Leadership

the first step to better leadership

Like many people, I’m trying to get back in shape and it’s a dangerous process (bear with me – this is actually about leadership). Obviously, I don’t want to waste any time, money, or effort so I want the best diet and exercise program possible. That should be easy to figure out, right? After all, the number of fitness experts are legion so they should have worked out the best program years ago.

Except they haven’t. Not even remotely close. The fitness magazines all tout this month’s latest and greatest exercises and fast results diet plans. These “best practices”, if you will, differ from magazine to magazine, from issue to issue, and even article to article in the same issue.

If I’m honest, not only do I not need an Olympic level program, but I know that different people are different and what works for one person doesn’t necessarily create the same results for another. Even athletes on the same team have highly customized programs. Plus, I’m not looking for the level of sophistication required to move an athlete from national caliber to global competitor. I just want to not be terrible.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. This is beautifully illustrated by the photo above. If things are going bad, the very first step is to stop doing things to make them worse. Rather than finding the best program ever, I’d be light years ahead to just stop doing the things destroying my fitness. It’s not a mystery why I’m not in the shape I want to be in: I eat too much, I eat too much of the wrong things, and I don’t exercise enough. How’s this for a first step fitness plan: stop eating so much; realize the beer, chocolate, and peanut butter aren’t helping matters; and stop being so sedentary. Eliminate the obviously bad, start small, build as I go, and improve incrementally. It’s pretty common sense and I don’t need the diet and fitness industry telling me what’s right. I just need to stop doing what I know is wrong.

Here’s where all this is about leadership:

If you’re trying to get better at leading others you know it’s a dangerous process. Obviously, you don’t want to waste any time, money, or effort so you want the best leadership information and techniques possible. That should be easy to figure out, right? After all, the number of leadership experts are legion so they should have worked out the best methods years ago.

Except they haven’t. Not even remotely close. The business magazines all tout this month’s latest and greatest approaches and fast results techniques. These “best practices”, if you will, differ from magazine to magazine, from issue to issue, and even article to article in the same issue.

If you’re honest, not only do you not need a world class executive development program, but you know different people are different and what works for one leader doesn’t necessarily create the same results for another. Even top leaders in the same organizations have very different styles and approaches as well as very different strengths and weaknesses. Odds are, you’re not looking for the level of sophistication required to move from mid-level manager to C-level executive. Today, you probably just want to not be terrible.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If things are going bad, the very first step is to stop doing things to make them worse. Rather than finding the best leadership program ever, most people would be light years ahead to just stop doing the things that cause others to shut down and stop caring. In fact, the one secret to leadership is there is no secret – good and bad leadership is always on display. For most people, the most bang for the buck in becoming a better leader is to simply identify the top five commonalities of their worst leaders and commit to never doing those things (bonus points for doing the opposite).

What are those top five? It’ll differ a bit from person to person, but experience shows there’s quite a bit of overlap. It’s more important that you identify your own top five bad leadership behaviors. The ones you hate the most are the ones you’ll be most motivated to not do.

Eliminate the obviously bad, start small, build as you go, and improve incrementally. It’s pretty common sense, but too often we focus on trying to be great without first eliminating the bad. The first step to being a good leader is to simply stop doing the things that make you a bad leader. It won’t make you the world’s greatest leader, but it’ll get you far ahead of the game.

What would be in your top five to eliminate (or make sure you never do)?

 

[Photo credit: Chris Wimbush [CC-BY-SA-2.0], via Wikimedia Commons]

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HR, it’s time to get bold

boldhrBold HR matters.

Bold is a lot of things to a lot of people. At a session I recently led on boldHR atHRevolution, the participants defined bold as: risk taking, unexpected, courage, gutsy, decisive with preparation, forward thinking, positive, out of context, change, flashy, powerful, large, and loud.

One participant quoted Robert Greene, pointing out “Everyone admires the bold and no one honors the timid.” That line resonated deeply for me because there are so many people who want to have an impact, who want to do meaningful work (doesanyone want to do work that doesn’t matter, work no one cares about?). Yet, too often we try to make a difference while playing safe and that rarely happens. No statue has ever been erected, no biography written, no career celebrated about the person who was just another anonymous face blending into the crowd.

