Do fully engaged employees really affect the performance of a business? Dr. Tracy Maylett, CEO of DecisionWise, explains how organizations can benefit from making employee engagement a priority.
It may, at times, feel difficult to get your company’s leadership to listen. Sometimes problems exist with colleagues. Members of your team may not respond to e-mails or avoid speaking face to face. Other communication struggles surface when you need to tell your manager about a problem you are encountering. But maybe they don’t make time for one-on-ones, or perhaps they need a little coaching on how to effectively listen.
And then there’s that feeling that the organization as a whole isn’t listening. Many companies try to fix their communication struggles by first soliciting feedback. We applaud them for taking the time to run an employee engagement survey. But, how do they show you they will listen to and act on your feedback? And what if they do nothing? Will you wait for them to make changes while your engagement wanes? You could absolutely wait and feel justified, because your organization is letting you down. But does a thought like this serve you?
In a previous blog, our DecisionWise consultants discussed the organization’s part in the issue of employee voice. Towards the end of the conversation, we asked them to share some observations that might empower you in this tough situation. In response, they shared some things we could keep in mind when we feel like no one is listening.
Principal Consultant, Dan Hoopes asserts that we should first identify if we have developed a victim mentality. He mentions the work of Martin Seligman and his research on “learned helplessness.” This video explains a study Seligman conducted. You may see from the questions at the end how “learned helplessness,” might be holding you back.
“Learned helplessness” is a trap we fall into all too often. If I’m not getting the information or feedback that I need, I should go and ask. I Appreciate when people ask for clarification. So, when we think of engagement as a 50/50 proposition, I think the same thing happens with communication. You can’t wait to be acted upon. Learned helplessness is, “They didn’t tell me that.”
Learning to navigate company culture can be a little bit tricky. Sometimes, employees just need a mentor to coach them through pitching their ideas. Senior Consultant, Charles Rogel shared some thoughts on how new employees might find more success in this area.
“And so you need to be strategic in terms of your suggestions, ideas, and things that you really want to change.”
“I’ve seen new, enthusiastic employees come up with 20 different ideas to improve the organization within their first week. And they come with, “At my last organization, we…” In this case, the new employees come off too strongly, with too many suggestions. Your company’s leadership is less likely to listen if you add too much noise, and too many things to consider. They should instead think about their top ideas and suggestions, and look for the best opportunity to share those. Are you suggesting something as a special project that you want to take on as one of your development goals? Are you trying to enact change in a more strategic way? Realize that change takes time in any organization. People may not listen to all of your suggestions, but be patient, deliberate, and keep trying.”
VP of Consulting Services, Christian Nielson adds an often overlooked point. Tenured employees may know that the company has come a long way in addressing certain issues. As a new employee, you are unfamiliar with the journey that employees have taken in the organization. People may have tried your solutions but found they didn’t work for whatever reason. And so, Christian cautions us with this.
“When you are new to an organization, you must be sensitive enough to honor the past and understand that you might lack certain information. But with that in mind, press forward and try. One of my favorite definitions of employee engagement is, “When we’re engaged, we feel empowered to bring more of our best self to work.” We should search for a way to be our authentic self and to incorporate more of that into our work.”
Sometimes, just tweaking the way we approach people with our ideas can offer very different results. Christian offers this tip that he learned from business educator, Marshall Goldsmith.
“When you ask someone for help it does this interesting psychological thing where they join your side.”
“Goldsmith has this great idea about asking for help and what it does if you have a manager that’s not supportive when you bring up ideas. Ask them for help saying, “I have this idea, can you help me figure out a way to implement this on a trial basis, further explore this, or do a test of this idea.” When you ask someone for help, it does this interesting psychological thing where they join your side. Now, this isn’t foolproof, but it can at least soften some of the existing barriers.”
Principal Consultant, Beth Wilkins then helped us with one more tweak as she put us into the minds of managers. Beth shares how many managers feel and how it affects their ability to listen and act on employee concerns.
