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Feeling Employees’ Pain

New research says that most workers have negative feelings about their job, and that executives are wrong about the root causes.
Lisa YoonJanuary 30, 2003

You’ve heard it a million times before: A happy and motivated workforce boosts the bottom line.

In fact, so important is this concept that the Harvard Business Review dedicated its January issue to the theme of motivating employees. What’s more, it seems every other week a consultant releases a set of statistics that reinforces the message.

The latest is “Working Today: Exploring Emotional Connection to Their Jobs,” released this week by Towers Perrin and Gang & Gang, a research firm that explores the link between emotions and business results. The study, which claims to be first research to quantify the emotional elements of the work experience, says employees have a strong emotional connection to their work—and it’s negative.

Where employees had strong positive feelings about their jobs, however, five-year shareholder return improved significantly—on average, companies saw a 150 percent improvement in shareholder return for a 95 percent increase in positive passionate emotions toward work, over five years.

To be sure, the negative emotions present troubling implications for workforce retention. For instance, the study shows that among those who are intensely negative about their current situation, 28 percent are actively looking for a new job or are poised to leave when a new opportunity arises. By contrast, among those who currently feel strongly positive, only 6 percent are looking for a new job or are poised to leave.”

Perhaps worse than employing workers that are ready to bolt for greener pastures, is that 25 percent of the “intensely negative” employees actually plan to stay—leaving companies with large segments of disaffected workers who could potentially infect other employees’ attitudes and deliver shoddy work.

The market seems replete with similar studies, but this latest research offers a new perspective on a classic problem, says Gang & Gang founder and president Steve Gang. The problem with typical employee motivation research is that employees’ emotional state isn’t discussed in a language most CFOs use. That is, it’s tough to quantify. “A lot of CFOs put the stake in the ground and say, ‘If I can’t measure it, I’m not going to try to manage it,’” explains Gang.

The new survey, explains Gang, uses a different method of questioning survey participants that addresses the problem of quantifying the intangible.

Specifically, the method developed by Gang & Gang, uses both direct (“Do you plan to look for other work soon?”) and indirect (“Name five words that describe your day today.”) questioning in the survey. The resulting answers offer more useful information for executives, who can then parlay the information into practical solutions—and perhaps squeeze out those extra profits everyone is always talking about.

“The result is you can now quantify something that was previously intangible,” says Gang.

Most of the survey’s findings are pretty much what you’d expect—employees have “negative emotions” about their jobs; happier employees leads to higher profits.

But one finding should make managers take notice: Executives, who were also interviewed, actually do have a fairly accurate sense of employee sentiment—namely that many employees feel alienated, angry, and disconnected. However, when it comes to why employees feel so gloomy, executives largely have it backwards.

In particular, employers overestimated how employees feel about management and the future. Apparently, executives think management has three times more impact on employees’ emotions than they actually do. Ditto for concerns about the future—including the economy, the company, their retirement, and their job security.

All the while, executives underestimated how much employees think of their jobs as a personal issue. Yes, workers take their jobs personally. In a nutshell, employees draw self-confidence from their job and job performance. Employers also underestimated the importance of professional development opportunities, challenging work, and rewards and recognition in shaping positive emotion. Pay was emphasized by employees a lot less than expected by executives—and when it was mentioned, it was usually in connection with fairness.

This is a significant finding because by assuming the wrong root causes of employee attitudes, management is focusing on causes they have little control over (the economy) and not doing enough about things they actually can shape (cultivating employees’ sense of inclusion, and self-confidence).

“If a company doesn’t understand the reasons for employee negativity, it may invest in some of the wrong programs—or fail to foster the kind of work environment that builds strong positive emotion,” says Donald Lowman, a Towers Perrin managing director.

Gang’s take on the subject: “It’s not enough to feel your employees’ pain. You need to understand the source of that pain” in order to do anything about it.

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