management

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.

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?

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.

 

The Blindspot in Employee Engagement
The Blindspot in Employee Engagement 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

A couple years ago, as my wife and I were returning home from an employee engagement conference where I had spoken, she said something to me that I didn’t fully understand at the time.

I remember it sounding something like this.

“The content here was good, but it was all focused on the happy, positive side of being human at work. Where’s the conversation about all of the hard, painful stuff that humans bring with them to work? Why wasn’t anyone talking about that?”

I agreed with her because she’s always right (joking, kind of). But, the gravity of her wisdom didn’t set in with me until much later.

As I started to pay closer attention to the conversations happening about making the workplace more human, I started to notice what she was talking about. Most of the focus is on how to create a more connected, inclusive, mindful, nourishing, affirming work experience for employees.

All great stuff. All important stuff. Do that.

The problem, however, is that humans carry with us a lot of baggage when we show up to work each day. Regardless of how much we try to convince ourselves of the separation between work and life, it’s a lie.

Life is everywhere and everything we experience is life. Work is just one place where life happens.

Remember, work for employees is a relationship. The test of a good relationship is how you show up when things aren’t so good. The friendships that sustain are with those who are not only around when it’s time to celebrate, they also show up when things are hard (through an illness or breakup, etc.). It’s how they show up in these moments that creates the commitment and loyalty that lasts.

The same is true of the work relationship. It’s great that you celebrate victories and birthdays and new childbirths, but how do you show up during hardship and tragedy? That’s where the rubber meets the road.

This came into stark focus for me last week when I attended and spoke at the WELCOA Summit, the premier event for workplace wellness professionals. It seems that while most of us focus on creating the shining, happy workplace where all humans are welcome, these wellness champions are the ones worrying about the not so shiny, not so happy reality of being human.

The opening keynote by Mettie Spiess is a shining example of what I now realize is the real work of creating a truly human workplace. She sharing her gut-wrenching personal story of losing both of her brothers to suicide and of her own experience of living with mental illness. Her life’s purpose is to create a world without suicide. And she believes that’s possible, but not unless we make some major changes.

The statistics on suicide and mental health in the U.S. are alarming, to put it lightly.

Here’s the truth. Even if you have created an amazing, engaging workplace–these stats make clear that there are people walking through the door at your workplace each day who are silently suffering, maybe fighting a solo battle for their survival.

The bad news is that they aren’t likely to find much support at work because we aren’t looking for them. It’s easy to ignore the realities of mental illness unless you or someone you love is living with it. And to make matters worse, there’s such a negative stigma around mental illness (i.e. “I didn’t know you were crazy”) that it rarely feels safe to ask for help–even when there’s some sort of structure in place to do so.

One of the core messages I took from Mettie is that we must dramatically raise awareness and kill the stigma around mental health. To do this, we have to be very intentional in our efforts around education and awareness of mental illness and suicide in the workplace.

But beyond that, she reinforced the importance and power of authentic human connection and compassion to break some of these cycles. The CDC identified social connectedness as a key factor in the prevention of suicide. Fostering the creation and formation of healthy relationships through work could literally save someone’s life.

But, so too can showing care and concern. Simply paying attention to others and asking “how are you doing?” can make all the difference. This seems so simple and obvious but is easy to neglect in our steadfast commitment to being “busy” all the time.

Suicide and mental health probably feel pretty uncomfortable to read about, let alone talk about. I know. For me too.

But I think this is the essence of the work to create truly “human” places of work. We must create a place where humans connect together to not only create work product together but also to find belonging and acknowledgment and support–real support for both the good stuff and the bad.

Even the people in your work lives who seem to have it all together on the outside are probably struggling with something beneath the surface. It might not be mental illness or suicide, but it might be something that feels just as debilitating to them.

Maybe they are experiencing burnout.

Or maybe they are suffering abuse at the hands of an intimate partner. (20 people per minute are abused by an intimate partner in the U.S. and some of them work for you.)

Many are suffering from serious financial stress. One study reveals that 1 in 4 Americans suffers from PTSD like symptoms caused by financial stress.

The list goes on. Life is hard and the challenges are real.

If we are going to create a truly “human” company, this is the hard work. It’s not enough to simply focus on appreciation and connection and encouragement. We must also make room and provide support for the other side of the human equation.

Creating an engaging work experience for employees is meaningful, important work. But, changing or saving someone’s life is a whole different level of impact that we can and should have on the people who we employ.