“As a manager, I experienced employees telling me about all of their problems, and it became very heavy. I began to brace myself for a laundry list of problems in one-on-ones. I paid close attention when people had a solution attached to the problem. In consideration of managers, I would recommend that employees think, “what kinds of things can I suggest that would make my manager’s or executives’ lives easier?” rather than just reporting the problem.”
You may have stopped talking because getting your company’s leadership to listen seemed hopeless. If you’ve had some time to heal, look back at those people and situations. Were these people possibly having a bad day or in a hurry? Could you try a different approach and revisit your questions or concerns? Then, think about new ideas or concern you have. Make a plan to share those things with these new suggestions in mind.
We hope these tips will help you put some of these situations back in your realm of control. If they don’t, be proud that you tried! At that point, you may have to re-evaluate how your organization’s listening skills contribute to your overall employee engagement and whether or not you should seek other opportunities.
In this episode, we’re joined by a panel of DecisionWise consultants who discuss what managers can do to make sure their employees feel listened to and valued.
On our DecisionWise Employee Engagement Survey, we measure how well the organization is listening by asking the following questions to employees:
These insights help organizations to take action and create a more welcoming environment for ideas and opinions to be shared. Based on this data, our consultants share some ideas, stories and examples on what they’ve seen work for organizations.
This week’s episode was hosted by Cecily Jorgensen. Our panel of consultants includes Charles Rogel, Dan Hoopes, Beth Wilkins, Christian Nielson, and Dan Deka.
As a leader in your organization, you’ve probably taken some steps to listen to your employees. You care. You really do. And yet, as an organization, understanding the voice of your employees continues to feel more like stumbling down a flight of stairs rather than a steady upward climb.Continue reading
Which employee engagement survey method is best for measuring employee feedback? The simple answer is, it depends. It’s rare these days to pick up an HR publication or attend a conference that isn’t at least partially dedicated to employee engagement. Many of these articles or events begin with alarming—although not always accurate—quotes like, “over three-fourths of your employees are actively disengaged, and unlikely to be making a positive contribution to the organization.” Scary.
While most of these statistics are hyperbole (i.e., do you really think an organization can function if seven out of eight employees are either actively sabotaging your company or darting for the exits?), there appears to be little challenge to the idea that an organization’s success is directly tied to the employee experience (EX). Engaged employees are far more likely to deliver results than disengaged employees. Also, few dispute the notion that keeping your finger on the pulse of the organization is critical to business success. The question is no longer one of if an organization should gather feedback but, rather, how that feedback should be gathered.
For the past two years, consulting firm DecisionWise has surveyed HR practitioners to understand just how organizations go about measuring engagement and the employee experience. Based on responses from more than 200 companies across the globe (representing over 1.2 million employees), two-thirds of organizations (67%) claim to formally measure employee engagement on a regular basis and have specific initiatives in place to address their findings. Interestingly, over the past several years, the question of “how often and how should we solicit employee feedback?” seems to have replaced the previous question of “should we solicit employee feedback?” Much of this results from a new wave of technology that allows organizations to gather real-time feedback, as well as to continue collecting more strategic feedback through their traditional annual employee engagement surveys.
There has been an increased push in 2018 and over the past several years to downplay the role of the traditional annual employee engagement survey, with some recommending instead that feedback be gathered more frequently—even as often as once a day or in “real time.” Further, in a push fueled primarily by survey software providers, rather than HR professionals, some organizations are enticed by technology that allows them to both solicit and provide feedback at any time of the day or night, in real time. On the other end of the spectrum, many organizations still prefer a more traditional approach to surveying their employees, opting instead for an annual or semi-annual employee engagement survey. However, while most organizations won’t be abandoning the annual employee survey anytime soon, most agree that an annual check-in with their employees is not enough. It’s simply too infrequent to understand the employee experience (EX).
So, which of these employee engagement survey methods is the most effective? More importantly, which of these employee survey methodologies provides the best information upon which to make critical employee and strategic decisions?
As with most employee-related questions, the answer is, “it all depends.” While one solution or a group of solutions won’t be right for every organization, it is important to understand the options available before settling on a particular solution or set of solutions to use in your organization.
Although numerous variations are currently available, employee engagement survey solutions generally vary by two main factors:
1. Scope – Scope refers to the magnitude and depth of the survey (number of employees surveyed, number and depth of survey questions or items, level of reporting detail and analysis, how the survey results will be used, etc.).
