Workplace

Our Crisis of Trust at Work
Our Crisis of Trust at Work 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

As I’ve talked to leaders and managers over the past weeks, the two biggest issues on their minds have been supporting remote work and the “return to the office” plan. The general feeling I get from most I talk to is that they believe remote working is temporary, and they are expecting (or at least their leadership team is) to simply roll out some kind of plan that brings everyone back to the office relatively soon. A nice tidy return to normal.

Not.

Going.

To.

Happen.

The past two months have changed things more than you think. It’s laid bare some major issues that were already present in most workplaces, simmering just below the surface.

A storm is brewing. And I think it could be a pretty big one.

When offices started shutting down, it caused all kinds of chaos–particularly for managers and leaders who were firmly in the camp of “remote work could never work for us.” There was great concern about how to supervise these newly remote employees in order to make sure they were doing work.

Sure, there was also some concern for the employee’s wellbeing, but the broader concern was about productivity. People made jokes about employees watching Netflix, doing laundry, or parenting their children instead of working. Some organizations started making people log their hours. Others started hunting for ways to monitor if, when, and how much employees were working at home. They rationalized this as management and supervision necessity.

Thing is, none of this is about productivity. It’s actually about trust.

Trust at Work–Or the Lack Thereof

If your management team has spent much time worrying about if your employees are putting in enough hours or if they are actually working at home, you don’t trust your employees. If you did, you’d realize that they care about their jobs, and despite a bunch of new challenges, they are finding a way to get their work done. It won’t look like it has in the past, but they are getting it done.

Based on what I’ve been hearing from employers, that’s exactly what’s happening. Regardless of how well you are or are not supporting your remote employees, they are getting work done, often while caring for and educating their children and dealing with other big challenges.

The truth is that your ability to make remote work successful has less to do with technology or policy or process than it does how much you have trust in your people. Managers who assume the worst of employees and who have grown up in the “butts in seats” model of management are struggling mightily right now. Their employees always knew they weren’t really trusted but it’s now more painfully obvious than ever.

Managers who assume the worst of employees and who have grown up in the “butts in seats” model of management are struggling mightily right now.

Trust is always important to a successful working relationship, but it is vital when the relationship is “long distance.” If your organization had behaved in a way to earn employees’ trust before you sent them home, you are likely doing just fine with remote work. If you are struggling, that’s not good news when it comes to trust.

And the news gets worse. They probably don’t trust you either.

Up until two months ago, a lot of organizations had been telling employees that working from home, even for a day or two a week, was simply not possible. There were a lot of excuses made: security, technology, etc. It didn’t matter how much working remotely would improve the work-life for the employee.  The answer was always the same.

No.

Then along came a pandemic and within days, what was once impossible became possible. Remote work was enabled out of necessity and the charade was over.

Employees now know that working from home is not only possible but that they can make it work even when they are confined to their home or apartment with partners and children, even when charged with schooling their children at the same time. On top of that, they have learned that they may even enjoy working from home and find they actually be more productive over sitting in a cubicle.

Working in the office wasn’t exactly a paradise for everyone.  Remember, Gallup tells us we were only fully engaging about a third of our staff before this all happened. Being out of the office for a few months may have been a welcome respite for some.

You can’t blame the employee for being skeptical. If remote working is so easily possible despite being told the contrary for so long, what else isn’t true?

When their leaders send out the message suggesting it’s time to “come back to work” in the office, there will be skepticism and uncertainty. When the organization assures them that it’s safe and that they are taking every precaution, it would be hard to blame the employee if they don’t believe the message and push back.

From their perspective, leadership may feel less trustworthy than ever and they know that working remotely works. Why would they be asked to put their lives and safety at risk for no apparent reason other than “getting back to normal”?

A standoff is in the making. It’s a standoff born from our crisis of trust. 

Management doesn’t trust employees to work from home. And employees don’t trust management enough to come back to the office. Sure, employees can be forced to come back, but at what cost?

I am aware that this scenario is cynical and doesn’t represent every case. There are companies out there who have done a great job building and maintaining trust throughout this pandemic. For example, Twitter just made a big move to allow employees to make the decision about coming back to the office (maybe never). This is what trust at scale looks like.

But there are many more examples of the contrary. The violation of trust around the viability of remote working feels pretty minor compared to things like Uber using a 3 minute Zoom call to tell 3,500 people they no longer have jobs. Jobs are being slashed to save profit margins, inequity is being amplified, and people are watching. If trust wasn’t already lacking in these organizations, it is gone now.

This didn’t happen overnight. Trust has been on the decline around the world for several years. A scan of the Edelman Trust Barometer research reinforces that this isn’t a new issue.

Trust has been on the decline around the world for several years.

And the really inconvenient truth is that trust takes time (months or years) to build and seconds to break.

What Does All of This Mean About Trust at Work?

There are so many things happening so fast, that it’s been hard to know where to focus. My goal in writing this post is to help you focus on what really matters. If you aren’t talking with managers and leaders about trust and building trust with employees right now, move it to the top of your list.