The field of HR is at a crossroads. There is much discussion about dislocating, redefining, and overhauling what HR is and does. I think these are crucial conversations and I jump into every one I can, but they often fail to account for a crucial paradox: to the individual just trying to get a job done, revolutionizing an entire field seems impossibly overwhelming, but the field will never move forward and improve until individuals more forward and improve. No one individual can do it, but nothing will happen until individuals make things happen.

That’s where boldHR matters. No matter who we are, no matter where we are, no matter job title or career stage, we can all be even more bold. Whether you’re a senior VP of HR who wants to completely reinvent the HR function at your organization or you’re just starting out in your career and trying to learn the fundamentals you can be bold. You can be the person who makes things happen and gets things done, you can be the person who “steps into the conversation” (as one participant put it – I love that!), who doesn’t wait for permission, who is open and sharing, who attaches your work to the business needs, and who simply chooses to “get uncomfortable” in order to get things done. This is not simply my opinion, these are the words and ideas of participants.

The beauty of boldHR is it recognizes there is no one-size-fits-all. What might be an insane leap past the outer comfort zones for one person might be a slow day at the office for another. Rather than prescribing what everyone should do to be bold,boldHR looks to the individual to determine how boldness will show up in their life.

So what’s it mean for you? Here are a few questions to help you determine where you would benefit from being bolder and playing bigger in your job (and these apply to ANY job, not just in HR):

  1. What do you really want to do in your job but keep putting off because you’re too busy?
  2. What are you hesitating about asking for permission to do because you don’t want to be told “no”?
  3. What do you want to be remembered for at your company or in your career? What additional decisions or actions are necessary to make that happen?
  4. What do you need to say “no” to that would make a huge difference in your job?

Pick any one of your answers and decide on doing the smallest action that will make it possible. Even if it’s just a phone call, email, or quick conversation, do that one action. Then do it again. Then add another action. Keep going.

You don’t have to reinvent the field and you don’t have to change who you are. Keep doing what you do, just do it a little bigger, a little better, a little bolder.

What are your thoughts? Where can the field of HR be bolder? Where do you want to be bolder in your own job or career?

* * * * *

[Photo Credit: Kellee Webb (@PurposefulHR)]

wrong way to leadership

ʎɐʍ ƃuoɹʍLeadership is hard. It’s at the center of the crossroads of business and people, making it difficult for so many reasons and on so many levels. I have huge respect and admiration for those who lead well and I have spent large portions of my career helping people get even better at it.

I hope it’s not a surprise, I hope I’m not revealing a deep industry secret, but many (most?) of the leaders in your company simply aren’t very good at it. Worse, many of them either don’t realize how bad they are or don’t know how to get better.

How does this happen? Promotions are supposed to be based on merit where the people with skill and drive rise to the top.

If only…

Choosing Leaders

One of the biggest barriers to good leadership is simply how organizations choose their leaders. See if this sounds familiar:

  1. Those who are selected for promotion are the hardest workers with the best technical skills. Obviously, those are the ones we want to promote. Unfortunately, becoming a supervisor is the only path of promotion, so those who want to further their career must go into leadership.
  2. Promotion into leadership comes with a pay raise, additional responsibility, and is the obvious next career step. Few turn this down, even if they have little desire or ability to lead.
  3. It is (incorrectly) assumed that the “soft” leadership skills aren’t as important as technical skills so the new leaders are given very little training. Considering the multiplied impact a leader has on the organization through all of the people they lead, one would think continually developing and refining people skills would be considered company priority #1 for any leader. Oddly, it isn’t.

Alright, so some of the people who get promoted into leadership don’t really want it, aren’t good at it, and don’t receive support from the company to get better. “So what if a few get promoted who aren’t good at it?” you ask. “That’s just natural selection at work, right? Some are already good at it and some are driven to learn and improve on their own. The good ones get promoted and the poor ones will fall by the wayside.” A nice thought but experience suggests otherwise.

