Becoming Irresistible Part 1: Meaningful Work

In our Simply Irresistible model for the employee experience (aka employee engagement), we describe five core drivers of employee success: meaningful work, supportive management, fantastic environment, growth opportunity, and trust in leadership. In this article (the first of five in a series) I’ll talk about the first, “meaningful work.”

Source: BersinTM, Deloitte Consulting LLP

While many employers think their goal at work is to “make people happy,” the reality is that most of us work for a reason: we want to spend our time contributing to others and creating something bigger than ourselves. This is the core concept behind meaningful work. When the work itself is empowering; when we feel we are in the right jobs; when we feel close to our team; and when we have enough time and resources to succeed—we can be happy.

Theresa Amabile, a Harvard Researcher, in the book The Progress Principle,[1] describes her research studying the “work logs” of hundreds of employees. In her team’s assessments of a wide range of employees’ feelings about work, she concluded that one of the most valued experiences at work is “making progress toward a goal.” In other words, when you go home at night, do you feel that you truly accomplished something positive that day?

We break this element into four categories: autonomy, selection to fit, small teams, and time for slack. Autonomy simply means giving people the freedom to “add themselves” to the job. For example, if you are a retail clerk, you may want to wear certain flamboyant clothes, or treat people in a special way—bringing your own passion to work.

A whole discipline called “job-crafting” has been created, describing how we all “craft our jobs” to be what we want. Think about your job—whether you’re an analyst, retail worker, leader, or manufacturing worker: when you can “craft your job” to do it the way you think is best, you probably feel better than ever. This whole principle of “autonomy” is a major practice of effective leadership, and many new managers struggle to “let people figure things out on their own.” Of course people should be given guidelines, rules, and strategies to follow, but research on productivity shows that when you give people supportive autonomy, they thrive.

The second category is “selection for fit.” This is an enormously complex topic, but the simple message is this: are you in the job that feels right for you? Do you as a manager truly understand the “success drivers” of this job and why one person might succeed and another may fail? Do you have a process to source, recruit, and select people that you know are likely to succeed?

The process of “accurate selection” may be the most important management practice in business (if you can’t hire the “right person” your whole operation will fail), and it is hard to do well. Many tools, studies, and assessment models are available—but the simplest solution may simply be to “study the high performers” and compare them to people who fail. You can learn “what works” this way. One of our clients, a retailer, studied the performance of cosmetic sales reps, for example, and found (contrary to some peoples’ assumptions) that good looks were not a driver of success: cognitive skills and rapid thinking were, however. Don’t assume that grade point average, school pedigree, or even where someone worked before is always relevant. Get under the covers and see what makes people succeed.

The third area we call “small teams,” and the simple story here is that people thrive in teams where they know each other, they have time together, and they are physically co-located. Yes of course we have lots of virtual collaboration tools: research has proven[2] that people tend to spend far more time with people physically close to their desks, and this is why so many offices are now open; we have “pods” for teams to work in; and retail stores, sales offices, and other facilities are “smallish” to help bring people together.

Companies like Google, Atlassian, Pivotal, Deloitte, and many others have studied the performance of teams, and they find similar results: Trust, intimacy, openness, inclusion, respect for quality and expertise, and lots of feedback make teams effective. When the team works well, people can feel very close to their “team” and any problems in the rest of the company seem to go away.

The fourth area we call “time for slack.” Some people have incorrectly interpreted this to mean “time to goof off.” Not at all. The issue here is giving people “extra time” to fix things, learn, talk with each other, and just reflect on the work they are doing. Research done in Germany,[3] for example, shows that people who work more than 55–60 hours a week get no more work done than those who work 45–50. “Overworking” people can backfire. People become unproductive, they make mistakes, and they don’t “clean up” and improve their work environment.

Zeynep Ton,[4] in the book Good Jobs, describes how retailers who have more staff per square foot (i.e., they pay more for payroll) far outperform their peers in profitability. Why? Because in these companies staff can help customers, rearrange products, clean the store, and cross-train each other to succeed.

“Meaningful work” is perhaps the most important part of the Simply Irresistible model. I hope this short article gets you thinking, and I will discuss the other elements in more articles to come.

Becoming Simply Irresistible Part 2: Supportive Management

As our Simply Irresistible model shows below, there are five essential elements of employee success: meaningful work, supportive management, a humane work environment, growth opportunities, and trust in leadership. In this article (the second of five, you can read the first here), I’ll discuss the issue of management.

Fig 1: Bersin by Deloitte Simply Irresistible Model [1]

Let's start by stating that every company needs managers. At the moment, there’s a debate about flattening organizations and the need to organize people into teams, but even in team-based organizations there are managers.