Essential employees on the front lines need to trust that everything is being done to prioritize their safety and the safety of customers. They need to trust that you care about them more than a couple of extra dollars.

Work-from-home employees need to know that you trust them to figure out how to get work done. And that you wouldn’t ask them to put their lives or wellbeing at risk unnecessarily. Remote working isn’t going anywhere. It appears that we may be dealing with this virus into 2022. Even if it is resolved sooner than that, remote work isn’t going anywhere now that the people know what’s possible. A recent IBM study of 25,000 people revealed that 54 percent of those surveyed want remote work to remain their primary way of working. And 70 percent want it to at least be an option for them in the future.

It’s never too late to start building trust. Now is the right time.

While I’m not going to try to give you a comprehensive class on trust-building here, I’ll point you to one of the best resources available: The Speed of Trust by Stephen M. R. Covey. This book provides some of the most actionable insights into trust building that I’ve found including a list of behaviors that build trust.  Below are a few to help you get started.

  1. Clarify expectations. Uncertainty is everywhere right now. One way to remove some of that uncertainty and foster trust is to work with employees to outline and document crystal clear expectations for their job performance. Make sure your employees can clearly articulate not only what work product is expected of them, but also “how” you expect them to work in the home environment. If you have expectations for responsiveness or availability, those need to be very clearly communicated. Even if the employee disagrees with the expectation, making it explicit and clear will help preserve trust in the relationship.
  2. Listen first. Don’t assume you know what an employee is dealing with. Coach managers to do frequent check-ins where they spend much of that time asking questions and listening actively to what the employee says. A quick way to lose trust is to jump to conclusions about what an employee feels or what they need. To build trust, ask meaningful questions and really listen to what you hear. Then use that valuable insight to provide the support they need.
  3. Extend trust. This is one of the most powerful, albeit counter-intuitive, means of building trust. When you demonstrate that you trust someone, it makes them more likely to trust you in return. This reciprocal nature of trust has been proven through research and it works. My rule of thumb as a leader has always been to trust people more than they expect. In a vast majority of cases, the person responds by being even more trustworthy than I expected.

In my opinion, the organizations that are most effective at building and maintaining trust will be those that emerge from the pandemic and economic downturn in the best shape, positioned to thrive in the future.

 

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My Birthday Wish for 2020
My Birthday Wish for 2020 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Today is my birthday.

As a kid, birthdays feel like such a big deal. Everyone seems to know it’s your birthday. There are parties and gifts. They even make it a big deal at school.

Everyone seems to be nicer to you on your birthday.

There’s also the birthday tradition of blowing out the candles on your cake—a tradition both magical and potentially humiliating (no one wants to be the kid who doesn’t get them all out).

The magic is in the birthday wish.

Being invited to make a wish is so cool when you are young. Wishing is without boundaries; it’s a creative space where you can ask for whatever you desire the most. A wish is a peek into what is important to us—what we long for the most.

Making that wish was always fun and exciting.

I don’t think I’ve been wishing enough lately. Today feels like a good day to do something about that.

Since it’s likely that my family will present me with a candle to blow out at some point today, I decided to make my wish now.  And, unlike when I was a kid, I’m going violate protocol to share my wish with you because I’ve found when you share your wishes with others, they are far more likely to come true.

Wishes can become shared vision, and that can shape our actions and decisions. When we share our wishes with others, they become more possible.

My wish is a big one and it’s connected to my work. Actually, if I’m totally honest, I had two birthday wishes. As a lifelong San Francisco 49ers football fan, I was really hoping for a Super Bowl win for my birthday. We didn’t light any candles at our party on Sunday, so I’m blaming that (and a brilliant performance by the Kansas City Chiefs) for my first wish not coming true.

My second wish is less selfish.

I wish for a day when two things are true.

First, I wish for a day when anyone who goes to work to earn a paycheck can earn a living wage by working full-time in one job. If you aren’t familiar with what a living wage is or why it’s important, you are lucky. Living wage is very different than minimum wage. Living wage is what it sounds like: the wage you need to live (survive might be a better word). It’s enough income to allow you and those dependents who rely on you to maintain a standard of living that prevents you from falling into poverty.

Today in the United States, there are far too many people who work really hard, many times in multiple jobs, only to fall short of having enough money to pay for the basics (food, shelter, basic care needs, etc.). Despite their best efforts, they aren’t able to earn a living wage.

Here’s a quote from Martha Ross at the Brookings Institution from a recent issue of the Wall Street Journal:

“Despite a recent uptick in wages and a low unemployment rate, tens of millions of Americans earn barely enough to live on.”

Given the incredible economic opportunity in this country, it’s heartbreaking that so many people have to face reality. This isn’t an easy or simple problem to address, but I believe it can be solved. And I wish for a day when it will be.

