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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“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]

what if it’s not about employee engagement?

Work SucksEmployee engagement is a HUGE issue. But… maybe the problem is we’re focused on the wrong thing. Maybe disengagement is a symptom and we keep trying to fix people rather than addressing the underlying causes. Maybe it’s not as hard as we think. Maybe it’s not even really about engagement.

What if it’s about the employee experience?

Computer programmers place a big emphasis on creating a great user experience. They call it UX and know if the user experience is poor, people will stop being users and go find better software. Marketing and sales folks spend time fretting over the customer experience (aka CX). They know that customers will stop being customers if the experience is too difficult. UX and CX are huge issues and are given considerable attention.

Companies are slowly (oh, so slowly) catching on to the idea that they are competing for candidates. Talented candidates have options and if the application process is too painful, they’ll immediately go somewhere else. So, we’re hearing more and more about the candidate experience.

But we don’t hear much being said about the employee experience (call it EX). EX is made up of all the things that help or get in the way of employees getting their work done: management, their supervisor, rules and policies, work processes, work environment, culture, co-workers, etc. Does their daily work experience make them feel frustrated, angry, defeated, or hopeless? Or do they feel empowered, responsible, supported, and valued?

This is not just a human issue, not just an engagement issue, this is a business issue. Business gets done for, through, and by people and it’s been said that the customer experience never exceeds the employee experience. It’s a simple formula: CX<EX. How a company thinks about and treats its employees has a direct impact on how employees think about and treat customers which has a direct impact on how customers thing about and treat the company which has a direct impact on business results. In short:

Employee Experience >>> Customer Experience >>> Customer Behavior >>> $ (or not)

If you were going to improve the employee experience, what would you do? Here are a few ideas:

1. Start where you are with what you have (and stop digging). It’s easy to think of engagement as being too complicated or someone else’s problem. It’s easy to think it’s only for the VP of HR to worry about or that you can’t do anything because you’re not Zappos or Google. But the truth is, we can all make a difference in whatever organization we’re in.

Think about it this way: Are there things that you personally could do right-now-today that you know are 100% guaranteed to cause a terrible employee experience or spread disengagement throughout the company? (Yes!) If you have the power to have a negative impact, you also have the ability to have a positive impact. And if you know the things that make it worse the obvious strategy is: Don’t do that.

There’s an old saying: when you find yourself in a hole, stop digging. If you’re fighting against disengagement, creating an award winning workplace is a fantastic goal, but the first step is to simply stop doing things that create a terrible employee experience and cause disengagement. Don’t worry about making it better (yet), just quit making it worse.

2. Recruit and hire like it matters. If you want engaged employees – people who give a damn about results – start by hiring engaged people. Recruit, select, and hire people as though the future success of the company depends on it (hint: it does).

The software company Valve is a great example of an organization that truly understands the importance that hiring the right people has on business results. From their employee handbook: Hiring well is the most important thing in the universe. Nothing else comes close. It’s more important than breathing. So when you’re working on hiring… everything else you could be doing is stupid and should be ignored!

3. Invest time, money, and resources into developing people. This is kind of a big deal. People who care about their results tend to enjoy new challenges and hate stagnating. They want to learn, grow, develop and won’t stand for watching life pass them by or resigning themselves to a career where every day is the same. You hired great people, help them continue to be great. Oh, and the world is changing quickly. If your people aren’t developing new knowledge and skills every year, your company is sinking into the past.

4. Pay attention to culture. We’ve been told, “Culture eats strategy for lunch.” and that sounds really impressive, but what is culture? The best definition is comes fromTerry Deal and Allan Kennedy: culture is the way things get done around here. Beliefs, policies, values, rules, unspoken norms, etc. all manifest in how things get done. So when it’s said that culture eats strategy, it doesn’t mean strategy is unimportant, it means that how you do things (the culture) must be in line with and support what you want to do (the strategy).

Likewise engagement efforts can be completely supported – or devoured – by culture. Do you have the culture you want? Does how you do things support people being fully engaged and at their best or does it shut people down?

5. Get rid of stupid policies. Speaking of how we do things around here… Stupid policies prevent people from doing good work, degrade the employee experience, and get in the way of results. They are generally the result of two situations: 1) someone did something dumb once and a policy was created rather than dealing with the situation and treating it like the anomaly it was; or 2) a policy was created to address a once valid situation that is no longer important, relevant, or valid.

Do something radical. Find out which policies are causing frustration and preventing people from getting their work done, then change or destroy those policies.

[Check out the book Kill the Company by Lisa Bodell for more thoughts on eliminating stupid policies.]

6. Provide employees with good managers. It’s said that people leave managers, not companies. Managers make or break the employee experience by making people feel supported and valued, bringing out their best and challenging them to be even better. Or NOT. Leading is a tough job most managers simply haven’t been prepared to do.

People usually get promoted into management because they’re good at the technical parts of their job and then are suddenly expected to be able to lead people. And it’s just not that easy. Leading is a distinct and completely separate skillset and like all skills it has to be fostered and developed.

If engagement and the employee experience is important and if managers can destroy them, then it makes sense to intentionally develop great managers and provide the support they need to make good decisions and do great work. Actually, if you did nothing else, having managers who don’t destroy engagement daily will provide tons of bang for the buck (bonus if they can actually build engagement).

7. Value people. This is at the heart of everything we’re discussing. This doesn’t mean everyone gets a trophy and it doesn’t mean coddling poor performance. And it REALLY doesn’t mean hollow, insincere lip service to “our employees are our greatest asset.” But it might mean believing and acting as though people matter. It might mean a bit of gratitude, a touch of understanding, a tiny amount of empathy, and the sense that the company cares about the individual. All employees will have joyous, painful, exhilarating, scary, and very human moments both at work and home. How the company, team, and leaders react tells people all they need to know about how they are valued. Few things will cause a person to disengage quicker than realizing no one cares.

So what’s it all mean?

Ultimately, improving engagement and the employee experience isn’t about improving a survey score, it’s not magic, it’s not a program, and it’s much bigger than HR. It’s about doing things that support your employees and managers at being their best and eliminating the things that cause them to stop caring.

Sounds easy. Sounds simple. Yet very, very few companies have it figured out.

[Photo credit: michelhrv via Compfight]

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?]

whose policy is it, anyway?

Had a great conversation the other night with a friend about making organizations flatter and removing the barriers to people doing great work. It’s easy for me to get pretty excited and idealistic about the shift I see happening in companies and the future of work. I was brought down to earth with the memory of a silly process that stayed in place because it existed but no one knew who was responsible for it.

Several years ago a CFO complained about a form used by his accounting department to track training expenses. It was intended to make sure that employees weren’t going on some sort of training spending spree (does that happen?) by requiring several levels of approval before they were able to attend the training.

The reality was NO ONE filled it out in advance. They only completed it when accounting started calling well after the fact and insisting on it to justify the expenses. Plus, it applied equally to all “training” from attending a lunch at a professional organization to a multiple day program across the country. And, many of the people who had to fill it out had company credit cards and discretionary funds – I suspect they simply got around completing the form by not calling it “training”.

So here was the CFO griping that he had to complete a form that he thought was ridiculous and stupid. Although it was a training form, it never passed through anyone responsible for training so it was a form that only his department used. Think about that again. His department’s form. He thinks it’s stupid. He could kill it on the spot. But rather than risk eliminating it (who would protest?), he complained and let it continue. I’ve no doubt he is still complaining about it today.

Stories like that make me think the organization of the future is just a little bit further away than I want to imagine.

What thinks you?