leadership

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.

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.

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.

What to do?

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 for 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 the 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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How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work?
How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work? 1080 721 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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One-on-One Meetings: 3 Ways to Stop Screwing Them Up With Your Employees
One-on-One Meetings: 3 Ways to Stop Screwing Them Up With Your Employees 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

How important are one-on-one meetings between managers and their employees?

This question comes up somewhat regularly because these meetings are time-consuming, and most managers are so overwhelmed with work that they are hunting for any excuse to cut something from the calendar. And I was asked this question again recently.

Are these meetings really necessary?

To answer this question, we need to remember that employees experience work as a relationship. If we aspire to fully engage our employees to their best performance, we need to help them feel like they are in a great relationship with work. That starts with the manager.

To foster a healthy relationship with your employees, how important is a one-on-one meeting?

It’s the same as asking how important it is to make time to hang out with your friends or to have date nights with your spouse. If you care about the relationship, then it’s important. Really important.

If you don’t care about maintaining the relationship, by all means, skip it. I’m sure you have plenty else to do.

But be very clear: The relationship will suffer.

Perhaps the most vital ingredient to relationship building is time. We cannot foster or sustain a healthy relationship with anyone in our lives without the investment of time. That’s where it starts.

One-on-one meetings are vitally important in helping employees feel that sense of relationship with work. There is no path to having a fully engaged team that doesn’t involve investing one-on-one time with your people.

In a 2016 Harvard Business Review article titled “What Great Managers Do Daily,” the authors from the Microsoft Workforce Analytics group shared some insights based on analysis of their data about the importance of these meetings.

“In the companies we analyzed, the average manager spent 30 minutes every 3 weeks with each of their employees. Perhaps unsurprisingly, employees who got little to no one-on-one time with their manager were more likely to be disengaged. On the flip side, those who get twice the number of one-on-ones with their manager relative to their peers are 67% less likely to be disengaged. We also tested the hypotheses that there would be a point at which engagement goes down if a manager spends too much time with employees, but did not find such a tipping point in these datasets.

“And what happens when a manager doesn’t meet with employees one-on-one at all or neglects to provide on-the-job training? Employees in this situation are four times as likely to be disengaged as individual contributors as a whole, and are two times as likely to view leadership more unfavorably compared to those who meet with their managers regularly.”

Now that that’s settled, let’s talk about how to have one-on-one meetings that don’t defeat the purpose. Making time is just the first step. Below are some simple tips to help you ensure that you get the most out of the time you invest.

3 Tips for Better One-on-Ones

1. Get out of your office.

Making an employee come to your office might be easiest for you, but it’s rife with problems. Most importantly, your office is ground zero for distraction. Between your laptop, phone, and door, you almost don’t stand a chance to create a distraction-free space for a good conversation. And if that isn’t bad enough, the employee may not feel comfortable in your office. It’s your office after all—giving you a home-field advantage. Find a neutral spot to meet. Go for coffee. Have lunch. Go for a walk. If the employee has an office use that. Just get out of your office to find a place where the employee is more comfortable and there are fewer distractions.

2. Make it a conversation.

A conversation requires two parties who are both actively interested and participating in the exchange. Come to the meeting with questions. These questions don’t have to only be about work. Asking some questions to get to know your people better is important. A question like “What do you do for fun when you aren’t working?” can open up a really interesting conversation.

You must also come prepared to listen. In any one-on-one meeting, if you talk more than you listened as a manager, you missed the mark. This one is easier said than done. Take it from someone who struggles with this issue regularly. Focus on active listening, taking notes to really hear and understand what your employee is trying to communicate to you.

3. Let the employee lead. 

If we remind ourselves that the purpose of the one-on-one meeting is to foster a healthy relationship with the employee, it makes sense that we’d give the employee primary control over what is discussed. The temptation will be to simply turn over the agenda to the employee. This will only work if you participate in shaping that agenda by sending them ideas or suggestions for things that the two of you may want to discuss.