The second part of my wish is that everyone who “goes to work” each day, whatever that looks like, leaves at the end of each day/night/shift feeling more whole and not less. Far too many people today leave work each day feeling overlooked, unappreciated, frustrated, stressed, silenced, even abused. This has dire consequences far beyond work.

When this is the case, workplaces are sending people back into their lives depleted, depressed, and sometimes angry. This has ripple effects because these same people are parents, spouses, friends, and neighbors. When work is depleting you, it’s those important relationships outside of work that usually bear the brunt of it.

Below is an excerpt from a wonderful 2010 article titled “How Will You Measure Your Life?” by MBA Professor Clayton Christensen in the Harvard Business Review that describes this same issue through a different lens:

“I tell the students about a vision of sorts I had while I was running the company I founded before becoming an academic. In my mind’s eye I saw one of my managers leave for work one morning with a relatively strong level of self-esteem. Then I pictured her driving home to her family 10 hours later, feeling unappreciated, frustrated, underutilized, and demeaned. I imagined how profoundly her lowered self-esteem affected the way she interacted with her children. The vision in my mind then fast-forwarded to another day, when she drove home with greater self-esteem—feeling that she had learned a lot, been recognized for achieving valuable things, and played a significant role in the success of some important initiatives. I then imagined how positively that affected her as a spouse and a parent. My conclusion: Management is the most noble of professions if it’s practiced well. No other occupation offers as many ways to help others learn and grow, take responsibility and be recognized for achievement, and contribute to the success of a team.”

Work can be an experience that fills us up and makes it whole. I’ve seen it. I’ve lived it. It’s possible. There is nothing about work inherently that requires it to suck or to feel like a burden. These are choices made by leaders, managers, and people every day.

We can do better. If you are in management or leadership, your hands are already on the wheel to steer the experience of others in a more positive way. But we all play a role.

Every day, we should think about the impact we make on those around us. Even when the work environment isn’t the best, we can challenge ourselves to be part of making it better instead of becoming part of the problem. Be a light in the darkness. Be the first ripple of positivity that might become a wave.

What would it look like if work was a common source of joy in the world? I’d love to find out.

There it is. Jason’s Birthday Wish for 2020. Thank you for indulging me in this exercise. Just writing this has fanned the flames of hope inside of me that maybe, just maybe, this is indeed possible.

As I wrap this up, I’d urge you to spend a little more time wishing (and dreaming). Allow yourself some moments to envision a future filled with the things that matter most to you. Give yourself permission to play around with ideas that have no boundaries or limitations.

Then when you are ready, share those wishes and dreams with others. You might find that you are closer to your wishes coming true than you think.

 

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What Does It Mean to Be “Human” at Work? 
What Does It Mean to Be “Human” at Work?  150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Over the past few years, it is becoming more common and popular to talk about being human at work. We talk about designing work to work for humans. We invite people to bring their “whole selves” to work. There are even disciplines like wellbeing that are focused on helping people be better and healthier whole humans.

The discussion about making work human sounds great in theory. But I’m not sure we’re always clear on what it means. Sometimes it feels like we invoke “human” as more of a marketing catchphrase then as a true and clear intention.

Today, I wanted to provide some clarity from my perspective about the things we should keep top of mind when we strive to make work a more human experience.

On behalf of humans, here are a few things you should know about us.

What Organizations Should Know About Being Human at Work

We want to succeed. Failing sucks. Falling short of expectations sucks. Being a disappointment to anyone we count on sucks. Given a choice, we will always choose to be successful. If we aren’t getting it done today or if we are consistently falling short of what you expect, it’s not what we’d prefer. We’d rather be succeeding, but there’s probably something in our way, and we need your help to remove it.

We are scared. Life is hard and complicated. We need our job to stay afloat, and we want to be fully committed, but we’ve had bad experiences in the past with incompetent and uncaring bosses. We’ve been mistreated and undervalued. We may even have been laid off or fired. We aren’t sure we can trust you. When we’ve trusted employers in the past, they’ve often let us down.

When we’ve trusted employers in the past, they’ve often let us down.

We are weird. Each one of us is unique and unlike anyone you’ve ever met before. When you expect us to behave and talk and think just like you or everyone else, it hurts us in places you can’t see. We’ve had experiences you can’t imagine. As a result, the world looks very different to each one of us, and that means we have a perspective and ideas you will likely never have.

We are emotional. Like it or not, humans are emotional beings. Deal with it. How we feel determines how we show up each day. You may not want to hear about our feelings, but they are always present. They affect (and power) our work. When things happen at work, we are going to react emotionally. We aren’t robots. Because we care about our work and the people we do it with, when we fail or have conflict, it leaves us feeling kind of gross. If you could acknowledge that and work with us through the emotion, we’d definitely do better work.

We are flawed. As much as we may pretend or you may want us to be perfect, we aren’t. We are messy, complicated, flawed creatures. We will make mistakes, under-communicate, listen poorly, jump to conclusions, and forget things. The more we try to be perfect, the more those flaws show up. So it’s probably best to make it safe to be imperfect and to be forgiving when we mess up. We’ll do the same for you.