Not sure where to start? Let’s chat. I’ll help nudge you in the right direction.

Oh, and how are you?  If you are struggling and need to talk, please reach out.

For more great reading on this topic, check out my friend Rachel Druckenmiller’s summary post about the WELCOA Summit. It’s full of goodness.

Suicide Prevention Hotline: 1-800-273-8255 or Suicide Prevention Lifeline

 

Wellness 2.0
Wellness 2.0 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

About eight years ago, I joined an organization that was pretty serious about workplace wellness.

Since the wellness team rolled up to me as the HR leader, I got pretty serious about learning what it was all about quickly. Most of the focus, I learned, was on improving the physical health of our employee population.

This particular organization had been investing in wellness programs for years, long before most organizations started to take it seriously. They did some really cool stuff in the name of wellness. They viewed it as a benefit to employees.

At the time I joined this organization, healthcare costs in the U.S. were really beginning to skyrocket and the cost of providing employer-sponsored health insurance had become a concern.

This triggered the wellness industry to jump into action. Suddenly, workplace wellness programs were no longer a benefit, they were a vehicle to control and reduce health insurance costs. It made sense. The healthier you are, the less healthcare you consume–at least in theory.

We sold this clear new “business case” for wellness, HARD. Our execs got on board and we got to work.

But, the promised cost containment and cost savings never really materialized. And we weren’t alone. It wasn’t that wellness wasn’t making a positive difference, it just wasn’t reducing health insurance spend.

This promise of wellness has failed. The costs savings never materialized. Wellness had bet big and lost on a business case with far too many uncontrollable variables.

Sadly, this is putting some wellness programs and wellness professionals at risk of losing funding and influence.

Now is not the time to abandon wellness. Now is the time to double down.

Work is a relationship for employees. And, at the core of a healthy relationship is feeling a sense of belonging and being care for. No other function within the organization is better positioned to help employees feel this way than wellness.

The practice of corporate wellness has evolved over the past decade. Today, instead of only being about improving physical health, it’s about improving overall feelings of well-being. Wellness is wholly focused on caring for you as an individual person.

When wellness works, it can really strengthen the relationship by making you feel like the organization cares about you beyond simply what you can do for it. If your organization provides you with the tools to get out of debt or with the skills to be a better parent, it makes a real and positive impact.

But when it fails, the relationship gets damaged. My wife still talks about a day at work well over a decade ago that is a good example. A snowstorm was getting started in the city and many of her colleagues were leaving work early to make it home before the snow got bad.

As a single mom with a young son in daycare, she had to make it across town before the daycare closes. For those who may not contend with snow regularly, when a snowstorm of any magnitude rolls into the city, a 30-minute commute can become a 90-minute commute pretty quickly.  So, she asked her boss if she could leave early.

As an hourly employee, her boss not only didn’t want to let her leave early but proceeded to give her a lecture about how she needed to have a backup plan for situations like these. These words, to someone who didn’t have an easy answer for a “back up plan” were at best insensitive and at worst insulting and hurtful. Like I said, my wife still feels the hurt all these years later.

Learning to really care for an employees wellness is at the heart of creating a great work experience and a strong work relationship.  But, this requires that we evolve our understanding of wellness as a practice.

Recently, the Wellness Council of America debuted a new definition of Wellness that I find really inspiring. Here is the core of their definition:

What is Wellness?

Wellness is the active pursuit to understand and fulfill your individual human needs—which allows you to reach a state where you are flourishing and able to realize your full potential in all aspects of life. Every person has wellness aspirations.

Successful workplace wellness initiatives require supporting employees in fulfilling their needs in these seven areas:

Health   Beyond the absence of mental and physical illness, health is a feeling of strength and energy from your body and mind.

Meaning   Feeling part of something bigger than yourself. Knowing that your work matters. Having purpose in your life.

Safety   Knowing that you are safe from physical and psychological harm at work. Feeling secure enough to take calculated risks and show vulnerability. Free of concern about meeting basic life needs.

Connection   Experiencing positive, trusting relationships with others. Feeling a sense of belonging, acceptance and support.

Achievement   Feeling you have the support, resources and autonomy to achieve your goals. Succeeding at meeting your individual goals and work aspirations.

Growth   Feeling like you are progressing in your career. Learning and being challenged to use and expand on your strengths.

Resiliency   Viewing life with optimism. Feeling grateful and expressing appreciation. Feeling validated and encouraged.

You can find the full definition here.

