This article originally appeared at SmartBlog on Leadership in November 2012.
After dedicating a large portion of my professional life to helping leaders develop new skills to improve workplace performance, I’ve come to a startling (and perhaps career-limiting) conclusion: Employee engagement, motivation, and results are less about introducing new leadership behaviors and more about just stopping the stuff that makes employees crazy.
Let me frame this as a little parable. Leaders in a mythical company worked diligently to create a lovely gardened footpath. They design it to honor, inspire and rejuvenate the workforce. But no one used it. Why? Because — unbeknownst to the leaders — the employees were walking around every day with sharp stones in their shoes. All of their energy was focused toward relieving or coping with that discomfort; so taking additional painful steps — regardless how lovely the path — didn’t even occur to them.
Employees can’t appreciate the “extras” that leaders may offer through enhanced skills and abilities if they are distracted (or pained) by their own significant irritants. Obviously employees will benefit when leaders attend training, learn important skills and apply new approaches to their roles. But where organizations can realize an even greater return on their investments (of time, energy, and money) is isolating and eliminating the five most significant de-motivators and impediments to employees joyfully and fully contributing their talents to the cause.
- Unclear expectations: The vast majority of employees want to do a good job. They want to contribute and perform well. What hampers that is a lack of clarity about what the outcome should be, what the standards are, what success looks like and how they’ll be evaluated. Withhold this information and you’ll undermine performance — and make employees nuts.
- Underutilization: It’s critical that employees feel that they are bringing the best they have to offer, particularly as workplace demographics shift toward younger workers. Study after study confirms a connection between employees feeling that their talents are being fully tapped and greater engagement. Underutilization of skills, capacities and people sub-optimizes results. And it makes employees nuts.
- Unnecessary systems, rules and processes: Many organizations find themselves overlaying rules and systems without thoughtful reconciliation. Got a problem? Introduce a new process! As a result, they become like those states with antiquated statutes. Perhaps there was a reason to enact a law about not looking a donkey in the eye on Sunday, but it doesn’t make sense today. And it makes employees nuts.
- Unproductive use of time: Little is more frustrating to employees than wasting time — Meetings that start late, projects that go nowhere, reports that are filed without review or consideration, fire drills that force people to scramble for no real reason. Those “five minutes here” and an “hour there”build up over time, undermining organizational credibility and results. And it makes employees nuts.
- Unrelenting change: Don’t get me wrong. Keeping pace with today’s dynamic marketplace demands a commitment to change. Yet many organizations have developed an affection for switching things up, redesigning structures, revising the schedule, redefining direction, etc. Sometimes it’s just change for change’s sake. The problem is that people become change-resistant. They internalize a sense of impermanence that causes them to resist or simply ignore the steady stream of changes washing over them. Unrelenting changes hurts genuine organizational transformation efforts. And it makes employees nuts.
As a leader, what may matter more than what you do is what you un-do. Make it a priority to address the five factors that make employees nuts. Help remove those sharp stones from their shoes. You’ll see remarkable results… step by step.
Going nuts yourself? As an employee, what factors undermine your motivation and ability to deliver results? What sharp stones are you stepping on each day?