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How Do You Repair Your Relationships?
How Do You Repair Your Relationships? 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

Among all the skills that are important to building great relationships, one of the most important is repair.

It’s also one of the most overlooked.

I wouldn’t be surprised if you’ve never thought of repair as a relationship skill. I don’t know that I ever had until I started doing research into how great relationships work.

Repair is what we do when we have a fracture in our relationship in order to ensure that it doesn’t become a full-on break. I’ll give you a few examples.

Repairing Relationships Before They Fully Fracture

When my oldest son Dylan was in high school, he (like most teens not excluding myself at that age) had developed quite the capacity for doing dumb things. Thankfully, he didn’t do any colossally dumb things. His specialty was the frequency of small ones.

This led to an expectation on my part. If something happened that could even possibly be linked back to one of his bad or thoughtless decisions, I assumed he was to blame and would often react accordingly.

I remember clearly one day when I made one of these assumptions. I don’t remember what happened, but I do remember going off the handle, accusing my son of being responsible and doling out some immediate consequences. He stormed out of the room and the moment ended.

Shortly afterward, I discovered that he hadn’t had anything to do with this particular incident. He was innocent. My reaction was based on his track record, not what actually happened. I could probably have justified my reaction by telling myself that I wouldn’t have reacted that way if not for all the other stuff he’d done. Thankfully, that’s not what I did. Instead, I apologized. I told him that I was sorry and that I had been unfair. I told him he deserved better than that and that I’d do better in the future.

He accepted my apology and the fracture I’d caused in our relationship and his trust in me was repaired.

I wish I could tell you that this was the only time I’d overreacted with him. It wasn’t. But each time it happened, I went straight to him with an apology.

Over time, he actually learned to do the same thing. When we had to enforce boundaries or tell him no on occasion, he was prone to overreaction. To his credit, once he calmed down, he’d come find me and/or his mother and apologize for how he reacted.

This ritual of repair was really important to us surviving high school together while maintaining a positive and supportive relationship. I shudder to think what our relationship might have looked like had we not been committed to this.

Repair Your Relationships at Home

My wife and I have a similar process for repair.

When we have arguments, which thankfully don’t happen often, it feels awful for both of us.

What we discovered over the years was that regardless of how much we disagree or how frustrated we were in the moment, there was only one right next step to take. A hug and an “I’m sorry.”

Before you go all “why are you always saying you are sorry?” on me, pump the brakes. In both of these cases, an apology is necessary.

Regardless of the argument we are having. Regardless of whether or not I am right (which my wife will tell you is very rare). And regardless of how justified I feel about my position on whatever the issue, I am sorry that I’ve made the person I love most in the world feel bad or hurt.

I’m also sorry that I wasn’t somehow able to approach the issue in a way that avoided the argument.

And I’m sorry that our relationship fractured in even a tiny, temporary way.

When we hug and say we are sorry, all of the tension and anger and frustration evaporates. It resets and grounds us in the strength of our bond. From there, we usually find it pretty easy to resolve our difference.

Another ritual we have is checking in with each other in a formal way. Since we are both committed to keeping our relationship in a good place, it only makes sense to sit down on occasion and really talk to one another about the relationship. This shared commitment and investment of time ensures that whenever something happens that doesn’t feel right to the other person, we can talk it through and address it.

The more I began to understand and recognize the skills of relationship repair, the more I realized how vital they are to sustaining any relationship over time.

I also began to realize how much of a gap this is for relationships at work.

When I reflect back on my own work experience, the consequence of the absence of repair is so clear. I could share with you multiple stories of relationships with bossed and peers that may have started positive or neutral but slowly degraded over time.

The Absence of Relationship Repair at Work

Here’s how it happens.

A snide comment in a meeting plus a short and seemingly critical email compounded by a perceived lack of support piling up over time. One tiny fracture after another going unacknowledged, unaddressed, and unrepaired.

Then one day it breaks.

Things are said that can’t be unsaid.

Actions are taken that can’t be undone.

And the course of your career is changed.

It’s all so unnecessary. If only we learned how to repair our relationships.

Granted, both parties need to be committed to the relationship in the first place. I think in most cases, people would rather be in positive relationships with their manager and coworkers than the alternative.