Simply put, many poor leaders get promoted. It shouldn’t be that way, but the same silly system that promoted them into leadership the first time also lifts them up higher. It happens. They get promoted again and again because their team succeeds despite their poor leadership, because there is an opening and they are the only ones barely qualified to fill it, or because they simply stick around long enough and get promoted because of their tenure.

Human Phenomena?

At this point, a few human phenomena start to kick in. You’ve seen them in action, even if you didn’t know or remember their names.

  1. The Peter Principle. This says that when people are selected for a position based on performance in the current role vs skills and abilities needed for the new role it results in people getting promoted to their level of incompetence. In other words, people get promoted until they are in a role they are unsuited for and do not have the skills or abilities to succeed in. Notice, this generally starts with the first promotion into a leadership role.
  1. Dunning-Krueger Effect. In short, this is when the unskilled and incompetent grossly overestimate their own skill and believe they have above average ability (you’ve worked for this person, haven’t you?). The flip side of this is that the truly skilled tend to underestimate their own abilities. Or as, Bertrand Russell put it: “The trouble with the world is that the stupid are cocksure and the intelligent are full of doubt.

Couple those together and you have a leader with a lack of ability who doesn’t know they have a lack of ability. They think they do a pretty good job (after all, they keep getting promoted). AND, because they overestimate their abilities, they likely come off as confident and secure in their leadership skills, making them appear more far competent than they are and possibly leading to more promotions. Is there a possible problem here? [hint: yes]

Solutions?

So what can we do? The biggest and first solution is to simply recognize that leadership is an important and a distinctly separate skillset. Organizations expect people to spend years learning their technical skills through college, trade schools, or on-the-job experience and then expect people to be good at the unfamiliar skill set of leadership on day one. It just doesn’t happen that way.

Viewing leadership as a separate skill set, we’d do things a bit differently. We’d probably:

  1. Create technical career paths and opportunities that don’t rely on leadership roles.
  2. Identify and promote people into leadership based on their aptitude and interest in leadership. Promote for the requirements of the next job, not mastery of the current one. Many won’t be the same people who would have been promoted in the past.
  3. Provide ongoing leadership development that includes feedback from their own manager, peers, subordinates, customers, and other leaders in the organization familiar with their style. Help them understand what they’re good at and what they’re not good at. Shine the lights brightly on their blindspots. And then help them improve.
  4. Link leadership performance to job performance. One would assume a leader’s job is to be a good leader. Seems obvious, but the actual ability to deal with, develop, and get the best out of people are often evaluated as an afterthought or add on to “job” performance.

Are there difficulties and problems with this? Yes. But not as many difficulties or problems created by leaders who can’t lead (and think they can).

What are your thoughts?

[Photo Credit: colink via Compfight cc]

“that’s the way we’ve always done it” isn’t a strategy

dragging timeBusiness is at a cross-roads. Business gets done for, through, and by people. Unfortunately, the human side of business has not evolved at the pace of technology, has not kept up with changing expectations, and is anchoring business in the past.

Leadership is at a cross-roads. The dictatorial command and control philosophy so repugnant in government yet so warmly embraced by business is losing effectiveness by the day. The world is changing too fast to leave all the decision making, planning, and creativity to only a few. A pyramid shaped hierarchy simply can’t keep up, can’t respond fast enough, and is too exposed to mistakes caused by the biases of its top leaders.

Organizational and work design is at a cross-roads. Trying to do 21st Century work with models and designs developed for the 20th, 19th, and 18th centuries has its limitations.

Human Resources is at a cross-roads. Changes in technology, business philosophy, and HR’s role in the organization mean it can play an increasingly important role or be so redefined that it essentially fades away, replaced by technology and outsourcing.

People know things are changing and need to change more. If you go to conferences that have “Reinvent,” “Future,” “Evolve,” “Change,” etc. in the name you quickly find that most of the attendees are already on the same page. Even at less future-oriented presentations, I’m finding large numbers of people embracing the idea of what their field could be, of how it could create more value or better results, of the need to leave the past behind and the opportunity to redefine the future.