We have dreams. Every one of us has something we dream about. It might be a job or career aspirations, but often it’s not. We want to own a home, finish college, go on vacation, buy a motorcycle, or travel to see our grandkids more often. These dreams are what matter to us. If you want to know how to get us fired up about work, learn about our goals and show us how our work is a vehicle to make them happen.

If you want to know how to get us fired up about work, learn about our goals and show us how our work is a vehicle to make them happen.

We want to be loved. Regardless of who we are, every one of us craves the experience of feeling truly cared for and loved by other people. And that’s just as true at work as it is everywhere else in our lives. This drive is so powerful that it makes us do some silly things sometimes. We can’t help it. Show us some love.

We want to know we matter. Perhaps we should realize the impact of our work without being told. Maybe we do, but we still want to know that someone else noticed. We need reminders that who we are and what we do matters to others. That might be inconvenient to you if you are my manager, but if you are honest with yourself, you feel the same way.

The Bottom Line to Being Human at Work

Humans are amazing and complex. If we are to create work experiences where employees can be at their best and fully engaged, you have to make room for all of the messiness and complexity.

This list isn’t comprehensive or complete. But hopefully, it can serve as a way to check in with yourself or your organization about how well you are accommodating and supporting humans in being more…human…at work.

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5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work
5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I am a podcast junkie.

I struggle to find as much time to read as I’d like. But podcasts have helped me feed (or distract) my brain in times when I can’t read but I can listen (walking the dog, running, doing yard work, etc.). I love them.

That said, I don’t only listen to brain-nourishing podcasts about work and success, etc. I also love great true crime podcasts, but that isn’t what I’m here to write about today.

Over the course of the past several years, there have been some specific podcast episodes that really interrupted my thinking and challenged me to think differently about some aspect of work and life.

Most of these episodes introduced me to a person, idea, or body of work that became important in some way to my continued learning and the evolution of my own work.

So, for those of you who love podcasts, I thought I’d share these with you. For those of you who don’t listen to podcasts, seriously? It’s time. And these would be a great place to start.

  1. Podcast: Invisibilia. Episode: Emotions. Invisibilia is one of my favorite podcasts overall. I don’t think they’ve made an episode I haven’t enjoyed. But, this particular episode really left a mark on me. In it, they highlight the work of neuroscientist, Lisa Feldman Barrett. In short, it will challenge everything you think you know about where emotions come from.  I also found the episode titled Reality to be really thought-provoking.
  2. Podcast: Freakanomics Radio. Episode: People Aren’t Dumb, the World Is Hard. In my opinion, behavioral economics may be the most important field of research when it comes to fixing work (and a lot of things). And, one of the most important and accessible experts in that field is Nobel Prize Winner, Richard Thaler, who is interviewed in this episode.   If you aren’t familiar yet with behavioral economics, this interview is a great way to whet your appetite.
  3. Podcast: Revisionist History. Episode: The Big Man Can’t Shoot. This one of Malcolm Gladwell’s podcasts. I am a fan of all things Gladwell. This particular episode is about basketball players Rick Barry and Wilt Chamberlain. It’s a thought-provoking piece about conformity and the power of social norms. It’s also an example of why behavioral economics is so crucial to help us understand why humans do such irrational things.
  4. Podcast: Hidden Brain. Episode: Life, Death and The Lazarus Drug: Confronting America’s Opioid Crisis. There are several reasons to listen to this podcast. We all need a deeper understanding of the opioid crisis and this will give you another perspective. More than that, it’s an exploration of unintended consequences. This episode really had an impact on me and left me pondering how thoughtful we need to be when trying to solve big problems.
  5. Podcast: Against the Rules. Episode: Ref, You Suck. This is a project from Michael Lewis, author of Money Ball and Liar’s Poker. It’s an exploration of implications of living in a time when the referee’s in our life (those whose job it is to ensure fairness) are under attack. I’m recommending this episode because it’s the first one. But really, I’m recommending listening to the whole series. If you are like me, you’ll be left feeling both unsettled and motivated to do something by the end of the season.

The list could go on, but these are the best of the best in my opinion. I have linked to the show pages here, but they should all be available wherever you get your podcasts.

Please let me know what you think of these.

And if you have any episodes or podcasts that have profoundly impacted your thinking, please share them in the comments of this post. I’m always on the lookout for great ones.

Enjoy!

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How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work?
How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

When I was 14 years old, my dad quit his job. It was a job he’d had since I was born.

He didn’t quit because he’d accepted another job. He quit because his boss asked him to compromise his integrity.

Let me explain.

As a cattle buyer, my dad’s customers were the farmers and ranchers who lived within driving distance of our home. He’d known many of these people for a decade or longer. This was a business that ran on relationships and trust. Deals are made with one’s word and a handshake. Contracts come later, but they were really just a formality.

One cold winter morning, dad had made a deal to buy some cattle from a customer based on the information he’d been given at the start of the day. When he called in the deal to his boss, he was told that he needed to go back to the customer with a different, lower-buy price. In other words, my dad was told to go back on his word.