When we don’t practice repair at work, our relationships at and with work die the death of a thousand paper cuts. It’s slow and painful, and such a waste.

What Does It Look Like to Repair Your Work Relationships?

What does repair look like at work? Below are a few skills and approaches you can and should practice if you want to improve your work relationships.

  1. Commit yourself to having better relationships. To have the kind of relationships at work that make work more fulfilling and rewarding, you have to fully commit yourself to it. This means investing time with people. It also means being willing to do the uncomfortable and inconvenient things necessarily to repair relationships when they go off course.
  2. Apologize when you do damage. We all make mistakes. Sometimes, we inadvertently hurt someone’s feelings or offend them. Say you are sorry and mean it, even when it wasn’t your intention to cause any harm in the first place. Beware that your ego will tell you that you don’t need to apologize because you didn’t do anything wrong and you certainly didn’t intend any damage. But if you care about relationships, do it anyway.
  3. Have the conversation. When someone does something that bothers or offends you, go talk to that person. I’ve had several people confront me at work about things I’ve said in a meeting or over email. In most cases, the way they took my comments was not what I intended, so I was thankful for the opportunity to clarify. In a few cases, they had taken it exactly as I had intended, and it triggered a conversation that allowed us to clear the air and make some amends to move forward. By taking on these conversations, we head off lingering resentment and the lasting damage to a relationship that can occur.
  4. Check in with the people who matter. This is among the many reasons that regular one-on-one meetings between managers and employees are so important. These conversations provide opportunities for repair.  To take full advantage of that opportunity, managers should do two things when they check in with employees. First, ask for feedback. A question like, “What can I do to be a better manager for you?” invites the kind of feedback that will help identify where fractures in the relationship may have occurred. Second, provide feedback when an employee does something to fracture the relationship. One of my favorite bosses once had to do this for me. I had publicly criticized one of her decisions in a meeting with my peers, and it had gotten back to her. She confronted me about it and explained that if we were to have a positive working relationship, we need to disagree privately but support each other publicly. It was a great learning experience for me.

The quality of our relationships drives the quality of our lives. If you want to be happier and more fulfilled at work and home, be committed not only to having relationships but to ensuring that you do the work to repair and sustain those relationships you value.

 

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Employee Engagement Happens in Moments
Employee Engagement Happens in Moments 1080 737 Jason Lauritsen

Something really weird and awesome happened to me this morning.

Knowing I had a busy day of calls and meetings today, I decided to sneak into the gym for a quick run on the treadmill before the day spun away from me.

Before I share what happened next, a bit of context: Despite being a natural extrovert and preaching the importance of relationships everywhere in our lives, I am a standoffish loner at the gym. I make it my business not to have interpersonal interactions when I’m there.

This may stem from an awkward locker room experience many years ago or perhaps it’s just that I’m very focused on why I’m there (and it’s not to make friends). Regardless, I stay to myself when I’m working out.

Today was no different. I jumped on the treadmill, dialed up a podcast to feed my brain while I ran, and cranked it up. Before long, I had three solid, sweaty miles finished.

At some point during my run, a woman got on the treadmill next to me and started her workout. I didn’t pay much attention beyond the fact that someone was there.

As my run finished and I reduced speed to walk and cool down, I noticed the woman next to me turning toward me. Typically, this would raise some dread inside of me. I just want to be left alone at the gym.

But when I looked over at her, she extended her arm and made a fist. She was giving me a fist bump. I bumped her fist and then she turned back to her run.

What?

I don’t know this woman (at least I don’t think I do). But, for some reason, she decided to acknowledge the completion of my run today. And it was awesome.

I smiled and felt proud of my accomplishment. And then I went on with my day with a little extra energy in my step.

I don’t know why she did it. Maybe she does it all the time. Maybe she’s a personal trainer. I don’t know and I don’t care.

What I know is that simple moment of acknowledgment and connection mattered to me. It took only a few seconds. It cost nothing. And yet, here I sit writing about its impact.

This is a great reminder of the simplicity involved in creating a positive work experience for the people around us. We tend to assume that a solution to employee engagement has to be complicated or grand or involve a survey and technology.