Managers typically have two roles: they manage people and they manage projects. In the 21st century organization, these roles are likely to be separate; project managers may or may not manage people. So you may have a “manager” who directs the team and makes sure things get done on time, but your pay, promotion, development, and coaching might come from someone else. At Deloitte we call this a “career advisor” and other companies call them “sponsors” or “people managers.”

In almost every research study we’ve done, executives tell us they want to build stronger leaders. This problem continues because every company is continuously promoting experts and high performers into management, and it’s a very hard transition.

As I like to explain it: moving into management is not a new job, it’s a new career. Suddenly your entire job is focused on getting things done through the work of others. Since most high performers are promoted because of their personal skills and abilities, the promotion to manager can be difficult. Thus there should be a continuous focus on the coaching, development, and careful selection of managers.

As Peter Drucker put it:

“In forty-five years of work as a consultant with a large number of executives in a wide variety of organizations – large and small; businesses, government agencies, labor unions, hospitals, universities, community services; American, European, Latin American, and Japanese— I have not come across a single “natural”: an executive who was born effective [2].” 

From an employee’s standpoint, studies show that a weak manager can be one of the most difficult and problematic parts of work. Your manager directs your work, evaluates your performance, and has a large impact on your pay and daily sense of satisfaction. So you want a good one.

In our research we’ve developed a simple model which identifies four key elements of effective management. Let me walk you through them.

Clear Goal Setting

First is what we call clear goal-setting. Managers have to prioritize what gets done. In the industrial age, when employees were really “workers,” managers literally told people what to do. Today we live in an information economy and most of the decisions about what to do (and how to do it) are being delegated to employees. But even in a highly empowered company (which we discussed in the topic on autonomy in the first article), priorities have to be set. And every day, week, month, and quarter there are distractions – someone has to make the call on what to continue, what to stop, and what to invest in more heavily.

From your perspective as an employee, you want your goals to be clear. They should be small in number, clearly understandable, and easy to measure. This enables a sense of satisfaction that you know you’re focused on the right things and you and your manager are aligned on what good performance looks like.

In today’s always-on workplace strong managers are very good at telling you what NOT to do. In other words, a good manager should have the judgement and experience to say “don’t bother working on that” or “that project is not nearly as important as this,” giving you the sense of purpose we talked about in the first chapter.

How do you set and align goals? In today’s modern performance management process you should have regular (even daily) conversations. Many call this the weekly “one on one” or “check-in.” In the Agile movement this is the daily “standup meeting.” And with other companies it’s a manager who continuously walks around and talks to people.


The second element of supportive management is coaching. Good managers are good coaches. They listen to your needs, they support your efforts, and they give you just enough feedback to improve and feel good about your work.

They know that positive feedback is vital. Interestingly, studies have shown that high performing teams give each other five times more positive feedback than constructive feedback[3]. (The “praise to criticism ratio.”) Why? It’s simple human psychology: positive feedback (“that was a very persuasive presentation” or “I love the way you carefully analyzed that data to give us a good analysis”) actually gives people positive feelings (research shows that when you “trust people” oxytocin is released in their body, making people more productive, energetic, reliable, and creative[4].) So if you’re a manager, make sure your “coaching” is as positive as possible.

We did a study in 2012 among more than 300 companies and found that companies with a “high recognition culture” (people are frequently thanked and appreciated for their work) have a 31% lower voluntary turnover ratio[5] – which is a very big difference. Remember as a manager to say thanks, it is perhaps the most important motivational tool you have.

Right now there is an enormous amount of talk in HR about “feedback” and improving the “feedback system” in companies. Let me simply say that effective managers are lavish in their praise and stingy in their criticism. As anyone with children knows, the best coaching in the world is as positive as possible, and saves the criticism for a time when you know people are ready to hear it.

Investment in the Development of Managers

This gets us to our third area of management: a process of robust and continuous development of managers. Let me remind you that even for experienced leaders, management is not easy. It takes years of experience to become a seasoned manager, and every situation and people problem is a bit different. Companies that have great managers and great leaders spend time, money, and energy on continuously developing them.

Effective development of managers is about far more than a single management training program. There’s no “silver bullet” here. It really takes coaching, assessment, developmental assignments, and a whole culture of stewardship set from the top. It takes an investment in people mindset. In our model, for example (shown below), you can see that 75% of companies are doing the basics or standard things, and only one in four have a customized, scalable model.