As we wrestle with how to make our organizations and the work we do better for humans, I think it would be smart to put wellness at the center of those efforts. If we feel unwell, whether it’s from our physical health, stress from financial strain, or a lack of meaning in our life, we won’t and can’t perform at our best. The most engaging workplace in the world can’t compensate from a lack of well-being.

The heritage of management we inherited suggests that life exists outside of work and that, as employers, we need only concern ourselves with what happens “on the clock.” That may have worked in the early days of mindless factory work, but it’s no longer valid today. The wellness of our people is where it all starts.  The more “well” they are, the more performance potential they have to give.

Wellness isn’t going to fix your health insurance issues, but it may go a long way towards boosting performance. Give it another look.

This week, I have the privilege of presenting a keynote at the WELCOA Summit in San Diego. If you are going to be there, drop me a note. Let’s meet up. 

Designing Employee Experience (A “How To” Series)
Designing Employee Experience (A “How To” Series) 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

As I’m seeing more and more discussion about employee experience, I’m not finding a lot of content about how to activate and do the work.

The reason I’m so bullish about the concept of employee experience is that it is proactively actionable whereas traditional employee engagement practices are largely reactive. Organizations can intentionally design the employee experience to improve engagement and performance.

Over the past two months, I’ve been writing a series of posts for my friends at PeopleDoc titled “How to Design the Employee Experience.” If you have been pondering employee experience and how to get started, I urge you to check out the series.

  1. The Impact of Experience 
  2. Applying the Design Process
  3. Getting Started with Discovery
  4. Define Your Ideal Employee Experience
  5. Delivering a Great Employee Experience
  6. Using Technology to Enhance the Employee Experience

I hope you enjoy the content and find it useful. My new book, Unlocking High Performance, will dive even further into this when it’s available in October.

 

UK Pre-Order NOW! US Pre-Order July 28th

 

 

Relationships and Accountability
Relationships and Accountability 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

If you’ve been following my work over the past couple of years, you know that I’ve been evangelizing the message that “work is a relationship, not a contract.” Because employees experience work this way, work and the workplace should be designed around the same principles that make a relationship healthy–things like appreciation, acceptance, and commitment.

As I speak and write more about what this means, I’ve been encountering an interesting objection.

 

“What about accountability?”

The assumption is that if we treat work like a relationship, it’s all about feel-good emotions without any regard to performance and getting things done. The fear, it seems, is that if we treat work like a relationship, accountability and performance management go out the window.

I was caught a little off guard by the question at first. But as I’ve thought about it, I think I understand where it comes from.

There are many kinds of relationships. Friendships, acquaintances, family, neighbors, and many more. If you imagine the work relationship as a friendship or a neighborly acquaintance, then it’s hard to connect the dots for how it translates into performance.  

The work relationship between employee and employer is a formal, mutually-committed relationship in the way that a marriage is in our personal lives. Both parties have made the choice to enter into this relationship. And while there are some laws in place that outline certain parameters of the relationship, what sustains the relationship and makes it work is an ongoing shared commitment to one another, reinforced by the experience of the relationship itself.

There is nowhere in my life that I feel more accountability than in my relationship with my wife, Angie. I often say that one of my life philosophies is “Happy wife, happy life.” And while that usually gets a chuckle from whoever I’ve just said it to, it’s true. To me, it means that I’m committed to doing what is in my control to keep her happy.   

I can’t control how Angie (or anyone else) feels. But, I recognize that how I show up every day, the way I behave, and what I give to the relationship can have a profound impact on her and how she feels.

I know when I don’t contribute around the house adequately, it will have consequences on our relationship. As a result, I try to do what I can every day to pull my weight and check in from time to time to see how it feels to her.  

If we don’t make time for one-on-one time together to talk, it causes us to fall out of balance. So, I make time when we need it. These are but two examples of many of how being accountable to the relationship is what makes it work.  

 

Accountability is core to any healthy relationship.

In the employee-employer or employee-manager relationship, the problem is that the accountability goes mainly in one direction.  Employees are held accountable and expected to be accountable to the organization, but they aren’t often rewarded with the same commitment from the organization.  

For example, if you do something that makes your boss feel insulted, there will be some backlash for you as an employee in one way or another. But, if a boss does something that makes you feel insulted, it can feel like there’s no way to even address that in a safe and constructive way. One way accountability.