That’s not the case. It is often as simple as taking a moment of time to acknowledge those around us. To offer a signal that we see and appreciate each other.

  • When is the last time you gave someone an unexpected fist bump or high five?
  • When is the last time you sent off a quick note to someone you work with just to acknowledge that you notice and appreciate all they do?
  • When is the last time you said thank you to the people who make your life easier at work?
  • When is the last time you said hi and smiled at someone you don’t know at work (or anywhere else)?

Those little moments can carry enormous positive impact.

Next time you are wondering how to improve engagement on your team, remember the fist bump and keep it simple.

 

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Should You Close the Office on Black Friday?
Should You Close the Office on Black Friday? 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

It’s Thanksgiving week. That means that we will all be asked at some point this week, “Are you working on Friday?” And the answers will be mixed.

Black Friday is one of those dates that seemingly presents a dilemma for organizations and HR departments everywhere. Should the office be open on Friday or should it be closed?

There’s a simple answer. Unless you are in an organization where you can’t be closed (hospital, police station, etc.) or black Friday is a critical day for your business (retail, restaurant, etc.), then you should be closed. I’m not talking about an optional day or a floating holiday; I’m talking closed for business. Everyone gets the day off without using a vacation day closed.

Here are a few reasons why.

  1. This issue will come up during family Thanksgiving day meals and celebrations. When your employee is the only one in the room who has to work on Friday, you look like you don’t care about your employee. At the very least, the employee is going to feel like they getting cheated.
  2. Productivity on Friday is going to be garbage anyway. If you are one of the few who has to go to work on Friday, it’s almost a sport to see how little work you can do. There’s shopping, football games, and many distractions going on that day. Asking your employees to grind out a day of work while it feels like everyone else is enjoying a fun day off is a bad idea. You get nothing except a resentful employee.
  3. There’s a huge difference between having a Thursday off and having a four-day weekend. A four-day weekend means I can travel to spend time with family. A Thursday off may mean I’m eating a frozen dinner at home alone making phone calls to talk to the people I wish I could be with (if only my company gave us the Friday off).
  4. Making me use a vacation day on Friday when so many other companies just close down feels like a slap in the face. That’s one less vacation day I have for summer vacation or a trip to Europe or to paint my house next summer. And for a day when I’m not going to be productive anyway.
  5. No one is looking to do business on Friday.  If your customers are working, they wish they were off too and they aren’t going to be looking to do anything of substance that day.
  6. Some customers might judge you poorly for not giving your employees the day off when it’s so easy to do so.

There may be a good reason for keeping the office open the day after Thanksgiving in the United States, but I can’ think of it.  Unless you have to be open for the reasons I already mentioned, doing so will put at least a small dent in employee engagement. And for what?

If you haven’t landed on the right side of this decision yet, it’s not too late. Shut it down on Friday. Your employees will love you for it.

Happy Thanksgiving!

 

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Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur?
Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur? 1080 810 Jason Lauritsen

This week, I somehow found myself in a conversation with a colleague about breaking the habit of putting two spaces behind a period when I type. Since he is roughly my age, he understood this challenge completely.

For some of you reading this, the idea of putting two periods beyond a sentence when you type sounds completely ridiculous (who would ever think that’s a good idea?). For others, this may be the first time you’re being confronted with the fact that you are doing it wrong.

I’m not here to argue over the right number of spaces behind a sentence; that has been decided. It’s one.

But, as we talked, I referred to myself as a dinosaur for using two spaces. Granted, I am a dinosaur in recovery (notice the single spaces in my post today…), but that left me pondering something else.

Employee engagement is a concept that we’ve been wrestling with for about 30 years now. And we know a lot of stuff today that we didn’t when we first started. Which begs the question: What are our “two spaces after a sentence” ideas in employee engagement? What beliefs or practices are we stuck in or do we defend, that just aren’t relevant or effective given what we know today?

I think there’s a few. So, I’ve thrown together a shortlist for you. If you recognize yourself in any of these, it’s time to rethink your position.

