leadership

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.

 

What is Employee Engagement? It’s time to demand better answers.
What is Employee Engagement? It’s time to demand better answers. 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

One of the things that makes me crazy about the work of employee engagement is the sloppiness we allow around how we define and approach about it. As I talk to leaders within organizations who are currently spending enormous sums of money on measuring and attempting to improve engagement, they struggle with basic questions like “How do you define employee engagement?” and “How does employee engagement drive your organization’s success?”

If we can’t clearly define this work and why it matters, how can we ever expect to make a huge impact, let alone be taken seriously? We have to do better.

Over the past year, I’ve been working out a conceptual model of employee engagement as an attempt to create movement towards a solution. That model is laid out in this post.

Before I get into the model, let’s call out a few things about why things are such a mess today. Employee engagement isn’t a tangible thing. It is an invention of academics and consultants intended to help us make sense of the complex relationship between employees and their work.

Because “engagement” is a made-up construct used to describe abstract ideas, there is no universal definition for engagement. The closest we could come would be to agree upon a standard, but that’s not likely to happen anytime soon.

The challenge is that every consultant, researcher, and technology tool provider has a slightly different take on employee engagement. And they like it that way as it helps them differentiate their approach. This feels both confusing and annoying to anyone trying to actually engage employees.

This lack of clarity means that managers, leaders, and even HR professionals are often left wondering exactly what really matters when it comes to engaging employees. And the employees end up paying the price by living through an inconsistent and non-optimal work experience every day.

Today, I’m going to share with you some definitions and a model of employee engagement based on my research and experience. My intention in sharing this isn’t to sell you something or test out a new product idea I have. Instead, I want to help you think differently and better about employee engagement in a way that might actually help us bring more intention to our work.

What I share below is an evolving work in progress. I don’t proclaim this as the “right” answer but I hope to provoke conversation and debate that moves us forward in the quest to create work experiences that work better for humans.

WHAT EXACTLY IS ENGAGEMENT?

Most commonly, engagement is defined as some combination of discretionary effort and intent to stay. In other words, an engaged employee gives me more effort than I pay them for and they aren’t thinking about leaving me. Call me a skeptic, but I think these definitions were created to secure funding from executives rather than to drive the actual work. Who wouldn’t want more effort you don’t have to pay extra for or decreased turnover? I’m in!

Other definitions (including some I’ve embraced in the past) define engagement in terms of emotional or social connection to work. And while this may be true, it is incomplete because it does not capture the “why.” Definitions like these feel hollow to bottom-line focused execs because they sound squishy and disconnected from value creation and performance.

Here’s how I am defining engagement today.

Engagement is the degree to which an employee is both willing and able to perform to their potential.

Ultimately, engagement is about unlocking performance potential. Organizations exist to perform. Without this performance imperative, the organization need not exist. So, any model of employee engagement that isn’t directly tied to performance is inadequate.

Notice the use of the words “willing” and “able” in the definition. Engagement is a gauge of both conscious commitment to achievement and the degree to which an individual’s experience and environment are either enabling or hindering their ability to give their fullest efforts to their work.

Engagement is not, however, the “end all, be all” for performance. There are also processes related to talent and management, separate from engagement, that are equally important to overall performance.

 

Talent processes are responsible for finding people with the right performance potential and then continuing to increase that potential through ongoing development. If you fully engage subpar (or wrong) talent, you get subpar results. Engagement without talent will always lead to subpar results.

Management processes are responsible for ensuring that available performance potential is applied and aligned to achieve organizational success. When you unlock performance potential but use it in the wrong way or apply it to the wrong thing, you can still fail.

It’s important to note here that management processes are different from the role of a Manager. A manager will have responsibilities across all three of these processes.

The point of sharing this is to highlight that while engagement is critical, it’s not a silver bullet. Good employee engagement won’t make up for bad talent or management processes. They are interconnected.

Talent delivers performance potential. Engagement unlocks that potential. Management ensures that potential is applied in the right way.

HOW DOES ENGAGEMENT WORK? 

Based on my experience and research, I believe that there are three major variables in employee engagement.

