Select region:

Unhappy Workers? The Buck Stops (Up) Here

Leadership means that the onus falls on bosses to ensure their employees are happy and engaged, says Joshua Yim, Chief Executive Officer, Achieve Group.

Singapore workers are less than happy at work.

This was the unsurprising finding of a recent survey released in mid November by the Singapore Human Resources Institute (SHRI) together with a consultancy firm. The average score of the 5,000 workers polled in the online survey was 59 out of 100 in the workplace happiness index determined by the abovementioned parties.

This is certainly not the first time we hear of such an undesirable situation.

But what is important now is what the business community does with these results. Do we simply lament the findings that validate the harsh reality we already know first-hand? Do we go about our business resigned to the hapless situation while things remain status quo?  

Just as employees are notorious for complaining about their lot, many bosses and business leaders are themselves guilty of griping over their unhappiness with their employees for myriad reasons such as workers’ underperformance, bad attitude and lack of work ethics.

Now it is easy to point the finger at workers when bosses are under pressure to hit the fiscal targets of their department or organisation.

But true leaders know that the buck stops here. Employees are generally followers and they take the cue from their leaders. So if bosses are not the ones taking the lead in proactively crafting out the right work environment and organisational culture in which their employees can thrive, who will? I believe that is what leadership is about.

Diagnosing the Problem

The first step to tackling this issue is to understand your people. 

Leaders need to conduct an audit to get a pulse on your people and understand what they are thinking and why they may be unhappy. Just like consulting a doctor, the physician needs to have a diagnosis before he can prescribe the right medicine. 

For example, some companies may have lousy managers who may be lacking in EQ, don’t lead by example or steal credit that should actually be given to their subordinates. Even worse are truly horrible bosses who make unreasonable demands on their people or are outright bullies. These lead to an unpleasant and unhappy working environment in which employees feel disillusioned and disgruntled. Most of us have heard this management truism by now: People join organisations and leave bosses. It is common knowledge that ineffective bosses are the number one cause of unhappiness in the workplace.

Apart from a bad boss, another source of unhappiness in the workplace could be a lack of career advancement opportunities for some within the organisation, be it real or perceived.

Career advancement is often more important to employees than other factors however many companies do not actually have a career plan for their people. If an employee is competent and performs well in their current role, employers are usually happy to keep them there for as long as possible. Due to a lack of HR intervention, organisations may fail to plan out the careers of each employee based on their aspirations and competencies. 

Or it could be a situation in which the company is really underpaying the employee, leading to a lack of motivation on the employee’s part. So much so that they do not feel like putting in their heart and soul to give their best to the company and in serving their customers internal or external.

These are all potential causes for unhappiness in the workplace, with more than one permutation possible.

I would suggest conducting an audit to get to the root of the problem. It can be done internally or externally through a consultancy firm, with the latter usually considered a more objective approach as confidentiality is assured.

Once you have a clear understanding of the current situation, the leadership team (through the expertise of the HR team) could devise and plan out the various programmes to improve the situation. 

Acting Boldly and Decisively

Communications is key. Upon a firm decision on the plan of action and various intervention initiatives the company is going to embark on, the senior leader should address the people and share these plans with a specific timeframe in mind.

The toughest situation that the audit may uncover is that the performing leaders are the ones creating much of the problems in the company. In such a scenario, the head of the organisation must be willing to put their foot down, bite the bullet and let go of those employees who are doing harm to the company. This is a necessary evil before you can build a strong culture that is conducive for the rest of their workforce – even if it means letting go of great performing leaders who refuse to embrace the values and culture of the organisation,

If salary is the issue, you may need to conduct extensive industry-wide research to determine a benchmark and peg the company’s compensation along this scale, with an array of incentives and benefits that could be linked to performance and achievement of targets. 

For situations in which career development has been neglected, the organisation must put in place career planning initiatives. People generally do not want to remain static so find out employees’ aspirations and set clear career goals and progression plans with them. This is where training and development also needs to come in. Think about it this way: a company will grow if its people are growing.

Implementing these interventions may take much time and effort but it is necessary in order to build a strong and engaged workforce.  

Engaging the Heart

I always believe that culture-building in an organisation is extremely important. And it hinges on the leader to build it up together with his core leadership team; not just verbalising but leading by example. Time is needed to establish the desired culture and to produce organisation-wide buy-in but it will be worth the effort.

By letting go of employees who are not aligned with the values of the team followed by careful hiring of people with similar values, new hires coming into the fold will be positively influenced by the senior ones, leading to a constructive compounding effect to the benefit of the organisation.

Let’s take Southwest Airlines as an example. A key element in the U.S. airline’s business strategy is its chief executive officer’s (CEO) proactive approach to engaging its people. The CEO is known to have built a very strong corporate culture in the company through his constant communications with his staff and empowering them. As a result, employees feel very much a part of the Southwest Airlines family and because they feel well taken care of, they will do their very best to ensure that the airline’s customers are in turn well taken care of. Southwest Airlines is a great case study of a successful company in an industry facing stiff global competition. In fact, people had predicted their doom in the airline’s early years but look at their successful track record spanning more than 40 years today.

Happy workers are not that elusive. It is indeed possible through a concerted effort and in close partnership with HR leaders and the core leadership team to implement intervention programmes for organisational development and transformation. With the right corporate culture in place, fair compensation, clear career pathways, and opportunities for learning and development, employees will be happier and more engaged. And you will be a happy boss with happy results.