How the Unconnected Employee Hurts Your Business
By Anne Baber & Lynne Waymon
At one Ohio firm, engineers were told, “30 percent of your annual bonus will depend on your discovering new business from your clients.”
Want to take a guess about how many of the 35 consulting engineers – working everyday at the clients’ sites – found new business opportunities? Three.
Neither their own – nor the firm’s – bottom line could incite these engineers to talk with their clients to find possibilities for new or expanded work.
These engineers probably would give “Yes” answers to engagement questions, such as
- Are you proud to work for your firm?
- Would you recommend your firm as a good place to work?
- Are you planning to stay with the firm?
- Are you willing to give more than is required in your job description?
So, were the engineers who left bonus money on the table unwilling – or unable – to bring in the business?
We have coined the phrase “unconnected employees” to describe employees who lack the skills to build effective business relationships. As experts in business networking, we’ve been convinced for many years that networking is THE overlooked and underestimated professional competency. Our purpose in this article is to explore how building networking competency among employees is a solution to many of the negative outcomes of lack of engagement.
As we have reviewed recent management literature, we have been gratified to see other researchers and experts citing networking as critical as they point out the problems that unconnected employees create for their organizations. The engineers provide one example of unconnected employees failing to see themselves as part of the business development team. A Harvard Business Review article, “How Leaders Create and Use Networks,” says, “Strategic networking to help uncover and capitalize on new opportunities for the company puts the tools of networking in the service of business goals.”
And unconnected employees also negatively impact on their organizations in eight additional ways.
- They get off to a slow start as new hires.
“What’s the biggest reason newly hired managers fail?” asks a Salveson Stetson Group report on on-boarding. In their survey, two-thirds of companies admitted they don’t do a good job of integrating new hires into their culture. For example, it’s critical that they are helped to build good working relationships with bosses, direct reports and peers within their functional areas and departments and in other areas of their organizations.
A Deloitte Research report on talent management echos that idea: “Rather than aim a fire hose of information at recruits, organizations must help them create the right relationships.” What if orientation programs focused on helping people connect?
- They are less productive.
“(Social networks) put people in the thick of information flows, and are a good predictor of productivity.” says the Social Network Practitioner Consensus Survey cited in Computerworld magazine. Ideally, employees use networking to connect with colleagues, share best practices, ask and answer questions, and get to know customers and suppliers, notes an article in Trendwatchers (The Institute for Corporate Productivity).
We’d add several more specific and practical uses for internal networks. “Getting the big picture” means knowing the strategic direction of the organization and aligning yourself with it. “Bolstering the bottom line” means finding ways to contribute to the organization’s success – no matter what your title. “Venturing into the while spaces on the organization chart” means battering down silos. “Uncorking bureaucratic bottlenecks” means collaborating across departmental or functional lines to solve problems. “Expanding your knowledge base and rounding up talent” mean knowing who has the expertise you need. “Accessing resources” means knowing who’s got budget or technology or staff that can help you get the job done. “Getting a jump on inside information” means tapping the grapevine to find out what’s coming down the pike – before the official announcement.
What if all employees knew how to create, cultivate, and capitalize on their internal networks?
- They don’t make it their business to recruit.
Studies show that recruits referred by employees are more likely to be “a good fit” than people hired in other ways. “(HR professionals) have long tried to generate good candidate leads by tapping their own employees as referral sources. But the programs typically wane due to lack of employee participation, no matter how much bonus money is offered,” says an article in HR Magazine. By the way, people hired through employee referrals cost, on average, a mere $900, says a SHRM Referral Networks Study. What if employees consciously made it their business to encourage their contacts to apply for openings?
- They don’t know how to make their expertise known so it can be used and so that they can advance in their careers.
Many employees are underestimated and pigeonholed, say Drs. Marty Seldman and Rick Brandon. They found that today’s “typical derailment coaching candidate” lacks organizational savvy – including a network of allies and advocates.
“Managers who make themselves visible get higher raises and more promotions,” says George Dudley in “The Importance of Managing Visibility,” Behavioral Sciences Research Press, Inc. And, in today’s volatile economic climate, employees need to create a safety net by identifying other jobs within their organizations that they could move to and by connecting with peers who could refer them and employers who could hire them through professional associations. What if employees knew how to raise their visibility and showcase their talents and interests, so the organization could get maximum use of them?
- They are less successful as managers.
“Successful managers spend 70% more time networking than their less successful counterparts,” says an article in the Academy of Management Journal. “One of the four key essential leadership roles is relationship/network builder,” says “Developing Business Leaders for 2010,” The Conference Board. And from Leadership Networking, The Center for Creative Leadership: “Leaders who are skilled networkers have access to people, information, and resources to help solve problems and create opportunities. Leaders who neglect their networks are missing out on a critical component of their role as leaders.” What if managers understood how to forge more effective relationships up, down, and across the organization chart?
- They make poor decisions.
“The significant difference between high quality and poor quality decisions is how the decision-makers engage stakeholders,” says an article in the Harvard Business Review.
Building support for ideas is critical to selling ideas. Getting up-front buy-in helps to avoid resistance to change. What if vetting ideas with all those impacted became the norm?
- They aren’t as creative and innovative.
“Organizations that foster community achieve shorter technology-cycle time,” says an article in the California Management Review: And from “Brokers of Innovation” by UC-Davis Professor Andrew Hargadon: “Companies often have diverse network connections in different markets and across a wide range of customers, suppliers, and competitors. Yet their strategies, work practices, and reward systems rarely support, and more often undermine, peoples’ ability to tap these networks for innovation.” What if people reached out into their diverse networks and sought innovative ideas to import into the organization?