Fig 2: Bersin by Deloitte High-Impact Leadership Model 

These Level 3 and 4 companies, by the way, also spend money – they spend 200-300% more per leader on development and tend to see a significant return. Companies at Levels 3 and 4 in this study, for example, have 37% greater revenue per employee, 500% higher levels of innovation and ability to change, and are 10-fold better at selecting great leaders.

One of the world’s leading technology companies, for example, has four different leadership programs for its managers:

  • Leadership for new managers
  • Leadership for second and third line managers
  • Leadership for managers new to the company who have been a leader before
  • Leadership for VPs and above.

You as an organization should make sure you have a leadership model, a commitment from the CEO and all top leaders to help coach and invest in leadership, and a systemic program using some of the cultural and programmatic elements shown above.

Agile Performance Management

The fourth element of supportive management is the development of an agile, continuous performance management process. Over the last several years the HR profession has been on a journey to reinvent this process. The burdensome, manager-centric, end of year review is on its way out, being replaced with a process of coaching, check-ins, and data-driven reviews.

I won’t try to detail all our research in this area, but to make it simple: managers should be required to check in and discuss goals on a regular basis; they should have an opportunity to gain feedback and input from peers; individuals should have an open voice in their goals and aspirations; and the company should take on a “growth mindset” to make sure development, new projects, and growth is available throughout the year.

Fig 3: Continuous Performance Management Process 

When managers are required to participate in a bureaucratic, top-down, forced ranking process once each year, they are not well positioned to coach people effectively. Forced distribution, a process developed years ago to help companies root out low performers, is also a problem. As I discuss in the article “The End of the Bell Curve[6],” managers should have the freedom to rate people as needed, and use multiple forms of input to fairly and transparently evaluate people.

Many companies have now reinvented this process and there are many new tools to make this easy. If your organization has not yet developed a continuous performance process, I urge you to read more on this topic and start now.

Supportive Management Takes Time

There is an old truism that “people leave managers, not organizations.” While we’re not sure that this is always true, it’s clear that great managers are one of the most valued parts of an organization. Companies need to think about management as the “muscle” of the company: strong managers help the company grow, they help the company adapt, and of course they create the culture that ultimately impacts product and service quality, competitive advantage, customer service, and profitability. This is an investment your company can count on to bring significant returns.

Stay tuned for part 3, where I will discuss the attributes of a “positive work environment.”


About the Author: Josh Bersin is the founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, a leading research and advisory firm focused on corporate leadership, talent, learning, and the intersection between work and life.

Josh is a published author on Forbes, a LinkedIn Influencer, and has appeared on Bloomberg, NPR, and the Wall Street Journal, and speaks at industry conferences and to corporate HR departments around the world.

You can contact Josh on twitter at @josh_bersin and follow him athttp://www.linkedin.com/in/bersin . Josh's personal blog is at www.joshbersin.com .


As used in this document, “Deloitte” means Deloitte Consulting LLP, a subsidiary of Deloitte LLP. Please see www.deloitte.com/us/about for a detailed description of our legal structure. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting.

[1] https://dupress.deloitte.com/dup-us-en/deloitte-review/issue-16/employee-engagement-strategies.html

[2] Drucker, Peter F.. The Effective Executive: The Definitive Guide to Getting the Right Things Done (Harperbusiness Essentials) . HarperCollins. Kindle Edition.

[3] https://hbr.org/2013/03/the-ideal-praise-to-criticism

[4] https://hbr.org/2017/01/the-neuroscience-of-trust

[5] Bersin by Deloitte High-Impact Employee Recognition study, 2013

[6] https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2014/02/19/the-myth-of-the-bell-curve-look-for-the-hyper-performers/#623cdaa96bca

Becoming Irresistible Part 3: A Positive Work Environment

(This is part 3 in our series, creating the Simply Irresistible Organization, click here for part 1 or part 2)

As our Simply Irresistible Organization™ model shows (see below), there are five essential elements of employee engagement success: meaningful work, supportive management, positive work environment, growth opportunity, and trust in leadership. In this article (the third of five, you can read the first two here), we’ll discuss the issue of a positive work environment (aka Fantastic Environment).

Let’s start by stating the obvious: your work environment can make or break your experience at work. And by “environment” we don’t just mean the physical space, we mean the space, the culture, and the way you are appreciated.

In our research we’ve developed a simple model that identifies four key elements of a positive work environment. Let’s walk you through them.