Signs You May Be an Employee Engagement Dinosaur

1. You think that employee engagement has to involve a survey

Employee engagement was created as a concept to help us measure and understand the human factors in the workplace that are hard to isolate but have profound effects on how we perform at work. The most efficient and effective way to measure engagement has historically been an employee survey. The survey results gave us something concrete to work with as we try to understand something as abstract as human behavior and emotions. As a result, an entire market of employee survey providers emerged to offer tools, expertise, and consulting to help employers survey their employees.

This practice has become so common that many have come to assume that to work with employee engagement has to involve a survey. The reality is that while a survey can be an effective tool for measuring employee engagement, doing the work of employee engagement isn’t about a survey. Instead, it is about creating an environment and experience of work each day that fosters individual performance. It’s about management practices and technology. It’s about culture and work processes.

It’s about far more than a survey. And if we are to make progress, we have to approach it far more broadly and proactively.

2. You think that HR “owns” employee engagement.

If you are spending any time trying to decide who “owns” employee engagement, you might be a dinosaur. This is a wildly unproductive and unhelpful debate and discussion. Every experience an employee has with and through work has the potential to affect their level of engagement. No one singularly owns employee engagement and everyone plays a role in it. When we say that HR or Corporate Communications owns engagement, it sends an unintended message that no one else needs worry about it.

That doesn’t mean there shouldn’t be people or departments who will play specific roles related to employee engagement. HR might have the responsibility for measuring engagement or providing training.  Executives may (should) have the role of setting a strategy and expectations for employee engagement. But everyone should understand that they have some role to play in both their own and others’ experience of work.

3. You believe there is one right way to approach or create employee engagement.

This is perhaps the most vivid example of “two spaces after a period” thinking about employee engagement that I commonly encounter. Executive leaders and consultants are particularly prone to this way of thinking. It’s fueled by a variety of mental biases but most potently the halo effect and the fundamental attribution error. Here’s how it happens.

We work at an organization where we are involved in creating or bringing to bear some kind of solution related to employee engagement. Maybe it’s implementing the Gallup Q12 survey or it’s implementing a particular management training program. Sometime following the implementation, the results of the organization improve or something else positive happens. We take this as indisputable evidence that our solution was effective and become convinced that it would work elsewhere. This is best practice thinking.

The problem, of course, is that it’s really hard to isolate the impact of specific programs or know exactly what caused the positive outcome. In addition, what works in one culture or context, doesn’t necessarily work in another. I’ve seen the same approach appear to be really effective in one company and fail in another. We have to recognize that there is no “one-size-fits-all” solution to engagement.

If you are feeling like you might be a dinosaur, it’s okay. You can still make some progress. It’s never too late to shift your thinking and approach. Despite almost 40 years of putting two spaces after a sentence when I typed, I’m actually getting pretty good at only using one. It hasn’t been easy, but it’s possible. We can all catch up.

 

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banning employee feedback
Should Employee Feedback Be Banned?
Should Employee Feedback Be Banned? 1080 721 Jason Lauritsen

For most of my adult life, I have bought into the conventional wisdom that feedback is critical to performance and growth.

As individuals, we are taught to embrace feedback and treat it as a learning experience. As managers, we are told that giving feedback is part of our job. 

Those of us who work on the design of work have been trying to figure out how to make feedback more frequent and effective within the organization.  

I’ve talked more about feedback in the past year than nearly any other topic. And one of my most popular posts of the year had to do with, you guessed it, feedback. 

But what if everything we’ve come to believe about the necessity of feedback is a lie?

To be clear, I’m talking about the kind of feedback we all dread. It’s the critique and criticism offered by others about our past performance—the many ways we could have, should have, or might have done something differently in a way that other people think would have produced a better result. 

I recognize that feedback can be positive, but we typically use a different name for that. We call it recognition, appreciation, or acknowledgment. I’m not including that in my use of the term here.

I’ve been wondering—is feedback really necessary?

What would happen if we outlawed feedback in our organizations?  

If conventional wisdom is correct, everything will come crashing to the ground. I don’t buy it. 

In fact, I suspect that if the threat of feedback was removed, we might all be happier, less stressed, and more creative. I think our performance would probably improve. What if the very thing that we’ve come to believe is a prerequisite to performance is actually hurting it. 

