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Leadership thoughts from PeopleFirst HR

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Employee Engagement Blunders

According to Gallup an alarming 70% of American employees aren’t working to their full potential, and they’re slowing economic growth.

The term Employee Engagement is attracting a lot of attention but employee engagement is something well beyond motivation. Everyone is motivated in one way or another but engagement implies a strong link between the organization’s objectives and an employee’s behavior. An engaged employee understands his or her role in the organization and how it’s integrated into the successful accomplishment of the organization’s vision and mission. Engaged employees are true ambassadors of the business for customers and coworkers because they have a grasp of the entire picture of the organization’s mission and are able to focus on their function as it relates to others in the organization.

Even when employers have a great leadership team and develop comprehensive communication strategies that provide employees with regular information, they still make careless mistakes that lower employee engagement.

One of the more common oversights I see is creating an employee announcement and not distributing it effectively.  So as the employer you take great pains to draft an announcement of some change. The announcement is legally-approved, factual, clear, and detailed. It’s then sent to all employees. Good right?

Wrong! Unfortunately, you neglect to first provide the announcement to the first-line leadership for their understanding and acceptance. When employees receive the announcement, their first point of contact will be the supervisor for explanation and reaction. If the supervisor is not aware and is ill-prepared to facilitate those conversations, the employer will face a high risk that employees will resist the change and their level of engagement will decrease.

Another common mistake is when leaders believe they are visible and accessible because they conduct “walks” through the organization. Visibility and relationship-building demand more than an occasional walk-around, peering over an employee’s shoulder, calling out a greeting, etc. They require creating meaningful opportunities for exchange such as roundtable lunches with random groups of employees, planned attendance to departmental meetings, or a dedicated schedule of departmental visits.

Employee engagement does not consist of a single event; in fact one-time events can be worse than having no event at all, because they raise employee expectations and don’t follow through, which damages morale. To be effective, events or programs must be on-going.

And finally too many organizations look at employee engagement as a reactive process.  Find the problem and fix it so we can move on.  But it’s usually not that simple. Trying to fix a problem often creates a new one or may even reinforce the original one. Try to analyze the problem, understand where it started, and why it grew over time. You may find out that you have something entirely different to work on.


Corporate Culture – It’s Worth Measuring

Corporate culture is often thought of as that touchy-feely stuff that is difficult to define and should be left up to Human Resources to manage. The reality is that culture is a business issue that has significant impact on a Company’s ability to generate a return on investment and should be prioritized and measured just like other business objectives such as financial growth, product development, sales, marketing and the like. Culture is defined as the identity and personality of an organization. It consists of the shared thoughts, assumptions, behaviors, and values of the employees and stakeholders. Culture is dynamic, ever-changing, and evolves with time and new experiences. Many factors help drive and define the culture, including leadership styles, policies and procedures (or sometimes lack thereof), titles, hierarchy, as well as the overall demographics and workspace. Culture exists in every organization, whether it is by design or by default.

An organization’s culture may be one of its strongest assets or it can be its biggest liability. The reason culture is so important is that its impact goes far beyond the talent in the organization; it has significant influence on the organization’s goals. Culture drives or impedes the success of an organization. With culture impacting the talent, the product, the clients as well as the revenue, why would a company not measure review and intentionally nurture something so important and critical to its success? For many companies, the elements of their culture originated with the founder or other leaders who were instrumental in the early stages of the organization. Sometimes that culture developed through default, while in other companies there was intentional execution to drive and promote the culture. As new leaders come into an organization they often are encouraged to adopt and follow existing practices.  Cultures are perpetuated as stories of people and events illustrating the company’s core values are retold and celebrated. The benefits of a strong culture can be endless. A strong and thriving culture will:

  •  Establish a foundation for success
  • Attract and retain top talent for the organization
  • Promote the brand of an organization
  • Increase employee engagement
  • Drive productivity
  • Distinguish a company from competitors