1. Flexible work environment

The first element of a positive work environment is flexibility. A workplace can’t aspire to be “irresistible” if it isn’t flexible. Studies show that 68 percent of women say they’d prefer more free time to more money, and 80 percent of men would like to work fewer hours.[1]  

Flexibility can mean many things. At one of the largest telecommunications providers in Asia, the company’s “All Roles Flex” policy is an example of flexibility. At this telecommunications and media company, any role is eligible for some virtual or remote work by default.[2] This is not insignificant for a company with so many sales and service locations throughout the region.

Flexibility also means offering a workspace that accommodates different modes of work, including a focus on productivity, innovative space (often called creative space), exercise, outdoors, and passion activities.[3] For those of you interested in viewing the art of the possible, here is a video of how Deloitte leveraged workplace design trends in our Amsterdam office, The Edge, one of the greenest office buildings in the world. This building lets people work wherever they want; they can use their mobile phones to order coffee and food; and the lighting is automatically designed to keep people energized while conserving power throughout the day – employees can even adjust the lighting in their area via a smartphone app.

In terms of actual office or workspace design, you can consider a model like the following to decide who needs an office, a desk, or other workspaces, like a team room.

Identify the Workstyle of Each Employee

Fig 1: Four Employee Workstyles

Not everyone needs a full-time office—but some people do.

While there’s been a lot of effort to reshape environments to make them more enjoyable and flexible to accommodate changing worker preferences and needs, massive societal and economic disruptions are making the transition to the future of work an issue that is top of mind for many of our clients. Click here[4] for more on this subject.

2. A humanistic workplace

A workplace should also be humanistic. Some anecdotes are well-known. For example, a global technology leader, consistently rated in the top ten of Best Places to Work,[5] has a pet-friendly workplace where their employees  are extremely well fed—for free; and employees can give each other “massage credits” for a job well done on projects, redeemed for a free one-hour massage on campus.[6]

At Deloitte we have an empowered well-being subsidy covering 50 percent of wellness/fitness activities up to $500 each fiscal year, a “Corporate Athlete” Program taught at Deloitte University, meditation/yoga classes to keep us centered, and an extended Family Leave program that offers US employees, both women and men, 16 weeks of paid family leave.[7] We don’t all work for these companies, but food, celebrations, internet-enabled commuting shuttles, and even laundry services are all becoming more common across a wide range of industries. These are no longer just “perks;” they are essential elements of helping us make work fit into our lives.

3. Culture of recognition

This gets us to our third area of a positive work environment: a culture of recognition. Continuous recognition, both monetary and non-monetary, is a powerful engagement tool, even if it’s as soft as a “thank-you.”

The Harvard Business Review has cited “recognition given for high performance” as the most impactful driver of employee engagement and The Aberdeen Group has found the No. 1 way leading organizations improve employee engagement is through employee-recognition programs.[8]

We also studied this topic and found that “high-recognition companies” have 31 percent lower voluntary turnover than companies with poor recognition cultures.[9] These companies tend to build a culture of recognition through social reward systems (tools that give people points or kudos to reward others), weekly or monthly thank-you activities, and a general culture of appreciating everyone from top to bottom.

Key to enabling success here is to create a social environment where recognition can flow from peer to peer, freeing managers from being the “gatekeepers” of praise.

Companies that build this culture can see tremendous impact. For example, when JetBlue implemented a peer-to-peer recognition system focused on company values, employee satisfaction surged by 88 percent.[10] And there are physiological effects as well: Researchers have proven that when you thank someone, it releases oxytocin, a hormone that makes people more relaxed, collaborative and happy.[11]

4. Fair, inclusive, diverse work environment

Of course, a workplace should also be fair, inclusive, and diverse. This isn’t an HR strategy, it’s a business strategy—teams within inclusive cultures outperform others by a staggering 80 percent.[12] People perform better when they’re comfortable being themselves.

In a study we did a few years back, we found that while 71 percent of organizations try to foster diversity and inclusion, only 11 percent had such an environment.[13] Even worse, only 23 percent held their CEOs accountable for building a diverse and inclusive environment; instead leadership often delegated this work to a director within HR.[14]

While most business leaders now believe having a diverse and inclusive culture is critical to performance, they don’t always know how to achieve that goal. We urge you to read more on this topic; here are eight powerful truths that can help turn aspirations into reality.

Stay tuned for part 4, where we will discuss the attributes of an environment rich in “growth opportunity.”

[1] Juliet Schor, The Overworked American: The Unexpected Decline Of Leisure (New York: BasicBooks, 1992), pages 20-25.