I know, I know. This probably sounds a little crazy. But hang with me for a minute. Let’s imagine together what an organization without feedback might look like. 

The Zero Feedback Environment

To reiterate, we are outlawing the communication of criticism or critique on another’s past performance in any way. That’s what we are calling “feedback.” This does not mean we can’t communicate about performance; it just means we have to do it differently.  

What would be the major implications of creating an organization like this? Here are a few I can of.

  1. We’d have a lot more conversations about goals and expectations.

In my experience, a lot of feedback is provided when someone (i.e., a direct report) fails to live up to another person’s (i.e., a manager) uncommunicated expectations. This is what makes performance feedback often suck so much. It feels pretty unfair to be given feedback about something you weren’t even aware was an expectation.  

When feedback is outlawed, the manager would need to spend more time getting clear about expectations and goals. This clarity should allow the individual to more clearly understand when they are or are not meeting expectations without needing criticism from managers. If it doesn’t, then the expectations are probably not as clear as they should be.  

  1. We’d have to trust people more. 

So much of what we’ve been sold about feedback is that it’s necessary to motivate performance improvement. The thinking goes that until you are told what you did wrong, you won’t be motivated to get better. In a zero feedback environment, we’d had to trust that people are motivated to meet and exceed their expectations without criticism. We’d have to assume that people are doing their best, and when they fall short of expectations, they probably just need a little support. They don’t need criticism; they need help.   

  1. We would need a new mindset. 

In a feedback culture, our default is to look at our environment and the people in it through a critical lens. What could or should they be doing differently? This leads to a lot of judgment based on our own beliefs and perspectives.

When we remove feedback, looking for what’s wrong isn’t useful. That becomes replaced by looking for what’s possible. Instead of seeing people for what they didn’t do, we’d need to see them for what they are capable of. 

  1. Suggestions would replace criticism. 

When we can’t criticize past performance, but we still want to help improve performance, what can we do? We could start by offering suggestions and ideas that might help. That’s what the best sports coaches do. They don’t waste time criticizing what you just did wrong; instead, they offer up some tips for how to get a better result on the next try. Some have come to call this approach feedforward

My guess is that in a zero feedback environment, people would become more open to receiving and even asking for suggestions. When you don’t have to worry about being criticized or made to feel like you failed, your mind becomes far more open to hearing ideas from others for how you might become better. 

Where’s the Downside?

The more I’ve thought about this, the more convinced I become that feedback may not be necessary. Using feedback is a choice we make that might be having a lot of unintended negative consequences. 

What if we could eliminate all the angst and defensiveness that feedback creates? What if a zero feedback culture could amplify performance and make the work environment feel more energizing and positive?

It seems like it might be worth a try. 

 

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being human at work
What Does It Mean to Be “Human” at Work? 
What Does It Mean to Be “Human” at Work?  1080 720 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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employee engagement and gallup poll
We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged
We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

When we talk about employee engagement, one of the most commonly cited statistics comes from Gallup. I’m sure you’ve seen it: Only 1/3 of employees in the U.S. are engaged according to Gallup’s Q12 measure. That number is a more shocking 17% globally.

That also means that somewhere between 66% and 83% of employees are either “not engaged”—or worse, “actively disengaged” based on Gallup’s methodology.

It sounds pretty dire.

But I don’t care what Gallup says.

This is cited so much to create panic. The house is on fire, and we’re standing around watching it burn. We need to DO SOMETHING!

I’ve been guilty of using the same stat for exactly that reason. To get people’s attention. To jar them awake.

But there are some real problems with using Gallup’s data this way when making the case for change.

We Are Looking at the Employee Engagement Data Incorrectly

It is reasonable to debate whether Gallup’s measure of engagement is the right one. Yes, the Q12 is one of the most well-known and certainly one of the oldest measures of employee engagement. But that doesn’t make it the right one. We can (and should) argue over whether only a third of employees are engaged. The Q12 is one among many ways to measure engagement. And, there is contrary data available from other sources.

But even if you question whether the Q12 is the best way to measure employee engagement, the important thing about their data is that Gallup has been measuring engagement the same way for over 20 years. The consistency of the measure is the more important factor when looking at it.