2. Frequency – Frequency is simply how often the employee engagement survey will be conducted (annually, quarterly, weekly, always-on, etc.).
These two main factors, scope and frequency, create four primary types of employee engagement survey options. Remember, numerous variations of these four employee engagement survey methods exist. However, they can generally be broken down into the following, ordered from most frequent to least frequent in administration:
Always-on surveys or continuous feedback technology provides “real-time feedback” that can be quickly deployed and reviewed. These employee surveys are typically used in two ways:
1. To gather ongoing employee feedback to the company and/or for employee performance feedback (including reward and recognition). Always-on surveys generally ignore organizational structure, meaning that due to anonymity, survey results don’t typically roll up under departments, functions, or specific managers. When used for company feedback, these platforms act as a modern-day variation on the old suggestion box. When used for employee performance purposes, real-time feedback for colleagues, bosses, subordinates, and others can be provided with just a few taps of the screen. Employee engagement surveys can address guided questions, which are to be evaluated on a Likert scale (“How likely would you be to recommend XYZ Company to friends, based on today’s experience?”), specific topics (“Have you had a performance conversation with your manager sometime in the past week?), or even as general open-ended comments (“What would you like us to know about your experience?”).
2. Another way that always-on employee engagement surveys are often used is, the unstructured feedback option: The ability to comment on anything, at any time (a modern take on yesteryear’s suggestion box).
Similar to an always-on employee engagement survey, spot surveys are also generally quick to deploy, address sentiment rather than engagement, and do not require (or allow for) in-depth analysis. They are often designed to address specific events (a conference), areas (benefits), or issues (a recent downsizing). Employee spot surveys are rolled out to measure current hot topics pertinent to the organization, such as gathering input about a change in benefits or soliciting opinions from employees. For this reason, industrial psychologists group employee spot surveys under the “polling and opinion” category. Employee spot surveys are fairly simple to launch or to roll out, and many survey software platforms allow managers or other users to design and administer their own surveys. In this case, these platforms are purchased as applications that may reside on local desktops or are made available through an online application software-as-a-service (SaaS)-licensed model (the latter has overtaken the former as far as popularity). Other systems are geared more to administration by human resources personnel, allowing them to get a feel for the thoughts or opinions of employees.
Called “pulse surveys” because they “take the pulse” of an organization or group, these types of surveys are helpful tools in gauging progress, warning of potential dangers, understanding trends in the employee experience, and promoting action. Pulse surveys share many similarities with spot surveys, but with two key differentiators:
1. They occur at regular or planned intervals, or with planned groups, and generally involve large pockets of the organization’s population (if not all employees).
2. Employee engagement pulse surveys are often intentional follow-ups or supplements to other employee surveys. Pulses surveys sometimes ride the coattails of annual employee engagement anchor surveys or other employee pulse surveys, in that they serve as a great way to drill down for more specific information or follow up on areas that need to be addressed.
When most companies talk about their annual employee engagement survey, they are referring to an “anchor survey.” These employee surveys have been used for decades. Our research found that 89% of organizations use annual employee anchor surveys (in some form or another) and, of those, only 6% said they would be moving away from anchor surveys in the foreseeable future. Despite what some software providers might advertise, this type of employee engagement survey is likely to be a part of gathering feedback for most organizations for years to come. Why? Most organizations simply find that, when implemented correctly, they work.
Employee engagement anchor surveys carry many different names: employee engagement survey, employee survey, well-being survey, climate survey, employee satisfaction survey, employee experience survey, culture survey, and so on. While there are actually differences between each of these types of employee anchor surveys, that’s a discussion for another day. However, they all fall under the category industrial/organizational psychology refers to as “anchor surveys,” due to the fact that they presumably form the base around which other employee surveys operate.
While various employee engagement survey providers may use different names and features, these four survey types listed above generally cover the range of variations and options. So, which employee engagement survey method is best? As stated before, it depends on your goals, scope, and frequency.
