Dolly Parton’s 9 to 5 speaks of so many people’s daily experience. While money – rather than service and devotion – might be what keeps her in the job; this song speaks of common frustrations and grievances and it does so with wit.

What irritates the song’s character most is the lack of recognition and ‘credit’ – which isn’t just about money. More than a ‘women’s song’ – although it is, of course, and has been claimed in some quarters as a feminist anthem – male call-centre workers, for example, are just as likely to agree with the lyrics.

It’s not about the money

In an era when organisations are increasingly recognising that non-monetary forms of reward and recognition are also effective, there is an understandable tendency to draw a parallel argument that ‘it isn’t about the money’ – a form of words that might be more accurate if the word ‘just’ were to be inserted.

Viewed from the perspective of Dolly’s singing protagonist, a little more in her purse might not be unwelcome. Although the situation is currently changing, in the context of a climate where average wages fell each year between 2008 and 2014, eschewing financial reward is to effectively ask people to run to stand still. While the singing secretary might – indeed, probably would – understand the macro-economic arguments about balancing salary payments with employment levels and management of financial risk, it seems unlikely she would follow the example of The Beatles and pen a follow-up song called ‘Dear Prudence’. Even Gordon Brown didn’t go that far.

However, there is a more serious side to this. Ms Parton was singing 34 years ago but it’s possible that just as many people currently feel that they are “barely getting by”. Yet there is a strong argument – which can be expressed in quantitative terms – that this need not be so, and that a change of managerial approach might provide the solution.

In January 2015 CIPD commented on a Development Economics research study, which had identified that “employers need to find new ways to recognise and improve soft skills or risk undermining the productivity of more than half a million workers by 2020”. The report went on to suggest that “a deficit in this area will cost the UK close to £8.4 billion a year by 2020 in lost production”.

With a total workforce of approximately 30 million, that lost production equates to about £28,000 each. To be both business-like and person-centred, a rough calculation shows that this leaves a business profit of c. £22K per employee even after addressing the estimated £6K loss of ‘real wages’ for the employee on a median salary between 2009-2014 (according to figures from TUC analysis).

As 9 to 5 also suggests it may be worth rethinking the relationship between ‘engagement’ and ‘reward’, implication and retention too. In an albeit slowly recovering economy, the temptation to jump ship may be greater. Whether the destination offers reward in words or cold hard cash, it is clear that reward – whatever form it comes in – drives engagement, but it might be more effective to think about it as a reciprocal relationship.

The psychological contract

Earlier empirical research by The Work Foundation suggested a number of principle drivers of engagement – not least a sense of having made a valued contribution and a sense of having a voice within the organisation. If salary is about the printed contract, these aspects – another dimension of the soft skills that are apparently costing us all so dearly – are about the psychological contract.

Where the printed version identifies a job title, role, stated responsibilities and financial reward, any effective form of psychological version recognises that these are performed by a human. While the wish to avoid censure, rebuke or unemployment may drive us to perform to the requirements of the printed contract, their willingness, commitment and engagement are more likely to be influenced by their interactions with colleagues and especially with line managers.

One of my favourite – and I think most telling – comments on employee engagement was made back in 2010 by Orlagh Hunt, then group HR director, RSA Insurance Group:

“We know that people show up in a new company wanting to engage. Very few people think, ‘I’m going to do as little as humanly possible and be as destructive as I can’. They start off thinking this is a shining new opportunity, and then the job they do, the leader they get, the environment they’re in either translates that optimism into having a great time and doing a great job, or not quite so much.”

The items she lists as ‘the basics’ when it comes to psychological contract fulfilment from the organisation’s side are: leading well, ensuring a productive, constructive and positive environment, and giving thought to job design as well as KPIs and ROI.

There will be business-driven limitations, but organisations should bear in mind a recent Ventana Research report, Five Reasons to Use Social Recognition in Business, which expressed that: “engaging employees requires more than directing them in what to do: they also need to receive credit for their accomplishments”. Modern armies speak openly of campaigns that address ‘hearts and minds’, yet many organisations give the impression of seeking to mostly engage fingers – and live in expectation of greater outputs without a thought to inputs.

Mentoring and engagement

In Orlagh Hunt’s terms translating employees’ initial optimism into continuing, improving and evolving performance, should focus our attention on the areas where organisations really should be thinking in terms of giving rather than taking. Training, for example, not only develops an employee’s skills and capabilities but contributes to a sense of being valued – sufficiently so for a tangible investment to be made in them. When we start a new role, we often think of ourselves as ‘going places’ and of the presentation of opportunities to develop.

Mentoring, especially where it is borne in mind that the most significant difference between mentor and mentee is experience rather than status, provides more than wisdom: it provides a channel for not just development, but for the asking of important or relevant questions that a line management relationship can hinder or make awkward. It can also encourage a culture of knowledge-sharing and mutual development and one that counters any tendency toward ‘silo mentality’, but moreover it can give the organisation something more lastingly valuable – feedback from employees and a better understanding of organisational and cultural working issues that it might address to its benefit.

One thing that any organisation can offer its employees is the opportunity to communicate. Whether we call it motivation or optimism, we get the most (and the best) out of others when we take the time to listen, so that we can understand what inspires employees to perform, what achievements mean the most to them, and what obstacles in their path we might help them to remove or overcome. Most surveys that compare employer and employee perspectives show that employees rank a number of factors more highly than their employers: personal growth, cooperation and well-being are particular examples.

While employees no longer live in expectation of a lifelong career with a single organisation, engagement and talent management are closely inter-related. While some surveys show employees ranking career progression as a less important factor than their organisation perceives, it is equally valid to note that organisations may not always communicate progression opportunities as clearly as they might – both in a general sense and specifically to those talented people that they might wish to hear the message.

After making initial career promises during the job application process, remember it is not just the employee who is responsible for making sure that those promises are delivered. Otherwise it might be fair for them to look for advice from another pop singer: as David Bowie once sang, “Don’t stay in a bad place, where they don’t care how you are.”

Title image courtesy of 20th Century Fox