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Many employees in Asia are just coasting along or even actively loathing their occupation, according to a Gallup survey. But you can do something about it, says Cesar Bacani

This article was first published in the March 2014 China edition of Accounting and Business magazine.

Ask a CFO in Asia what keeps him or her up at night and chances are that recruitment and retention of finance talent will top the list. So the latest Gallup research report, State of the Global Workplace, should resonate with the region’s finance leaders. 

The international polling organisation interviewed more than 225,000 employees in 142 countries in 2011 and 2012. After crunching and analysing the data last year, Gallup concluded that only 6% of workers in East Asia – which includes China, Hong Kong and Japan – can be said to be engaged employees. That’s less than half of the global average of 13%.

By ‘engaged’, Gallup means someone who is ‘involved in, enthusiastic about, and committed to their work and contributes to the organisation in a positive manner’. Those it describes as ‘disengaged’ perform their role but are not emotionally connected to the job, while those who are ‘actively disengaged’ hate their job and want others in the organisation to hate their jobs, too.

The worrying finding in China and Hong Kong is that 20% of professional workers, managers and executives hate their job, indicating that active disengagement among finance professionals is high as well.

One can question the validity of these findings, but this is Gallup, the granddaddy of pollsters, and the survey universe is nearly a quarter of a million people. In any case, the value of the study does not lie in how well some countries and regions are doing against others – although the Philippines was found to have the highest proportion of engaged employees at 29%.

The real value of this research is that it focuses attention on the issue of keeping employees engaged, rather than allowing them to be disengaged – or, worse, turn them into actively disengaged staff. It also recommends action steps that companies can take to improve satisfaction in the workplace.

One recommendation is obvious but can sometimes be ignored or forgotten. This is the importance of choosing the right manager. As the business saying goes, people don’t leave companies; they leave their managers. ‘Generally speaking, employees’ perceptions of their primary manager influence about 70% of their engagement,’ notes the Gallup report.

When recruiting or promoting managers, including finance leaders, companies should examine not only the candidate’s technical skills and experience; equally importantly, they should give weight to his or her ability to serve as a catalyst in building engaged work teams.

Managers should be coached and mentored on engagement issues – and then held accountable for their teams’ level of engagement. They should develop engagement plans with their team members, track their progress, and continuously focus on emotionally engaging them. Achieving these goals should be a factor for promotion and in the manager’s performance review.

It is also helpful to focus on the employee’s strengths, rather than on his or her weaknesses. ‘Trying to get employees to fix their weaknesses doesn’t work,’ writes Gallup chairman and CEO Jim Clifton in the report. ‘Weaknesses can’t be developed much at all – but employees’ strengths can be developed infinitely.’ The trick is to make sure that employees were hired because of their actual and potential strengths in the first place. 

‘Ensure that managers discuss employee engagement elements at weekly meetings and in one-on-one sessions with employees to weave engagement into daily interactions and activities related to their performance objectives,’ suggests the report. 

It takes a lot of hard work, time and effort on the part of every individual, particularly manager, to enhance engagement levels across an organisation. But the outcome is a much happier workplace – and a more profitable company. 

Cesar Bacani is editor-in-chief of CFO Innovation

Last updated: 1 Jul 2016