Autonomy is the power to shape your work and environment in ways that allow you to perform at your best. Some people feel stifled in their jobs. In fact, 34 percent of employees say they can’t speak up for fear of negative consequences. Autonomy at work doesn’t mean “no rules and free reign.” We all work under guidelines. But when we understand our parameters and have the freedom to do our best work, we are more creative, innovative, passionate, and, ultimately, have higher levels of productivity.
In my experience, when you talk about autonomy at work to managers or the C-Suite, often they hear anarchy. Increased autonomy certainly isn’t anarchy. We can give people the freedom to choose how to do their best work without completely removing accountability or regulations and process. Those things can still be observed, and in fact should be observed, to create proper autonomy. It’s more about empowering the individual to do their best work.
Trust is foundational for employee engagement, especially for the autonomy component of engagement. If we don’t trust people, then we are going to micromanage. We are going to always be watching them and trying to control them. We will treat them more like pieces of a machine rather than a whole, complete person, bringing all of their talents and abilities to the role. Micromanagement limits their ability to contribute and stay engaged if trust isn’t found in the workplace.
You can get into a virtuous cycle with autonomy and motivation. In my current role I have a lot of autonomy, and for me, it is very motivating. Basically, the organization is saying, “We trust you to make good decisions, to do good work, and to impress us with your contribution.” It motivates me to step into that space and explore ways to build and grow our business and add value that our clients with our methodologies and thought leadership.
When I step in and contribute, then the organization usually says, “Wow. That’s great. Here is greater autonomy.” And because I get more autonomy, it is more motivating. I want to do more and grow. That freedom, or that trust, that vote of confidence that the organization gives me, actually triggers something inside of me; an intrinsic motivation to contribute, to do more, to explore, and increase productivity. It’s why I love what I do.
The opposite is true. If we restrict workplace autonomy we also limit the invitation to the employee. If we take away some of that freedom to do their best work, we are basically limiting how much we are inviting them to contribute, so we are going to get less out of them. It’s going to be less rewarding for the organization and for the employee.
How do we balance autonomy at work with accountability? Getting that balance right is something critical for every manager. Clarity and transparency is the best approach. Organizations should say, “Let’s have clear expectations for success. Let’s also be transparent around where we have constraints.”
For example, an accounting department has laws and procedures it is required to follow. When we talk about an autonomous workplace, we aren’t talking about “let’s go break all the rules,” but rather “let’s be transparent about the constraints we have to work around.” Where do we have regulations? Where do we have limiting factors outside of our control? And then what can I, as a manager, and you as an employee do to give you leeway within the structure around us for you to do your best work.
With autonomy, there is transparency around the environment we are working in and the expectations for success in hitting metrics and providing for clients. It requires having a real open conversation around what we are working with and where they have room to explore their best work.
I work with a software client on the east coast who has done a great job of not focusing too much on process. They’ve got all those things you need to have operational efficiency, such as following best practices, but that is not their focus. Their focus is always on the customer. They keep coming back to, “What are we doing for the customer? The customer. The customer!” Everyone understands that common purpose and they’ve also provided everyone with the autonomy at work to meet the objective. If I am in a programming role, I don’t need to go through six levels of red tape to do something custom for my customer. I have leeway to serve the customer because that is the point on the horizon that all are swimming towards.
They’ve done a great job creating a singular view of what success looks like and then saying, “Now go out and do it and we will do our best to support you. But in many ways, we are not going to get in your way as you go out and serve the customer.”
We have worked with this organization for a number of years and have seen them progressively improve in a number of areas, including overall engagement. They are in that cycle of inviting employees to do their best work and employees meeting that challenge. Each year the trust increases, and job performance improves.
There are a number of ways to measure how well your organization is doing with providing autonomy to your employees. Obviously, I am a fan of surveys. With an annual survey, you are asking your employees questions around trust and autonomy. We have several that are very effective at measuring and improving autonomy at work, among other things.
You could also do an informal audit where you walk around and look at how and when people are working.
Look for evidence with exit interviews or exit surveys. We often do exit surveys for our clients and we can find insights like, “I’m leaving not because of compensation, not because of this or that, but because I can’t do what I need to do here for my customer, or for myself.”