Regardless of who creates the agenda, one practice I have found to be incredibly effective is to open the meeting by asking the employee, “What’s the most important thing we need to discuss today?” This question focuses your conversation right away and doesn’t put any restriction on the topic. If the employee is struggling with a personal issue that’s getting in the way of work and wants to talk that through, that’s a great use of your time.

It is also valuable to have regular check-ins about how the meeting itself is working and how it could be better. Discuss each of your goals for the meeting and what improvements you can make to ensure the meetings feel valuable.

The Bottom Line

If you aren’t having one-on-one meetings with your employees at least monthly, you aren’t doing the work to create an engaged team. It’s that simple. When you invest time in your people, their engagement and performance will improve.

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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.

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.

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.”

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?
Are Employees Responsible for Their Own Engagement? 1025 684 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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Getting Smart About Employee Experience
Getting Smart About Employee Experience (Resources)
Getting Smart About Employee Experience (Resources) 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Employee experience isn’t a trend or a fad or a buzzword. It is, and will continue to be, a shift in how we do the work of unlocking human potential at work. If you haven’t already embraced this shift, now is the time. The best place to start is to get educated about experience, what it means, and why it matters.

Today’s post is about pointing you towards one great resource for doing just that.

Over the past several years serving as an advisor to the North American Employee Engagement Awards, I’ve had the opportunity to get to know Aimee Lucas and her work at the Temkin Group (now the Qualtrics XM Institute).  Each year, she presents some great insights and research findings at the event showing the strong linkages between employee engagement and customer satisfaction.

Aimee and her group have been at the forefront of the conversation about both customer and employee experience. At this year’s event, she shared a model they call “The Human Experience Cycle” that is a helpful way of understanding how experience works. The thing I love most about this model is that it clearly outlines the role that individual expectations play in how we experience things.

 

 

You can read more about the model here. It applies to both customer and employee experience. And it helps explain how to shape and measure experience.

Beyond this model, the Qualtrics XM Institute website is a treasure trove of resources available for free. At the site, you’ll find research and guidance about both employee and customer experience and, more critically, the relationship between them.  Below are a few I recommend that you check out as you continue your education in this emerging domain.

Insight Report: Employee Engagement Competency & Maturity, 2018 – Download

  • “When we compared companies with above average employee engagement maturity to those with lower maturity, we found that employee engagement leaders have better customer experience, enjoy better financial results, have more coordinated employee engagement efforts, have more widespread support across employee groups, are more likely to act on employee feedback, and face fewer obstacles than their counterparts with less engaged workforces.”
  • “The top obstacle to employee engagement activities continues to be the lack of an employee engagement strategy.”

Insight Report: Propelling Experience Design Across an Organization – Download

  • This is a great resource to understand the work of designing experience. It’s focused on customer experience, but if you replace the word “customer” with “employee” as you read, you’ll begin to see the impact.
  • “This report explores how companies can use Experience Design – which we define as a repeatable, human-centric approach for creating emotionally resonant interactions – to craft consistently excellent interactions and how they can share and spread these capabilities across the entire organization.”

Post: The Inextricable Link Between CX & EX

  • “Although the connection between customer experience (CX) and employee experience (EX) may seem obvious to many people, it’s important that we periodically test the linkage. So we took a look at the data from our survey that drove the report, State of CX Management, 2018.”

Post: The Engaging Power Of Employee Feedback

  • “In our Q3 2018 Consumer Benchmark Study, we found that 40% of full time U.S. employees strongly agrees with the statement, ‘My company asks for my feedback and acts upon what I say.'”
  • “Eighty-two percent of employees who strongly agree that their company takes action on their feedback are likely to do something good for the company, compared with only 30% of those who do not agree.”
Why Work Still Sucks (And Organizational Change Is SLOW)
Why Work Still Sucks (And Organizational Change Is SLOW) 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

We’ve been working on making work suck less for quite a while now.

Gallup has been measuring employee engagement for nearly 30 years and the results have always been terrible. Most employees are not fully engaged at work.