There are people and companies leading the way, some for decades now, showing us how the future of work could be. Showing us how today could be. But they get dismissed as a novelty (not REAL business), of having unique circumstances that couldn’t possibly work in other businesses, of being faddish. Even though real life examples abound, it’s easier to dismiss new ideas than to invest in the effort to adapt them to our own circumstances. Easier to assume that what seemed to work well enough in the past is what will work best in the future.

Would anyone ever consider “but that’s the way we’ve always done it” a legitimate reason for continuing an outdated policy? No. So why is it so easily accepted as justification for clinging to antiquated business strategies, org design, or leadership? Why is it an easy excuse for sinking into the past as competition (and the world) passes by?

We know better, don’t we?

[Photo Credit: h.koppdelaney via Compfight cc]

are you sure you want employees who think like an owner?

the bossI want employees who think like an owner.” I typically hear this from small business owners, but sometimes from managers, and I don’t fully understand it. There seems to be a myth that has owners and entrepreneurs up on a pedestal. It would make sense if being a business owner meant having the perfect mindset and approach to business, but my own experience and observation suggests otherwise.

To be clear: entrepreneurs and business owners are great – I love their ingenuity and drive – but that doesn’t mean they are without flaws, blind spots, or human frailty. Being an owner doesn’t automatically create infallibility, omniscience, or even basic common sense. [Note: if you are a business owner and reading this, clearly I’m not referring to you. You’re perfect. I’m talking about some of the other business owners out there, myself included.]

So my internal cynic starts laughing: They want people who think like an owner, huh? Does that mean they want employees like some of the owners I’ve known? They want someone who…

  • Insists on being involved in every decision and then is inaccessable for weeks at a time, forcing work to grind to a halt?
  • Maintains a very flexible schedule insists that everyone be available at any time to discuss work?
  • Takes up significant business time with personal errands? Or has an admin who spends the bulk of their time dealing with the owner’s personal errands on the company dime?
  • Puts the business at risk from family squabbles?
  • Can’t be bothered to learn the tactical parts of the business and invariably creates havoc every time they try to help a customer?
  • Has little understanding of employment laws and doesn’t get why they aren’t allowed to do whatever they want to do just because they want to do it?
  • Justifies extreme micromanaging with the thought that it’s their money and they should retain total control over it.
  • Take it as a personal slight whenever an employee quits?
  • Has so few people skills or such a hyper-dominant personality that they are basically unemployable and have to own their own business?
  • Never realizes that not everyone is willing to sacrifice family relationships or personal interests for the business as they do?
  • Inadvertently causes talented employees to go to work elsewhere because they can only get promoted so high in a family business?
  • Wants people to make their own decisions, but gets upset if they aren’t theexact same decisions the owner would have made?
  • Destroys trust and communication by being a little too good at being the “boss”?
  • Ends arguments with, “Because it’s my business and I said so!”
  • Never realize that people treat them differently solely because they are the owner?
  • Gets angry at customers and thinks customers are all trying to rip the owner off or yells at them for using a competitor.
  • Can’t fathom that a business whose managers are 90% all the same race and gender as the owner might be suffering from a lack of diversity?
  • Changes their mind minute by minute, mood swing by mood swing?
  • Views the business as a status symbol and spends large amounts of the business’ money on flashy “company” vehicles, showy offices, and designer clothes and accessories in an attempt to look successful?
  • Who are so visionary they continuously come up with big ideas and dump them on employees with little concept or regard for how feasible the ideas are. And with little memory of all the other new ideas people are still working on.
  • What else? I’m sure I missed a few of the ways owners get in the way of their business.

Is every owner and entrepreneur like this? Absolutely NOT! Business owners are just like everyone else – some are better at what they do than others and some are worse. Some businesses succeed because of the owner and some succeed despite the owner. But these are real examples from some of the business owners I’ve known throughout the years and I’m not convinced those are the traits people are wanting in employees.