[2] http://exchange.telstra.com.au/wp-content/uploads/2017/08/Bigger-Picture-2017-Sustainability-Report.pdf

[3] Work environment redesign – accelerating talent development and performance, June 03, 2013, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/topics/talent/work-environment-redesign.html

[4] Navigating the future of work: Can we point business, workers, and social institutions in the same direction? July 31, 2017, https://www2.deloitte.com/insights/us/en/deloitte-review/issue-21/navigating-new-forms-of-work.html

[5] https://www.glassdoor.com/Award/Best-Places-to-Work-LST_KQ0,19.htm

[6] https://www.inc.com/business-insider/best-google-benefits.html

[7] https://www2.deloitte.com/us/en/pages/about-deloitte/articles/inclusion-work-life-fit.html?icid=top_inclusion-work-life-fit

[8] Human Resource Executive, March 2018, https://hreonline.com/how-recognition-drives-employee-engagement/

[9] Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, November 7, 2012, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/new-bersin–associates-research-shows-organizations-that-excel-at-employee-recognition-are-12-times-more-likely-to-generate-strong-business-results-177627921.html

[10] Joanna Geraghty, “An 88 percent increase in recognition satisfaction,” Globoforce, http://www.globoforce.com/our-clients/jetblue/.

[11] Josh Bersin, Forbes, April 30, 2012, https://www.forbes.com/sites/joshbersin/2012/04/30/how-the-trust-molecule-drives-business-performance/#7764d35b3383

[12] Victorian Equal Opportunity and Human Rights Commission, Waiter, is that inclusion in my soup? A new recipe to improve business performance, November 2012, http://www.humanrightscommission.vic.gov.au/index.php/ our-resources-and-publications/reports/item/529-waiter-is-that-inclusion-in-my-soup-a- new-recipe-to-improve-business-performance-nov-2012>.

[13] Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, April 2, 2014, http://blog.bersin.com/new-research-reveals-diversity-inclusion-efforts-well-intentioned-but-lacking/ 

[14] Bersin by Deloitte, Deloitte Consulting LLP, April 1, 2014, https://www.prnewswire.com/news-releases/bersin-by-deloitte-research-shows-that-leading-organizations-increasingly-view-diversity–inclusion-as-a-business-imperative-but-few-have-an-inclusive-culture-today-253349981.html

Meaningful Work is Key Driver of Positive Employee Experience

Globoforce’s WorkHuman Research Institute in partnership with IBM’s Smarter Workforce Institute, have released the findings of the latest edition of ‘The Employee Experience Index around the Globe’ survey, which finds that the biggest driver of a positive employee experience at work is ‘meaningful’ work. From Derek Irvine, Vice President of Strategy and Consulting – Globoforce.

The survey, which questioned 23,000 employees from diverse industries and a wide variety of organizations from around the world, found that the Employee Experience Index score for the UK is 64 percent, just below the European average (65 percent) and below the global average (69 percent). A positive employee experience is best defined as an impactful and powerful – and ultimately human – experience, one in which employees become able, over time, to invest more of their entire selves into the workplace.

In the UK, meaningful work emerged as the single largest contributor at 30%, 3 points above the global average. Meaningful work ensures that employees’ skills and talents are being fully utilized and there is greater alignment to shared, core values.

Building upon a foundation of meaningful work, research suggests that a more positive employee experience can be inspired by combining and integrating employee workplace practices: enabling empowerment and voice (contributes 17 percent to employee experience), fostering a culture of recognition, feedback, and growth (contributes 16 percent to employee experience), supporting co-worker relationships (contributes 16 percent to employee experiences), and building organisational trust (contributes 15 percent to employee experiences).

The final driver of a more human workplace is work-life balance and opportunities to recharge and disconnect, which contributes 9 percent to employee experience. The survey also notes a shift away from employee engagement, which only captures a small portion what ‘work’ means, towards employee experience. Experience is seen as being broader and more holistic – capturing the entire set of perceptions that employees have about their experiences at work, matching the higher expectations that employees bring to the workplace.

In order to enhance the employee experience, research found that organisations need to have effective leaders and managers who can provide a high level of clarity and direction, and focus on the human workplace practices that drive positive employee experiences.

Pioneer of the WorkHuman® movement, Globoforce helps make work more human for millions of people and organisations worldwide. Its cloud-based social recognition and continuous performance improvement solutions helps build award-winning cultures where employees feel more appreciated and socially connected at work – driving a sense of belonging and inspiring the entire organization to reach its full potential and achieve business success.

Co-Creating the Employee Experience

Companies that are adopting agile talent practices are giving a lot of thought to how employees experience the workplace—in some ways, treating them like customers. Diane Gherson, the chief human resources officer at IBM, recently spoke with HBR about how that’s playing out as the iconic tech company revamps its business model. Edited excerpts follow.