Instead of fixating on employee engagement levels, the more significant finding in Gallup’s data is that the results have only nominally changed over the past 20 years. This strongly suggests that despite all of our efforts, the employee’s experience at work hasn’t dramatically improved in the past couple of decades.

That is what should concern you. And it should wake us up to the reality that what we’ve been doing around employee engagement isn’t cutting it. We need to fundamentally rethink how we design work and the daily experience of work to better enable employee performance and happiness. What we’ve been doing and the changes we’ve made so far aren’t adequate.

The Language of Gallup’s Model Is a Problem

The second big issue with the Gallup data is that the language of their model is misleading and problematic.

In Gallup’s model, an employee can only fall into one of three categories: engaged, not engaged, and actively disengaged. I don’t know about you, but my own experience with work has always made it hard for me to swallow that there’s only a small line that separates engaged from disengaged.

Engagement is a product of human emotion. It’s driven by how we feel about work. We don’t experience emotions as a polarity. That would suggest that we have emotional switches like those we use to control our lights. You are either happy or not, angry or not, in love or not.

You don’t need a PhD in psychology to know how ridiculous that is. Emotions happen on a spectrum. You can be wildly happy, sort of happy, or a little happy. You can be a little angry, very angry, or in a blind rage. You get the picture.

We need to stop talking about engagement like an on/off switch.

And yet that’s what Gallup’s data seems to suggest: a minority of our employees are switched on and a bunch more are switched off. That’s just not how it works.

When we talk to our leaders about our engaged versus our disengaged employees, it paints a picture that isn’t helpful. Engagement exists on a spectrum, just like every other factor driven by human emotion. The goal isn’t to move you across an arbitrary line so we can give you a new label (“Congratulations, your engagement survey score improved by 0.2%, which means you are now engaged!”). Our goal should be to help everyone have an experience of work that increases their positive emotions about work to improve engagement.

Labeling people in the workplace is almost always a bad idea. We need to be far more careful about the labels and language we use when talking about employee engagement.

The Bottom Line on Employee Engagement

Let’s stop saying that two-thirds of employees are disengaged. Yes, we need to do better at engaging employees, but the story is far more complicated and nuanced than that. Both our understanding and our language needs to reflect that complexity if we are to move the needle.

Stop labeling people as “engaged” and “disengaged” or “not engaged.” Better yet, stop labeling people. Labels aren’t helping. Focus instead on understanding each employee’s experience and making it better.

Pay more attention to the trend lines. Gallup’s trendline is important because it shows us making little progress and that change is clearly needed. If you measure engagement internally at your organization, the same is true for you. Don’t worry about the labels, focus instead on whether your trendline is moving in a positive direction.

Be thoughtful about how you use data and statistics. The shock factor might seem valuable in the moment but think about the ripple effects that message may leave behind.

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Assumptions, Projection, and Other Ways to Kill Engagement at Work
Assumptions, Projection, and Other Ways to Kill Engagement at Work 1080 722 Jason Lauritsen

A wise friend is fond of saying, “If only people would conform to our expectations of them.”

It’s her way of reminding us (and probably herself) that much of the drama that exists in our lives with other people starts with us. And that if we’d accept people for who they are and where they are instead of projecting on them how we think they “should be,” everyone would be happier.

When Others Don’t Behave the Way You Expect, This Can Kill Employee Engagement

Throughout my career, most of my most frustrating experiences at work were rooted in my frustration that someone, usually my boss, wasn’t behaving in the way I wanted them to.

I’ve had bosses who couldn’t communicate with me in the way I wanted. Others who couldn’t create a vision for me in the way I wanted it. Others who didn’t support me or my development the right way.

In most of these cases, my response to these unmet expectations can be summarized in one word: drama. I got frustrated, irritated, and sometimes angry. This, in turn, invited my bosses to be frustrated, irritated, and sometimes angry with me.

The irony in all of this is that in nearly every case, my boss and I actually wanted the same thing. In fact, they usually were trying to help me get what I wanted.  They just couldn’t do it in the specific way I thought they should.

So…drama. What a waste.