When people say they want people who think like an owner I suspect they actually want people who care about the results they are creating, who have a sense of urgency, who look after details and understand the impact on the big picture, and who are generally prudent with resources. But that’s not always the same as thinking like an owner.

Be careful what you ask for.

[Photo Credit: GDS Productions via Compfight.com]

the #1 reason your company struggles with innovation

Houses the sameWhen people are free to do as they please, they usually imitate each other.” ~ Eric Hoffer

Businesses and leaders everywhere are crying out for innovation. For continual improvements and new ideas that will push the company forward before it falls behind. But there’s a problem. And it’s a problem that will prevent most innovation from ever happening.

We like to think that business is about numbers, rational decisions, and predictable results. Except that it’s not. Business is about people. Period. If there’s any doubt, simply try running a profitable business without leaders, employees, or customers. Can’t be done.

Business is about people and people are often unpredictable, irrational, and don’t really care about what spreadsheets or computer models say they should do. Although we like to think we’re rational and objective, we humans all have biases that have been deeply ingrained as survival traits over the past 50,000+ years.

I find these biases fascinating because we all make decisions every day yet rarely understand the factors behind how we decide. It doesn’t matter how smart, educated, or experienced a person is – biases exist. The best we can do is be aware of how they affect our decisions so we can counter for them. [Note: I know you and I are completely rational 100% of the time, only making decisions with precise objective reasoning and never with emotion or bias; it’s everyone else I’m talking about.]

One of the biggest but least talked about biases is known as Puttnam’s Law. I’m paraphrasing a little but this law tells us no one will fault you for conforming to status quo and “best” practices, but you will be attacked and ridiculed for having the lunatic gall to do things differently. It’s ok to fail as long as you are failing like everyone else but there is a huge social penalty for being different even (especially?) when it gets better results. There is more risk in succeeding differently than in failing like everyone else.

We humans like to divide people up into “us” vs “them” and non-conformity is one of the gravest career and social sins. Standing out a little bit is ok, standing out a lot will get you derided, discredited, or ostracized. History is full of people who were a little too far ahead of their time – revered much later but misunderstood and ridiculed while alive.

Even when people want to create and think and do different there are strong social biases rewarding conformity of thought and action. Everybody is accountable to someone and for most people in most circumstances – whether entry level or CEO – it is much less risky from a career standpoint to just try to do what everyone else is doing (only a little better) than it is to take a leap and try something different.

It’s easier to justify low performance by saying you stuck to “best practices” or used the same strategy as your competition than it is to justify low (or even better) performance by taking a chance on something new. Puttnam’s Law suggests our individual careers are better off sticking with what made us or the company successful over the last 20 years than to figure out what will create success over the next 20 (even though it’s highly likely to be different).

Does this apply to all people and all companies in all situations? No, nothing does. But it applies to enough people in enough companies in enough situations to realize how it’s holding us back.

Please note, I’m not suggesting we shouldn’t innovate or even express individuality. Quite the opposite. What I’m suggesting is that even when we want and ask for innovation and new solutions there are often factors creating counter-incentives that get in the way. Puttnam’s Law represents a huge unspoken barrier.

Do we want innovation? Absolutely. But we want it to be similar to everyone else.

The problem is, that’s sort of impossible.

[Photo credit: lucianvenutian via Compfight]

what have you done to kill innovation today?

No InnovationPeople are naturally creative and inventive. Most of it has been squeezed out of a person by the time they enter the workforce, but a little always remains. Creativity and innovation are the bane of exacting accuracy and efficiency. Trying something new or different slows things down and introduces errors and variability into processes. It flies against the virtues of the status quo and state of the art best practices.