If you’ve had more of a trained eye, you can also look for symbols of distrust. Are you using surveillance cameras to track how long people go on break? If you are, ask why are you doing that, and is there another way to approach that? You want to run an organization, not a prison. Some symbols of distrust can be pretty extreme. In addition to cameras, I’ve also seen organizations use GPS in their company vehicles to track if their people are taking the most direct routes to get to places. I understand there are usually reasons organizations start doing these things, but they can quickly go down a path of distrust in the work environment that constricts autonomy and limits what employees can bring to the role.
The 5 keys of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® (meaning, autonomy, growth, impact, and connection), all relate to and feed off each other. Back to the example of the software company, they’ve said, “our meaning is in our customer.” Great. That’s meaning. How do we support that? Well, we need to give people autonomy to do that. They will get a greater sense of purpose if we set that clear meaning out upfront, reinforce it, and empower them to pursue it and to fulfill our mission.
It also helps employees recognize individual impact. If I have the freedom to do that type of work, to be in charge of my own success, suddenly my sense of impact grows. In the book, we talk about different kinds of autonomy. For example, social autonomy. “Do I get to choose who I work with on my team? Do I get to leverage resources in the organization as I need them?” The connection piece also comes into play, as well as growth. “Am I challenging myself and is the organization supportive and encouraging me to do that?”
My autonomy, my role, has directly tied to my growth. I get to go out and try things that are outside of my comfort zone. The organization supports that and helps me pursue some of those things.
Finally, it’s an ecosystem; it’s a balance. Autonomy is key. I think that’s less obvious to many organizations. We know people want to grow, we know we need to have a clear vision, and some purpose in our work, and connection; all these things are important. But sometimes creating a workplace culture of autonomous employees falls by the wayside. We don’t realize that people need some license and trust to go out and do the work as they see fit. They need feedback, encouragement, accountability; but they really need their space and flexibility to do their best work.
Listen to the podcast recording on autonomy.
Further reading: “Is Autonomy Important In Your Job? They Think So.”
Consider surveying your employees to see how autonomy is impacting overall engagement.
Connection is a key to employee engagement because we connect with our organizations through the people with whom we work, the mission and values of the organization, and the work we perform. Our work and our company are a part of who we are. The job, then, becomes more than just a set of tasks we perform.
When employees find connection, they work as a team, generate ideas, solve problems, take care of customers, and act with the organization’s best interests in mind. They’re proud of where they work and what they do, and they’re quick to share their experiences with others. They are fully invested. Employees become ambassadors for the organization—they see themselves as part of the organization, and others see the organization through the eyes of the employees. Leaders understand that employees aren’t just part of the company—they are the brand.
Connection is one of those under-utilized elements of the ENGAGEMENT MAGIC® keys. We always think about having meaning in our jobs, about the having an impact, about continuing to grow; but we don’t typically think about connection. Do I have a connection with the company? Does the company have a connection with me?
Having a trusted adviser or confidant is, for me, the essence of connection. There is nothing, in my mind, lonelier than spending 8-10+ hours at work each day and not having some type of connection, whether it’s personal, social, or with the organization.
Does it matter if I have a best friend at work? Some would say no, but for me, having someone with whom you can trust and connect with is significant. In my case, I have a preference for introversion; however, even as someone who prefers introversion, I thrive on having someone that I can go to in the organization.
I remember when I was working at a company where one of my co-workers and I developed a wonderful relationship. We started around the same time and had both moved to a new city. The company was experiencing many difficulties at the time. They were not making money, which resulted in massive layoffs. There was a feeling of fear and doubt around our survival.
Through this difficult time, it was nice to have a confidant at work a few desks away. While working on several key initiatives, we would grab lunch, bounce ideas off each other, talk about what we were hearing from others, and how we were going to manage through the challenges. Neither of us were caught up in the reductions, and we could talk openly about our concerns. Having that connection was absolutely essential.
Comparing that to my experience with another company where I worked, which had a culture of introversion. At first, I thought I would fit really well inside this company, but I had just the opposite experience. All the engineers would keep their doors closed. You’d walk in these buildings with thousands of employees and it was very quiet. I would think to myself, “Who am I going to talk to today? Am I going to interact with anybody?”
