It’s not that complicated, really, to understand and deliver what employees want from their leaders. I boil it down to just three things: truthful and open communications, respect for what they professionally and personally bring to the party and opportunities to use and expand upon what they know. If staff experienced this nearly every day there would be so much less noise and much more productivity.
The research on this has not moved an inch in a couple decades. It’s not about the generations or digital explosion or globalization or any other trendy topic. It’s all about people and work and relationships and human value. No one rolls out of bed in the morning and thinks, “I can’t wait to get to work so I can be disrespected and under utilized and told a pack of lies! I do my best work under these conditions.” Beyond financial security (which is a big one) we all hope to grow in skills, competence, confidence and position in our jobs. Again, not complicated and not news.
But for too many of us our organizations are run by people who aren’t able to fulfill these very basic requirements. And as leaders, we struggle much more than we need to on these dimensions.
Communication. The majority of leaders work hard to provide timely information to the staff. They try to balance the good and bad news while remaining focused and inspiring. This goes off the rails in a few common ways.
- Information flow is all over the map. A small inner circle may be privy to closely held (and difficult) information that seeps out into the organization in uncontrolled ways. This means that some people know things early and incompletely while others are in the dark. Rumors foment, anticipatory responses get prepared, passive aggressive power grabs ensue. Conversely information is held so tightly that only a small portion of it ever gets communicated. In other words, there isn’t a plan in place.
- Erring on the side of too much or too little. There are executives who value a strategy of complete transparency and communicate often, early and in full. Most employees prefer this approach but then find themselves inundated with TMI. They lose focus or get anxious and don’t know how to digest everything. They wish for some judicious editing. Other leaders believe that everything is too confidential to share openly. This leaves staff very uninformed which breeds suspicion and mistrust.
- Limited one on one contact. When an employee has limited access to his/her boss in the first place and then there are no quarterly check ins or private annual reviews, the disappointment can lead to disengagement. Add to that the continuous cancellation of update meetings and it is a bad recipe. The employee has prepared for those precious few minutes and when they are bumped from the schedule s/he can feel only one thing: insignificant. Oh, and maybe pissed off.
Respect. See me! Value me! Especially if I am different than you are. That’s what employees want. But here is what they usually get instead.
- Benign disregard. Someone gets hired because of some great skills that no one else has and then it’s as if amnesia hits the manager because that person is rarely tapped to provide that expertise. Or women and people of color are served up a daily dose of micro aggressions that make them feel invisible and unimportant. Or who you know matters more than what you know and do. I could go on, but the point is a whole set of small jabs that add up to big and painful feelings.
- Overt disrespect. Most work is accomplished through team work or collaboration but many leaders will take full credit for the results. Tearing down someone in public, offering open support but privately preventing a promotion or pitting staff members against each other are all ways that employees feel hostile disrespect.
- Differences. In spite of some good intentions, most leaders continue to struggle with people who are different. Older white men did not ascend in a world filled with working women or professionals of color. Unconscious deference to other white men is still the default so to be fully respected if you are different than those in power still sucks.
Utilize. The number one reason people leave organizations is that they feel under utilized and see no opportunities for growth. This has been true for 2-3 decades and I don’t see this changing much. There are fancy, complicated HR strategies and initiatives in many companies to reverse this trend but there is more work to be done.
- Bench sitting. In the best companies staff get told once or twice a year how they are performing and what their future looks like. Plans are made for new jobs or projects but most of that is for naught. When are you going to call me in? When do I get to play? You promised! Right idea but very poor follow through.
- No resources. Most companies aspire to develop talent in all sorts of ways but when the rubber hits the road they can’t find the resources. Either development budgets are cut or HR staff is overwhelmed or senior leaders are maxed out on mentoring or training is at your own expense. When belts get tightened, staff growth programs are cut while exec bonuses are reduced by a percent or two. Message received loud and clear.
- Risk averse. Someone is warming up on deck and ready to take the plunge but senior leaders pull back for fear of failure. In spite of promises and good supervision and consensus that someone can step up, leaders hold too much control by sticking with the tried and true ones. Staff stop striving for new roles because they doubt it will happen or they get aggressively competitive to dethrone and take down the regulars.
These are all examples of ordinary human behavior…not evil incarnate. We all have a groove and we get comfortable in that groove. Doing a better job at just one of these things means stretching ourselves. Some days we can make the effort while other days we snap back to our usual habits. But here’s the problem on both sides of the table with that. If the leader listens better on Monday and Tuesday but the rest of the week reverts to being less attentive, the employee will feel hopeful and then disappointed. Rinse, repeat. Pretty soon the leader will stop altogether and the employee will feel duped and will disengage more completely. False hope is a bitch. So what is the fix?
Leaders, pick one of these three things (communication, respect, utilization). Then pick one behavior you are confident won’t be too hard for you. Let’s say, only cancel an employee meeting if there is an emergency. Otherwise, you will keep all staff appointments (or at least 70%). Ask your assistant to monitor this for you and help you achieve your goal. Commit to a three month trial period. If you find at the end of that time that a) you feel these meetings are worthless or b) you do not see improved engagement or productivity from your staff, then reevaluate the process or your communication style. But I’m fairly certain that you will derive any/all of these things from ongoing communication with your staff: deeper knowledge of what and how well they are doing, who the gems are in your group, who has more to offer than you thought, insights about those who are struggling, more opportunities for you to delegate stuff, new ideas, better sense of how your team is functioning as a whole. That’s a big bang for the buck if you ask me.
And staff, keep insisting on getting these basic needs met. Keep your leaders challenged to do the right thing.