Duncan Brown: Fear not the key for motivation

This is a great time of year to follow the trends in HR and employment, as a wealth of surveys, reports and infographics are released.

Aon Hewitt has contributed, with its annual HR barometer of director priorities in organisations with more than two million staff in Europe, and the Global engagement trends study drawn from its database of five million employees.

Although the economic indicators are, at last, suggesting the UK is spluttering into recovery, the HR stats aren’t great. A Banx cartoon in the Financial Times had two tramps reading the FT, and one saying: “There’s a small recovery, but we’re not part of it.”

Globally, employee engagement is recovering, too. Some 60% of staff are engaged to some degree, up 2% on last year, while the engagement gap between the highest-performing and other employers has widened further. But many employees and HR functions are undoubtedly still under pressure.

Far from being a mere hygiene factor, as real wages continue to decline for most, pay is now one of the top three drivers of the engagement of UK employees. The top determinant in the UK, Europe and globally? Career opportunities, and having a future with their employer.

But these don’t seem to be the top priority for HR functions at present. While directors report that investing in talent management and development has the best opportunity to affect long-term success, HR’s agenda is still determined by short-term, cost-cutting, efficiency priorities, such as downsizing and restructuring, low pay awards, recruitment freezes, and more use of variable pay. The vast majority of new jobs continue to be part-time, and the number of people on zero-hours contracts is up by more than 200,000.

Far from employee engagement, the UK Commission for Employment and Skills’ five-yearly Skills and employment survey found job insecurity, stress, concerns at loss of pay and status, work intensification and ‘work fear’ at record levels.

Yet the recipe for engagement seen in our surveys isn’t rocket science. Show people you value and trust them, care about the quality of their experience, provide meaningful work, as much autonomy as possible and the opportunity to grow, make them feel secure, with a decent pension, and help them to perform at their best.

Aneurin Bevan wrote that in In Place of Fear in the 1950s to celebrate the 10th anniversary of the NHS. I used to think we all accepted that performance came through engaging staff to perform, not motivating them through fear. Now I’m not so sure.

Follow Duncan on Twitter: @duncanbhr