By Dr. Jan Ferri-Reed
Are your employees engaged or disengaged? That may seem like an easy question, but employee disengagement is a real dilemma for many managers. By the time they notice employees slipping into poor habits or bad attitudes it may already be too late.
For example take Matt, a manager for a Fortune 500 company with whom I recently consulted. After ignoring many signs that his team was “less than engaged” (i.e., grumbling about assignments, not taking the initiative, subtly sabotaging change efforts, etc.) Matt couldn’t figure out why he was losing his top performers to competitors. Even worse, he didn’t realize he could have prevented employee disaffection by simply applying a little “CPR.”
But we’re not talking about Cardio Pulmonary Resuscitation, a life-saving technique pioneered by Dr. Peter Safar at the University of Pittsburgh in the 1960s. We’re talking about ‘management CPR,’ a process whereby managers motivate employees by proving themselves to be “Caring, Personal and Real.”
The time to discover you have an employee engagement problem is not when a valued employee gives you “two-weeks’ notice.” By that point there’s probably little you can say or do to change that worker’s mind. But you also better hope a single employee defection doesn’t signify a rash of employee resignations to come. By then it may be impossible to maintain (let alone restore) a productive and supportive work environment.
Recent research by KEYGroup pinpointed the concern, shared by many managers, that they may be unable to effectively manage younger workers. That in turn could result in lost productivity and increased employee turnover. In our study the majority of managers expressed several significant concerns. They believed that …
“Without changes in their management approach they could lose their talented Millennial employees.” (52% agreed; 12% strongly agreed)
“Today’s leaders need to be more creative in communicating with multiple generations” (55% strongly agreed; 35% agreed)
Younger employees believe that members of the older generation are resistant to change. (20% strongly agreed; 62% agreed)
The difference between “engaged” workers versus disengaged employees can be pretty dramatic. Engaged workers are in tune with the organization’s goals and committed to achieving them. They can be counted on to maintain the “heartbeat” of the operation and they’re vital to keeping it functional and healthy.
Disengaged employees, on the other hand, are either oblivious to the organization’s mission or discouraged about their role in fulfilling it. They may feel the goals are either unachievable or undesirable. Sometimes they may simply feel powerless to impact the organization’s mission.
There’s a quotation often attributed to Mother Teresa that addresses this type of disconnection. She once wrote:
“We the willing, led by the unknowing, are doing the impossible for the ungrateful. We have done so much, with so little, for so long, we are now qualified to do anything with nothing.”
While that statement reflects a certain amount of empowerment it also demonstrates a troubling level of detachment (if not actual demotivation). It’s a cynical sentiment suggesting that group of workers were actually powerless. But when employees begin engaging in certain negative behavior patterns that can also “poison” a workplace and undercut morale. When that happens …
- Deadlines and commitments begin slipping
- Meetings become unproductive and frustrating
- Expectations are increasingly unclear
- The “blame game” becomes standard operating procedure
- Excuses are routine
- Failures are accepted and justified
- Cynical comments become frequent
- Trust begins evaporating
That sounds pretty dire, but fortunately it may not be too late to turn those situations around. Even when you begin to spot one or more of these behavior patterns it doesn’t necessarily mean your employee team needs to be placed on “life support.” By applying leadership “CPR” you should be able to revive your team’s morale and productivity.
Employees naturally prefer to work for leaders who they believe genuinely care about them and the work they perform. They expect their leaders to make sure they have the tools, materials and environment necessary to be successful. And many employees want their leaders to care about them as individuals, as well as about their shared mission.
Whether the measure of success is units produced, dollars earned or people served, a leader needs to help workers understand the metrics of success. The clearer they are about goals and standards the more successful they will be. A caring leader provides workers with the tools, training and guidance necessary. And when workers run into problems an effective leader helps them overcome those obstacles.
It’s also important for leaders to help workers understand how their role fits into the “big picture.” That helps workers feel like they are part of a successful team and that everybody shares in the team’s success. In some circumstances leaders may also help their people to understand how the team’s success serves an even greater purpose, if possible. Employees should always recognize that they are a part of something important and worthwhile.
It’s not uncommon for modern workers to feel like little more than small ‘cogs’ within a big machine. That’s understandable. Today’s organizations sometimes seem increasingly decentralized and more remote than ever. And it doesn’t help employees feel valued when their managers’ workdays are consumed by phone calls, emails, reports, and endless meetings. Those demands can make it a challenge for leaders to cultivate close relationships with employees.
But that doesn’t mean a leader can’t, or shouldn’t, build personal relationships with employees. It isn’t enough for managers to merely understand a few tangible details about a given employee. An effective leader usually also knows something about workers’ personal lives. Do they have any hobbies or special interests? What drives them? What are they passionate about?
But keep in mind that certain details may not be open for discussion. There are some boundaries and lines a manager definitely shouldn’t cross. But generally speaking the more managers know about their employees the easier it is to communicate and help workers to achieve higher levels of performance.
There was a time decades ago when the relationships between leaders and workers were somewhat formal and rather remote. Back then managers did not typically fraternize with “rank and file” employees. In some organizations the distinction between managers and workers was extreme, with separate restrooms, separate lunch facilities, and separate social activities. And of course there were very large differences in the pay scales and benefits that distinguished the “bosses” from the workers, all of which is laughable today.
While such rigid distinctions between workers and managers may have served past organizations, today’s business world tends to rely on productive working relationships to achieve success. That requires modern leaders to foster teamwork and practice effective employee communication.
Yet many managers resist getting “too familiar” with workers and tend to hide behind formality. Perhaps that’s because they fear losing their power or authority. Yet, for many of today’s workers — especially Millennials, who prefer informality — that’s actually a major obstacle to forging strong relationships. And it can be an absolute killer of productivity!
Today’s managers are well advised to take off their “boss hats,” at least occasionally, and communicate with employees on an equal level. Honesty and transparency are the watchwords in today’s organizations. Executives that can bridge that proverbial gulf between themselves and workers will reap the rewards of a resilient and productive workplace.
It’s simply a matter of providing employees with caring, personal and real leadership.
* For the record, the original term “CPR” stands for Cardiopulmonary Resuscitation, which refers to reviving a person suffering from sudden cardiac arrest.
About the author
Jan Ferri-Reed, PhD, is the President of KEYGroup® and a seasoned consultant for a 30+ year international speaking, training and assessment firm. She is a sought after speaker and thought leader on the Millennial generation, managing a multi-generational workforce, and leadership. Regularly featured on national media, Jan’s expertise is sought after by Industry Week, TIME, Diversity Executive, NPR and Forbes, and a contributing for the American Society of Quality magazine – Journal for Quality and Participation.
She is the bestselling co-author of Keeping the Millennials: Why Companies are Losing Billions in Turnover to This Generation and What To Do About It. And her sequel, Millennials 2.0 – Empowering Generation Y was released in the fall of 2014.