In other words, work isn’t working very well for the people doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some organizations out there who have figured it out. They’ve redesigned work in a way that the humans love and are reaping the rewards. These are rare examples and proof of what’s possible.

We also have more research and science available to us today than ever before to help us understand people–how we are motivated and how our brains work, etc. In other words, with all this data, creating environments that are optimized for humans should be less mysterious and challenging.

And yet, we are still struggling just as mightily as we have for the past few decades. This riddle is one that I’ve pondered for a long time and while I’d love to tell you I have the answer to breaking through and being one of those rare examples, it’s not that simple.

I do, however, think I can point to one reason that this change is happening so slowly.

Let me take a step back for a moment. If you’ve been working with employee engagement for very long, you’ve probably debated–or at least thought about–whether it’s possible to take a disengaged culture and change it to an engaged culture without a change of leadership at the top.

Most of the stories we hear about an “epic culture change” start with a change of CEO. The old CEO didn’t get it, the new CEO does. And thus marks the beginning of the culture transformation for the organization.

Rarely do you hear a story about leaders who didn’t get it, but after some really compelling meetings with HR, they turned it around and became that leader who can spark a different kind of culture. I’m sure there are some examples of this happening, but it seems to be rare in my experience.

This leads me to an observation I’ve made throughout my career that I find particularly challenging.

Leaders struggle with breaking the system that gives them power, even when they know the system is bad.

It’s not an uncommon story to observe people changing as they rise up higher on the organizational chart. When they were a “high potential” new hire, they probably saw all sorts of issues in the system. They had pages of ideas for how leaders could show up differently and behave differently to make their work experience and their team’s work experience more rewarding.

But with every promotion, that individual moves farther and farther away from that employee perspective they once had. Every new title comes with a bigger paycheck, better perks, and more access to those with the real power.

Over time, that person grows accustomed to the role of the organization leader with all of its associated fringe benefits. The advice coming their way from those who grant the power at the top of the org chart begins to drown out those old ideas rooted in their own experience of leadership.

They become part of the organizational machine. And partially, that’s because there is so much at stake: big title, big paycheck, big office. All created by a system that they know isn’t working the best for most employees.

And so they find themselves, perpetuating the very behaviors and systems that they may have once railed against. It’s a cycle I’ve personally seen play out over and over again.

So what does it take to break out of this common pattern? It takes a rare and courageous leader to climb to the top of the ladder and then go about breaking apart the very ladder they are perched atop. That ladder is what affords them the power in the first place.

Willingness to break or fundamentally challenge the system that gives you power requires true vision, fortitude, and principle. It’s rare because the risks, or at least the perceived risks, are very high.

As I write this, I realize that this is a bit depressing. The system is designed in such a way that there are powerful incentives NOT to change, so what do we do?

I don’t think there are easy answers to this issue. But, here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. If you have a CEO who gets the importance of engagement and culture, you are incredibly fortunate. Do not squander the opportunity by playing small with small ideas. When you have the CEO as your back, you can accomplish some amazing things for both your employees and your organization.
  2. There is one exception to the rule that leaders won’t break the system that gives them power. That exception is a crisis. When the organization is facing a crisis, leader’s minds open to alternate paths. If the status quo leads to extinction, then change is required. When your organization finds itself in crisis, step forward with bold plans. This may be your moment to truly change the trajectory of the organization.
  3. Don’t lose sight of what it feels like to be a non-management employee. As you succeed, you will get promoted and with that will come all the trappings of corporate success. Stay connected to the experience and challenges that your employees have each day and what matters the most to them. Create rituals or habits where you are in regular conversation with employees about their day-to-day life at work. And, to the extent you can, help the up-and-coming leaders in your organization to do the same.

Regardless of all of this, I don’t want you to take the wrong message. CEOs don’t have to “get it” for you to make some big progress. But, it’s a whole lot easier when they do.

Start with what you can control. Transform your team first. Practice the kind of leadership you expect from others. Your example may help nudge others in the right direction.

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.

