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“Are my people happy?”

“Are they engaged?”

“Are we doing everything we can to motivate them?”

More than ever, companies are concerned with these questions about their employees.  It’s common knowledge these days that happy, engaged, motivated people are the key to better profits and competitive advantage.

But there is an inherent problem with these questions:  They suggest the cause-effect relationship between leadership and happy people is simple, measurable and controllable. Yes, these qualities are an outcome of what leaders and managers do, collectively, to own and build the right kind of corporate culture. But when you are trying to reliably foster passionate, aligned action among hundreds or thousands of people working on diverse activities, often in teams across the globe – you are in complicated territory. Especially when you rely on methods such as incentive pay, benefits, concierge services, or gimmicky programs that leave people feeling manipulated but not really valued or able to make a meaningful difference.

People are unique in what motivates and engages them; there is no one silver bullet that “hits the sweet spot” for everyone the same way.

Enter corporate culture. The power of culture is creating a collection of habits in which the attitudes, interactions, and work flow naturally fosters more happy, engaged, motivated people. It’s hard work, but worthwhile. What is the recipe for building cultures that foster high employee engagement? They always have 5 success habits embedded in how people work together:

1) Clarity of Direction. Clarity is magic. People are more engaged when working together toward a clear goal. Think about your New Year’s Resolutions, if you made them. “I want to lose 15 lbs” is more motivating than “I want to get healthy this year” – there is more clarity to drive action. If an organization’s “Definition of Success” is to be #1 in its market, it’s a more energizing rallying cry than “We provide high quality dry cleaning to our customers.”  Business IS competitive, even if it’s non-profit. It can’t be all about the numbers, because most people’s lives aren’t impacted by the business profits. Evoking a friendly sense of winning and competing in an organization is good for engaging and motivating people.  Too often, we forget that as leaders our primary job is to ignite others passion and remove obstacles to them doing their best work. Clarity of direction is the starting gate for this.

2) Two Values are real and alive: Respect and Responsibility. You can call them anything you want, but these two values are always the underpinning of a highly engaged culture. This means people are in reality treated by leaders with great respect and are held to high standards of excellence in performance. It’s not one or the other.  In highly engaged organizations, leaders pay special and ongoing attention to ensuring these values are real, through how they communicate, hire/reward and (sometimes) fire people, and convey clear strategy and priorities. Employees may not be equally satisfied with every leader all the time, but in an organization driven by these two values, there is an overall climate of trust: Trust that leaders have our best interests at heart and they have a solid plan to help us win in our market. Everyone is happier when the team is winning!

3) Leadership 360’s mean something. The most engaged organizations have a robust and meaningful feedback process for ensuring leaders “walk their talk.” This process also helps to align leaders with one set of criteria that are important for the whole company – while embracing the importance of different styles and types of leaders. Too many companies use leadership 360’s as an auto-pilot activity to identify high potential leaders and consider people for promotions and miss the big opportunity to develop a feedback-based culture that  makes the entire organization stronger and more adaptable.  I teach clients that 360’s (or any individual or team assessment) are one symbol of the organization’s intent to foster honest, open, transparent dialogue – everywhere, all the time, based on the customer wants and needs. When this culture of constructive feedback happens every day in an organization, between leaders and employees, it energizes people. People are happiest when they understand what they can do to succeed, have a role in creating that success, and know how to do it.  The key to getting a 360 process right is making the process safe, which is how it will foster learning and growth, versus perpetuating political agendas.

4) Well Done!  If people are the heart of a business, praise is the lifeblood.  You have to lubricate your system to keep it running at top performance. It’s amazing how often I see organizations who “get” the importance of culture – yet their first-line supervisors are regularly criticizing and demeaning employees for mistakes. The general rule of thumb is “80% well done” and “20% take a look at.” This is not as hard as it sounds. Look for reasons to call out “good behavior” on a regular basis and you’ll see more of it. Keep the criticism flowing, and you’ll see more fear and mistakes. It’s a simple equation. Don’t believe me? Try this experiment for a week and see what happens: Put the names of 1/2 of your team on a post-it note, somewhere near your work area. Make a hash mark every time you say something positive about that person, whether it’s related to their job, an interaction with someone else, or just asking about their personal life/family.  The other half of your team, do nothing different. Note the difference. In just one week I would be shocked if there weren’t some remarkable changes in how those who received regular praise showed up … unless people are truly burned out or a poor job fit.

5) Change Makes Sense.  Flavor of the month in business is not as much fun as in the ice cream parlor. There is so much change people are being asked to absorb these days, that anything new typically is met with a giant yawn factor.  That’s no good for your engagement and motivation. Most people ignore change because it doesn’t make sense to them. There are 5 questions you have to answer for any employee during change. Communication during change must be much more frequent and transparent – the biggest de-railer of productivity is fear of the unknown (“Will I have a job?” “What will change?”). To make sense to people, plan much more frequent communication, preferably face to face, not email. Leaders who execute successful business change know this: Scale back and do less well. If you are making a giant sweeping “all at once” change – consider the ETL rule: Everything Takes Longer. Consider the company culture: How friendly and resilient are people to change? Do people want to hear from their manager or from the top leader? (usually a combination.) What is the overall trust climate? Are we informal or formal? Lastly, the more leaders communicate how the change is linked to and part of the overall strategy to win (see #1 above), the more it will feel like “stepping stones to our goal” versus a series of disconnected jumps off a cliff.

Habit-building to foster a great corporate culture is the marathon of the fitness world: You have to invest the time and effort to train and prepare, but crossing the finish line makes it all worthwhile.  It takes time, commitment, and a structured approach.

Or … you can assume the culture will take care of itself, and keep doing what you’ve always done. Your people will vote with their feet.


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