It’s important to note that my dad really disliked his boss. Thirty years later, I still remember the guy’s name because Dad had talked so much about him when I was growing up (and not in a good way).

Instead of going back on his word with his customer, he called my mom to tell her to get ready to drive the 150 miles on slick, icy roads to pick him up because he was going to turn in his car and quit his job.

There was no backup plan. A line had been crossed. Dad could put up with working for an a-hole, but his integrity wasn’t for sale.

The following weeks were a little crazy. My mom’s desire for stability and low risk meant that her stress level went through the roof. I thought for sure our family was going to move out of state, so I was preparing mentally for that reality.

But then he found another job locally where he could do what he was good at, make similar money, and be much happier.

For those who know me well, this story probably helps explain a few things about why I think about work in some of the ways that I do. There are so many lessons that I took and internalized from this experience.

  • Never compromise your integrity. Your word is everything.
  • Bad bosses cause a negative ripple effect at home.
  • Quitting your job is never fatal. Things will work out.
  • Change is good.

These lessons, probably because of my age, became part of me. They are deeply ingrained into how I have approached and thought about work throughout my career. Fortunately for me, the lessons were all good ones that have helped guide me in a pretty remarkable way.

I started thinking about this recently after listening to a podcast episode of Sacred Conversations on Work. The podcast is hosted by Carol Ross, a colleague and really wonderful coach, and her guest is my friend Sara Martin Rauch, COO of WELCOA.

Much of the episode is about how Sara’s experience of watching what a terrible job did to accelerate her dad’s addiction, abuse, and other destructive behavior. She found her calling to do the work she does today in part because she lived through that trauma and turmoil and wanted to prevent it from happening to others.  It’s a powerful story. I recommend you check out the episode.

So what?

On an individual level, to find our way to a healthy relationship with work, we need to understand what we are bringing to the table. If one of your parents was fired or laid off when you were a kid, you might have some trust issues with any employer. If a parent was harassed or demeaned regularly by their manager, you might carry some pretty negative baseline emotions about managers in general.

I sometimes wonder in what ways I am biasing my kids’ perception of what work is. As far as my kids know, “work” means sitting on the couch in your pajamas, typing on your laptop, or going to the airport to fly someplace and speak to people. It also means no boss. They might have a tough time joining the traditional working world.

I’d encourage you to spend some time reflecting on your memories of what work meant for your parents as you grew up. What stories do you remember? What impact did your parents’ jobs have in your life? By being aware of these things, it might help you either navigate around negative mindsets or lean into the lessons that are more positive. It might even help you identify a barrier that’s been preventing you from getting farther ahead in your career.

As a manager, it is always valuable to know more about your people. Every single person on your team has some biases and mindsets about work that they didn’t chose but learned through what they observed growing up. This can be either positive or negative. In either case, it’s good to know because it impacts how they will experience work and you as their leader.

On occasion, asking your people about when and where they grew up can lead to a conversation about their parents. Don’t push if they don’t want to talk about it, but people are often very open to sharing their story. Listen closely when they do and ask them what they think they learned about work from watching their parents.

So, how did your parents’ work experience shape how you feel about work today?  

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“Thank you for firing me” (A Reminder That Employee Engagement Is Hard Work)
“Thank you for firing me” (A Reminder That Employee Engagement Is Hard Work) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

This weekend, while at a beer garden with my wife during our community’s summer festival, I ran into someone I hadn’t seen in years.

When I first saw him, we chatted for a few minutes, and I learned that he’d just moved his family to our town and that he has a new baby.  I welcomed him to our community, and we went our separate ways.

A little bit later, he found me again.

When Getting Fired Works for the Best

He opened up the second conversation by saying, “I just wanted to let you know that getting fired was the best thing that ever happened to me.”

By the way, I was the one who fired him.

He proceeded to tell me how after getting fired, he’d gotten a lot of things figured out in his life. He’d found a job at a startup that he loved. He’d gotten out of a bad relationship, which had freed him up to meet his wife. Life was good.

He was saying thank you.

He said he remembered that I’d told him the day he was fired he should find something he loves to do.

It was a strange but cool moment. I was happy for him. He is a smart, funny, likable guy who we hired into the wrong role. And there wasn’t anything that either of us could have done at the time to fix it.

Other than parting ways. It was the best decision for all parties involved.

Have You Ever Been Grateful to Be Fired?

This interaction got me thinking about my own experiences. I’ve been fired (or at least invited to leave) a couple of times in my career. And ironically, I count those among the best things that have happened to me in my career.

Perhaps using myself as an example here is a bad idea because I am admittedly not cut out to be an employee. I’ve struggled with it throughout my entire career—which is part of the reason I do what I do today.

But it highlights something about the work of creating an engaging work experience for your team.

This isn’t easy work.

