I talk to employees to nearly everyday. Interestingly, it often seems like employees are unhappy, some sort of complaint, or a wish for a more perfect workplace. Broadly, the frustrations are as much about power dynamics, alignment and consistency, and conflict as they are about the specifics of a workplace. On the other hand, leaders at every level feel sandwiched between their direct reports and the person/persons to whom they report. They work to balance keeping them both happy and while trying to their own feelings of being overwhelmed. I understand the perspectives of both groups and don’t lean toward more empathy for either group; however, leaders do need to shoulder more responsible for “going first” to begin working to address these issues.
The power and fear dynamic is particularly delicate; the concerns are about both the formal power hierarchy and who has power per the organizational culture. Some managers believe that the workplace is necessarily about hierarchy and following directives and spend less time massaging relationships. I’ve had managers say to me, “I don’t care about their feelings because they get paid to do a job.” However, these same managers go out of their way to manage the feelings of the person to whom they report. Employees are not blind to this hypocrisy and deal with it through passive-aggressive means like gossip, sarcasm, refusal to fully engage, and malicious compliance (doing exactly what a supervisor asks them to do when they know following the directive will result in more problems without sharing the information that they know).
On the other hand, many employees don’t own the contribution that they make to organizational culture. The power of the group is tremendous, and the culture crocodile is real. Half of the crocodile’s bite comes from leadership, but employees contribute the other half of the bite! Whether it’s an environment rife with relentless teasing, pressure to regularly work long hours, or “optional” attendance at after hours social activities, these examples of peer-to-peer cultural expectations are but a few examples of how hard it is to be a minority and do something different. The pressure to go along to get along changes when employees deal with management and choose to wield their power through collective bargaining (sometimes, employee resource groups morph into precursors to unionization although such is a perversion of their stated purpose). Unfortunately, collective bargaining usually makes the relationship more adversarial than collaborative and polarizes the culture even more. Essentially, the clear message that employees send through collective bargaining is that they don’t trust their leaders to deal with them fairly and consistently and they are unwilling to risk their income to test the waters as individuals.
There’s another deadly organizational dynamic: a workplace that doesn’t have “us versus them” relationships, but that also lacks a culture that motivates people want to work there! There’s nothing particularly terrible about these places, but they aren’t particularly great either. These organizations are like salt that has lost its flavor and face the greatest amount of risk of losing their best employees due to lack of engagement.
So, what’s an employer to do? First and foremost, be proactive. Accept that looking for ways to make the organization or just your team a great place to work has to be a priority for how you spend your time. Second, not only must leaders make deliberate culture-building a priority, but they must decide what that means. Translation: leaders must decide which behaviors and attitudes they want to encourage and reinforce them with rewards and through communication strategies. Meanwhile, here are a few wants and suggestions that employees, including some in leadership positions, shared with me:
|In General:||Holiday Employees Gift Ideas:|
|•Words of affirmation,
•Concrete ways to advance, •The supplies to actually get your job done efficiently
•Actually listen to improvement recommendations and actually try them instead of dismissing them out of hand.
•Paid leave time
•The ability to work from home
•To have the company culture be more inclusive, engaging and a fun environment.
•Show teamwork throughout all levels of the organization.
|•Holiday celebrations outside of building where employees can mingle amongst each other.|
|Acknowledgement for a job well done! Words of affirmation and appreciation go much further for me than a gift.|
|Employees want to feel valued, heard and informed. They need to see how what they do brings value to the overall mission of a company and that it is a safe place to challenge the norm in order to make room for growth and innovation.|
|The colleagues I’ve managed wanted clear direction, a manager who was listening and looking out for pitfalls on their behalf. Also teaching them how to overcome work challenges while providing an encouraging and safe space, and modeling the behaviors you expected from them.|
|Specificity. We are examining our work culture and making recommendations for improvement. I would like for the recommendations to be specific enough to make real change. Right now they are extremely general which will result in no improvement and continued feelings of ‘nothing ever changes’.|