  1. Satisfaction. This is the extent to which an employee’s experience of work exceeds their expectations.
    • Experience is the cumulative of an employee’s interactions with “work” over time that impact how they feel about their work and employer.
  2. Drive. Drive in my model is the degree to which an individual is motivated to achieve the goals and outcomes that are important to organizational success.
  3. Wellness. This represents the degree to which an individual’s core human needs are satisfied. When these needs are left unmet, it diminishes the individual’s ability to offer up their full potential.

I’ve always been a bit of a math nerd, so when I started working on a model, a math equation emerged. Please don’t take the equation literally. This equation is meant not as a simple calculation but as a conceptual model to represent the relationship between the variables.

Here’s how I believe engagement works:

SATISFACTION

At the heart of the equation is satisfaction. Satisfaction has gotten a bad rap as the early, not-as-sophisticated, version of engagement. Satisfaction is, and always has been, central to engagement. In this model, satisfaction is a measure of how your experience of work compares to your expectations.

The work of engagement is not only about shaping and creating employee experience; it’s also about managing and shaping employee expectations. In my career, I’ve seen very few organizations that do both well. When you have unrealistic expectations, even a great experience can leave you feeling unsatisfied. When you have lower expectations (for whatever reason), an average employee experience might feel pretty good. Positive satisfaction occurs only when your experience exceeds your expectations. Both factors are important.

It’s a lot like happiness. Happiness isn’t as much about what happens to you as it is about how you feel about what happens to you. The key to happiness lies in learning to manage your expectations. This is also true for engagement. Managing expectations is critical and often done poorly.

Employee experience is new language for us over the past few years, but it’s not new in actual practice. This is the area of the engagement equation that we’ve (as a profession of HR and leadership) been primarily focused on and where we’ve had great difficulty. At the heart of the issue is that employee experience today at most organizations was designed through a “work as a contract” way of thinking. Most modern work experience is designed for the primary benefit of the employer—to ensure that the employee is living up their end of the employment contract (psychological or otherwise). It’s a compliance-driven, “what have you done for me lately” experience.

The problem is that most of the research we have into employee engagement reveals that it is relational factors that most strongly motivate employees to greater contribution. Work is a relationship for employees. Things like feeling valued and trusted are always at the top of any list of engagement drivers along with other factors like appreciation and feeling like someone cares about us. Employees expect to be treated like they are in a relationship with work, not bound by a contract.

WELLNESS

Wellness is an often overlooked but critical variable to engagement. If I am sick, hungover, scared, distracted, tired, lonely, worrying about how I’m going to pay my rent or in any other way compromised, I cannot give my fullest effort to work. If I’m suffering domestic abuse at home or I’m trying to care for a dying parent without much support and resources, my ability to contribute at work is diminished.

Wellness is and should be about helping, supporting, and equipping employees to pursue a greater sense of well-being in their lives. It’s about equipping each person to navigate more successfully the complexities of being human, so that when they show up to work, they feel like a whole and well person, able to give their full effort and energy to the work.

To do this work, we need to develop a better understanding of core human needs. In 2017, I worked with colleagues Christina Boyd-Smith and Joe Gerstandt to develop a model of motivating human needs. The model was distilled from a host of research-based frameworks ranging from Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to Carol Ryff’s Well-Being model and the Max-Neef model. I share it as an example of what a model for wellness might look like.

  • Authenticity: Living and being embraced as a whole, unique person.
  • Connection: Having quality relationships and intimacy with others.
  • Freedom: Having and exercising choice in our lives. Influencing our future.
  • Growth: Making progress towards a better version of ourselves. Moving towards our potential.
  • Meaning: Knowing our actions matter. Feeling part of something bigger than ourselves.
  • Safety: Feeling protected from danger or harm. Having a sense of security. Being free from fear.
  • Health: Maintaining a well-functioning mind and body. Managing our energy and balance.

When these human needs are met at the individual level, we feel a sense of well-being that enables us to be our best and give our best.

DRIVE

Drive is the third variable of engagement. While this is a complex aspect to unpack, this is where the “willingness” of engagement lives. Hat tip to Dan Pink for introducing this idea of “drive” into our thinking about employee motivation. I don’t use the word here to mean exactly what Dan did in his great book, but something in the same realm. It’s where purpose, meaning, and perceived impact lives. It’s about the degree to which I believe and can see alignment between my personal career goals and the goals put upon me by the organization. Even when I feel well and satisfied, if I am not motivated to move the organization forward, I may not be of much value. Motivation to perform is critical to unlocking potential.