Each individual has unique characteristics and motivations that affect what they need to perform at their best. To unlock their fullest potential at work requires they crack that code for each person and make room for them to bring their fullest, best contribution to work.

This requires really getting to know your people and helping them to get to know themselves. It’s about using that knowledge to create a work experience that enables them to be at their best. I dedicate an entire section of my book to this work which I call “Performance Cultivation.”

Employee Engagement Starts With Hiring the Right Person for the Job

Another thing my interaction at the beer garden reminded me of is that engagement starts with hiring.

This person who I had to fire probably should not have been hired in the first place. Looking back on it, I remember the internal discussion about this hiring decision. I even distinctly remember having a concern that he didn’t really want to do the kind of work we were hiring him to do.

As a team, we rationalized our way into making the hiring decision. We convinced ourselves that it would all work out even though there were clear warning signs upfront that it probably wasn’t going to work. And it played out exactly as we could have predicted.

Take great care in who you invite onto your team.

Finally, this chance encounter reminded me that the work of employee engagement isn’t all sunshine and rainbows. Often, it’s about having tough conversations to clarify expectations or share unpleasant feedback. Sometimes it’s about making tough decisions to fire a person you like because keeping a person in the wrong job isn’t good for them or anyone else around them.

This chance encounter was a good reminder of a lot of things. Mostly that engagement isn’t easy, but it’s always worth it.

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Are Employees Responsible for Their Own Engagement?
Are Employees Responsible for Their Own Engagement? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

There’s an interesting “chicken or the egg” debate going on regarding employee engagement. Maybe you’ve had some version of this discussion within your own organization.

Who is responsible for employee engagement? 

  • Is it the employer/manager/leader’s job to engage employees?
  • Or is it the responsibility of the employee to BE engaged?

It reminds me of my time as an executive recruiter (i.e., headhunter) back in the late nineties.

My niche was technology sales professionals. It was a competitive market for recruiters at the time. Every big technology company had openings, and the salespeople knew they were valuable.

Being a recruiter is like being a matchmaker. It’s about finding and pairing the right people together for a happy relationship.

I realized early on that to find success in this role meant diving deep into understanding the organization, the role, and the situation surrounding the position they were looking to fill. Only with a deep understanding of these things could I find the right match.

These matches were critical to my financial success. The way we worked, I was only paid if they hired one of my candidates. And if that person left before the end of a guaranty period (typically three to six months), I’d have to either replace the new hire or refund the fee.

The bottom line is that I became really skilled at understanding the employer’s side of the equation. At first, I saw this as a way to find someone who could thrive in the organization. But I realized in time that what I was doing more often was something different.

As I asked questions of my clients to understand their culture and work environment, I began to see dysfunction everywhere: bad management, poor work environment, sketchy comp plans, and much more.

It became increasingly clear that making a good match was less about thriving and more about surviving. I needed to find someone who met the criteria of that role and could be convinced to take a look at it. In addition, it had to be someone with the right mix of attributes to survive the unique mix of dysfunction at that particular company or location.

Ultimately, this is why I left recruiting. I didn’t want to work within the dysfunction to enable it; I wanted to fix it. Operating in a world where a broken work experience was treated as a fixed variable didn’t work for me. I believed that work didn’t have to be defined by dysfunction.

That brings me back to this discussion about employee engagement and who’s responsible for it: the employer or the employee.

Employees being responsible for their own engagement is an appetizing thought if you are a leader. If that’s true, then you are off the hook. So long as you don’t do anything too terrible, it’s not your problem if employees aren’t engaged. It’s because you have defective employees.

And that is a failure of HR. If they did a better job of finding and screening the right people, you’d have an engaged workforce.

In this way of thinking, it’s not the leaders or managers who are responsible for our disengaged employees, it’s HR (and all of those employees who are choosing not to be fully engaged). Therefore, to fix employee engagement, we need to first fix HR. Because leadership isn’t responsible for employee engagement. Nothing to see here.

But that’s clearly ridiculous.

It’s the same dynamic that drove me out of recruiting as a profession. To fix engagement, find employees who can survive the dysfunction and learn to love it.

Gross.

I’m not suggesting that employees have no accountability in their own engagement. Of course they do.

But to put it all on the employee is the same as telling someone that it is their responsibility to be happy in their marriage even if their partner is unattentive, borderline abusive, and unfaithful. I’m not going to tell them that.

Are you?

Now let’s go a step further.

Employee engagement as a practice exists to help employees perform to their potential at work. Since performance serves the purpose of the organization–to deliver value to its customers–it’s the organization’s responsibility. To argue that anyone other than those charged with achieving the organization’s purpose, namely the most senior leaders, are primarily responsible for creating an engaging work environment is to miss the point of why organizations exist in the first place.

Performance.

While there are certainly things we can teach employees to help make their work experience more enjoyable and productive, it’s still the responsibility of the organization to see that this happens. Employees must be clear on expectations and be held accountable to those, but that’s the work of management and should be a baseline expectation in any organization.

