Ensuring your employees are fully motivated and engaged is one of the most competitive weapons available. Charles Woodruffe explains why

' Today's insurance industry makes profound and strenuous demands on the energies and talents of its people.

The days when it was a sedate and gentlemanly business are over forever. Assuming these days ever really existed at all.

Modern insurance not only requires its insurers to have outstanding technical skills and a ready willingness to comply with increasingly complex legislation, it also needs professionals with a real head for business. The people in these companies need to understand customers and not just be concerned about getting benefits and related premiums right.

Chief executives of most insurance companies rarely miss an opportunity to remind their audience (and themselves) that their people are their most precious asset.

In modern insurance, where every insurer can gain access to a similar calibre of technology, and costs are similar for most insurers, it is a matter of commercial logic that an insurer's people represent the most crucial weapon in competitive supremacy.

The trouble is, insurers by no means necessarily put this thinking into practice by taking every step to ensure all staff want to perform to the very highest levels of which they are personally capable.

Instead, the process of attrition of morale and energy can begin almost the instant a new employee takes up a position.

For too many people, the initial interview that led to them being offered the job may represent the most positive and idealistic experience they ever have with the insurer.

Far too often things go downhill all the way after that.

Some senior insurance company executives still believe that employees will be motivated to give a great performance simply because the company has hired them.

They see money as a cure-all. The logic being that if employees are paid enough they will put up with anything and have no reason to grumble. But this is flawed and very outdated thinking.

While the necessity to earn a living may be the main reason for most people working, it does not follow from this that money is always the main factor motivating people to work for one insurer rather than another.

In practice, people are likely to be swayed by a range of other, non-financial, factors when deciding where to work. This is particularly true of really talented people.

They tend to have a good idea of the market rate they can command and will be looking for a prospective employer that can offer this market rate and other advantages.

Career development
Overall, while the precise reasons why people work vary from one individual to the next, it is possible to make some useful general observations about employee motivation.

In today's employment market, where the notion of cradle to grave secure employment is an increasingly distant memory, people are more and more conscious of the need to maximise their employability.

Many people's motivation to take a certain job and give it their very best is that the experience they gain will improve their CVs.

They will expect ongoing development at the insurance company where they work - and will be very likely to go somewhere else if they don't get that sense of being developed.

In today's tough job market, employers need to understand that the training and development they extend to all their employees, and particularly to their more talented staff, will not only make employees more able and more valuable, but will also act as a powerful incentive for them to stay.

Of course, companies are always at risk that their staff will leave, taking their new skills with them.

Yet employees of insurers that do not develop their staff have little motivation to stay.

This is a paradox - but it is one with a simple solution. Accept that employees are more likely to leave if they are not developed, and find ways to make people want to keep working at your organisation.

The elements of positive motivation (see box) are contributing factors to the overall level of engagement the employee brings to his or her job.

The word 'engagement' is being used increasingly at an organisational level within firms to denote the idea of an employee being fully intellectually and emotionally committed to a particular job.

It is hoped that this will then lead the employee to give to that job what is known as discretionary effort. This is the effort that it is not necessary for an employee to give to a job but which he or she wants to give to it.

It is important to distinguish between the process of engaging employees by helping them to love their jobs and want to give their best to the jobs, and the very different process of hiring employees in the first place following a recruitment drive.

Engaging employees is important whatever the potential of the employee. Engaging talented people needs to be a top organisational priority for insurance companies.

They are particularly likely to find another berth if they don't feel that this one meets their demanding needs for job satisfaction, purpose and sense of self-worth. IT

' Charles Woodruffe is managing director of Human Assets, a business psychology consultancy

How to keep your staff

  • Give people constant opportunities to test themselves against increasingly tough tasks
  • Treat people in a civilised manner
  • Show you are genuinely committed to your employees
  • Offer a pleasant working environment
  • Expose employees to your senior people and if possible make sure every employee has one senior person they can talk to about particular difficulties and challenges
  • Be willing to give praise when praise is due
  • Place trust in employees when you can.
  • A trusted employee knows he or she is respected
  • Give people assignments that are clearly useful for the organisation
  • Respect the work/life balance of your employees. People who know you make allowances will be more ready to devote themselves to you when you really need extra effort.
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