HBR: In what sense is IBM putting employee experience at the center of people management?

GHERSON: Like a lot of other companies, we started with the belief that if people felt great about working with us, our clients would too. That wasn’t a new thought, but it’s certainly one we took very seriously, going back about four or five years. We’ve since seen it borne out. We’ve found that employee engagement explains two-thirds of our client experience scores. And if we’re able to increase client satisfaction by five points on an account, we see an extra 20% in revenue, on average. So clearly there’s an impact. That’s the business case for the change.

But it has required a shift in mindset. Before, we tended to rely on experts to build our HR programs. Now we bring employees into the design process, co-create with them, and iterate over time so that we meet people’s needs.


Diane Gherson, IBM’s head of HR

What does that look like in practice?

A good example is employee onboarding—the first process we took a very hard look at. We knew we wanted people to walk out thinking, “I’m superexcited I’m here, and I understand what I need to know to get going.” But we started too small. We approached it in a traditional way that made it all about the orientation class, all about the experience you have on your first day. Once we began asking new hires how their onboarding had gone, we heard things like “I didn’t get my laptop on time,” or “I couldn’t get my credit card in time to get to my first meeting,” or “I had problems accessing the internal network.” All those things affect how someone feels about having joined the company.

Once you realize that, the remit for the onboarding team becomes how people experience the whole process, end to end. To get it right, you have to work with a broader set of players. You bring in Security to make sure the ID badges are there. You bring in Real Estate to make sure people have a physical space and know where to go. You bring in Networking to make sure their remote access is up and running. All that is part of onboarding. It’s not just having a great meeting with a bunch of other new hires on your first day.

It took a while for us to understand that. You have to broaden your scope and stop thinking in silos in order to create a great employee experience.

How has IBM’s approach to learning and development changed?

People consume content on their phones and tablets now—they use YouTube and TED talks to get up to speed on things they don’t know. So we had to put aside our traditional learning-management system and think differently about education and development. Again, we brought in our Millennials, brought in our users, and codesigned a learning platform that is individually personalized for every one of our 380,000 IBMers.

It’s tailored by role, with intelligent recommendations that are continually updated. And it’s organized sort of like Netflix, with different channels. You can see how others have rated the various offerings. There’s also a live-chat adviser, who helps learners in the moment.

We measure HR offerings such as learning with a Net Promoter Score—the ultimate metric for an irresistible experience. Before, we used a classic five-point satisfaction scale. Even if someone rated you a 3.1, you ended up saying they were satisfied, whereas with Net Promoter, you have to be at the far end of the scale for it to mean anything, because you have to subtract all the detractors. It’s much harder to get that, and it gives you much better feedback on what people are experiencing. For learning, at last count, our NPS was 60. That’s in the “excellent” range, but of course there’s still room to improve.

What kinds of tools do you use to customize learning?

With Watson Analytics, we’re able to infer people’s expertise from their digital footprint inside the company, and we compare that with where they should be in their particular job family. The system is cognitive, so it knows you—it has ingested the data about your skills and is able to give you personalized learning recommendations. It tells you, “OK, you need to increase your depth in these areas—and here are the offerings that will help you do that.” You can then pin those or queue them up in your calendar for future learning. The system also looks at how close you may be to earning a digital badge, which we’ve started using in just the past couple of years to demonstrate which employees have applied skills. The tool then helps you achieve the badge by recommending specific webinars and internal and external courses. It’s all based on artificial intelligence. Skills inference is at about 96% accuracy at this point.

“People are less likely to resist change when they’ve had a hand in shaping it.”

How do you know that?

We used to have this laborious manual process of getting people to fill out skills questionnaires and having their managers sign off on them. But that gets outdated really fast. So we stopped doing that. Instead, leaders in particular job families or industries do spot checks on how well we are inferring. They interview employees and identify where they are, comparing that with what the inference was in our system.

IBM has given its performance management system an overhaul as well. How have employees been involved in that process?

As you know, performance management is kind of a lightning rod in most companies. Rather than do the typical thing—which would be to do some benchmarking, pull together a bunch of experts, come up with a new design, and pilot it—we decided to go all out and co-create it with our employees in a sort of extended hackathon. We used design thinking and came up with what you might describe as a “concept car”—something for people to test drive and kick the tires on, instead of just dealing with concepts. We did that in the summer of 2015 and implemented it across the company five months later. That’s the power of engaging the whole workforce—people are much less likely to resist the change when they’ve had a hand in shaping it.