There are a lot of motivational theories that could be applied or used as a measurement framework for drive (including Dan Pink’s). I’m not going to argue here for any model as that debate can wait for another day. The argument I am making is that motivation to perform is a core variable in engagement. Without it, your engagement efforts will fall short.

THE MATH

In the employee engagement model (equation) above, each variable multiplies one another. For those who aren’t algebra geeks, that means that while any largely positive variable can amplify the others, if any one of the variables goes toward zero, the whole equation goes toward zero regardless of how positive the other variables may be.

In other words, if do an adequate job of supporting wellness, satisfaction and drive within your organization, investing in dramatically improving one of the three variables should provide a boost to engagement overall. But, if you do a great job on two variables (like satisfaction and drive) but overlook a third (wellness), if employee wellness suffers it could have a pretty dramatic negative impact on engagement overall.

Each variable is critical to overall engagement. If any of them fail, the whole thing fails. And to succeed in engagement requires that we succeed in maximizing each variable.

This is only a model. It’s meant to help us think more deeply and critically about the variables involved and their relation to one another. One of my goals in the upcoming years is to design, collaborate, and support research efforts to move from a theoretical model to a validated, quantitative framework that could give birth to a standard that could work across industries. I hope you will join me on that journey.

For now, I just hope to provoke your thinking and some debate.

What do you think?

Engaging Employees from Inside Bad HR Processes
Engaging Employees from Inside Bad HR Processes 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

When I speak to people about treating work as a relationship with employees rather than a contract, there’s a question I am commonly asked.

It typically sounds something like this:

“How do you make work feel like a relationship when you are trapped inside a bureacratic organization with archaic processes?”

This question is a great one because it describes the challenge (or more accurately PAIN) of so many managers and HR pros out there. It reflects a more fundamental question, “how do you make an impact when you can’t change the system itself?”

I feel the angst and frustration in the question. This question is so common and important, it seemed like a good idea to address it in a blog post.

To address this challenge, let’s focus on an example that many can probably relate to.  Let’s assume your organization still requires a traditional annual performance appraisal, the kind of process that culminates in a rating that triggers a merit increase amount. Regardless of how much is written about the flaws in this type of process, a majority of organizations are still using it.

If you want to unlock performance in your team by making work feel more like a healthy relationship, you will have to work around bad processes like this. Despite how broken or poorly designed your HR and management processes might be, it doesn’t have to be a barrier if you do the followings things.

1. Always think about the relationship first.

The first thought for any manager or team leader should be about maintaining and building healthy relationships with the people on their teams. Time is the currency of relationships, so if you aren’t spending time with your people in conversation about both life and work, start there. Nothing sends a clearer message to people that you value them than when you invest your time in them. This means regularly scheduled one on one meetings at the minimum.

Regardless of the process, one technique I highly recommend is the relationship test. In short, ask yourself how this process would go if someone you really cared about in your personal life (i.e. best friend, significant other, child, etc.) was on the other end. If it would likely be hard on the relationship, then you should step back and consider a different approach. For example, if you had to communicate some bad news to your significant other, would you do it in an email? Probably not. So, why would you choose that approach for people at work?

2. Invite your employees to help you create a better experience.

At the heart of what relationship means is that we do it WITH others. So, whenever you are asked to do something “to” someone else, it’s probably not a great process to grow relationships. The performance appraisal is a great example of this. The traditional appraisal is something we, as managers, are asked to do to the employee. Sometimes, we offer employees the opportunity to appraise themselves, but generally, it’s a one-way process.

To make these processes more human (and humane), we must find ways to involve the employee in the process. Invite them to help create ideas for how to make the process feel more positive and valuable. For example, invite employees into the goal-setting process to provide input and negotiate their goals on the front end. Another example might be to explore how you could use the one-on-one meetings throughout the year to check-in about progress on the appraisal.  You might even have conversations along the way like, “If we had to agree on a performance rating for you based on your work this year so far, what would it be?” This allows you to align and calibrate throughout the year to ensure no surprises when it comes appraisal time.

