By Liz Ryan CEO and founder of Human Workplace.
I get a lot of mail from HR leaders and department managers who have questions about employee satisfaction. Since few if any business schools or HR training programs teach people about fear and trust, many leaders are confused.
They think of their employees’ satisfaction on the job as a quantity that can be measured and manipulated, like the temperature of a pot of water on the stove.
The reason that boiling water is considered the easiest cooking task is that all you have to do to make the water hotter or colder is to turn a dial — to turn the heat up or down under the pot.
That isn’t how culture works. In real life, creating a healthy culture has nothing to do with turning dials.
In fact, when you view your culture as a set of dials that you can turn — giving out a few more sick days per year or bringing in lunch for the employees twice a month instead of once a month, for instance — you fundamentally misapprehend how culture works and insult your employees, to boot!
Your employees are not donkeys who can be motivated with carrots and sticks. They are brilliant humans you have invited to push your mission forward. They have talents you haven’t seen yet and won’t see until you give them room to bring their talents to work. Culture-building is trust-building, and it takes personal reflection and personal investment from every leader to make it happen.
Culture is made of waves of trust and fear. When the overriding message from your organization’s leaders to your employees is “Keep your nose clean, stay in line, hit your goals and everything will be fine!” you’ve got a fear-based culture.
In that state, the ideal scenario (from a management point of view) is that everybody does their job as vigorously as they can and no one complains or steps out of line. Everything stays ship-shape every day. Your human factory runs without a hitch.
Where’s the passion in that? Where’s the fun? There is no fun in that model, and there is no passion. It’s a compliance model — and the message to employees is “Toe the line, or we’ll find somebody else to do your job!”
As your organization evolves to become more human and thus more energized, creative and collaborative, you won’t run the business by posting yardsticks everywhere and telling your employees they have to hit the yardsticks.
Instead of yardsticks, you’ll keep everybody on the team aware of your mission and let them see where their own personal missions intersect with yours. Triumphs will be team triumphs — something for all of you to celebrate together.
Healthy organizations don’t put managers on one side of an invisible fence and employees on the other. Your empowered HR department is the Ministry of Culture in a healthy workplace. Everyone in the company is part of the Ministry of Culture, too.
Employee satisfaction is a function of the health of your culture. You can tweak one element in your workplace — pay, for instance — and experience a short-lived boost in employee satisfaction and a reduction in turnover, but unless your culture is healthy and human, that bump will not last.
If your pay scales are fair and up-to-date with your local talent market, then pay is not likely to be the reason your employees are unhappy. Trust and respect are more important elements than pay and benefits to most employees, assuming your pay and benefits are comparable to those of employers in your area.
If your employees are unhappy, here are the five things they are most likely to be unhappy about:
- Unaddressed Conflict
- Feedback Loop
These are “soft” elements to your culture that are much more important than many so-called “hard” factors. For instance, when two employees get into a conflict about scheduling overtime, the overtime and the money they’ll get paid for it may be a smaller issue than the issue of how overtime is assigned.
If your employees don’t think your managers are playing fair, that will be a much bigger trust-killer and culture-destroyer than a few hours of overtime given to one employee or the other.
People need recognition. Some people need it like a daily dose of Vitamin D and other people don’t care, but either way, a healthy organization is one where people freely recognize one another every day. In a healthy culture, managers aren’t stingy with praise.
They don’t say or think “Why should I say thank you to someone for doing their job?” They say “Thank you” and “You are a genius!” and similar things all the time, because it’s fun to reinforce people for being as awesome as they are.
The more trusting your organization becomes, the easier it will be for managers to say “You rock!” to their employees and their teams, and to mean it.
Visibility into the future is another critical component of a healthy culture and one that is often overlooked by busy managers. People need to know what the next six months and the next year look like. They need to know about company plans and upcoming changes in the department.
They need to make plans for themselves. Why hold back on information that your brilliant employees could be mulling over in their heads, coming up with ideas that will help your company surge forward? Let everyone in on the planning and brainstorming — it’s a fantastic way to generate ideas and build community on your team.
Latitude means freedom to move. You hire adults, and it is vitally important to treat your employees as adults, not to hem them in with grade-school policies. There is more than one way to perform any task. Why not let your talented teammates experiment and find the way that works best for them?
Unaddressed conflict in your workplace is a culture-killer and Mojo Blocker than will slow your team down, and that also sends the message “Our managers are too wimpy to tell the truth about the topics that desperately need airtime here.”
Step up and talk about the stickiest topics going on around you, whether they involve organizational politics, human subjects like romance or substance abuse or just an individual or group fear of speaking the truth. The only way you will grow your muscles is to use them — and your vocal cords are muscles!
A healthy organization needs a strong, reliable feedback loop from the top of the organization out to the troops and back in the opposite direction. If information is flowing freely, your decision-making will be stronger and faster. Your employees will have a voice in your planning and problems will get resolved fast.
Here are three To Do items to get your culture on a healthy track:
- Review your policies and procedures and get rid of at least fifty percent of them.
- Install a confidential telephone, email and web hotline for employees to report problems and teach your supervisors to conduct weekly “let’s talk” meetings and employee one-on-ones.
- Teach and empower your teammates and your HR folks to seek out and resolve energetic logjams that spring up. Talk about culture in every meeting. Your culture is your only sustainable competitive advantage. Guard it well!