Workplace Culture

Employee Engagement Happens in Moments
Employee Engagement Happens in Moments 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Something really weird and awesome happened to me this morning.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

What?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Those little moments can carry enormous positive impact.

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

 

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Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur?
Are You an Employee Engagement Dinosaur? 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

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

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

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

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

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

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

Signs You May Be an Employee Engagement Dinosaur

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

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Asking for What You Want to Get More Employee Engagement
Asking for What You Want to Get More Employee Engagement 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

I’m not sure when I first learned it. And it’s baffling to me that I even need to. But it’s been one of the most useful lessons I’ve ever learned.

Here it is: You are far more likely to get what you want when you are willing to ask for it.

It seems so simple and obvious, and yet we often don’t do it.

I have the experience frequently in my own home. My wife passively mentions something or poses it as a question to me, seeming to indicate that whatever she’s asking is simply a suggestion or thought.

But in reality, she’s decided already that this is what she wants. She’s just hoping I understand.

I don’t know why she does this because when she tells me what she needs or wants, there’s a nearly 100 percent chance that I will make it happen. And that’s why I usually respond jokingly, “Just tell me what you want me to do; I’m good at following orders.”

She’s not the only one who does this. We all do it.

We don’t ask for the assignment or desk or raise that we want at work.

We don’t tell our spouse where we’d really like to go for dinner or what we truly want to do for our birthday.

We allow our accountant, personal trainer, contractor, or [insert any other person you pay to do work for you] to treat us or do work for us in a way that doesn’t exactly meet our needs or make us happy.

Why do we do this?

My hypothesis is that we are trying to be nice or polite. Maybe we are afraid of saying out loud what we want because we may not get it.

Either way, we need to stop it.

When we don’t ask for what we want, there’s a very slim chance we’ll ever get it. When we do, it’s a lucky accident.

Do you really want your happiness and success to be determined by accident? I hope not.

By simply asking for what we want, we make it wildly more likely we’ll get it. Worse case, you don’t get it, and you’re no worse off than you would have been otherwise.

This is particularly powerful when it comes to our relationship with other people. My experience is that most people actually prefer to know exactly what you want or expect of them. And once they know, it’s surprising how often they will come through for you.

This lesson applies to all areas of our lives. And I think it’s a great insight to apply to our efforts to create more employee engagement at work.

As an employee, get in the habit of asking for what you want. If you’d like a more flexible schedule, ask for it. If you aren’t clear what’s expected of you, ask for more clarity. If you’d like more opportunities to demonstrate your talents, ask for it. If you want a raise, by all means, ask for it. Want that promotion, ask for it. Worse case, you’ll learn what you need to do to make yourself more qualified to get the job in the future.

As a manager, help your employees know exactly what is expected of them. Your people want to be successful, and they want you to think well of them. So tell them what you want and what they need to do to succeed. Trust me; they really do want to know. Frankly, you want the same thing from your boss. When you create that kind of clarity, you will be shocked by the impact it creates on their performance and satisfaction.

When employees and managers are willing to ask for what they want, a lot of the mystery and uncertainty disappears from the work relationship. This doesn’t mean that everyone will always get what they want, but at least we will know what everyone expects. And when those needs aren’t met, we’ll be far more likely to know why.

Ask for what you want.

What do you have to lose?

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We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged
We Need to Stop Saying That 66% of Employees Are Not Engaged 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

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

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

It sounds pretty dire.

But I don’t care what Gallup says.

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

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

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

We Are Looking at the Employee Engagement Data Incorrectly

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

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

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

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

The Language of Gallup’s Model Is a Problem

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Bottom Line on Employee Engagement

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

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

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

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

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The Two Biggest Barriers for Managers Faced with Employee Engagement
The Two Biggest Barriers for Managers Faced with Employee Engagement 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

The longer I am immersed in the work of employee engagement, the clearer it is to me that getting it right as a manager is simple and hard.

That may sound contradictory, but it’s not.

Engaging employees isn’t all that complicated. It starts with forming and maintaining a healthy, positive relationship with each person you manage. Then, ensuring that everything you do protects and builds that relationship and avoids harming it.