Projecting our expectations of others to behave or be only the way we think they should damages a relationship. When relationships suffer at work, our engagement takes a hit.

Making Assumptions Can Kill Employee Engagement

Another enemy of engagement making assumptions. Just last week, I was worrying that something I’d said had offended someone close to me. I stressed about it for a day before finally apologizing.

It turns out, I hadn’t offended this person at all. It was a faulty assumption I’d created in my mind..

We make assumptions all the time, particularly when someone behaves in a way that we didn’t anticipate.

  • Why didn’t she speak up to defend me?
  • Why did they schedule that meeting without including me?
  • Why didn’t they keep me in the loop on that?

When things like this pop up, our default reaction is to assume the worst.

  • She’s trying to distance herself from me.
  • They are trying to undermine me.
  • There must be something shady going on.

Negative assumptions lead to drama in relationships.

How Can We Avoid Our Tendency to Kill Employee Engagement?

Assumptions and projections are something I’ve wrestled without throughout my life. As a result, I notice how frequently these happen at work. It’s so common that we don’t even notice that it is happening a lot of the time.

Solving these issues isn’t easy because it’s so ingrained in our human nature. But there are mindsets and practices I’ve found to be incredibly helpful.

  1. Be clear about what you need and ask for it. In any relationship, when the other person isn’t behaving the way you expect, check in with your own expectations. What is it exactly that you need from this person that you aren’t getting? Maybe you need your spouse to help with the chores without you feeling like you have to prod. Or maybe you need your boss to give you more space to do your job. Regardless of what it is, be crystal clear on what you need, why you need it, and how having it would affect you. Then, share that with the other person. Most of the time, the other person wasn’t clear on your needs and is willing to work with you to find a way to make it happen. It may not be exactly as you imagined, but as long as you get what you need, you’ll be happier.
  2. Assume positive intentions. When someone else behaves in a way that you didn’t expect or doesn’t make sense to you, instead of making an immediate, worst-case assumption, interrupt your thinking. Remind yourself that the other person probably has positive intentions and means no harm. I like to practice this with my kids. When we encounter someone who does something rude (like cutting us off in traffic), instead of my default response, “A-hole!” I say something like, “Wow, they must be in a hurry. I hope everything is okay.”My kids will occasionally make up stories about what might be going on (“they are rushing to the hospital” or “they are late to work”). This simple act of interrupting a negative assumption and replacing it with a positive one is a powerful way to eliminate drama before it starts.
  3. Have the conversation. All too often, we get caught up in this drama vortex. We project our unreasonable expectations on others. They don’t behave as we expect them to, so we attribute some shady intentions to them and soon, it feels like we are at battle.I’ve been through this cycle before, feeling like I was at battle with someone at work, without the other person even knowing it was going on. It all happened in my head. I had transformed this person into my nemesis without ever even having a conversation with them about whatever was bothering me.
    In my experience, whenever I started to feel this cycle coming on, the best way to beat it was to figure out what was bothering me and go talk to that person about it. The conversation can be pretty simple: “Jeff, in the meeting yesterday when you responded to my proposal the way you did, it felt like you hadn’t really considered it and had no plan to do so. I hope that’s not what you intended because my team and I put a lot of work into it. It didn’t feel good to me, so I wanted to just come and talk it through with you.”So much of our workplace angst could be resolved if we’d just have conversations like these instead of harboring our negative assumptions and letting them fester.

Engagement flows when our relationship with work and those who do it is healthy and positive. This isn’t always easy, but it’s always worth it.

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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) 1024 682 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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feedback, feedforward
Moving From Feedback To Feedforward
Moving From Feedback To Feedforward 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

I can still remember when I first heard about “feedforward.” It was in a presentation by Marshall Goldsmith at one of the first HCI Summits many years ago.

The concept sounded weird and a little gimmicky. But, it stuck with me.

At its essence, the idea was that while feedback was oriented towards criticism of past performance, feedforward instead provided suggestions for future improvement. People dislike criticism while they tend to more openly embrace suggestions that can be incorporated in the future. Simple enough.

While it seemed like a nice concept, I didn’t really do much with it after this first exposure. I still gave feedback the same way I always had.

