Somewhere in the 90′s a transformation began to happen where employee satisfaction became an important measure for a company and an amplifier of its brand. Lists began to pop up in top business magazines such as Fortune and Forbes, recognizing that human capital could be as important a business driver as revenue and market capitalization, and so the drive for greater employee engagament was born.
But it didn’t necessarily thrive. While being at the top of or even on these prestigious lists certainly provided a source of pride, its difficulty in measuring a direct impact on profitability often made it a secondary concern in operational strategy except for a handful of companies that made it a priority. As such, to this day, while buzz phrases like Employer of First Choice continue to be spun around HR departments across the globe, tremendous opportunities continue to exist in most organizations to truly seize upon the value of their most important asset – their people.
Success in business can generally be broken down into four crucial, manageable components – People, Service, Sales and Profit. Great companies and great leaders find a successful balance between these four “levers”, however different leaders (and different companies) may emphasize each lever their own way to arrive at the same end goal. My philosophy has always been that great people lead to great service, leading to increased sales which ultimately lead to increased profitability. Great people are employees that are fully trained and fully engaged in your brand, your vision, and your results.
The costs of an unengaged employee are obvious but sometimes tough to measure. When your team isn’t engaged, they are less productive, more prone to turnover, and they tend to create an environment in which others become unengaged, perpetuating a cycle that hurts your business and how people perceive you as a leader. What’s worse, most employees are to some degree unengaged, meaning they come to work and do their job, never going the extra mile unless forced and often doing less when they can get away with it. Great leaders make it a point to engage each employee, every day, by creating an environment in which they can thrive and succeed.
The good news is that engaging your employees is difficult but not complex. While a number of models exist to explain what keeps an employee satisfied, it comes down to three things. Employees want to feel:
- They matter, as people, to an organization and are not just units of production
- Their role matters, so that what they do every day is somehow contributing to the end goal
- They’re making progress towards that goal
Notice that money or compensation doesn’t make the list. One of the fundamental breaks in conventional leadership practice (not necessarily theory because it’s been disproved long ago) is that the primary motivator of people is not salary or additional compensation. It shouldn’t surprise you that rewards – not recognition which usually ranks higher – ranks towards the middle of most lists on employee motivation. It is a very short term approach that has huge risks over time and ultimately doesn’t answer your team’s deepest motivations. The message from workers, your workers is that they want an environment that is inclusive and productive, where they feel as though they are moving the needle most if not every day towards something that matters to them as well as the organization. How you accomplish this ultimately defines you as a leader, more than your results could ever do alone.
Making People Matter
Generally speaking, people do not work because they want to. They work because they have to. Which means that antiquated notions such as personal or brand loyalty have to be taken with a grain of salt. Yes people who have to work may choose to work for what they perceive is a model company or a great leader, but it is not without expectation. During a time when company loyalty to its employees was prevalent, such as in the post-World War 2 era when pensions were popular and people expected to be with one company their entire career, it may have been more clear cut. But in reality that loyalty bond snapped on both sides long ago, as both corporate and personal self-interest became increasingly visible in the relationship between company and employee.
Good leaders recognize this and find ways to link the interests of the organization with the interests of its team members. That doesn’t mean finding what motivates you and creating programs around it. It means finding what motivates them and creating a permanent environment around it. The biggest mistake leaders commit is they make their employees feel like faceless, nameless cogs in the machine who exist only to produce for them. Worse yet they apply a single, inflexible management style that likely only appeals to a small subset of the organization. These wouldn’t work for you, and they are certainly not working for your employees.
Instead, try asking your teams how they feel about working in your organization. Out of pride or a lack of self-awareness we tend to ignore this very crucial tool in employee engagement. When our results are good, or bonuses are good, we make a possibly incorrect assumption that people enjoy working for us. We sometimes forget, especially when in positions of authority that our employees may not feel comfortable telling us about their dissatisfaction for fear of retaliation or simply just out of fear for speaking up. But every organization and every leader has an opportunity to improve, and asking your employees where you can do that has the dual benefit of giving you actionable feedback and directly telling them their opinion counts.
