New insights on how to create an environment that inspires great work.
If you take a close look at thriving businesses that have built reputations for innovation and exceptional customer service, you’ll find employees who are engaged with their work, who trust and respect their leaders, and who feel that they are valued and appreciated for their contributions to the organization’s success.
Unfortunately, these types of work environments are the exception. As Gallup’s 2017 “State of the American Workplace” study reveals, only one-third of U.S. employees are engaged in their work and workplace—and only one in five say that their performance is managed in a way that motivates them to do outstanding work.
If these figures sound familiar, it’s because Gallup’s engagement numbers have remained relatively flat for the past five-plus years. So why isn’t engagement improving?
Research by O.C. Tanner Institute provides compelling insights about the contrasting views between senior leaders and employees when it comes to roles and responsibilities for innovation and forward progress. The study found that, while the majority of employees believe that all employees should do great work, only 63% feel that they actually can. O.C. Tanner defines “great work” as: Work that is productive, innovative and makes a difference that people care about.
For employees, a key obstacle to doing great work often can be traced back to the company’s senior leadership.
“Senior leaders have a fundamental belief that it’s their responsibility as leaders to be innovative, while they generally view the workforce as the means to carry out their strategy or vision,” says O.C. Tanner’s Manager of Research and Measurement Jordan Rogers.
When asked whose responsibility it should be to perform great work, or innovate, only 62% of executives said that it should be the responsibility of all employees versus 86% of frontline employees. Most employees want to be innovating and contributing in a more meaningful way to their company’s success, but they have leaders who lock them out of that responsibility, Rogers says.
What can a contact center leader do to provide opportunities to frontline agents to innovate and do great work? It begins with clearly communicating the organization’s purpose. “The biggest disconnect that we see is when the company’s purpose and mission statement—your reason for being—isn’t well communicated to the frontline staff,” Rogers says. “Employees don’t understand how what they do connects back to the organization’s overall purpose.”
For example, the most simple description of an agent’s purpose may be to increase customer satisfaction. But if you want to impact engagement, dig deeper to help agents understand the human value that they fulfill, he explains. “When you get down to that level of conversation, it inspires people to connect with the organization. That is where a lot of companies miss the mark in terms of employee engagement.”
Employee Recognition Plays Key Role
What is the most important thing a manager can do to create a workplace culture that attracts and retains top-performing employees? “Positive reinforcement is extremely important,” says Rogers. “There is an essential human need to feel that what you’re doing is appreciated and that you’re accomplishing something. It’s not enough to just get a paycheck. Employees fundamentally need to be acknowledged and reinforced for the positive things that they’re doing.”
Rogers offers three important elements of effective recognition.
1. Recognize progress toward a goal.
It’s important to acknowledge an agent’s progress toward a goal, not just the achievement of the final goal. For example, let’s say that you set a call resolution goal of 90% for an agent who is currently hitting 80%. It’s important to recognize the checkpoints along the way—83%, 85%, 87%, etc. “Noting those steps toward the overall goal encourages people to keep on the path,” Rogers says.
2. Recognize the achievement of a goal.
Once an agent reaches the overall goal, it should be a separate recognition event—a chance to pause and celebrate their accomplishment.
3. Recognize career milestones.
“It’s important to take all of these moments over time in someone’s employment history and recognize their career achievements,” he adds. “For example, at five years, pause and look back at what an employee has accomplished over that time span.”
It’s as Important to Give as Receive
As a leader, regularly—and publicly—recognizing your staff’s work and achievements is a good start, but it’s not enough. O.C. Tanner Institute’s research has found that, to build a culture where employees are engaged and inspired to do great work, they need to be actively involved in giving, receiving and observing recognition across the organization.
“When you talk about employee recognition, much of the weight is often placed on the recipient of the recognition,” Rogers says.
“Our study found that there was a pretty significant impact on engagement when people give recognition, as well.” On average, employee engagement was 26% higher in employees that gave recognition.
“If you want to use recognition to its fullest, don’t just focus on the recipient. Think about the experiences of everybody involved in the recognition process—the giver, the receiver and the employees who are observing that recognition,” Rogers explains. “Our study found very measurable results within all three of those elements.”
Senior Leaders: Observe Your Environment
Over the past few years, there has been a growing awareness among top-level executives about the impact of culture on business success. Yet the responsibility for managing the culture is still a murky area—especially when leaders’ job descriptions and incentives are focused primarily on productivity and results, and not on building workplace trust and respect. Thus, in the day-to-day workplace, leaders tend to consider culture issues as irrelevant and not a part of their jobs.
S. Chris Edmonds is trying to change that view. Edmonds is founder and CEO of The Purposeful Culture Group, and author of the new book, The Culture Engine: A Framework for Driving Results, Inspiring Your Employees, and Transforming Your Workplace.
“If leaders are solely focused on results, they’re only doing half their job,” he stresses. “The other half is managing the quality of the workforce. Culture is the engine that drives everything that happens in an organization each day.”