Why Leadership Buy-In For Employee Engagement And Inclusion Is Elusive
Why Leadership Buy-In For Employee Engagement And Inclusion Is Elusive 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

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I started my career in sales, selling copiers and fax machines. As a result, I’ve been through a bunch of sales training and have read a lot of sales books.

One of the things that is drilled into you in sales training is the difference between selling features and selling benefits. Oversimplified, features are what your product or service can do.  Benefits are how the use of the product or service creates value for you (the customer).

This is important because while features are cool, benefits drive our buying decisions. We buy things for what they can do for us or how they make us feel. We hire people to work for us, not for what they can do, but for how they can help us accomplish our goals.

While this may seem obvious as you read it, it’s something that most people get wrong when selling—even professional salespeople. We tend to emphasize the features of what we have to sell and often forget to even focus on the benefits.

For example, if you were trying to sell me a new smartphone, you would probably be tempted to describe to me the things your device can do (features). You might tell me about the size of the screen or the amount of storage the device has. You may describe the software that comes on the phone and the amazing camera it has.

That all seems reasonable, right?

But you don’t know why I want or need a new phone. You also don’t know how I use my phone or what things are most important to me. If I’m someone who primarily uses my phone to make calls, sends texts and read emails, the amount of storage on the phone and the fancy camera are of nearly no benefit to me. If all I want is a device that makes text easy to both read and type, then you haven’t won me over and I will likely not buy from you.

You’ve lost me because you didn’t connect what you were selling with what I want or need.

The best way to get someone to buy what you are selling is to show them how it helps them get what they really want or care about.

I spent part of last week with some corporate Diversity and Inclusion leaders. One of their shared challenges is getting executive leaders and/or middle managers “on board” with D&I programs and initiatives. As I listened to them talk about this challenge, it was clear that they are focused on selling the features of their work to these people.

Most D&I people can skillfully describe the impact of both diversity and inclusion. These features include better decision making and increased innovation among many more. In attempts to create buy-in, this is what they sell.

This echoes what I hear from employee engagement professionals as well. When it comes to engagement, we’re great at selling the features of engagement—increased loyalty and advocacy, better morale, more discretionary effort, etc.

But managers and executives have other priorities, regardless of whether we like it or not. They may listen to you describe the features of D&I or engagement or [insert name of other HR program] and even voice some agreement about the value you describe.

The problem is that can’t see how it’s going to help them get what they need or solve their most pressing problems. Executives are thinking about things like growing revenues or surviving new disruptive competitors. They want to look good to their shareholders and customers.

Managers are often just trying to survive. They are asked constantly to do more with less while keeping a stressed-out team motivated to work harder (and not quit) while keeping up with their own stack of work. Not to mention all the meetings. If they survive all this, they just want their team to hit their goals so they can look good to the higher-ups to possibly get a raise.

Unless you can show the executive how the work you are proposing will help them grow revenues, increase profits, enhance the brand, or any number of other things that are their priorities, you will never have their full buy-in.

The same is true for managers. Unless they can see how what you are selling is going to help them manage an already unruly and overwhelming workload, you might as well save your breath. To them, it just sounds like more work to pile on top of it all.

So, here’s what to do about it.

  1. Study the people you need to buy in. Find out what they really care about. Learn what their problems and pain points are. How do you do that?  Well, you can start with listening and observing them. You can learn a lot that way. I’d also recommend talking to them, if you can. Ask them about their priorities and challenges, whether they are related to HR or not.
  2. Start describing the benefits of your work rather than the features. Once you understand your internal customers better, you can put your work in context of the problems it solves and the value it creates for them. Talk about performance and enabling better outcomes for them instead of the features mentioned earlier.
  3. Focus on solving problems instead of converting the non-believers. When you implement solutions that demonstrate the value of your work, you earn the opportunity to explain why and how it worked. A good leader might argue with you about the conceptual merits of employee engagement, but they won’t argue with the results of your work if it helped them achieve what they truly care about. In fact, they will often want to know after the fact, how and why it worked. That’s when the buy-in is created naturally. Even the boldest skeptics can be won over through results.