The organization’s culture is the foundation that can promote growth and hinder complacency. For start-up companies, driving the culture in the early stages is important. One of the easiest places to do this is in the hiring practices. Cultural fit has been known to be the biggest reason around employee turnover and management distraction. If an organization hires talent to fit the culture and the desired company values then it has a win-win situation for both the employee and the organization. You can’t change who people are at their core. Of course, skills are important; however, if necessary, skill gaps can be closed through training and development.  Hiring decisions are one of the most important decisions that managers are going to make for the organization. For new companies, there is often an absence of a hiring process and skills.  It is critical that managers receive the appropriate training on interviewing and hiring techniques that will that will improve their opportunity for success. Additionally, a consistent hiring process partnered with trained managers will minimize the organization’s risk as well as help drive the culture. A strong hiring practice will also help in retaining the top talent in the organization.  So, how are you developing or retaining your corporate culture for success.


Establishing Trust, Why it Matters

Ideally trust is achieved in a relationship.  Absent a relationship, employees will observe leader traits to determine whether they are trustworthy or not. For example, a leader that holds an elevator for people conveys that they are willing to serve others and not just be served.  Employees will likely watch for other leadership traits as well, such as: Approachability, Listening; do they listen well? Follow-through; do they do what they say they are going to do? Accountability; do they apologize if they say something wrong?  Executives have to remember that the workforce scrutinizes what they do.  Your deeds have to match your words, because everyone is watching.  Any misstep between words and actions will be noted and will ‘go viral’ inside—and even outside—the organization’s walls.

More importantly, the level of trust employees have for senior leaders impacts engagement.  According to The Employee Engagement Report 2011, released Dec. 15, 2010, by BlessingWhite. The survey of nearly 10,914 employees on four continents revealed that employees who trust their organization’s executives are more likely to be engaged at work than those who only trust their direct supervisor.

Employees who don’t trust leaders may jump ship because they’re not confident in the organization’s direction or aren’t certain of the leaders’ motives. A lack of trust breeds distractions and side conversations about hidden agendas, which damages productivity.  Discretionary effort suffers, because employees aren’t willing to go above and beyond for leaders they don’t know or trust.

But it is more important for trust to be present in closer working relationships, particularly with those leaders within “arm’s reach” of an employee. The level of trust an employee has for a supervisor influences how the employee perceives those who are farther up the chain. For example, if a supervisor talks about a workplace issue in a way that is degrading of a senior leader, it can impact the level of trust employees have toward the senior leader and color their perception of the immediate supervisor. There’s a way that the supervisor can communicate in order to remain trustworthy, such as explaining the facts without added commentary. Yet what often happens is that a supervisor’s frustration seeps out with badmouthing and backbiting and gossiping.

Leaders have to observe and acknowledge what their people have experienced and be very careful about their tendency to gloss things over and sweep them under the carpet.  When trust has been broken, it is emotional. People can feel devalued, discounted. There must be permission to express these feelings and emotions.  Ideally, such feelings will be conveyed in a constructive way. Get and give support to others in the process. Reframe the experience and shift from being a victim to taking a look at options and choices. It’s not necessarily what happens to us that’s important, it’s how we respond.  (Attitude! Ah but that’s another topic) Take responsibility. Ask: What did I do or not do that caused this to happen?  Forgive yourself and others.  Let go and move on.

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Key to keeping the “Best Employees”

Employees leave their current job for lots of reasons. I’ve seen people leave for fabulous opportunities elsewhere. But often times the reason are more half-hearted.  A friend of mine recently switched between very similar companies, in essence, because the second company gave slightly more vacation days than the first.

While congratulating her on her new opportunity, I couldn’t help thinking, what a missed opportunity for her current company. When you add up the lost productivity from her winding down her employment, how long it will take to find her replacement and how long it will take that replacement to achieve something approaching this woman’s expertise, you could have easily granted her an extra week of vacation. Or two. Why didn’t her employer do that?

My guess is that her manager didn’t want to set a precedent. (I use to be that way) If she got three weeks of vacation instead of two, everyone else would want three weeks. It’s understandable, but it’s also a very limited way of thinking. For starters, so what if everyone wanted three weeks? In a small department, turnover is a huge source of stress. Avoiding it is worth trying to treat employees better than the competition does. And second, people and their performance aren’t all the same.

