The ambition ceiling: why HR must inject creativity and confidence

Yves Duhaldeborde, director of organisational surveys and insights at Towers Watson, explains why HR professionals must help inject innovation, creativity and confidence back into their organisations to help employees feel assured of their career options and break through the current ambition ceiling we are seeing.

Britain’s workforce has reached a standstill in terms of employee career development and ambition, according to research conducted this summer among 2,600 UK workers, as part of Towers Watson’s Global Workforce Study. This is putting businesses at risk of damaging employee morale and losing talent to growing competition across the globe. But there is light at the end of the tunnel for those who wish to make a difference, and HR professionals can play a significant role in turning things around.


What factors have led to “Standstill Britain”?

Our research found that one UK worker in four feels stuck in their role, largely due to the economic downturn. Employees are not only voicing that it is harder to progress their careers but they also perceive that when opportunities do arise, it is not always the right people who are promoted or rewarded.

For example, only one-third of workers think that their organisation does a good job of promoting the most qualified employees and two-thirds say they cannot see a clear link between performance and pay, suggesting that workers have little incentive to push themselves in their role.

The post-recession reality is that many people have swapped ambition for stability and are choosing a steady income from their current role rather than aiming for promotion or looking for a new job.

To add to this, many older workers are staying in their jobs – largely out of financial necessity – rather than retiring, which is also contributing to the poor promotion prospects of younger staff, according to our survey respondents.

How can HR professionals reverse this trend?

HR professionals have an important role to play to try to overturn this trend of “Standstill Britain” and lift employees out of the rut, instead of leaving them to lose faith in themselves and their company.

For example, helping employees realise that “up” isn’t their only career option could encourage them to develop new skills and competencies by stepping sideways in order to get to where they want to be in their career and ensure that talent stays in the business.

Think about identifying other departments where an employee’s skills could be applied. Such methods of helping employees overcome their career obstacles can have positive effects on staff motivation and productivity, and could encourage them to stay with the business for much longer than if they were to pursue only an upward trajectory.

Employee engagement is key

Fostering effective employee engagement practices is at the heart of reversing the standstill that many companies are experiencing. One company we have been helping to keep employee engagement high on the corporate agenda is Liverpool Victoria, the UK’s fourth largest car insurer. This approach has helped steer the company through a period of rapid growth, which could otherwise have caused uncertainty and anxiety amongst the workforce.

So what is the secret to Liverpool Victoria’s success? It focuses on ensuring it recruits the right people, rewards them appropriately, trains them well and continually develops them. It offers many opportunities for people to progress to the next level in the company, to work on secondment in another part of the business and to invest in themselves through training and development, which is available to them in a variety of ways such as e-learning. From this important baseline it has a very open and honest approach to communication with its employees.

Long-term planning

Such employee engagement examples are only sustainable if a long-term approach is taken. For example, asking employees about their five to 10-year objectives and offering training to equip them with the skills they need to achieve their goals can result in enhanced job satisfaction for employees, which in turn benefits employers. Look internally to see if there are any suitable mentors and coaches who are experienced in particular areas that can be matched to employees’ training needs.

An atmosphere of innovation can also be created by encouraging employees to actively participate in the future direction of the business and to put forward solutions to problems. There are few better ways to show talented staff that you value their work than by implementing their ideas.

Many more companies would benefit from emulating the values of positive employee engagement, whereby the idea of reward and recognition is embedded in senior leaders’ brains through training and development activity. Even if the wider economic outlook continues to appear fragile, companies can still expand and keep staff motivated, with the help of open communication, clear staff development activities and generous reward programmes.

Download a copy of the Global Workforce Study UK report here.

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