Yet, no matter how much you insist on ruthless adherence to rules, policy, and precedent, there will always be people in your organization who find new paths. Here are a few thoughts for preventing them from disrupting your business:

Who you hire is crucial to the company’s future. If there is a preferred “type” for your organization, hire those people. Sometimes it’s pretty obvious – ethnicity and gender are easy to play to and that’s really an amateur move. A pro knows that sometimes you have to dig a bit to find what your company really values. Maybe it’s only hiring people from one or two preferred colleges. Maybe it’s a preference for a specific major or having worked for a certain competitor. Maybe it’s seeking people from a specific church or with particular social interests. Maybe it’s fashion sense or a certain hairstyle. Maybe it’s living in a certain suburb or neighborhood. Whatever it is, you’re wanting to make sure everyone is as similar as possible. Remember: any diversity (including backgrounds, thoughts, experiences, perspectives, etc.) goes hand in hand with creativity and innovation. The more that people in the organization resemble each other in every aspect, the less disruption there will be.

Foster an environment where being (or at least appearing) busy is paramount. There’s no time for thinking because thinking doesn’t look busy. If people have time to think, they don’t have enough to do.

Put policy above common sense, business sense, human decency, or anything else really. Policy exists for a reason.

Never introduce variety into the day. Even go as far as keeping the same meetings at the same times in the same locations. Every time. Don’t be tempted to skip a meeting if there’s nothing pressing and never hold it in a different location. Variety sparks creativity. Let a philosophy of sameness guide your leadership.

Questions only lead to ideas. If you do have to ask a question make sure is a yes/no question. Never ask an open ended question unless you already know the answer and it’s still best to make it an obviously leading question. Remember, you don’t actually want new answers or ideas, you only want to reinforce the ideas you already have.

Even though you never want to ask a real question, a great technique for eliminating new ideas is asking for people’s ideas and then never, ever do anything with them. This does two things: 1) it identifies your trouble makers; and 2) it subtly helps people figure out their ideas aren’t wanted and they’ll soon stop making any suggestions for improvement.

If someone has a new idea, never ever seek to understand. Obviously you don’t want new ideas – that means change and doing things in new way – so why waste time learning about something you’re never going to do? Better to show strong leadership and gently ridicule the idea. Be condescending and have pity for any person dumb enough to suggest such a thing. Then move on.

If a new idea somehow gains traction always insist that it be fully developed and perfected before being put into action. Never allow people to pilot an idea with a small group in a low risk way. Never allow an idea to be launched and improved through rapid iteration. Always insist on it being perfect from the start. If the idea somehow ever gets put into use, be sure to react strongly to any stumble and use that as a reason to neuter the idea or shut it down completely.

Benchmark your competition to make sure you are doing everything exactly the same. Obviously, the only way to get ahead of your competition is to do everything just like them. This is called “best practices” and can be used to justify any failure. As long as you fail just like everyone else, no one can ever criticize you (but fail in a different way and you’ll become everyone’s whipping boy – that’s why you don’t want to be different).

Reward tenure above all else. Even new hires will quickly understand that advancement comes from keeping your head down and agreeing with upper management. Those who do enter the company with any ambition or creativity will become immediately frustrated and soon leave. Problem solved.

Oddly, even though you obviously want unchanging status quo and unvarying efficiency, it’s trendy to talk about the importance of innovation. All businesses have to do it so they look modern. Don’t worry, it’s just lip service. Just tell your employees things like: I want you to take chances on new ideas, but you better not fail. You can espouse the need for creativity and innovation and, as long as you make it clear that it’s better to fail by doing nothing that it is to fail by doing different, nothing will ever change.

There you are. It’s not an exhaustive list, just some ideas to get you started on eliminating creativity and innovation from your team or even organization. Again, people are naturally creative so you’ll have to be persistent to create and continually reinforce a culture of consistent sameness. Good luck.

would you get inked for your company?

128px-NicksGunSo much of what is on the cutting edge of building employee engagement is really just applying well known customer service principles with employees instead of customers. Most of it is just about creating human connections and treating others at least as well as we’d want to be treated (wait, you say that’s not a new idea?).

There’s a next level though. A level of engagement where people are happy to accept less-than-the-best pay; where people would eagerly move across the country for the opportunity to be an employee; where it’s not unusual for employees to enthusiastically get tattoos of the company’s logo.