I remember having a conversation and casually mentioning, “Hey, should we just do that over lunch?” The response was, “No, that’s my time and I don’t want to.” It was really difficult to build any type of relationship in that company compared to my previous experiences.
Now I’m not saying that you have to have a best friend or that you have to go to parties after work and always be social. You have to have a life outside of work. But for me, having someone at work that can be trusted and with whom I can have conversations, is extremely important.
At DecisionWise, we talk about engagement as a 50-50 proposition: 50 percent of the responsibility lies with the organization and 50 percent lies with the individual. Part of the value the organization can bring is clearly stating its values and giving employees the chance to align with those values. But more importantly, the company needs to demonstrate those values.
One company I worked for had a disconnect between its demonstrated values and my personal values. This caused a significant enough strain on the relationship that it was no longer a good fit for me. The decision to leave was not an emotional decision; it was actually quite refreshing.
By comparison, my first job, working for Marriott Hotels, was an absolutely wonderful experience from a cultural alignment and values alignment standpoint. It was very emotional when I left. I had wonderful friends that I have stayed in contact with for many years, whereas with the other company, I have not remained in contact with anyone.
So, when we think of an organization’s value proposition, employees must understand their own values and how they align with the company. The company needs to have policies, practices, and procedures that would make the employee want to stay.
We often talk about having a good fit with your job; connection is one of those elements where fit is absolutely critical. The key question to ask yourself is, “Do I fit within that cultural construct that allows me to bring my whole self to work in a way that says, ‘yes, I’m really connected with the company and the company is really connected with me?’”
For me, although I have a preference for introversion, I can’t work in my office alone for the entire day. I have to get out and talk to people, not necessarily for the social interaction but for the thought connection. I need somebody to bounce off an idea. Having that connection adds tremendous value. At the end of it, I’m able to say, “I just helped somebody, or they just helped me,” which creates another kind of the intimate connection.
Regardless of whether your company has preference for introversion or extroversion, there are interactions that are critical in making a connection. These connections happen with idea generation, problem solving, or simply having a supporting confidant during a challenging time. Having a company culture style different from your personality type isn’t necessarily an inhibitor to connection; you just need to understand how to navigate through it.
For those that are thinking of moving from one company to another company, remember it is much harder to leave friends than it is casual acquaintances. When we have someone at work that we would consider a friend, there is an emotional reaction when we leave an organization, which is an indicator of the connections you’ve made at work. Connection takes time and can transcend organizational boundaries.
When I was living in the suburbs of Chicago, I had a three-hour commute to and from work every day. I would spend the first hour and a half on the train-I’d leave my house around 6:00 in the morning so I could be in my office in downtown Chicago at 7:30. During that train ride, I created a task list for everything that I was going to do for the day, so by the time I got to work, I was ready to roll. I would head straight into my office and start working immediately because I mentally had already begun work while sitting on the train.
Well, there were members of my office staff that lived in downtown Chicago who had a five-minute commute. They would come into the office, start talking to each other, grab their cups of coffee and have this social interaction before they got ready to do the work. The feedback I received as a manager from my employees was, “It sure would be nice if you would just walk into the office sometime and say ‘hi, how are you?’ and grab a cup of coffee with us before we get started in the morning.” It was great feedback from my staff on the different types of connections that they wanted. I was ready to go, and they needed more of a warm up; an interaction.
I still arrive early to the office, but now when my team arrives, I walk out of my office and have a conversation with my team or I’ll stand outside an employee’s cube and just talk. Not to waste time, but to create a connection. I would encourage us all to remember the power of connection and the value that it can have in association with all of the other elements of ENGAGEMENT MAGIC®.
Listen to the podcast recording on connection.
Further Reading: How Do You Find Connection In Your Job?
Consider surveying your employees to see how meaning is impacting overall engagement.
We connect with our organizations through the people with whom we work, the mission and values of the organization, and the work that we perform. Our work and our company are a part of who we are. The job, then, becomes more than just a set of tasks we perform.