To start the co-creation process, I blogged about it one day and said, “We’d love your input. If you hate it, we’ll start over, no problem. But we really want your thoughts.” We made a few videos about what we thought it might look like. I got 18,000 responses overnight. Fortunately, we had the technology to analyze it all and see what people liked and didn’t like.

At first some people said, “This is such a sham—you already know what you want to do.” But we explained that we really wanted to hear from them, and we got them into various discussion forums. It took a while, but I think we did turn them around. We kept communicating, saying, “OK, you liked this; you didn’t like that. And here are areas where you can’t seem to agree.” Meanwhile, we were putting together prototypes to show people.

I was clear up front that there were some ground rules. For example, we were not going to get rid of performance discussions, and we wanted pay-for-performance. But in general, it was wide open. The whole process took less time than most companies take to redesign their performance management programs, and we involved about 100,000 employees. Finally, we asked, “What do you want to call it?” Tens of thousands of people voted. We had three names in the end, and Checkpoint was selected.

Performance management can never be perfect. But your baby is never ugly. Our employees created their own program, and there is pride in that. You can see it in their ongoing blogs, where we ask them to talk about what’s working and what’s not and to tell us how we can improve the system. We’ve been doing that ever since we put it out there. Their overall message has been “This is what we wanted.” It was cited as the top reason engagement improved. People are getting much more feedback out of this system, in much richer ways. And more important, they are not feeling like spectators in our transformation; they are active participants.

“We’ve been able to swiftly detect problems and commit to doing something about them.”

How are you using “sentiment analysis” to further address employees’ needs?

Sentiment analysis is very helpful in a world where people are always commenting online. Our cognitive technology looks at the words people choose and picks up the tone. It identifies whether it’s positive or negative and then goes deeper, saying whether it’s strongly positive or strongly negative. In that way it’s almost like looking at music—seeing where there are very high notes or very low notes that are loud. It’s always behind our firewall, never external. It’s not looking at any of the information people pass around or at their e-mail content or browsing behavior. It’s just looking at tone in their blogs and comments inside the firewall.

With this approach you can pick up pretty quickly if there’s an area you need to dive into. We’ve been able to swiftly detect problems that are starting to brew and, more important, make a commitment to do something about them. This is the most exciting part of having a social platform to work with. We’ve had several examples of things we did wrong. Some of my folks decided we wouldn’t reimburse for ridesharing. Employees became agitated, and I could quickly respond to a concern that had turned into a petition. “I read all your comments,” I told them, “and you made some great points we hadn’t thought of. We were trying to look out for your security, but on balance, this wasn’t the right choice. Let’s return to our original policy.” All this happened within 24 hours. People felt listened to and were very appreciative.

We had a similar situation about a year ago. We had to impute income when you were traveling to a client site for a full week and, instead of returning home right away, you had your spouse or a friend join you for the weekend. Because we would reimburse the guest’s travel, it created a tax issue. We altered the program because that was getting messy, and again employees were incensed. I can certainly understand why. If you’re on the road all the time, of course you might want your spouse to join you for a weekend. People didn’t want us making the decision for them. That was another case where we quickly got together and said, “Hey, if they want to be responsible for their own taxes, they can do it.” It was a good wake-up call for us to not be so paternalistic.

In organizations where people aren’t physically all together, you can use sentiment analysis to get a sense of where you’ve got trouble spots, where your management isn’t strong enough, where groups of people are expressing negative opinions. It allows you to check in on those sites or groups and find out what’s going on.

Do employees have more power now than in the past?

Yes. So much more weight is now given to what is said inside an organization, because it can be heard outside as well, through social media. Glassdoor is a perfect example. In the past you might have had companies that weren’t great to work for, but only a small circle of people knew about it. Now the whole world knows about it, because it’s on Glassdoor—and that’s turned companies into glass houses. People can look in and see what’s going on and make judgments about whether they want to work there in a way that they weren’t able to before.

Let’s go back to the business reasons behind IBM’s shift to agile talent practices—can you say more about those?

I mentioned client satisfaction. Clients today are looking for speed and responsiveness like never before. In an earlier era what they really wanted was the best product at the best price—efficiency was important, but speed was less so.

In the early 2000s we would have staffed a project with experts from all over the world, and they would have spent a fraction of their time on that project, because they were also working on other projects. They would have joined conference calls, which is always hard because people are in different time zones. And I’m sure they were multitasking while they were on those calls. That project might have taken six months to a year. Now we would take a smaller group of dedicated people and put them together for three months, and they would get it all done using agile methodology. It’s a different way of thinking about how to create value for clients. It responds to their need for speed.

