Winter Of Discontent

A Winter of discontent?

Supported by union Unite, public sector workers are threatening strike action in the coming months. Are we going to witness a winter of discontent and disruption of services?

The proposed 25% to 40% public sector budget cuts, which despite appearances to the contrary have not really kicked in yet at all, are already having a devastating impact on staff morale and commitment.

If you are a road sweeper in Wandsworth, you might be dismayed to learn that the Council’s Chief Executive, Gerald Jones, is paid £300,000 a year, double the salary of the Prime Minister and 20 times your own. Such disparities are corrosive to employee morale, trust and engagement, and could be disastrous to the Government’s agenda.

There is irrefutable evidence that employee engagement is directly correlated with productivity, so plummeting engagement is a real threat to the standard of public services and the need to get more from less. What to do?

The 2009 Macleod Report, Engaging for Success, reflected more than 500 submissions from employers including many from the public sector. The Report suggested some useful concepts, yet we need to define more specifically the actions that senior managers should take. Our white paper ‘The Rules of Engagement’ proposes three key factors that employers should recognise and act on.

First, rebuilding trust will be vital. Some Local Authority and NHS Trust Chief Executives have recently initiated reviews of the organisation’s values and are soliciting employee opinions. This is highly recommended. It creates a sense of ownership and responsibility.

Second, managers should understand that engagement is fundamentally an emotional response, not a rational one. Perceived unfairness in comparative remuneration of the executive to the staff can be a potent cause of disengagement.  The need to feel fairly treated is an innate ‘human given’: others are the need to feel valued, appreciated, listened to, involved in decision-making, trusted and given the opportunity to increase in knowledge and skills. Current practice too often ignores these needs.

Third, we suggest that many employers are underestimating the huge influence on engagement levels made by line managers.  It’s not that other things are unimportant: it’s just that they are trumped by a far more important factor – the atmosphere in the workplace. The evidence suggests that around 80% of decisions to engage or disengage are made on the basis of the immediate-manager relationship. People join organisations, they leave managers. Yet, fewer than 20% of managers have received any training in engagement skills, how to bring out the best in their people. The old command and control management paradigm is still all too common, but is no longer effective in the knowledge economy. It creates disengagement.