That sounds pretty simple, right?

But if you’ve ever been in any kind of relationship with another human being, you know that this can be more challenging than it sounds. Good relationships require that you work at them.

When it comes to doing this work of building relationships with employees, there are two obstacles I hear from managers and leaders most frequently.

The First Obstacle to Employee Engagement Is TIME

Being a manager is one of the most time-crunched jobs in the company. Generally, as a manager, you still have a full plate of your own work to do in addition to managing a team of people. Being a manager also comes with the expectation of attending a slate of meetings that may or may not be of any value.

The problem with being time-constrained is that relationship building requires time. Try to think of one person in your life who you have a great relationship with where you haven’t spent a lot of time together.

You can’t.

Time is the currency of relationships. There is no shortcut or hack.  If you don’t make the time to be with people, you will never build a relationship with them.

This is what makes regularly scheduled, one-on-one meetings and check-ins so critically important. By making these part of your schedule and considering the time as critical to doing the role of management, you ensure that each member of your team has at least some dedicated time with you.

Getting the one-on-one in the schedule is just the first step. That time is precious and important, so follow these steps to ensure you make the most of it.

  • Never cancel a one-on-one and only reschedule when absolutely necessary. Treat this time as sacred.
  • Ask questions and listen for most of the meeting. This is the employee’s time with you. Let them tell you what’s most important. In fact, consider starting with the question, “What the most important thing we need to talk about today?” and go from there.
  • Ask the employee for feedback on the meeting and how you could together make it the most valuable use of your time together.

I know you’re busy. Everyone is. But you need to make time for your people, or they will never be fully engaged.

The Second Obstacle to Employee Engagement Is FEAR

This one isn’t talked about as directly and openly as lack of time is, but it’s even more of a challenge. Cultivating relationships with your people can feel awkward and scary, particularly if you are new to it.

It requires that you trust people, maybe more than you are comfortable with. If you’ve been burned in the past, this will be hard. What if you get burned again?

This also requires that you get to know people beyond what they can do for you at work. Who are they as a person? What really matters to them in life? Who are the most important people in their life?

I know, I know. You’ve probably been told in the past that work and life should be kept separate, but is that how you experience work? Do you become a completely different person, disconnected entirely from your life when you go to work? Of course not. And neither do your people.

Getting to know them will help you understand how to help them find more meaning and enjoyment at work. But, here’s the catch. You’ll have to share some about yourself as well. They need to know you as a human being in order to really connect. Somewhere in each of your stories are some commonalities that will bond you together.

When I suggest this to managers, I start to hear the “what if” objections.

  • What if they tell me something I really shouldn’t know?
  • What if we become friends and I have to give them some hard feedback?
  • What if I have to fire them someday?

“What if” questions come from fear. We are afraid because we are uncertain about what we would or should do in those circumstances. We are afraid because we don’t want to change. We are afraid because we don’t want to get hurt.

But what’s the alternative?

Remain distant, be less scared, and let your people feel like nobody really cares that much about them at work? Yes, it will make it easier in that rare situation when you’ve done such a poor job of managing them that you have to suddenly fire them, but in the meantime, they are probably going to perpetually struggle along until they quit to find a manager who cares more.

Lean Into Relationships to Improve Employee Engagement

Treat people the way you’d treat anyone else in your life who you value and care for. That doesn’t mean you abandon accountability or other good management practices. But, it does mean that you handle those things in a way that is consistent with valuing the relationship.

If you want an engaged team, you have to make time and push past the fear. It will be worth it.

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5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work
5 Podcast Episodes to Change How You Think About Work 150 150 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? 150 150 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 150 150 Jason Lauritsen

Managers: How important are one-on-one meetings with your 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 manager-employee relationship will suffer.

Invest Your Time in Employee Relationship Building With One-On-One Meetings

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 with employees are vitally important in helping them 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-One Meetings With Employees

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 on One-on-One Meetings With Employees

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? 150 150 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.

Leaders Lose Sight of How They Could Change the System

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?

There Are No Easy Answers to Slow Organizational Change

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, leaders’ 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.

 

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Jason Lauritsen