When employees find connection, they work as a team, generate ideas, solve problems, take care of customers, and act with the organization’s best interests in mind. They’re proud of where they work and what they do, and they’re quick to tell others about it. They are fully invested. Employees become ambassadors for the organization—they see themselves as part of the organization, and others see the organization through these employees.
Leaders understand that employees aren’t just part of the company—they are the brand.
In this insightful conversation, Dan Hoopes, Principal Consultant at DecisionWise, explores the importance of connection in the workplace and how managers can use it to drive engagement.
Employee satisfaction is not the same as employee engagement, it is only one of the three essential components.Continue reading
Growing in our jobs doesn’t always mean getting a promotion or a raise. Growth is about mastering new skills, taking on challenges, and pushing to be better—both professionally and personally.
Results from DecisionWise employee surveys show that managers often fail to challenge employees enough to learn and to achieve higher results. Similarly, many employees don’t find their work challenging enough to keep them engaged. Imagine the untapped potential! On the other hand, stretching, taken to the extreme, can result in unhealthy stress. Growth strikes the balance between boredom and burnout.
DecisionWise defines employee growth as being stretched and challenged in a way that results in personal and professional progress. What’s interesting about that definition is that the words are really active. Engagement is not a state of being just happy, it’s really giving that discretionary effort invested in your hearts, hands, mind, and spirit in your work. Growth is an active process of stretching, challenging, making progress.
In a business context, growth results in both professional and personal progress. In general, most humans are looking for ways to move, grow, progress, and get better. Many of our ideals in the U.S. are built on self-reliance and “doing-it-yourself” in a business context that translates into people wanting to improve.
Growth is a challenge for many organizations. One of the questions we ask on our survey around this topic is, “my work provides me the opportunity to learn and grow and be challenged and stretched in a way that results in personal growth.” Scores from this question tend to be higher than most others. So, in the day to day work, people feel like they are generally making progress. However, when we ask questions about growth within the larger context of the organization, such as, “my organization provides opportunities for learning and growth,” we find that the scores are a lot lower. People’s perceptions are that, “yes, I’m learning in my day-to-day, but I’m not getting from the organization what I’m looking for.”
Traditionally, we have viewed growth as advancement. In the minds of many employees, they think of growth as advancing in terms of a promotion, a title change, and greater compensation.
First, we have to get comfortable with the idea that growth can’t just mean promotion to a management role. Second, organizations have to create growth and advancement opportunities for people, beyond just moving vertically in the ranks. After all, there are only so many management positions.
A common perception of millennials is that they are overly ambitious, like wanting to be the CEO within a couple of years. When you really get down to it, a millennial (or anyone for that matter), is anxious to learn and are looking for experiences.
One of my colleagues discusses growth in terms of being stretched and challenged in ways that build, improve, and strengthen personal and organizational capabilities. The word “capabilities” is a nice way to look at growth. It’s not just limited to moving up in an organization, rather it’s the continual process of becoming better.
When I say, “moving up the corporate ladder,” you probably think of going from an individual contributor to a team leader, to a manager or supervisor, and into executive-level leadership. You are on a management trajectory and increasing your influence, increasing your span of control, getting a new title, getting more pay, and so on. Unfortunately, those promotions have been associated with growth. Let’s disassociate employee growth from the traditional corporate ladder. In painting a house, if I put a ladder up against the house, I can’t just climb the ladder and paint that one part of the house. I have to move the ladder to different parts of the structure in order to really get full and complete coverage.
When we think about this idea of a corporate ladder, we must reframe those development opportunities and learning experiences at all levels of the organization. For the individual, it’s less about a straight ladder and more about creating a portfolio of experiences.
Several years ago, I hired an employee into a project manager role which was the first job he’d ever worked. At the 90-day review, I gave him some clear redirecting feedback, “you’re doing well here, but here are some things that you need to do as part of your role as you’re stepping up on that ladder.” I told him to come back to me in a week and provide me with a couple of goals based on our conversation. He came back with goals that had nothing to do with his job. They had more to do with my job!
It’s great he had goals for a long-term vision, but it was important for him to get comfortable and explore the surrounding opportunities. There are often opportunities to understand the different businesses of your organization, work with different managers, or figure out new ways of thinking. Collect that portfolio of experiences and help advance your career.