Fast forward seven or eight years where I find myself at another conference listening to Marcus Buckingham. He again introduced the idea of feedforward. His approach was slightly different, but the idea was the same.  Suggestions instead of criticism.

The idea again appealed to me and this time I started experimenting with it with my team. And it seemed to work. While I was happy about the positive outcomes, I didn’t really understand why this was supposed to work so much better. I had been told my entire professional career that feedback was vital.

Yes, giving feedback was going to suck and often hurt. But, it IS “the breakfast of champions.” So they said.

To get ahead, you needed to learn to embrace the pain of feedback and try to figure out how to absorb it and learn from it.

I was skeptical that this “softer” feedforward approach might just be a way of softening the experience to feel better while losing the bigger impact. This was in spite of personally seeing the positive short-term results when I used it.

But then I found the neuroscience research that helped me understand why we have such a hard time with feedback.  Here’s a quick excerpt from my book describing one of the most interesting findings:

Recent neuroscience research suggests that our brain reacts to “social” threats similarly to physical threats. Perception of negative social comparison or being treated unfairly have been shown to trigger a brain response similar to physical pain. (Lieberman, Matthew D., Eisenberger, Naomi I. et. all, 2009) This would help explain why we tend to react defensively to critical feedback–particularly when we think it may be unjust or threatening to our social status at work. It’s a natural, biological response to avoid pain.

Our brain appears not to differentiate between social and physical pain. In other words, feedback can feel both psychologically and physically painful. No wonder we want to avoid it.

And to make matters worse, there’s research showing how we tend to overestimate our strengths while overlooking our weaknesses. Thus amplifying how socially threatening any critical feedback can seem. More threat, more pain.

This is why feedback is such an awful experience most of the time.

Work is frequently designed like a big social game of comparison to our peers. It’s a zero sum game if you want to advance. You need to be perceived as better than the people around you. Feedback will rarely feel non-threatening when you are playing such a high-stakes game.

Once I understood these factors, the true magic and power of feedforward finally revealed itself.

Criticism of past performance (which cannot be changed) creates a social threat response. This leads to an immediate defensive reaction as your brain and body try to find their way back to safety. When we are defensive, we can’t hear and process information constructively.

The approach of providing suggestions for improving future performance prescribed by feedforward disarms the social threat response. The exchange is oriented towards providing ideas for how the individual can improve or make a greater impact in the future. Not only does this reduce defensiveness, but it also creates autonomy for the receiver. They are in control and can decide what to do next.

Here are the steps I would recommend if you’d like to start experimenting with it yourself:

  1. Identify an opportunity for improvement. Think specifically about what happened and what kind of actions the individual could take to be better in the future.
  2. Request permission to provide some suggestions. This isn’t a requirement, but I’ve found that this step further enhances the effectiveness of feedforward. When we are asked first if we’d like suggestions, it further disarms any possible defensive response. “Hey Jason, I was thinking about our meeting this morning. I jotted down a few ideas for how I think you could get more traction with your next presentation. Would you be interested in hearing my thoughts?”
  3. Share one to three things that you feel would be helpful to them in the future. Providing some context for how these suggestions can help is good, but avoid any discussion of what they “did wrong” or “messed up.” If they open up and ask specific questions related to their past performance, provide observations but refrain from sharing judgment. Feedforward usually starts something like this, “When you are presenting an idea to a group, one of the approaches I’ve found to be successful is …”
  4. Watch for and reinforce evidence of progress. When you see the individual experimenting with or implementing suggestions in the future, heap on the praise and recognition. Before long, they’ll start coming and asking for more suggestions. Sidenote: when someone asks you for feedback, what they are really asking you for is suggestions for how to be better in the future.

There’s been a lot of focus recently on teaching managers to be coaches. If you have ever had the opportunity to observe a good sports coach working during practice or games, you have probably noticed that most of what they do is provide instruction and suggestions for how to perform better on the next play. They know that spending too much time criticizing past performance will just demoralize the athlete and doesn’t help them improve. Coaching is fundamentally about switching from feedback to feedforward.

Bottomline: Stop criticizing people for past performance that they can’t change and start focusing on giving them the insights they need to be better on the next play.