Think long and hard about that. What would it take for you to identify with your employer so strongly that you’d get inked? Heck, what would it take for you to proudly wear clothes with the company’s logo when you weren’t working (and still had clean laundry)? What are these companies doing that is so different?

I have some thoughts, but they come with the caveat that it’s just my thoughts and observations, not the results of a scientific study. I’d love to hear from people who actually work at a company that creates such an intense connection. [Two quick thoughts about the tattoos: 1) I’m just using them as a dramatic example, but there are other ways people demonstrate a strong personal connection with their employer; and 2) at least one company out there gives employees a raise if they get a logo tattoo – that’s not an example of love for the company, that’s a business transaction – and it doesn’t count.]

Creating Next Level Engagement

How could we attempt to create the kind of loyalty and love that has employees wearing their heart on their sleeve? What is so different?

Establishing Identity / Culture. These companies have a very strong identity that’s echoed throughout their culture. They don’t try to please everyone by offending no one. Rather they have a strong flavor that probably isn’t for everyone, but is loved by a few. Think “death by chocolate” ice cream to the typical corporate plain vanilla.

Valuing Individuality and Diversity. Employees are free(er) to express themselves through their clothes, appearance, desk decorations, etc. No one feels they have to conceal or downplay non-mainstream interests. No need to leave important parts of themselves at home or strap on the identity straightjacket when they come in to work.

Getting Selection Right. They use their strong identity as a first line of selection by turning off those who wouldn’t be a good fit and creating a strong attraction for those already in tune with the culture. Then they make hiring the right people a top priority instead of an afterthought and take a rigorous approach to selection.

Creating Internal Communities. Employees have fun together and intentionally build internal communities that create strong connections between employees based on common interests, company sports teams, charity work, fun runs, etc. They might also strongly encourage cross-departmental collaboration, both formal and informal such as mixed or open workspaces, eating lunch together, etc.

Encouraging Championing. This isn’t the right name, but I don’t know what else to call it. These companies want their employees on social media and vocal in the community. They are more concerned about people not sharing their passion for the company and its mission than they are about people saying the wrong thing. Yet, how many more typical companies actively smother any love their employees have for them by not trusting and discouraging/preventing people from speaking up, speaking out, and sharing their love?

Shedding Blood. People support those who support them, sacrifice for those who sacrifice for them, and shed blood for those who shed blood for them. Few things build loyalty faster than knowing the company is unquestioningly behind them when things get tough.

Celebrating the Love. These companies proudly show off their employee’s love. They have pictures of the tattoos, custom or homemade t-shirts, or whatever on the website and actively use that love to further build the brand identity and culture. Contrast that with companies that would cite the logo tattoo as being against dress code and a violation of the company’s trademark (“Did you get use of the logo approved by marketing and compliance?”)

What do you think?

I’d love to hear your ideas or examples of what these rare companies do that’s so special.

[Photo Credit: By THOR via Wikimedia Commons]

six myths of employee engagement

Slipshod assistance, foolish inattention, dowdy indifference, and half-hearted work seem the rule; and no man succeeds, unless by hook or crook or threat he forces or bribes other men to assist him.” ~ Elbert Hubbard, A Message to Garcia, 1899

Much gets said about employee engagement and little changes. Headlines shout that only 30% of employees are engaged and then try to connect that number to the economy, terrorism, climate change, Millennials, or whatever the fear of the moment is. Except that engagement, as measured by Gallup, has held very steady between 26% and 30% since they started measuring it in 2000 (Gallup). Lots of concern and money thrown at the issue and there’s very little change.

Maybe part of the problem is all the myth and hype that’s built up around it. As I look around, there are six prevalent engagement myths I routinely come across (though surely there are more).

Myth 1: Everyone knows the definition of engagement. There seem to be as many definitions as people discussing engagement and trying to find the best one is a challenge. For example, there is a 2006 SHRM (Society for Human Resource Management) publication titled “Employee Engagement and Commitment” that includes an entire page of definitions from 10 different companies. Every vendor seems to use a different definition and the average person usually thinks of engagement as synonymous with happiness, fulfillment, or job satisfaction. Some definitions are very academic, but I like simple. For me, the most useful definitions focus on a person’s discretionary effort and my own personal definition of engagement is “giving a damn”. It lacks nuance and precision but it’s stone simple and immediately understandable.