- They attend conferences and meetings – at the organization’s expense – but fail to bring back business intelligence about best practices and business trends because they don’t know how to build productive new relationships.
“Determining the benefit and ROI to the conference provider is easy, and it isn’t new. What is missing, however, is the ROI for those who make the conference successful, particularly the participants and the organizations that fund their trip,” says Dr. Patti Phillips of the ROI Institute. What if organizations could count on employees to bring back new ideas and valuable contacts from conferences and meetings?
Why Employees Aren’t Better Relationship-Builders
It seems obvious that, if employees were more skillful in relationship-building, organizations would benefit. So, why aren’t employees better at building relationships?
Americans are becoming more shy. In 1972, when Stanford University’s Shyness Clinic’s research began, 40 percent of their subjects said they were shy. By 2008, that number had increased to over 50 percent, and the youngest subjects were approaching 60 percent. Gen Y employees and Milleniums, then, are the shyest. A Kansas City Star business columnist shared this comment from one 20-year-old’s resignation letter: “In 18 months on the job, I was never invited to a meeting or even a meal with my work group.”
Technology is partly to blame. Ruth Sherman says, in her Fast Company blog, “Dependence on remote forms of communication has left many younger workers bereft of interpersonal skills.” These are the same employees organizations are worried about retaining.
Layoffs, mergers, and acquisitions – and the other organizational earthquakes — damage internal networks. But companies rarely help people re-build them.
Even a growth spurt can be detrimental. An HR director at a PR and communication firm had this to say, “Our organization, at one time, had a very effective internal network that enabled us to find top notch talent very quickly. However, as a result of our overwhelming growth in 2007, the internal network deteriorated, resulting in a disconnected workforce. And that’s a dangerous problem for our organization.” She’s now instituting brown bag lunches to train and bring together the younger workforce.
Organizations may believe that, because they have conducted training programs on communication skills, they have taught employees how to connect. But our research on some basic networking skills shows that 97 percent of employees have trouble remembering names. When asked, “What do you do? 67 percent give answers that are inadequate and fail to generate conversation or even understanding. We have found that only 15 percent of employees in our workshops over the past 18 months say “Yes” to the question, “Do you have the network you need?”
Some HR professionals may assume that you can’t teach relationship building. They may have bought into the idea that people are either “born with the gift of gab” – or not. Recent books by authors who tell stories about their own outrageously successful extroverted networking imply that introverts are doomed.
Organizations may be put off by the word “networking.” That term can have negative connotations: it’s sometimes seen as sleazy, manipulative, only for job-hunters. We have noticed that companies often re-title the concept. One of the competencies now required for entry into the Senior Executive Service – the US government’s top-ranked jobs – is “building coalitions/communications.” At the Nuclear Regulatory Commission, it’s “connectivity.” At Lockheed Martin, it’s “horizontal integration.” At the Environmental Protection Agency, it’s “collaboration.” Others call it “relationship management,” “social acumen,” “silo-busting,” and “social capital.”
No matter what they are teaching, organizations may be inadvertently discouraging networking in their corporate culture. Workplace attitudes toward networking, we find, are a continuum: Unconscious …Discouraging . . . Encouraging . . . Mandatory. (To figure out where your organization stands, see the Sidebar.)
There may be, in some organizations, a power grab going on between HR and Corporate Communications over who is going to manage internal “social networks” – software to promote connecting. These corporate adaptations of Facebook and Linked In have great potential, but one must be careful not to assume that, just because employees are plugged in they are connected.
Ideally, all the people who have a stake in the outcome of creating networking competency would come to the table. That includes people in charge of recruitment, training, executive coaching, leadership and employee development, career development, orientation, business development, corporate communications, marketing, affinity groups, and employee alumni. They might jointly answer the questions in the Sidebar, discuss the benefits of “connected employees,” and plan a concerted approach of training and support.
Few organizations, as yet, have taken this kind of collaborative approach. Most assume that relationships are being built – without any encouragement — or that such an effort would not impact the bottom line. We believe that creating networking competency is essential to support employee engagement, alignment, and inclusion.
Sidebar: Is Your Organization Network-Friendly?
- Do corporate initiatives mention relationship-building in any way? Is there recognition at the top that building “social capital” can have enterprise-wide value?
- If there is pressure for “billable hours,” is there also recognition that networking is a money-making activity.
- Are employees who are expert networkers held up as good examples?
- Is training in networking skills offered?
- Are employees encouraged to belong to professional associations and, even more important, are they accountable for bringing back valuable information and contacts?
- Are employees encouraged to volunteer in the community and do they know how to make these activities pay off for the organization?
- Is it easy – and expected – that employees will collaborate with people in other parts of the organization and up and down the hierarchy?
- Do managers include networking activities in employee performance plans?
- Are people rewarded for networking successes?
Anne Baber and Lynne Waymon are co-founders of Contacts Count LLC, the premier training company helping organizations and individuals put the tools of networking to work in the service of business and career goals. Corporations license the Contacts Count materials for internal use and we conduct train-the-trainer programs. Baber and Waymon are co-authors of Make Your Contacts Count: Networking Know-How for Business and Career Success (AMACOM, 2nd edition) and Strategic Connections: The New Face of Networking in a Collaborative World (AMACOM, 2015). Visit them at www.ContactsCount.com