Organizations can create clear policies or organizational structure to make expectations for growth clear. For example, Marriott says if you’re going to move up the ladder, you have to run multiple business units before you are considered for a c-suite role. They make the requirement clear because they value different experiences.
Understand that there must be a 50/50 proposition of creating engagement between the employer and employee. 50% from the individual and 50% from the organization. In the ideal situation, a manager is looking out for your best interest, however, this is not always the case. Many employees enter their first job and expect their manager to tell them what to do, to give them opportunities, promote, and advocate for them. Most likely, you will have a good, but busy, manager that will dialogue with you, support you and connect you to opportunities. Ultimately, individual growth is your responsibility.
I was recently working with a newly promoted leader who was lamenting that her team “complained” on their survey responses about growth opportunities. She said, “All I’ve been doing is working with them on these growth opportunities. I’ve been trying to figure out how do I give more to them. They want to grow and I’m trying to help. I’m in a bit of a panic.” In her mind, she had defined growth as a vertical path and was worried about taking all the right steps and almost forcing people to get there. My comment to her was, “don’t work harder on their growth than they are willing to work. You just can’t do that. They’ve got to own your own growth path and lean into it.” As managers, we try to fix everything. We try to take everything on for ourselves. The reality is people have to find their own way.
So again, as an individual, it’s up to you first to say, “here’s what I’m looking for, here’s what I would like and I’m asking for this.” It’s the manager’s responsibility to say, “let’s do this first” or “this would be a good step,” and then for you to lean into that and do it, helping to create that collection of experiences for your career.
During the first six months of employment, employees should just be primarily learning their job function. Organizations are doing a lot with technology to quickly onboard employees, but during this time we should not create individual development plans. What I find is that you should wait to have those growth conversations until after the first six months, when the employee has had a chance to learn their job and get good at it.
For employees who have been with the organization beyond 6-months, you want to help them find what is called the zone of proximal development, that right spot between the stress of being pushed too far and complacency.
I tell my team, “look, I’m going to stretch you and push you, but know you’ve got a life preserver. I’m not going to let you drown you.” And for each person that’s a little bit different. So, you’ve got to pay attention to the signs. You’ve got to be in constant dialogue so that you aren’t pushing them beyond their capability.
Growth often appears as being an opportunity area more than any other Engagement MAGIC® key: meaning, autonomy, impact, and connection. I think that’s partly because it’s so personal. Collectively you create growth opportunities based on the 50/50 manager/employee relationship.
In rapidly growing organizations—individual growth might not be a priority; however, the overall growth of the company can be reframed as a growth opportunity.
I worked with one upcoming startup that’s been around seven years or so and they said, “we don’t have time for growth. We’re so busy. Our company has grown 500 percent over the last couple of years and we project we will triple the population of our employee base in the next three to five years.” My response to them was, “You’re getting opportunities to step into new roles, to have new responsibilities. That’s growth.” Part of it is thinking about how we frame the opportunities around us.
Employees want opportunities to grow and often that growth opportunity is created by reframing existing situations. Instead of saying, “I know you have a lot on your plate and I’m sorry to ask you to do this…,” Reframe the statement as, “this is a great opportunity for you to leverage your ability to network with people. Here’s a project that I really need your help on. Is this something you can help me solve?”
It’s changing that mentality from, “it’s up to me as the manager to solve everything.” When someone comes to me with a problem, I might instead turn it back and say, “what do you think we should do? Would you be willing to take that on?” Creating those portfolios of experiences and reframing existing opportunities is where growth will occur.
Finally, think of growth as this idea of movement, of constant challenging and stretching on a day to day basis. In our meetings that we have, how do we have the conversations that help each other grow? What do we need to start doing? What do we need to stop doing? What do we need to continue? Let’s make it part of the conversation. Growth then becomes less of a formal experience that people go through and becomes part of everyday development and learning.
Listen to the podcast recording on growth.
Further Reading: Are Growth Opportunities Important In Your Job?
Consider surveying your employees to see how meaning is impacting overall engagement.