Keeping employee excellence simple in a complex world
In a startup culture, employees know that the entire company can change overnight. A new merger or a massive change in direction could just be another Monday at the office.
Most of the world doesn’t work at a startup, although it’s getting hard to tell the difference. Businesses of all shapes, sizes, and legacies are becoming increasingly chameleonic, and chaotic. Potential customers are everywhere, and want to be served all the time.
“A long time ago, if a company switched strategy mid-stream, it meant that something had gone very wrong,” says human dynamics expert and author Halley Bock. “Now it’s just the pace the world is operating at.”
This makes the underlying mission of every organization more complex, and in turn makes it harder to explain to employees exactly what they need to do in order to succeed and thrive. Instead of throwing the entire business plan on the conference table, here are some tangible ways you can help your employees wrap their heads around their evolving daily challenges.
Listening to the ex
It can be difficult for your current employees to explain how they feel adrift at work, because no employee is easier to cut than one who admits they don’t know why they’re working in the first place. Former employees have no need to self-censor, so they’re well worth listening to.
“When you read feedback at platforms like Glassdoor, you often see advice to senior management that people don’t understand the goals, the overall mission, or what they need to be doing,” says Jeanne Meister, author and founding partner of Future Workplace.
Closing the “behavioral vision” gap
When you try to make a complex message too simple, you can dilute it beyond all actionable meaning. It ends up just sounding like “do your best for everybody at every opportunity” with some extra words about creating value and loyalty peppered in. Before long, you’re spouting platitudes like Spinal Tap’s synth player.
Your employees can understand the words you’re speaking, and they get that the mission statement is very important to you. But they have no idea how what they do (or are supposed to do) on a daily basis connects with that mission statement. A Human Capital Institute article describes this as a gap in behavioral vision.
To close this gap, digestible-but-vague mission statements need to be paired with specific, actionable goals. These can be stated as values and practices which apply equally to all employees, but that too might end up being too vague to be truly actionable. You can go even deeper by defining specific concepts that apply by title or by responsibility, so that everyone feels that their unique work demands are taken into account.
And management has to hold itself accountable for the consequences of those goals. For instance, a company might promote the behavior to “spend as much time with customers as necessary to resolve an issue.” But if that same company continually punishes or otherwise discourages customer service representatives for longer calls, it won’t take very long for employees to identify the contradiction and cut calls short at the earliest opportunity.
Spell it out
Meister favors the use of objectives and key results (OKR) software and methodology to provide a live, frequently-updated view of how an employee’s activities support shared goals. “If you’re not a big company, you don’t need to make a big software investment, but you do need to understand that clearly communicating your goals and your employees’ goals is important,” she says.
Ownership vs. control
Sometimes businesses make changes which in theory should make life easier and better for everyone, but the employees most directly affected are annoyed rather than relieved. As a rough example, consider a company which formerly required gatekeepers to check five different forms to be filled out before a new customer could be entered into the system.
This process is re-engineered so that customers can be added with a single form, without loss of data quality. Instead of being pleased, the gatekeepers are annoyed. Why? Because they understood their entire value to the company in terms of enforcing that policy. The company said that five forms are necessary to a good customer record, so five forms are the only way to do the job right.
This perverse phenomenon is often lumped under the general umbrella of change management. But it’s actually a very specific dynamic. Bock describes it as the difference between ownership and control.
“Control is not ownership. Control is old-guard, ego-based behavior,” she says. “Ownership involves looking at a bigger horizon, a cause that is greater than yourself.”
When employees understand their role from a control standpoint, anything that threatens that control can be taken amiss. Shifting to an ownership culture is more than just changing job descriptions. It means helping employees identify tangible objectives, but providing room for personal discovery and innovation in achieving those targets.
“Ownership means allowing employees to set some of their own goals and to have some autonomy, and knowing that you will support them,” she says. “And when employees start to talk about the company’s goals as their own, then you know you’ve achieved something.”