Employee engagement is in “how” you approach the work of management. It’s about the experience you create at work each day and how that experience enables employees to do and be their best.

Bottom line: Employee engagement is the responsibility of the employer and leader. Period. 

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Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week
Reading Between the Lines on the 4-Day Work Week 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Last week, Quartz published a piece about a New Zealand company that has implemented a 4-day work week policy.

This company offered the shortened work week without any reduction in pay or other benefits. They tested it and then implemented it broadly when they found that it didn’t cause any decrease in overall performance for the organization.

The owner of the company, Andrew Barnes, is bullish about these results and wants every company to try it. But, he offers some words of caution not to talk about this effort in terms of employee well-being. Instead, he advised that you talk about it in terms of productivity.

Here’s a quote from Barnes about how they rolled this out:

“We sat down with each team and we said, ‘Right, let’s agree what is the base of productivity that you’re delivering now,’” he says. “And then the deal was, provided you delivered on the productivity goals, you would be gifted a day off a week.”

This is a cool story. It highlights what is possible when organizations think differently about work.

Is this really about a 4-day work week?

While I think it’s awesome that this company is proving that some of our assumptions about work (i.e. the 5-day work week) are limiting, I think the article is misleading for anyone who might want to pursue something similar in their own organization.

The 4-day work week is the kind of gimmicky silver-bullet we love to read about and debate. The gimmick is a distraction.

If you read between the lines, here’s what you find echoed in this article.

  • This company found that employees could produce the same amount of output in 4 days that they had been producing in 5.
  • When given this challenge (or opportunity) to work more effectively, employees stepped up. When surveying employees before and after the 4-day week trial, they “found that 78% of staff felt able to manage work and other commitments after the trial, compared to 54% before.”
  • The policy is less about a 4-day week than it is about autonomy and flexibility. The leaders essentially told employees that if they can get their work done in less hours, they could have those extra hours back.
  • And please don’t say this effort is about employee well-being if you want to be taken seriously because nobody (particularly leaders) cares about that. (Forgive my sarcasm, but this seems to be what they chose to lead with.)
  • The key to making this transition happen swiftly is an owner or CEO who gets it or has a eureka moment.

My take on the 4-day work week

Conversations about a shortened work week are colored by how we think about work. It highlights a fundamental conflict in management philosophy. The practice of management was born during the industrial revolution where the objective was primarily to maximize the productivity of employees per hour. A majority of organizations today are still rooted in this belief.

The objective of work processes is to motivate and/or coerce the maximum amount of productivity out of each hour the employee works. 

In this model, the number of hours the employee spends working is viewed as vital to achieving performance expectations. Your role as an employee is less about achieving specific outputs as it is about seeing how much you can contribute. The manager’s role is to get the maximum amount of value out of the employee.

This way of thinking is prevalent among leaders. It’s this way of thinking that makes the “discretionary effort” model of employee engagement so attractive. It’s oriented towards getting more and more out of the same investment in people–to maximize productivity for the benefit of the organization.

An alternative way of thinking about work is that employees are hired to fulfill specific roles with clear expectations for the value they contribute to the organization’s success. This role clarity drives compensation, management evaluation, and other work processes. This way of thinking about work might be summarized this way:

The objective of work processes is to ensure that employees are clear about the expectations of their role and that they have everything they need to succeed.  

In this way of thinking, a manager’s role isn’t to get the maximum amount of productivity out of each employee. Instead, it’s about ensuring that each employee is crystal clear about what is expected of them and then supporting them in achieving those goals successfully.

If an employee can complete their work in less than 40 hours per week, good for her. She’s met her expectations, so what she does with those extra hours is up to her. If she’s able to do her work in 25 hours/week, then that likely means she’s either due for a more challenging role or the role she’s in is poorly designed. Or, maybe she’s just super efficient at her job and everyone’s happy.

These two very different ways of thinking about work are really what the discussion about the 4-day work week is truly about. If your leaders believe that their mandate is to create a workplace that extracts the maximum amount of productivity from employees, then you are dead in the water before you start.

I suspect that’s why the article led with the insight to talk about this effort as “productivity” and not well-being. The implication seems to be that perhaps you can trick your leaders into the 4-day work week. But, if you don’t address the underlying belief that the goal is to maximize employee output, how long do you think it will take before your leaders realize that if employees can be 20% more productive in four days a week, imagine the productivity if they get back that fifth day?

Instead of trying to trick your leaders into this experiment, focus instead on building a better system of performance management that clearly defines expectations and creates systems of measurement and feedback to help managers effectively manage to those expectations. Once your organization and its leaders are more clearly oriented around thinking of roles in terms of defined performance expectations, the conversation about greater autonomy and flexibility will become much easier.

P.S. This has everything to do with employee well-being, even if your leaders aren’t ready to invest in it yet.

 

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Technology’s Evolving Role in HR #HRTechConf
Technology’s Evolving Role in HR #HRTechConf Jason Lauritsen

The HR Technology Conference has become one of my favorite events of the year. It’s a great opportunity to get a feel for the broader trends in HR and work.  

