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The luxury of engaged co-workers requires consistent and persistent leadership

Business leaders dream of committed and engaged co-workers who are willing to put in some extra effort when needed. Yet, surprisingly few businesses seem able to take advantage of their staff’s engagement and ideas.

A doctoral thesis from the University of Gothenburg shows that in order to build a business with a high degree of employee engagement, managers not only need to work very actively, they also need to create an environment of mutual trust.

Business managers widely proclaim that ’employees are our most important resource’. According to the author of the thesis, Richard Berglund at the Department of Work Science, there are 34,000 Google hits for the corresponding phrase in Swedish –‘personalen är vår viktigaste resurs’. Berglund’s more than 25 years at Swerea IVF, the research institute for the Swedish manufacturing industry, have given him plenty of insight into nearly 1,000 Swedish companies and their production environments.

Wasteful businesses
Listen carefully and you will find impressive competence and skills in most companies. Almost all workers involved in the production have something wise to contribute, and once they are given a chance to share their ideas, they become more engaged and end up doing more than they are asked to. But in most companies you don’t see much of this, which is unfortunate since, in the end, it will limit the development of the companies. Wasteful, isn’t it?’ says Berglund. His study explores how business managements in the manufacturing industry work to implement the so-called lean concept, which emphasises respect for human beings and engaged co-workers.
Ambition to encourage
Berglund followed three manufacturing companies during a four-year period. All three have adopted the lean concept, and their managements have explicitly declared an ambition to encourage staff participation. The study investigates ten factors that are critical to the willingness of workers to committ and engage. One is trust.
’It’s a matter of how you view and think of fellow human beings. A company culture characterised by openness and small status differences communicates that all employees are important.’

Another factor is responsibility and authority. A manager’s decisions can turn into a bottleneck that erodes employee engagement. Delegation of authority and provision of resources to try new ideas have the opposite effect. Occasional mistakes are not a problem since many more things turn out great.

It’s the action that matters
The factor Top management’s active participation is important as well.
’Employee involvement does not mean that the management is out of workmight as well throw in the towel. What’s difficult is to coordinate all the ideas coming from the bottom with effective management from the top. This task calls for active presence, communication and understanding,’ says Berglund.
He stresses that the challenge is not to say what needs to be done, but rather to do what has been said. In other words, it is what actually gets done that matters.

’Engagement relies on trust, and trust takes a long time to build but can be crushed in a moment. It is also important that the management creates and communicates a clear line of action to follow in the midst of the constant change all companies have to manage,’ says Berglund.

Richard Berglund, Department of Work Science, University of Gothenburg, successfully defended his doctoral thesis ’Commitment wanted: How three manufacturing companies seek their workers’ contribution when implementing lean production on Friday 18 June 2010.

For more information: Richard Berglund, tel. +46 (0)707 80 60 47,

Helena Aaberg | idw
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