While vacation days were her particular source of unhappiness, other people might have completely different problems that would make them walk out the door. Some examples:

A bad commute. Not your fault, to be sure, but something you could improve with a policy allowing people to work from home once or twice per week.

Inflexible hour. A meeting that starts every day at 8 a.m. might interfere with a parent from dropping his children off at school. Since he can’t do that, he winds up paying for more childcare than he’d need otherwise, and this financial stress leads him to look at other job opportunities. Why not let people call in, move the meeting later or get over the idea that you need a daily meeting to establish that people are still doing their jobs?

A bullying co-worker or worse Boss. Yes, companies are supposed to do something about employees who pick on others, but it’s easier not to — until one of your best people leaves over the situation. Addressing that problem would have let you keep your talent and make life better for everyone else, too.

These are all fairly easy addressed pain points. The problem for managers is that your people often won’t tell you their particular source of stress — until you get a LinkedIn message from a team member and realize that it’s because their updating her LinkedIn account as part of their job hunting.

So how to find out? You can always ask. How are things going? Is there anything that would boost your already great productivity? What would make this a better place to work? What would make your job more sustainable and enjoyable? A smart manager who takes even a little interest in his/her people would have discovered this employees desire for more vacation days and figured out a subtle way to grant her what she wanted. That would have kept the office running smoothly — far more so than letting her leave in the hopes of not setting a precedent.

As a manager, how do you keep your best employees?


Trust Builds Great Employees

The glue that holds all relationships together — including the relationship between the leader and those they lead is trust, and trust is based on integrity.

When employees do not trust managers and leaders, various forms of organizational fallout are likely, including low engagement (people seem like they don’t care), high turnover and reduced innovation (no creative solutions or ideas).  Rebuilding trust isn’t easy, just as with customers who lose trust.  If employees don’t trust their boss or their boss’ boss, they begin to question how they fit in with the company and will have less pride in the organization overall.

Individuals can enjoy their work and have a strong sense of accomplishment, but Trust has to be present for employees to do go beyond the call of duty, to be innovative.  The more groundbreaking the innovation needed, the more trust must be present. Trust is built over time as people get to know each other.  Employees must trust that their co-workers and direct supervisors are competent (head trust) and will do the employee no harm (heart trust).

A single triggering event, such as a restructuring or other organizational change, can reduce the level of trust employees have in leaders.  As can other single events, such as a manager who takes credit for an employee’s work or lies to them.

Most of the time, trust erodes as a result of small subtle patterns of behavior that employees experience on a daily basis that go unaddressed. For example, working with peers who fail to prepare for a meeting, are slow to respond to e-mail or who gossip regularly. While they don’t get addressed, they don’t go unnoticed.  The result of such unaddressed behavior is that employees leave the company or, worse yet, they stay. They become the working wounded – they stay, they complain, they do as little as possible, eventually bringing others down with them.

The Reina Trust and Betrayal Model describes three main types of transactional trust:

  • Contractual trust—trust of character. Do people do what they say they are going to do? Do managers and employees make clear what they expect of one another?
  • Communication trust—trust of disclosure. How well people share information and tell the truth.
  • Competence trust—trust of capability. How well people carry out responsibilities and acknowledge other people’s skills and abilities.

The key thing about transactional trust is that it is reciprocal in nature; you have to give it to get it.  There are specific, concrete behaviors that build trust.

  • Ability: the manager’s ability to do their job.
  • Understanding: displaying knowledge and understanding of employees’ roles and responsibilities.
  • Fairness: behaving fairly and showing concern for the welfare of employees.
  • Openness: being accessible and receptive to ideas and opinions.
  • Integrity: striving to be honest and fair in decision-making.
  • Consistency: behaving in a reliable and predictable manner.

So take a look at your employees, what does their behavior say about their trust in you.  If it doesn’t look good, take the steps now to begin the process of rebuilding trust.

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True Value in Effective Feedback

If you don’t give your employees feedback on their performance—whether on a daily basis or, at least, at performance reviews—they’ll never improve. Then why do so many entrepreneurs do such a horrible job of providing feedback?

