Balancing the Company’s Needs and Employee Satisfaction
As a senior leader, doing what is right for your company and doing what will make your employees happiest are not always mutually exclusive. This paradox can make seemingly obvious choices difficult to make. To find a balance, you need to change your mindset by first remembering that supervisors and middle managers have more direct influence over the factors that impact employee satisfaction and are best equipped to address it. You should instead use your power to up employee engagement by creating inclusive work environments in which everyone is given a chance to contribute to their fullest potential, and finding ways to provide junior employees with visibility opportunities.
My client, Megan, was facing a major customer challenge at her company. She and her department heads held a meeting to strategize how to address it. Once they had finished outlining an ambitious plan, her colleague exhaled, “We need to be careful about how we communicate this to our teams. We’re asking them to do a lot of extra work. Everyone is going to be unhappy about that.” The company’s engagement scores had taken a hit earlier that year, and her colleague feared this change would only make things worse.
Though Megan kept her cool during the meeting, she vented to me shortly after. “I’m trying to help weather a crisis here,” she said, “and he wants me to worry about people being happy?”
Megan’s question brings up a dilemma that is common for most executives. Senior employees often have the power to make decisions that will significantly impact the collective work experience of the people below them, but at the same time, they are removed from those people. This is largely because, as employees rise within their organization, their responsibilities shift from considering how their team feels to shaping organizational ethos. Doing what is right for their company and doing what will make their employees happiest are not always mutually exclusive.
This paradox can make seemingly obvious choices difficult to make. People at the top often get exaggerated, anecdotal opinions about how people at the bottom are feeling about any given issue. “Everyone is going to be unhappy,” for example, is likely not true. Further complicating the issue — employee engagement surveys aggregate feedback into large clusters, making it challenging for executives to weigh accurate data into their decisions.
Many senior leaders, as a consequence, have a fear of being viewed as cold or uncaring. When this fear takes over, they can become over-sensitive and start to personalize the unhappiness of others. To move past this fear and become better leaders, people in positions of power need to find a balance between making decisions that serve the greater good of their organizations while still remaining appropriately concerned about the emotional wellbeing of those below them. In my experience consulting with executives on how to find this balance, I’ve found that making the following shifts in mindset are particularly important.
From individual happiness to collective purpose. Many senior leaders take it personally when they learn people in their organization are unhappy. They forget that supervisors and middle managers have more direct influence over the factors that impact employee satisfaction and are best equipped to address it. As leaders move up and become further removed from these responsibilities, using their power to foster a deeper sense of purpose throughout their division or department is the greatest contribution they can make. Plenty of research shows that when people are able to connect the purpose of their organization to their purpose as individuals, they are happier and more engaged at work. Senior leaders are in a unique position to help them do this.
Microsoft CEO, Satya Nadella, serves as an example. He and his leadership team held an intimate discussion in which they each spoke about what they want to achieve through their work. The goal of the conversation was to help them figure out how the Microsoft platform could help them realize their senses of purpose. The company’s Chief People Officer, Kathleen Hogan, told me:
“The ability to connect our own purpose to the mission sustains us. When you can zoom out and see how we are making a difference, that’s energizing in the face of the day-to-day challenges. While strategy will evolve, your culture and sense of purpose should be long-lasting. Culture paired with a purpose-driven mission allows your employees to use your company platform to realize their own aspirations and passions.”
Microsoft makes this a priority by providing their 18,000 leaders with tools and processes to engage those they lead.
From engagement to ownership. Many companies have resorted to things like free lunches, onsite fitness and daycare centers, or meditation rooms to express care for their employees. While some of these benefits certainly improve the employee experience, they do little to up employee engagement, and therefore, happiness.
Rather than relying on perks, senior leaders should prioritize creating inclusive work environments in which everyone is given a chance to contribute to their fullest potential. Ensuring that governance systems allow employees to solve the problems they directly touch is the first step. When people are able to participate in making decisions that directly impact their work, their sense of ownership, and therefore, engagement increases.
Take the example of one organization I worked with. A company-wide assessment revealed that the majority of their employees felt ambivalent, disempowered, and cynical about their work. The senior leader I was consulting proposed a solution. She wanted to schedule a series of town hall meetings and luncheons to re-energize her people. However, I warned her this plan would fail. Her employees didn’t need to hear a motivational speech. They needed her leadership team to align on major initiatives and deliver consistent messages. In order to accomplish this, she had to stop micromanaging and give more ownership to the people below her.
Instead of resorting to her initial quick-fix solution, she did what only senior leaders have the power to do — she reshaped the organization to improve the experiences, and performance, of her people. She developed “live hack sessions” facilitated by middle managers in which workers could discuss real issues and brainstorm ways to resolve them. Next, she overhauled governance systems. Decision-making processes were pushed lower in the organization and supervisors were provided with the resources they needed to carry out solutions. Finally, she initiated customer panel groups that allowed employees to hear about the successes and failures within their specific markets. This helped dramatically restore a sense of pride and personal ownership throughout her division.
From promotability to visibility. A dead-end job, or feeling like you are in one, is a significant source of employee unhappiness. When people sense that their career has stalled, they often assume senior leadership has the power to fix it. In fact, the mere opportunity to express their concerns to a senior leader can result in an unrealistic expectation that things will change. Solutions like skip-level meetings — where senior leaders meet with employees many levels below them — tend to exaggerate the problem. Executives often hear about frustrations that they are unable to fix without disempowering or sidestepping the leaders between them and the employees with whom they are talking.
This is not to say that meeting employees where they are at is not valuable. Efforts like skip-level meeting and visits to manufacturing plants can lead to important mentorships and learning opportunities for junior workers. But when it comes to career development issues, senior leaders often cannot realistically address them.
They are, however, in a unique position to create visibility for those employees who might not otherwise get noticed. That’s why leaders should focus instead on giving individual contributors a chance to showcase their accomplishments to the people above them. One powerful solution is to invite lower level talent into higher level meetings. This is a great way for executives at the top to meet and enjoy the perspectives and contributions of people they would never know otherwise.
One CEO I’ve worked has done just this. He has a standing talent showcase on his executive team agenda. Each month, two members of his team invite someone from their respective departments to an informal conversation with the senior team during which they talk about the projects they are most proud of, as well as their day-to-day challenges. The junior employees leave feeling highly regarded by the company’s top leaders. The ritual began after the company’s annual talent review process a few years ago, when the CEO said, “If we’re going to talk about these people, we should extend the courtesy of meeting them to learn about their work, so they can hear first-hand why they matter to us.”
Leaders naturally want to see those in their organization happy and thriving. As you rise higher, how you’re able to act on that desire must shift. While you can attend to the needs of your direct reports, you must leave the individual experiences of everyone else to them. Instead, learn to enjoy the unique opportunity you have to shape the collective wellbeing of your organization through fostering purpose, deepening ownership, and enhancing visibility.
Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.
Balancing the Company’s Needs and Employee Satisfaction
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