The key is that the feedback has to be acted upon. Most good companies will conduct some sort of employee engagement or satisfaction survey, anonymously, twice a year. The results are transparent and publicized, and leadership assigns teams to address the feedback, correcting negative opportunities and reinforcing the things the team does well. What works exceptionally well is taking a bottom up approach to the actions that give everyone a stake in their own success. Nothing matters more to an individual on a team than knowing they can impact their own fortunes.
In addition to the team dynamic however it is critical that you as the leader make yourself approachable and personal to individual team members. That doesn’t mean you have to be friends and invite people over to barbecues, but it does mean that on a work plane, you have to remain open to their ideas and their feedback, and take the time to understand what truly makes each one of your employees feel like they are personally invested and successful. It is very rare that you will be unable to find some personal motivation to tap that links back to your organization’s vision and goals. Where many leaders fail is that they don’t even ask.
Making the Job Matter
As companies fight to grow leaner and more productive in what is both a challenging and innovative economy, it becomes more difficult, though not entirely impossible to make people feel like what they do is irrelevant to the overall mission. Still, it does happen. In a factory, on an assembly line, what an individual employee does can generally be linked directly back to a final output. It is very tangible. That may not always be the case in a white collar environment where managers move ideas and numbers instead of the proverbial widget. Your job as a leader is to constantly link every person’s role to the ultimate goal, reinforcing it as necessary and removing the “junk” along the way.
Your communications and messaging go a long way in ensuring your people understand how they fit in the program. Taking the time to recognize people for their individual contributions and successes is one thing, but literally sitting with them from time to time and asking them how they feel about their role or even how they would improve it is even better. This bottom up leadership gives personal empowerment to every team member and recognizes that everyone plays a part in the organization’s success, not just those with a title.
What is more difficult for leaders to grasp is the removal of the “white noise” or the unnecessary projects that come across all of our desks every day, ostensibly in order to further the mission. Most of them do not, and it is important as a leader to know the difference. While there may only be four important levers in operations leadership, there are dozens if not hundreds of ways to slice each one of them, and leaders do find them and work is created from them. But team members will not always see the value in them, or more blatantly they will see how they can do their jobs more effectively without them, which leads to further ambiguity and disconnection from how they are contributing to the overall success of the organization – a guaranteed way to disengage an employee. As a leader you must look out for this very important and easy to run into pitfall.
Making Progress Visible
Organizations typically hold themselves accountable to macro-level goals. Those macro-level goals are accomplished by meeting tactical goals that are more easily grasped by individual employees. A good way to ensure that your team members are both aware of their contributions and constantly moving the needle is by setting and following up on smaller goals that are easily and visibly linked to the larger objective.
As an example, a business unit is responsible for hitting a sales target. The organization has five people on it, each responsible for a portion of those sales. If the team only tracks the larger sales goal, it is less meaningful for each sales person, first because their individual contribution doesn’t move the whole pie very far and second because the horizon for completion is too far in the distance. They might get more motivated in the fourth quarter when they are getting closer, and progress can be seen, but how do you secure their engagement for the rest of the year?
You have to break the big picture down into chunks that are meaningful to the individual, even as you manage the overall goal on behalf of the organization. By only focusing on the broader objective you are violating rule number one – you marginalize people and make them feel like they are units of your production, there only to accomplish the company’s goals. On the other hand if you set meaningful targets that are individualized, achievable, and can be followed up on, you create a sense of competition, excitement, and investment that most employees will latch on to and often try to exceed. That is the root of exceptional performance
Great leaders understand that the root cause of failure in long-term organizational performance is a failure to learn how to lead people. Managing by comparison is easy, and people can almost always get results in the short term by focusing solely on those levers that are seen to better impact profitability. But it won’t last. Turnover costs, productivity and even brand reputation will eventually impact your ability to produce those results, and eventually limit your ability to grow as a leader. A firm understanding that your employees are the single most important foundation to sustainable success is critical in the modern world and has become a strategic differentiator between good companies and great ones, a good (or bad) leader and a breakthrough one that people look towards to move their world. Take the time to learn about your people, what motivates them, and personally invest them in your goals and that of the organization you lead. They payoff will be results you can count on, and a leadership signature people will want to follow for a long time to come.