Sigmund Freud, so the story goes, went to his grave perplexed by the question “What do women want?” I wonder if it ever occurred to Freud to simply ask a woman. In business, puzzled leaders do ask their employees what they want in forms of employee satisfaction and engagement surveys. However, most organizational leaders do little with the answers they get from these employee surveys.
Employee attitude, satisfaction, and engagement surveys are indeed useful tools, and the intent behind their administration is admirable, but many of these surveys reveal little useful information to help increase engagement and drive performance in the organization. Part of the problem is technical. The questions are not suitable for their purpose or are not clearly worded. Often the survey tool itself is unwieldy to use, the participation rate is too low, or the answers cannot be compared to or measured against past results. The other part of the problem is behavioural.
Even when the survey instrument is effective and the results are fully informative, many leaders do not develop and implement changes or respond to specific comments provided by organizational members. Too often, some leaders give a token acknowledgement of people’s participation, but overall their attitude conveyed to many team members is “Be thankful you have a job.”
Many leaders do not take seriously the workplace barriers and emotional burdens their workplace cultures create. They fail to actively listen to and learn from their people’s concerns. Their survey efforts become a way to appease employees or to follow industry standards, not to genuinely change the disruptive working conditions or improve the quality of life for their people. Engagement is the level of personal investment each person brings to the workplace predicated on two factors: a positive and supportive work culture and a positive and supportive relationship with their leader. To any degree that these two factors are sub-optimized in the experience and perspective of the individual, engagement declines and a performance deficit ensues. Here is the simple truth: Employees can tell the difference between authentic leaders and those who are simply trying to fake it to make it. This distinction is apparent in the way people behave and interact with others, and no amount of regular surveys can convince employees that their leaders care enough about them to pay attention to their problems.
Far too often, employees receive attention only when their performance or behaviour causes a problem – a symptom indicative of a disengaged team member. The leader then comes to deliver a reprimand or discipline. This kind of attention is unwelcome and unpleasant to both parties and it conditions employees to think that only time they have contact with the boss or with management is when something goes wrong. Paying attention should entail much more than this narrow circumstance. It should be done when everything is going great to reinforce positive behaviours and performance as well.
How can leaders pay closer attention to team member’s behaviour so they build a more positive connection with them? You may begin with the following strategies:
• Hold listening sessions in which small groups of employees or managers (or both) meet with you to discuss their ideas and concerns. The goal is to receive information, not to defend your position or introduce changes.
• Observe, watch, or shadow employees. The goal is to learn about and witness the daily challenges, not to critique or micromanage the work.
• Ensure that existing policies and standards reflect existing practice and realities. The goal is to eliminate outdated and ineffective approaches, not to create additional processes.
• Be visible on every unit and attend employee events. The goal is to show that that you are accessible and approachable, not to assert your importance in the organization.
Your significance as a leader (maximizing engagement and driving performance) is inextricably linked to your ability to connect with people. You can connect with followers in a number of ways, but all approaches must be characterized by trust, meaning, and caring. Experiences or interactions that are more focused on tasks than on people will be perceived negatively. Negative experiences for team members accumulate and ultimately erode your connection and your leadership effectiveness. Positive experiences, on the other hand, increase your influence and enable you to sustain the connection.
Influential leaders are highly practiced with the skill of ‘Positive Presence’ and it places them in a position to model positive behaviour and create positive experiences in their relationships. Positive experiences and emotional connections with people are what make you a highly effective influential leader.