issue of compensation, Sirota and his colleagues contend. For instance, while they found that while 23 percent of all U.S. workers surveyed felt underpaid, 46 percent were in fact quite satisfied with their level of compensation.[11] As they explain:

Contrary to popular belief, employees don’t expect wildly generous pay for their labors. In fact, they would likely question the motives or competence of management if pay were astonishingly high [my emphasis]. Therefore, we must differentiate between the wish for a lot of money and workers’ views of what is reasonable and fair.[12]

Maybe workers aren’t expecting the world…but satisfying this one important “want” (or some of those other “basic conditions” of the workplace given above) doesn’t come without a cost. So the question must be asked: Does the price tag associated with meeting the expectations of workers result in increases in productivity sufficient to cover those costs?

Again, according to Sirota and his colleagues the answer is: Yes.

As evidence, they point to a review by business theorist Jeffrey Pfeffer who found that gains of 30 to 40 percent can be realized by companies implementing workplace practices that result in high employee commitment.[13] When it comes to compensation specifically, they also cite a study by David Levine that concludes, “Business units that increase their relative wages…have productivity gains large enough to pay for the wage increases.”[14] They note too the strong correlation between Fortune Magazine’s “America’s Most Admired Corporations” (based on factors including long-term investment value) and their list of “100 Best Companies to Work For in America” (based in part on employee attitude surveys).[15]

Then there is Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer’s own research to consider. According to their studies:

…companies with high morale performed considerably better than their industry comparison group—about 20 percent [better][16]

That number is in good agreement with what the Gallup Organization recently found. In a newly published study of the American workplace, Gallup reports that “the behaviors of highly engaged business units result in 21 percent greater profitability.” Gallup also found that, for the publicly traded companies with available earnings per share data for 2011-2015, those with engaged workforces enjoyed higher earning per share than those that did not have engaged workforces.[17]

So what’s the problem, you might be wondering?

Why aren’t more companies making an effort to give their employees “what they want”? Especially if that means improved performance—and profits—for any business that does?


…and they’ll take a mile?

The “problem,” it seems, is that many, many companies are already doing what Sirota’s study suggests (or at least making sincere attempts to do so). Nevertheless, worker morale, in general, still isn’t near what it could be.

According to that same study by Gallup, just one-third of all workers are currently “engaged” at work. A whopping 51 percent are not engaged, or “just there” – and sixteen percent are actively “disengaged.”[18] Furthermore, these figures have not changed significantly in the last 15 years.

Gallup’s study does offer some insight into why worker engagement might be so low, but these reasons differ significantly from what Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer conclude. Gallup found, for instance, that:[19]

  • Only six in 10 U.S. employees say they know what is expected of them at work (p. 78)
  • Only three in 10 employees strongly agree they have the materials and equipment they need to do their work right (p. 102)
  • Only 23% of employees strongly agree their manager provides meaningful feedback (p. 80)
  • Only 21% of all employees strongly agree that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work (p. 76)
  • Only 30% of employees strongly agree that their manager involves them in setting their goals at work (p. 79)
  • Only 44% of employees strongly agree that they can see a connection between their goals and the organization’s goals (p. 80)
  • Only 22% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization has a clear direction for the organization (p. 8)
  • Only 15% of employees strongly agree the leadership of their organization makes them enthusiastic about the future (p. 8)

And perhaps most distressingly:

  • Only three in 10 U.S. employees strongly agree that at work, their opinions seem to count (p. 112)

That, I think we might all agree, is a pretty bleak picture of the workplace. Not feeling like your opinions seem to matter? Not having what you need to do your job to the best of your ability? Not even knowing what exactly that job is?

No wonder so many workers feel disengaged at work, or are unenthusiastic about their jobs.


Just ask already

Based on my own career experiences, I must confess that it’s Gallup’s findings that ring most true to me, not Sirota’s.

You see, like a majority of workers are today, for many years I was neither engaged at work, nor enthusiastic about my job. Had Gallup asked me at the time, I too would have said I felt like I was “just there.”

It wasn’t because I considered myself to be underpaid, though. Nor was it that my benefits package was lacking. And I felt my work was both challenging and rewarding. So as far as Sirota’s list of “wants” are concerned, my employer pretty much nailed every one. Yet like most people, I still wasn’t happy at work – and if I’d been asked to explain why, I’d have said it’s because I didn’t feel like my opinions mattered to management.

So while I agree with Sirota, Mischkind, and Meltzer in that companies stand to profit by “giving employees what they want,” maybe they’re getting a little ahead of themselves.

Perhaps it’s more important for employers to instead start by asking their workers what they want.

I know I would have appreciated it. Had my manager back then taken the time to solicit my opinion on occasion—or taken my input more seriously when I did—I think I would have been far more enthusiastic about my job, and much more engaged in my work.

But that’s just me. Undoubtedly there are some workers who don’t feel recognized for the work they do, or are concerned about the leadership at the organization they work for, or don’t have what they need to do their jobs to the best of their abilities. Many others are probably still hoping to find an employer who will satisfy some (or all) of those perhaps more basic needs that Sirota and his colleagues discuss in their text.

But how would any employer know this without asking?

And even more importantly, why don’t they ask? Why aren’t the opinions of employees sought out more frequently by managers—or taken seriously when they are—as Gallup’s study all but demonstrates? Why is my own experience not at all unusual? I have a hard time believing that any business interested in surviving the next fiscal quarter wouldn’t be interested in hearing at least an occasional opinion from their frontline staff…and yet here we are.

So next up, what keeps managers from doing this – at all in some cases, but at the very least less often than they should. What stands in the way of managers routinely asking employees questions like What can I do for you that would help you do your job better? What can I do for you that would increase your enthusiasm for your job? Or simply:

What is it that you want?

In fact, I’d argue that most managers probably see their job as just the opposite: Telling their subordinates what they want from them, not the other way around.

For the next post in this series then, I’ll explain why all this is…actually, I take that back.

I’m not going to tell you what the problem is.

I’ll draw you a picture instead.


Next in the series: Beware the pyramid scheme




[1] The Enthusiastic Employee: How companies profit by giving workers what they want by David Sirota, Louis A. Mischkind, Michael Irwin Meltzer. 2005. (Wharton School Publishing: Upper Saddle River, NJ), p. 26.

[2] Ibid., p. 0. (See text’s subtitle.)

[3] Ibid., p. 10.

[4] Ibid., p. 14.

[5] Sirota and his colleagues characterize the needs that most workers want their jobs to fulfill as falling into three main categories. The need for (1) Equity, (2) Achievement, and (3) Camaraderie. For more on this, please see my previous post “The right stuff,” or consult Sirota’s text.

[6] Ibid., p. xxii.

[7] Ibid., p. 19.

[8] Ibid., p. 77-78.

[9] Ibid., p. 77.

[10] Ibid., p. 11.

[11] Ibid., p. 78.

[12] Ibid., p. 81.

[13] Ibid., p. 44. Original source: Pfeffer, Jeffrey. “The Human Equation.” Boston: Harvard Business School Press. 1998, pp. 31-56.

[14] Ibid., p. 85. Original source: Levine, David I. “Can wage increases pay for themselves? Tests with a productive function.” The Economic Journal (1992): 1102-1115.

[15] Sirota, op. cit., p. 45.

[16] Ibid., p. 45.

[17] “State of the American Workplace.” The Gallup Organization. 2017, p. 69-70. (Available for free download by clicking here.)

[18] Ibid., p. 2.

[19] All page numbers refer to “State of the American Workplace,” The Gallup Organization, 2017.


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