The more the employee feels they are able to participate in and shape the process, the less harmful it will be to the relationship.

3. Don’t be confined by the process.

This brings me to my last bit of advice. Just because the process exists doesn’t mean that’s where your work as a manager stops. I think it’s ironic that there’s so much talk lately about replacing the annual appraisal with a process of more regular performance check-ins. The reason it’s ironic is that a good manager doesn’t need permission or a new process to be conducting regular check-ins. The best managers are always doing this, regardless of process.

The bad process you are trapped inside is simply a compliance exercise. It should never represent your intention and practice as a manager or leader. Consider the advice I offer above and then ask, how can I hack or work around the process to actually improve team performance by forming better relationships?

I recently wrote about 5 ways to hack your performance process. That should get you started with some ideas. Treat the process as the “paperwork” you have to do to stay in compliance, but don’t let it dictate your approach with your people.

You are the solution. 

I am going to continue to crusade against bad, inhumane work processes. These processes need to change. If you can change out a bad process, please do it as soon as possible.

But, if you happen to be stuck with some bad processes, don’t let them stop you. Create a great experience for your employees in spite of them.

Soft Skills are Hard. We need to stop calling them soft. #Workhuman
Soft Skills are Hard. We need to stop calling them soft. #Workhuman 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

I’m just back from spending four epic days in Nashville at my favorite conference event of the year, Workhuman. As is always the case after this event, I’ve got a lot of ideas swirling in my head from the great content and conversations.

Sidenote: I know I’ve said this before, but I’ll say it again. If you believe that we need to make work a more human experience, you need to get to this event next year.  It’s a gathering of our tribe to connect, support one another, and gain the information and inspiration we need to keep doing this righteous work. Go to the event site and sign up for updates so you won’t miss it next year. 

As you’d expect, there was a lot of discussion about what it means to create a work experience where humans can bring and be the best version of themselves.

The topics ranged from courage and vulnerability to mindfulness. There were experts who spoke about happiness, trauma, emotional resilience, and community. We explored the very real issues of equity, sexism, racism, and more that affect the workplace every day–whether we like to admit it or not.

At one point, I was having a conversation with someone and they referenced the importance of developing “soft skills.”

For some reason, when I heard the word “soft” this time, it was like someone slapped me across the face.

The phrase “soft skills” is a short-hand we adopted in HR and management years ago to describe those skills we need to work successfully with other people.  When I Google the phrase, at the top of the page I get this definition:

personal attributes that enable someone to interact effectively and harmoniously with other people.

When I heard the phrase used this time, it seemed so…wrong. So woefully inadequate to describe what we are talking about.

As I reflected on why it hit me as it did, it became clear pretty quickly.

These skills aren’t soft. Not even a little bit.

Soft Skills are Hard 

Learning to be in healthy, positive relationships with other people is HARD. Yes, it may come more naturally for some than for others, but learning to be vulnerable (for example) is never easy. Some people go their whole lives and never figure it out.

Active listening is real work. You have to be committed and dedicated to it for it to happen. And even then, we get distracted and fail sometimes. It’s hard.

Empathy is also not easy to learn. Finding the awareness to see and feel not only outside of yourself but to then climb into another’s shoes to find their perspective is a developed skill. Again, hard work.

But, it’s not just that these skills are hard to learn and master.

Soft Skills make Immense Impact

When someone really listens to you and hears you, you remember that feeling. When someone sees you and recognizes your potential, it lifts you up. When someone shares themselves with you in a way that is risky for them, it draws you to them and changes your relationship.

These “soft skills” that we strive to train and develop in our leaders and employees are anything but soft in their impact on others. We’ve all witnessed or experienced the power of authentic human connection. I doubt that any one of us would choose the word “soft” to describe it.

So, I think we need to remove this from our language. These skills and attributes aren’t soft.

If we need a better word, perhaps we could consider vital or essential or human.

When we call them soft, we diminish their importance. And we give those who fail to recognize their importance the permission to minimize them. No more.

Creating a work experience that’s good for humans is hard. Being a leader or coworker who creates an experience for others that celebrates and welcomes the full splendor of their humanity is hard.