Myth 2: Engagement is about making everyone happy. Although I’m all for everyone being happy, there seems to be – at best – a loose connection between engagement and happiness. I suspect engaged people tend to be happier on the whole because they feel like their efforts matter, but I’m very skeptical of the suggestion that happiness creates engagement. People who give a damn about doing their jobs well are often irritated with anything that prevents them from being at their best. They’re mad because they care and that’s very different than being happily indifferent.

Myth 3: Work ethic is dead (kids these days). There are a lot of fingers being pointed at the Millennial generation and a lot of talk about how different they are. It’s easy to talk about how things were when we were young and lament the death of the old fashioned work ethic. Consider the possibility that the “old fashioned” work ethic we romanticize and get all misty-eyed nostalgic over never existed. For a bit of perspective, read A Message to Garcia, written in 1899 to see what the author thought of the work ethic back then (spoiler: it was pretty bad). Or just think about it this way: if we have a five generation workforce and 70% of the workforce is disengaged and that holds steady over time since before Gen Y was a strong presence in the workforce, it can’t be about generation.

Myth 4: $$$ = Engagement. I hear managers complain that they can’t motivate or get their employees engaged because they don’t control wages. It does seem like increasing pay would increase engagement, but the research of Fredrick Herzberg and others suggests otherwise. Money creates lots of things but it doesn’t seem to cause people to give a damn over the long haul. Yes, being underpaid is demotivating and disengagning, but being overpaid doesn’t fuel superengagment.

Consider yourself as an example. I’m going to assume that if you’re reading this post you’re a pretty engaged person and you care about the results you’re creating in your life and at your job. Do you give your all right now? Do you do an honest day’s work? Are you consistently considered a high performer? (Yes!) If your company doubled your pay could you create double the results you do now? Would you do twice as honest of a day’s work? Would you give your all twice as much? No, it’s not possible.

Flip this around and think about that actively disengaged toxic co-worker dragging the team down (you know who I’m talking about). Would paying them more change their personality, work ethic, or the amount they cared about the results they are creating? Exactly. [NOTE: I’m not saying people shouldn’t be paid more, I’m saying that increasing wages above market rate won’t magically cure disengagement.]

Myth 5: Engagement is a survey, program, or initiative. Lots of times HR or management focuses on measuring engagement with surveys or doing a program to increase engagement. That’s fine as long as everyone remembers that engagement is NOT a number from a survey and doing a program doesn’t necessarily equal engaged employees.

Engagement isn’t posters, slogans, training, or perks.  All those things have their place but all the dry cleaning, free soda, and foosball tables in the world won’t make people care more about their jobs. And, hopefully it’s not a surprise, but different people are, well, different. There is no one-size-fits-all when it comes to engagement. Oh, and people sometimes put their happy face on when taking surveys and don’t respond with their true thoughts and feelings (shocker!).

MYTH 6: Engagement is only an HR issue. This ties back to the myth that engagement is a survey or program. Disengagement is branded a “people problem” and handed to HR as though engagement is a thing that is separate from the business.  Engagement is not something that can be delegated to a specific department. It’s not something we can purchase. Engagement is not separate from the business and it’s not separate from the people. Business gets done for, through, and by people so engagement is a BUSINESS issue through and through. People touch every aspect of business so people problems affect business results.

What if the whole idea of engagement is simply a well-meaning red herring? What if it’s not the real problem at all? What if it’s an indication of something bigger and we’ve been treating symptoms rather than the real issue?

Stay tuned for more on this. Next time we’ll look at some things we can do and something that might be more useful to focus on than engagement. In the meantime, I’d love to hear your thoughts and experience in the comments.

[NOTE: this post is based on part of my presentation What if Employee Engagement Actually Mattered?]