Creating an amazing employee experience starts with an ugly truth—the power dynamics have to change. We need to change. The good news is that we can make these changes easily. All we need is a sincere desire to understand what our employees are experiencing, to create avenues for real conversations so we can learn about what is important to them, and to adopt a mindset and practices that show employees just how important they are to us—through flexible and customized work practice.
Why do we want to take an employee-focused approach? And what about this ugly truth?
Employee Engagement: Why It’s More Important Now Than Ever
Everyone is talking about it: employees have choice. We find ourselves in an employee market where employees have options, and lots of them! We are diving deep in our search for what makes employees tick. Why do they leave? Why do they stay? How willing are we to take the steps necessary to get the answers to these questions and do something about it?
This brings us to that ugly truth—we haven’t always cared too much about employee engagement or the employee experience, if we could get what we needed. Meaning, if an employee won’t do what I want, and I can replace you, I may be okay with you being unhappy, because I will hire someone who will do what I want and not complain about it.
Oops! Did I just write that? Well yes, I did. The cat is out of the bag, so to speak. (I would never put a cat in a bag, really!)
Back on topic, there is a power dynamic that we have been quiet about. We expected employees to do what we told them. We had a power differential as leaders that, even though it is ugly to point out, is very true—you do what I say, you swim within a certain lane, or you lose your livelihood, your stability, your mortgage, your rent—you don’t get paid.
For Any Improvement, the Employee Engagement Paradigm Must Shift
Employees are too often, too rarely, not free to say what they want, to bring up points of concern. Instead, they learn the culture within the organization, the lines that they need to color within to succeed.
Separate from an employee’s talents and skills, some employees are very good at understanding power dynamics, both informal and formal, and playing the game. The game being, when to speak, how to speak, when to push, how to push. They learn quickly if they want to be in the know, in the power circle, what the rules are and how to win. Regardless of how much awareness leaders have about this dynamic, it is very real.
If we are honest with ourselves as leaders, we know that we do lots of things verbally and non-verbally, to encourage people to say, think and act from the place we want them to. It takes courage to have the hard conversations, to ask people their opinion when it may be unpopular.
So now, when we say it is the employees’ market, we mean that the days are over when we get to tell employees to do what we want and expect them to do it and regardless of how difficult the environment may be to work in, to expect them to tolerate it day in and day out in exchange for a paycheck. These days have actually been over for decades and went out the window with big pensions and the gold watch at retirement.
Find Out What Is Most Important…to Them
Now we have to ask ourselves the questions:
- What is it that employees want?
- What is it that I can do to attract them?
- What is it that I can do to retain them?
They are going to leave if I don’t find the answers, and I am not going to necessarily be able to replace them now.
If you are in an industry that has a strong profit center, you have a powerful bargaining chip at your disposal. You can offer sign-on bonuses, higher wages, more competitive wages, richer benefit packages, bonuses; and yes, these are still draws. Is that enough to create a powerful employee engagement?
By themselves, they will not attract and retain top talent, or even “a body that can breathe” as we somewhat look for during our more desperate times.
So, what does that mean for those companies that don’t have that powerful revenue base during these turbulent times?
It means understanding what their employee wants becomes paramount. Is there a magic answer? If I do this one thing, then I will be able to retain these talented individuals?
No, this is not the case. Employee engagement involves a combination of complex variables, and one important variable is the employee’s preference. Each employee has their own unique preference, their own unique filters. That is where we start. We start by understanding what each unique employee feels is important for their employee experience. We engage the employee…and that is the first step.
Customize the Employee Experience
The second step? We give leaders the power and influence to be flexible and to customize the employee experience. Yes, we flex schedules. We flex where employees work, including the state they live and work from. We let employees color out of the lines.
If they have a passion about something in the community, we give them the time to do that. If they want to learn to speak publicly and present, we pair them with someone that can mentor them in this. If they want to lead projects, we find a project where they will have an opportunity to grow and even make mistakes. We even let them manage the project poorly, because it’s their first project and they need that experience to learn and grow from. We take risks because we customize the experience. We don’t mandate a uniform environment.
What does this mean for equity? This is an important question! We have to follow the laws and regulations governing employees and our specific industry. We need policies we follow, checks and balances, and equity within the decision making criteria.
Start with a Conversation
The most important point is that we realize it is time for a paradigm shift. It is human-to-human. It is not leader-to-employee with the leader having power and the employee doing what I say.
I know it is ugly. And it’s not that we meant to do it this way, we just had something that we needed to accomplish, and believed that was the way to do it.
What is the takeaway here? Get to know your employees. Start to have conversations about what is important to them. Look for ways to give your leaders the power to be flexible and realize that we are not going back. We aren’t going to put the genie back in the bottle. We are not going back to a time when we can afford to ignore what employees want (not that we would want to). So let’s move forward, and create an amazing employee experience!