And it’s worth it. It is the work we are called to do.

So here’s my #Workhuman challenge to you:

  1. Remove the phrase “Soft Skills” from your vocabulary. Vow to never utter those words again so as to never unwittingly undermine the importance of these vital, essential, human skills.
  2. When you encounter someone who uses the phrase “soft skills,” engage that person in a conversation about the critical importance of these skills, how hard they are to learn, and why you don’t call them “soft” anymore.

Language is important. We need to choose and use our words wisely.

It’s time for “soft” to be removed from our vocabulary.

 

An Unexpected Reminder of the Power in Genuine Appreciation
An Unexpected Reminder of the Power in Genuine Appreciation 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

This week, while staying in Chicago for work, I ventured out to find a nearby sports bar to watch a basketball game and grab some dinner.

In fairness, this wasn’t just any basketball game. I was planning to watch my beloved Duke Blue Devils play. And, I was appropriately dressed in Duke gear to show my allegiance.

The bar I chose based on Yelp reviews was called Theory. When I arrived, I found a spot at the bar in front of a TV with the game and settled in.

My initial impressions of Theory were positive. The bar staff was friendly and helped me choose a good local IPA and a sandwich to enjoy.

At some point early in the game, I heard a voice behind me say, “Thanks so much for coming in to watch the game. Are you a Duke grad?” It was a man a bit younger than me dressed in a gold, Iowa Hawkeye hoodie and a cap whose bill was angled a bit off center. He was the owner.

We chatted for the next few minutes about how I was a life long Duke fan. He shared with me how he went to high school with one of the Duke assistant coaches (and a former player) and how that had made him a fan of the team.

At the end of our conversation, he said “Thank you for your business, I really appreciate that you came in to watch the game tonight.” And he was off.

I watched him work the entire bar over the next couple hours, going out of his way to thank every person who came in for choosing his bar. And the thing that struck me about this was how genuine he seemed to be in his gratitude and appreciation.

He stopped by to check in with me at least two more times while I was there, each time thanking me for being there. And, while I recognize that this may sound excessive as you read it, it didn’t feel that way. It felt like being a guest in the home of someone who is a thoughtful host.

On my way out of the bar, we met one last time and shook hands. He thanked me again for my business and I thanked him for the experience. I can honestly say that I don’t think I’ve ever felt more appreciated leaving a dining experience.

It felt surprisingly good.

I will be back to Theory any time I’m nearby. And I’ll recommend it whenever I have the chance.

As I thought about the experience on my walk back to the hotel, it struck me that this was a lesson in the power of genuine expressions of gratitude and appreciation.

The food at Theory is good. The craft beer selection is also quite good. The bartenders were attentive and friendly. There are a lot of good things about this place. But that could be said about a lot of places.

It was the brief interactions with the owner, a stranger, that set this experience apart from others. A few words and a few minutes of time made the difference between a forgettable meal at a random sports bar and writing a blog post about the experience.

Here’s what I’d invite you to consider.

What if managers and leaders took the same care at work to make every person feel seen, acknowledged, and appreciated?

What if employees left work each day feeling the way I did leaving Theory, as if my presence there actually mattered to someone?

It’s not complicated. A few minutes and a few genuine words of gratitude is all it takes.

I think we can do this.

A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter
A “Non-Obvious” Conversation about Employee Engagement with Jamie Notter 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Today, I’m doing something a little different on the blog. My longtime friends Jamie Notter and Maddie Grant have just published a new book titled “The Non-Obvious Guide to Employee Engagement.” They present a unique perspective that I think you’ll find interesting.

What follows is a short interview I did with Jamie over email to give you a flavor of what’s in the book. My questions are in bold. The rest are Jamie’s words. More details about the book and how to find Jamie and Maddie are at the bottom of the post. Enjoy.


Your new book is about employee engagement. In my opinion, one of the foundation issues in most work on this topic is a lack of clear definition of employee engagement. As you also note in your book, there are nearly as many definitions of engagement as there are consultants and technology firms who claim to have the answer.

So, let’s start there. How do you define employee engagement? And what makes your definition more credible and valuable than the countless others out there?