The work we do is righteous work. But we must let go of our need for leaders to embrace it at face value. Instead, go prove that it works. They will jump on board when you do.

A Hard Truth about Employee Engagement
A Hard Truth about Employee Engagement 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

There was a point in my career, probably 18 or 20 years or so ago, that I would have argued vehemently that creating a workplace culture that engages employees was vital to sustaining a profitable business. I believed in my heart that it was an imperative.

At the time, I was an HR leader working at an organization where my CEO really believed (and invested) in the value of people not only as employees but as human beings with lives beyond work.

For me, it was the perfect place to practice HR. While my CEO was pragmatic in how he ran this company of 800+ people, he was always open to considering new ways to help people develop and grow. He came to believe that work was a vehicle for employees to pursue their dreams. And the more we could create an experience of work that supported that, the better we’d do.

And we did well. During my 3 1/2 years working for this organization, we invested heavily in our culture and the development of our people, most of whom worked in call centers. As a result, our turnover began to decrease to nearly half what it had historically been. This along with other efforts, led to us doubling our revenue per employee over those short few years. An astonishing result for a company of this size.

We did so well, in fact, that the company peaked in value and was acquired by a much larger call center company. It was at this point in my career that I was most dogmatic in my belief that the only way to produce sustainable, profitable business results was through an engaged workplace.

But, then I spent the next couple of years working as a VP of HR for the new organization. I took on the support of large legacy call centers where turnover was in the range of 200% annually. Given my mindset at the time, I climbed up on my righteous high horse and started working on how to create a more engaging work environment in these call centers.

And I met resistance at every turn by the local management. Sure, they were interested in decreasing turnover as long as it didn’t require any real change. In reality, they mainly wanted to ensure that my team could keep up with recruiting enough new hires to backfill for the turnover.

I fought this battle for a year and made very little progress. I wanted to talk about culture and engagement, they just wanted to talk about recruiting. Eventually, it hit me.

This company who I now worked for had been in business for several decades. And they had been quite successful by most financial measures. They were 40,000 employees strong at the time.

And, near as I could tell, they did it all without caring at all about employee engagement.

Their business model assumed high employee turnover. So, when they priced business, they built in the cost of supporting 200% annual turnover.  Managers, rather than learning how to engage and develop employees, learned how to churn and burn people the best they could to maintain their minimum performance standards. And, they had gotten good enough at it to keep their customers satisfied.

It was black and white evidence that my belief in employee engagement as the only way to succeed was wrong. You can make money a lot of different ways in business–many of those ways involve exploiting, undervaluing, or otherwise taking advantage of people (employees, customers, etc.).

This was the hard truth I learned.  Employee engagement isn’t an imperative of succeeding in business. You can survive and succeed without caring at all about employees as people. I’ve lived through it (as I’m sure many of you have too).

Knowing this is important when you are trying to convince executives to invest in employee engagement. They know this isn’t a succeed or fail discussion because they’ve spent most of their careers working for successful companies who would sacrifice people for short term financial rewards without hesitating.

Investing in culture and engagement isn’t the ONLY path, but it’s the RIGHT path. Treating people well at work, caring about them as humans, making sure they feel included and appreciated–all of the things we typically roll together under the heading of “employee engagement,” is first and foremost simply the right thing to do.

There’s very little debate in any organization that treating customers with care, respect, appreciation, and intention is critical to succeeding. And yet, some still question the importance of doing the same for our employees.

The work we chose to do to create more human, engaging work experiences isn’t only about better business results, it’s about achieving them in a way that fulfills everyone involved–employees, customers, shareholders, communities. It’s also about creating the opportunity for each person to find their potential both at work and in life.

There are certainly other paths to business results. Some of them may even be easier to travel as business leaders.

Employee engagement isn’t simply about doing what works. It’s also about doing what’s right.

“The time is always right to do what is right.”

Martin Luther King, Jr.