Many of us aren’t “people persons” and it simply doesn’t occur to us to tell people how they’re doing. Often, entrepreneurs are take-charge types who, if something isn’t done the way they like it, grab the reins and do it themselves, not giving their employees a chance to improve. Finally, some of us want to give feedback, but fear coming off too harsh with negative criticism.

How can you get over these hurdles to provide feedback that will help your employees learn, grow and improve their job performance? Here are some tips all leaders can use.

  • Set a goal.      Consider what you want the feedback to achieve for your business. Don’t      criticize someone simply to vent your frustration; always have a larger      goal such as helping the person to improve, preventing customer issues, or      increasing sales. By showing the employee that you have a larger goal in      mind, feedback will seem less of a personal criticism.
  • Begin with the good stuff. Try to find something positive about the way an      employee handled a task or situation. This will put them in a receptive      frame of mind. After they have absorbed the positive praise, bring up any      negative criticism. (Keep in mind, not every instance of feedback has to      involve negativity. Rewarding employees with positive feedback for a job      done well has a strong reinforcement effect.)
  • Provide detail.      Give specifics as to what was done right or wrong and why this was helpful      or hurtful. (“You answered the phone on the first ring, which conveys a      positive impression to our customers. Great job!”) If you want the      employee to change how he or she is doing something, be specific about      what they should do and why.
  • Allow questions.      Always make sure the employee feels comfortable asking for clarification      on your feedback. You can ask them, “Does that make sense to you?” or “Do      you have any questions about that?” to confirm that they’ve understood      what you said.
  • Follow up.      If you ask an employee to do something differently, pay attention to see      whether they learn from the feedback. If so, comment positively on the      progress. If not, continue to provide feedback until they get it right.

You’ll be surprised how much feedback can improve your business when it’s used correctly.


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Successful Mergers Part II

So once you get the people part right. Another essential factor is effective leadership and having crystal clear objectives and direction. Not only the general purpose of the new organization, but 3 month, 6 month and the medium and long-term goals of the organization should be so clear that it is virtually  impossible for employees, management and customers to misunderstand them.

Effective communication is essential for companies to perform well and is even more vital for successful mergers. Both internal and external communication is the key to keeping employees on the right track, retaining customers and maintaining organizational stability. So why don’t all organizations communicate effectively?

Internal communication is not a legal obligation. External communication, sometimes being a legal requirement, is generally better handled than internal communications.

Communication can be time intensive for senior leaders. During the uncertainty, there might be clear and immediate answers to questions raised by the
employees, but it takes a substantial amount of time to communicate this, which managers may be reluctant to spend. Communication can include tough messages. There are, in general, very hard and sensitive decisions to take during the merger. Managers may be unwilling to be completely open and transparent with employees for fear of employee resistance and productivity loss. However, a lack of communication can create the same, and even worse.

It is difficult to quantify the results of communication. It, therefore, turns out to be more ‘desirable’ than mission-critical. Nevertheless effective
communication builds trust and acceptance, and keeps employees focused on the important work. It can mitigate damage caused by the ‘rumor mill’ and relieve anxiety.

Successful communication can inspire faith in and support of the company’s vision and culture. The key element of successful communication is two-way
communication. Listening as well as telling enables management to convey business, strategic or tactical decisions and receive important employee input.
What can enable effective communication in mergers?

Researching your audience.  Asking them what they want to know, and how they wish to be communicated with.

Getting senior leaders to lead the effort, and model the required behaviors.  Communicating clear and consistent messages. Training and supporting managers to leverage the power of face to face communication with their employees.

Monitoring the effectiveness of your communication, by using effective listening tactics. Besides the human factors, some management issues can occur during the integration phase, and hence establishing an integration team (even small mergers should have a focused team) that is charged with developing plans, projects and tasks to ensure the successful completion of integration is vital. This team should be given the financial and time resources to accomplish this critical step in the change process.

Last but not least; all the quick wins or achievement needs to be shared within the organization as soon as possible. Celebrating and publicizing those wins to everyone boosts morale and enhances productivity.

Mergers are difficult processes that require very good leadership and communication skills, crystal clear objectives, very good planning, show cases and most importantly the best people in the organizations to accomplish a thorough job.