Here’s our definition of engagement:

Employee engagement is the level of emotional connection and commitment employees have to an organization, which is driven by how successful they are at work, both personally and organizationally.

The first half of the definition is really our summary of all the other definitions out there. They all focus on the internal emotional connection/commitment. And that’s a huge problem because if that is what engagement is, then there’s nothing managers can do to improve it. That’s internal to the employee, so it’s not something I can get my hands on.

And that also defines engagement in terms of the result (level of commitment), but says NOTHING about the cause, and that’s where I think we are adding value here. The cause of engagement is fundamentally success. When people are deeply successful at work, then they have that level of commitment/connection. When you start messing with their success–THAT’s when they start to phone it in.

I’m not sure how clear we make it in the book, but we see three levels of success that will impact engagement–personal, role, and enterprise. The personal part is: am I being successful as I define it related to my life goals and destiny. This, by the way, is why I think entrepreneurs are 100% engaged–most of them were born to do it. They just can’t work for other people. So if you stick someone in a job that is not aligned with their values and life goals, they’ll be less engaged.

Role is about being successful in my specific job. If you put me in sales, but your org is so siloed that no one will give me leads, then I can’t be successful in sales and engagement drops. Enterprise is about my work actually contributing to the success of the organization. Imagine working for Kodak as they missed the digital camera revolution. I might be successful in my film processing, but I know it’s a sinking ship.

You align your organization with deep success like that, and you’ll get engagement.

Traditionally, engagement has been seen as the path to results (usually described as discretionary effort). The argument says that when engagement increases, employee output increases. In other words, more engagement leads to more success. Your definition seems to reverse the order making engagement an outcome. A cynic might argue then, why are we even talking about engagement if it’s simply a product of successful performance? I’m guessing there’s more to it than that. Can you explain?

Okay, so while I do think there is “more to it than that” (and I’ll explain in a minute), first I want to say that the cynic might have a point here. A lot of the literature on engagement cites statistics showing all the increased profits, revenue, and productivity that organizations get when they have higher engagement. They specifically imply that if you can somehow get more engagement, you’ll get those great results of profits, revenue, etc.

This really frustrates me, because I don’t think I’ve seen ANY proof of causation in those statistics–it’s simply correlation. Engagement and profits correlate. Fine. So what’s our mental model here? Is it (a) if we cajole people into being engaged, we’ll get more profit? Or (b) if we figure out how to be consistently profitable, people might actually like working here more? B honestly seems more sensible to me.

But, as you say, there’s more to it than that. Part of the bigger picture is what I said in the previous email–I think engagement is a function of DEEP success, which includes the enterprise level, but also role and personal levels. Creating a culture where everyone has success at all those levels goes way beyond simply being profitable. It’s about creating a system that is focused on those different levels of success simultaneously.

But most organizations, frankly, don’t have systems like that. They have cobbled together a culture that manages to generate some enterprise success (or they’d be out of business), but often at the expense of success at the other two levels. We finish the year in the black, but people are frustrated at the red-tape they have to go through just to get resources, or at the missed opportunities for innovation because one department won’t talk to the other.

Most companies today are focused on actions that increase engagement as a means to greater success. You argue for a different approach in the book. What do you believe organizations should do instead if they want to create a more engaging work experience for employees?  

If companies want engagement, then they should focus on finding and fixing the patterns inside their culture that are getting in the way of deep success. Get under the surface to find the patterns in the way you do things that are having the biggest impact on success, and then fix them (or reinforce them if it’s a positive impact).

Don’t just tell me whether or not your people think the organization is good at collaboration (which is what an engagement survey might say). Show me that while people as individuals are keen to help each other out in this culture, we haven’t invested in processes and systems to support the collaboration, so it ends up being ad hoc. And at the end of the year, we can always point back to a long list of missed opportunities to deliver value to the client because we weren’t proactively collaborating. And then suggest to me some new processes or technologies you can employ that will change that pattern.

You start doing that and engagement will increase–without you having to run ONE engagement survey.


For more great insights and practical guidance for how to manage your culture to fuel success and engagement, order a copy of the new book or visit his website.  

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Is this really about a 4-day week?

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

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

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

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

My Take

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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