Creating the type of culture that engages all employees begins by creating an “organizational constitution,” Edmonds says. This is a formal document that states the company’s guiding principles and behaviors, and describes how employees at all levels will engage with each other, as well as customers, suppliers and vendors, as they act to fulfill their organization’s purpose, values, strategies and goals.
The first course of action is an assessment of the current workplace climate. Yet taking the time to observe and develop an honest evaluation of the work environment is a step that leaders often skip. “Leaders are often insulated from the realities of the day-to-day, the front line, and the actual quality of the way their organization is operating. Instead, their focus is exclusively on how the organization performs,” he explains. “The reality is that it often takes a dramatic event—a key leader or customer leaving—to signal that things are not good.”
Expanding their view calls for leaders to invest time and energy in learning whether employees trust their managers, and whether there is a feeling that leadership actually cares for the human element, Edmonds adds. Doing so requires leaders to reach out to more sources within the company, instead of relying on a select few. “Dedicate space and time to learn from different players throughout the organization to ensure that you’re getting a bigger, more accurate picture,” he says.
Craft Clear Performance Expectations for Leaders
Edmonds strongly believes that companies need to place as much emphasis on managing the human experience as they do on managing production and services. How? By giving it structure: Formalizing your company values in behavioral terms helps to build clarity of expectations for being a valued team member. “Crafting clear performance expectations is vital to hold people accountable for those expectations. Just as you evaluate and improve leaders’ performance via dashboards, we need to do the same around values and good citizenship,” he says.
Measuring how well leaders model the values and behaviors can be done through a simple survey tool—the key is to engage employees on a frequent and regular basis. For instance, every three months present employees with your company’s values, along with behaviors for each, and ask: How well does my manager model these behaviors every day? Does my manager do what he says he’s going to do? Does he listen and respond when I have ideas?
“Now you have a dashboard that provides reliable and undeniable data,” Edmonds says. He adds that the truth about how employees view their manager’s performance is typically revealed over time. Results from the first survey will often indicate that everything is fine. But once employees get past their fear of retribution and realize that leaders are serious about finding out what they think and what isn’t working, they will feel encouraged to be more forthcoming with their responses. “You will eventually get to the unvarnished truth, which is sometimes a shock,” he says.
Living and Modeling the Culture
To take your culture past the talking stage, all company leaders have to commit to living it and modeling it.
“For the first six months, leaders are going to be the only source of credibility for the effort. Your every plan, decision and action has to reflect that servant purpose and the values and behaviors,” Edmonds says. “Your employees are going to watch you very carefully. Anything that you do that is seen as inconsistent will erode the credibility of the entire initiative.”
He adds that modeling the culture extends to your life outside of the company, as well. “The scrutiny of leaders goes up dramatically when they begin this process. As you raise up these desirable practices and guidelines for how we’re going to treat each other, you’re never off duty. If employees see you outside of work not living the values, it sends a clear message.”
In addition to modeling the behaviors through your actions, Edmonds offers the following ideas for promoting the values and behaviors outlined in your organizational constitution to employees:
- Spend a greater portion of your time in town hall meetings, department meetings, huddles and face-to-face discussions talking about the values and good citizenship rather than results and profits.
- Create a marketing campaign to ensure that your company’s values and purpose are reinforced. “Just as we have been communicating the importance of performance effectiveness, now we have to communicate the importance of values effectiveness,” he says.
- Hold leaders accountable. “Your employees are not going to embrace your organizational constitution until they see leaders embrace it,” he says. “All leaders must be consistent and they must hold each other accountable. Let’s take the good practices of managing accountability for performance, and let’s hold leaders accountable for being nice.”
Employees Crave Feedback
Feedback is one of the most powerful motivators in a high-performing culture, says Mackenzie Kyle, author of The Performance Principle: A Practical Guide to Understanding Motivation in the Modern Workplace. “We expect people to come to work and engage in activities that are not clearly related to any particular big-picture outcome,” he says. “We give them very little feedback on their progress, and we expect them to find all this motivating simply because we provide them with money. Is it any wonder we have trouble getting people motivated about work?”
Money is not a motivator, he adds, it’s a satisfier. But companies tend to rely on it without considering other ways to engage their employees.
“People are like snowflakes,” he says. “They are all a little bit different and unique. But for medium-sized and larger organizations, it’s more convenient for us if people are treated in a similar fashion. It’s a lot of work to focus on what the individual finds rewarding or motivating, and then find ways to connect those differences to what we’re trying to accomplish as a team or unit, or ultimately, as an organization. It does take effort, but it’s a valuable way to improve performance, satisfaction and engagement.”
Part of the solution, Kyle says, is to delve into the performance management system and make sure that there’s a structure in place that provides clear communication on objectives at the individual level, at the team level and at the organizational level. Then make sure that there is a process in place to provide feedback to employees at each of those levels.
The leader’s role is to regularly reach out to individuals across the organization for input. “Ask them how they get feedback, how often they get feedback, how happy they are with that process, and whether they understand how what they do ties to the larger team goals,” he explains.
If there is no feedback system in place that ties objectives back to what the individual is doing, it will limit their performance and engagement.