Each year, I try to take in a few sessions and spend some time walking the Exhibit Hall. My goal is to try to understand what the technology vendors think is important to the HR community. This comes through loud and clear through their marketing messages and positioning at the event.

Based on my observations, this year’s overarching theme seemed the same as last year. Everything is about AI (artificial intelligence). Apparently, we are all so fascinated by the potential of AI that nearly every vendor is feeling the pressure to show how they are in the AI game.

I personally think that most of the talk about AI is distracting us from what really matters in making work better. That is an argument for another day. The bottom line is that for the second year in a row, AI was the dominant buzzword of the conference.

Another thing I love about this event is the conversation and presentations about the future of work. Technology companies are rightfully interested in understanding how work is evolving and what the future might look like so they can enable that future through their products.

Based on what I heard from Josh Bersin and others, it seems to me that there are some real shifts coming (and needed) in terms of what HR technology looks like and how it works.  There were three big things that I took away from this year’s event.

  1. HR technology tools need to be where the work happens. Almost all of today’s HR technology tools are part of a stand-alone platform or product. This means that the employee has to leave the technology that they primarily use to do their work (email, calendar, CRM, etc.) to find and log into another application before being able to take their desired action. It’s no wonder that we struggle to get employees to consistently engage with these tools. It feels like a hassle. The next generation of HR tech tools will be built into where you do work to make the employee’s experience much more fluid and intuitive. Keep an eye on companies like Microsoft, Google, Salesforce, and Slack as they are already starting to build some of their own integrated tools. It seems like there’s about to be a lot of innovation in this area. 
  2. We need technology to support wellbeing. Earlier this year, Stanford Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer published a new book titled, “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It.” He argues that work is literally killing us. Much of that boils down to the immense stress that people are feeling today from both work and life. I’m convinced that tending to the wellbeing of employees will emerge as a business imperative over the next five or more years. Technology has contributed significantly to this problem in the past by enabling 24/7 connectivity. Now we need new technology to help us begin to fix it.  
  3. The future of work is teams. Bersin stood in front of a room full of HR technology marketers and declared that while more companies are organizing work in teams, today’s HR technology tools are almost exclusively designed around individual work performance. For those who work in a project team or agile environment, you can probably relate to how different it is to manage the performance and engagement of teams compared to individuals. As the way we work and our management approaches shift more and more towards teams and collaboration, we will need new tech tools to support that. And, it doesn’t seem that there are many tools here yet. I expect that to change quickly. 

Those are my takeaways from this year’s HR Tech Conference. If you are interested in technology and the future of work, I highly encourage you to give this conference a look next year. If you decide to go, look me up. I’ll be there. 

Illusion of Reality
Illusion of Reality 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’m a fan of reality TV.  Think of me what you will, but I find many reality shows entertaining and fascinating for a variety of reasons.  So, I tend to sample a lot of different shows to see what they are about.  Recently I stumbled upon “The Bachelor Pad” on ABC.  The show is the sort of sordid stuff that makes reality TV interesting to peek in on.

This particular show is a spin off of the popular show “The Bachelor” and, as you would expect, an element of this show is matchmaking and romance.  In the particular episode I watched, one of the female contestants had won a dream date on which she could bring one of the male contestants of her choice.  After selecting her partner, they are whisked off to experience a zip line course and helicoptor ride over some  beautiful countryside.  This was followed by a private candlelit gourmet dinner at an exotic resort.  As this date is unfolding, each of the two people on the date are commenting on camera about how amazing it was to be with this other person and how it just feels great to be with them.  They both become convinced that they have an “real connection” to one another.  

I’m always struck on these shows by how easily people become influenced by their conditions.  A tenant of designing a great reality TV show is to isolate a group of people in a controlled situation or environment so that they will behave in dramatic or unpredictable ways.  They begin to accept their surroundings as “normal” versus recognizing them as part of a game, which leads them to make interesting decisions.  As in the example above, do these two people really have a connection or are they just overcome by the romantic situation they’ve been place in?  Might they just be caught up in a manufactured for TV moment?  It’s for this reason, that I think that most romances that start on these shows break up so quickly after the show ends. Turns out real-life romance requires work and isn’t only about yachts and helicopter rides.  Regardless of how fast these relationships break up, these couples are always convinced that their relationship is real and that it will sustain when they return to real life.

Thinking about this made me wonder how much of an effect our workplaces have on the judgement and decisions of the employees who work in them.  Several questions came to mind for me:

  • As in reality shows, to what extent are we creating conditions that cause people to make decisions in ways they wouldn’t outside of work?
  • Do our work environment lead to artificial relationships that won’t sustain beyond the job? 
  • How can we design our workplaces so that the actions and interactions are more authentic to who each person truly is and not who they become when stepping into the work environment?
  • Do I watch too much reality TV?
Not sure I know the answer to these questions, but I think that they are interesting to think about if we are interested in pursuing high performance, innovative workplaces.