Workplace Culture

5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work
5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

I am a podcast junkie.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Please let me know what you think of these.

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

Enjoy!

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How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work?
How Did Your Parents Impact the Way You Experience Work? 1080 721 Jason Lauritsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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One-on-One Meetings: 3 Ways to Stop Screwing Them Up With Your Employees
One-on-One Meetings: 3 Ways to Stop Screwing Them Up With Your Employees 1080 720 Jason Lauritsen

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

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

Are these meetings really necessary?

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

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

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

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

But be very clear: The relationship will suffer.

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

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

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

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

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

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

3 Tips for Better One-on-Ones

1. Get out of your office.

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

2. Make it a conversation.

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

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

3. Let the employee lead. 

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

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

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

The Bottom Line

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

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Are Employees Responsible for their Own Engagement?
Are Employees Responsible for Their Own Engagement?
Are Employees Responsible for Their Own Engagement? 1025 684 Jason Lauritsen

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

Who is responsible for employee engagement? 

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

But that’s clearly ridiculous.

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

Gross.

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

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

Are you?

Now let’s go a step further.

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

Performance.

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

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

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

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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.

Want To Improve Performance Or Engagement At Work? Check Your Assumptions.
Want To Improve Performance Or Engagement At Work? Check Your Assumptions. 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

Everybody has probably heard the old saying that goes something like this:

You know what happens when you assume? You make an ASS out of U and ME.

Despite first hearing this when I was a kid, I didn’t really understand the wisdom of this silly statement until many years later.

Our assumptions are a powerful force, particularly when they are about other people.

Parenting a teenager helped me learn this lesson. My oldest son Dylan was a good kid all the way through school. He did his school work, was generally kind and respectful, and stayed out of trouble.

But, he was a teenager. And like every person in their teen years (everyone reading this included), he had an abnormally high capacity for doing some stupid things and making irrational decisions. This is incredibly frustrating as a parent and I didn’t always handle things well.

Over time, I came to assume that whenever anything happened that seemed like it could be due to a bad decision on his part, that’s what it was. When something happened that could be his fault, I always assumed that it was.

If something got broken or a door was left open, I assumed he was at fault. And sometimes he was, but not all the time. My assumptions started to create strain in our relationship.

Thankfully, I recognized that I wasn’t being fair to him and if I didn’t do something, it may ruin our relationship. I needed to make some changes.

First, I started to apologize to him any time I let my assumptions get the best of me. When I overreacted or jumped to unfair conclusions, I said I was sorry and vowed to do better in the future. And, I tried to change my assumptions about him.

I started reminding myself more frequently that he was a good kid. This helped me get to an assumption that his intentions were usually good, even if his teen-aged brain sometimes corrupted those intentions into bad decisions or carelessness. I’d love to tell you that I became an ideal parent and showed up better in every situation, but that’s not true. I still made mistakes. I still let old assumptions sneak into my thinking.

But being aware of my assumptions and trying to manage them made me a better parent.

Assumptions at Work

This doesn’t only happen at home. Our assumptions about people profoundly impact our behavior and how we show up in our work.

The place where I have seen this most frequently over the years is in how we confront performance or behavioral issues as managers.

In my experience, when an employee isn’t performing as expected, it’s easy for our assumptions to run wild. The most common assumption that bubbles up in these circumstances is one that is born out of traditional management. It’s that a lack of performance is a choice the employee is consciously making.

I found it both amusing and troubling how often managers would show up in HR wanting to promptly fire an employee for underperforming. These managers were frequently hovering somewhere between frustration with and anger at the employee. As the managers described why they wanted to fire the employee, those stories often made it sound like the employee was actively and maliciously choosing to fail as a way to undermine them. In the most dramatic stories, the manager sounded as if they were under siege by the employee.

This is, of course, ridiculous. Employees don’t choose to fail. And most would do almost anything not to get fired.

But, the manager was operating on a different assumption that resulted in them seeing the employee’s underperformance as a hostile action instead of an opportunity to help.

That’s why in my book, I introduce a very different assumption we can make about employees. This new assumption is based on what I described above, that employees don’t choose to fail. I’ve never met someone who I believe wakes up in the morning and says to themselves, “I hope I fail today.” It sucks when we struggle at work and our boss is after us about doing better. I don’t believe for a second that anyone wants to be in that situation–regardless of how much they might dislike their boss.

What if we instead assumed that every human being’s natural tendency, or default setting, is to perform in the best way we know how? That given the opportunity, a person will always choose to be successful unless they are facing some sort of obstacle or challenge. 

  • How would that change how you approach a performance issue?
  • How would it change how you think about the role of a manager or leader?

Instead of wondering why an employee is choosing not to perform, we would instead ask what barriers or obstacles we need to remove to help the employee. In this way of thinking, a manager doesn’t have to worry about coercing the employee into performing better because she knows the employee would be performing if something wasn’t causing interference. Perhaps the employee isn’t clear on expectations or lacks some key knowledge or skill.

Imagine how this change in thinking would affect the relationship between employee and manager. It’s definitely more fulfilling to be in a relationship where the other person assumes the best of you and is committed to helping you succeed than the alternative.

Assumptions are a powerful thing.

Choose yours wisely.

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?