Healthy relationships are reciprocal and balanced. Each party actively invests in and is committed to the other. When it’s one way, the relationship starts to deteriorate.  If you’ve ever been in a relationship where one person was far more committed than the other, you know how that usually ends. It’s not good.

Accountability in a relationship of any type requires these basic things:

  • Clear expectations. You can’t live up to expectations you aren’t aware of or that you don’t understand.
  • Communication. Being in an ongoing conversation about how things are going and what is changing is critical. These conversations produce feedback about how things are going and provide the opportunity to learn and adapt.  
  • Commitment. Being accountable in the relationship means that you will sometimes need to do things that you don’t want to do or could get away without doing. You do these things willingly for one another.  

That last bullet is a big one, particularly in the work relationship. Decades of layoffs and downsizing have created an expectation for employees that commitment from employers is conditional and often fleeting. That means that employers and leaders must go above and beyond to both articulate and demonstrate their commitment to employees.  

As you prepare for the weekend, I’d challenge you to think about how you could demonstrate and reinforce greater commitment to your employees as a way to strengthen the relationship.

Calling for a Retreat
Calling for a Retreat 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

In my June newsletter, I shared that my wife, Angie, and I had a “retreat” scheduled. For those who may not know, Ang is not only my life partner but is also my business partner. This quest to make work more human is a family affair for us.  

On a walk together in May, we realized that we’d started to lose some of the discipline we once had in regards to preventing the business from consuming our relationship. We weren’t anywhere near crisis stage, but we were seeing some warning signs.

The past couple years have been a whirlwind for us. Not only were we trying to grow a business together, but our oldest son was serving as a Marine including a deployment to Iraq. Angie also ran and was

A photo of all of us in April

elected to City Council in our community. Not to mention trying to keep up with two active younger kids. Somewhere in the middle of all that I wrote a book. It’s been crazy.

 

I think we’ve done okay keeping our head above water, but the wear and tear of constant motion and stress was taking its toll. It was time to step back for a couple days.

Going through the retreat was a great reminder of how important and valuable it is to take the time to do it. Every team or workgroup I encounter is facing their own whirlwind. Your own team is probably stressed and tired from the grind too.

A retreat is probably in order.

The best retreats accomplish three things: build the relationship, clarify and renew a sense of purpose, and align future efforts.

 

Build relationship.  

When you leave a retreat, you should feel a stronger connection to the team. This means the retreat should have specific activities and exercises planned to cause people to both get to know each other better and to renew one another.

In one case, I asked each member of my team to write out a few bullet points about what they appreciate about each member of the team. To open the retreat, we went around the table to each person and had the team share what they had written

about each person. It was a simple exercise that ended up being really powerful and moving for everyone involved.  

For Angie and I, we used a series of relationship questions to open up some good dialogue about how things are going and where we might need to make some improvements. One thing we agreed we needed: regular date nights (no biztalk allowed).  

 

Clarify and renew a sense of purpose.

Before diving into any reflective or planning discussions, spend some time considering why what you do matters. This might involve sharing stories of how your work has made an impact. It might involve dreaming about how your future efforts might change lives. The goal is to create a renewed connection to the purpose of the work your team does every day.

In our case, it’s been easy to get focused on the numbers. How many speaking gigs do we need to book? How much revenue do we need to book? But, that’s not why we do this. We are working to make work more human by helping change people’s thinking–particularly those who lead and shape the workplace. When we motivate these people to shape a better work experience, it has the potential to improve the lives of countless people. That makes the hustle worthwhile.

 

Align future efforts.

Once you’ve renewed your sense of purpose, you can roll up your sleeves and dig into the work. There are a lot of ways to tackle this. Your team might need strategic planning exercises to help focus your efforts. Or, maybe you need to focus more on “how” you work. In this case, using the “start, stop, continue” prompts to identify what’s working and what isn’t can be helpful.  

While it’s not likely that you will have the time or ability to create any detailed plans in your retreat, you should be able to arrive at a place that helps the team have a shared understanding of what happens next. In our case, we needed both a conversation about how we are working together and what to prioritize. No huge changes needed, just some adjustments and prioritization.

When you feel like your team is really grinding and you begin to see cracks in communication and cooperation, it’s probably time to step back and regroup. The word “retreat” was historically used to represent a command given to soldiers during battle when it was time to withdraw or fall back, usually to regroup and find a superior battle plan. At the very least, retreat means you survive to fight another day.  

Particularly in the pressure-packed world of work today, teams need time to retreat from time to time. And they need leaders who understand the importance of making time to do it.