Is there some hope that an agile approach to talent will help IBM make up ground in revenue and growth that it lost in its transition to cloud computing and other businesses?

We’re a company that’s transforming itself: 45% of our revenue comes from businesses we were not in five years ago, and we are an $80 billion company. When you’re going through that kind of shift and seeing a downturn in some of your legacy businesses, and you’re renovating those while you’re launching new businesses, you may see some unevenness in performance. You’re basically changing the tires while you’re driving the car. And yes, that takes agility.

Engagement Drives Performance: Evidence from People Analytics

If you have ever linked Employee Engagement scores to Business Outcomes (Sales Volume, Customer Satisfaction, Financial & Operational Performance, etc.), you have likely been part of a ‘Chicken or Egg’ discussion: does Engagement really drive Performance? – Or is it the other way around, so being part of a winning team and having high performance (and getting the rewards) drives Engagement? This debate often turns very philosophical and with more opinions than fact – and you know what they say about opinions (everybody has one..). But it’s actually a question that can easily be answered by data – and here is what I have seen People Analytics teams find across three large organizations in different industries, using 5-7 years of data (and published in 2015 and 2017 in Open Access (free) papers I co-authored):

1.      Over time (2-3 years), Engagement really does drive Business and Individual Performance – the potential uplift in Sales or Customer Satisfaction (NPS) is typically in the 15-25% range. That’s a massive opportunity. Building employee Engagement is a bit like buying shares: you are investing in the future, and both employers, customers, shareholders and employees can collectively reap the dividends ongoing. This is also aligned with the meta-analyses on high-performing work systems, showing the impact of motivation on business performance (e.g. ‘How does Human Resource Management influence organizational outcomes? A meta-analytic investigation of mediating mechanisms. AMJ, 2012).

2.      Within shorter time frames (less than a year), Engagement and Business/Individual Performance impact each other mutually: uplifts (or drops) in Engagement have about the same effects on Business/Individual Performance outcomes, as uplifts (or drops) in Business/Individual Performance have on Engagement. That means they are dynamic, and impact each other – that is really not that surprising, given our knowledge about how human beings work: our inner life (e.g. Engagement/Motivation) is in constant feedback loops with the real world, so we can effectively adjust our behavior.

How do we know that? Simply put, you establish whether one thing drives another, or the other way around, by studying things over time (i.e. a ‘longitudinal research design’ with several years of data): this allows you to compare the relative strength of your ‘Chicken’ explanation, with the relative strength of your ‘Egg’ explanation (technically, this is what academics call ‘checking for reverse causality’, and you also test for other things that impact the relationship – i.e. what academia calls ‘mediators and moderators’ or ‘confounders’). That is what People Analytics professionals do for a living. For many things – like Engagement and Performance – there are normally some dynamic effects (i.e. effects go both ways), and it’s also normal to find, that over time, one direction becomes (statistically) stronger than the other, and thus becomes the main effect. An analogy is exercise and weight-loss: as you build muscle, you can initially gain weight, but over time, more muscle mass will help you burn more calories and lose weight. In sum, if you want to lose weight over time, exercising is a good idea.

So what does that mean for Employee Engagement? It means Engagement really is a lever to pull to increase performance over time – if you increase Engagement (which is really just motivation), there will be positive performance outcomes over time (especially if you reward performance well). You want to get into a positive spiral or virtuous cycle, where Engagement and Performance mutually and positively reinforce each other (and avoid or get out of a negative spiral or vicious cycle, where they pull each other down). You do that by strengthening the things that drive motivation (promote good leadership, provide interesting work, pay people for performance, etc.) and eliminate those things that don’t (get leaders that are not good at leadership to improve or get them out of leadership positions, remove roadblocks, etc.). Learn from those parts in your organization that do it really well, and apply to those parts with room for improvement.

People Analytics teams answer questions with data, but Storytelling is also an important part of People Analytics, and for this topic, Aristotle did it best: He was attributed the phrase “The Morale of The Troops is Important for Winning the Battle’ – when discussing with the Generals (while drinking considerable amounts of wine), why a group of ill equipped farmers could sometimes win over a group of trained mercenaries, they concluded it was because they had ‘The Morale’: they were fighting for their homes, their loved ones – they had skin in the game and a clear purpose. Engagement in a commercial context is the same: those with skin in the game will fight harder and better, and strive to improve – and that leads to better performance outcomes (and better and more fulfilling working lives for employees – make sure you do something you are good at, and that you love doing). So driving Engagement will build resilience in your workforce and improve performance.