Chuck, a white male, desperately wanted to fire Mary, an African American female.
As head of his company’s accounting department, Chuck had become increasingly frustrated with Mary’s performance and attitude. He had established a program, the Call List, which involved department employees checking in with customers every 60 days. The list was divided evenly among the five employees in Chuck’s department. Unlike her coworkers, Mary regularly fell short of completing her share of the calls.
When Chuck spoke to her about the problem, Mary became defensive and made excuses. Their relationship deteriorated, with Mary becoming less and less engaged and Chuck becoming more and more frustrated. At one point, Chuck became angry with Mary and vented his frustration. Mary became upset and pointedly observed that perhaps he had a problem with her race since everyone else in the department was white.
Chuck backed off and for a time let the performance issues slide. Eventually, however, Chuck reached the point where he’d had enough—Mary had to go!
To fire Mary, he needed a sign-off from the human resources director, Betty. However, Betty noted the lack of documentation in Mary’s personnel file and absence of progressive discipline. She also noted inconsistencies, including favorable performance appraisals Mary had received. Chuck explained, “I didn’t want a big argument or to have her accuse me of anything so I checked the necessary boxes to keep the peace.”
Based on this record, Betty refused to support a termination, which further frustrated Chuck. He continued to press his case, which led to my being brought in for a second opinion as the company’s employment attorney.
I agreed with Betty, which made Chuck mad at me. “This is all a bunch of politically correct garbage!” he said. “Between HR and the lawyers, a manager can’t manage. And there’s not a damn thing you can do about it!”
“Yes, there is something you can do,” I said.
“Change the way you manage employees,” I said.
“I want legal advice!” Chuck practically shouted.
“I’m giving it to you,” I said.
Chuck’s unhappiness with the status quo created an opportunity for change. Incentivized by the thought of being able to fire Mary, he agreed to create what I call Star Profiles for the positions in his department and use them to increase employee engagement, or to determine if an employee doesn’t belong, which Chuck assumed would be the case with Mary.
I helped Chuck come up with a short, tight, action-oriented word picture of the most important things Mary and her coworkers could do to be successful—what would make the most meaningful difference in their performance. After some thought and discussion, Chuck came up with a three-sentence profile that captured the behavior of successful accounting department employees:
1. Record and transmit every transaction promptly and accurately.
2. Diligently complete the Call List to improve account handling and customer relations.
3. Help build a working environment based on trust, respect, and cooperation.
Next, Chuck held meetings with each of his five employees, explaining these three core behaviors, why they were necessary to the accounting department’s success, and inviting their ideas and suggestions on how to best achieve them. He followed up with short written summaries of the key points of each discussion and scheduled follow-up meetings.
Initially, Chuck balked at having to make this effort with his four “good” employees. “If it ain’t broke, why fix it?”
Sure enough, Chuck unexpectedly discovered that his effort to crystallize and communicate the most valuable things his employees could do improved the other four employees’ performance. Chuck said, “They were good before, but now I’ve got some of the best employees in the whole company!”
Chuck’s biggest surprise, however, came with Mary.
I hadn’t heard anything for nearly a year when Betty and Chuck called me. They had another disagreement. And it was about Mary. She had submitted her notice of resignation, explaining that family issues required her to be away from work longer than was allowed under company policy.
Get this: Chuck wanted an exception to be made—in Mary’s favor. Betty disagreed, citing the need for consistency.
“Is Mary requesting an exception?” I asked.
“No,” Chuck said. “She said she fully understands and accepts the policy. In fact, she’d probably be embarrassed if she knew I was trying to make an exception for her.”
“Then why are you doing it?” I asked.
“Because she’s so good at her job! It would be a shame to lose her.”
“Besides,” Chuck added, “she’s one of the few black employees we have in the company. Can’t we make an exception for this reason?”
Betty and I explained to Chuck that this would not be a good idea. We suggested that instead of violating company policy, he should stay in touch with Mary after she left and invite her to reapply once her family issues were resolved.
This story highlights the enormous potential that exists in nearly every workplace relationship yet tragically is so often missed. Consider the irony: The manager who desperately wanted to fire an employee but felt race prevented it was now seeking an exception to company policy to retain that same employee—and trying to use race to justify it.
After Chuck shifted his attention from what frustrated him to identifying and describing the actions and behavior that would produce the greatest value, the dynamic in his relationship with his employees changed. Instead of top-down, hierarchal, “I’m the boss” leadership, Chuck created the opportunity for collaboration—how each member of his department could individually and collectively contribute to the greater good. As a result, good employees became better. Their performance increased with their engagement level.
As for Mary, Chuck’s new approach effectively hit the reset button. She felt an enormous weight lifted off of her shoulders, which was the feeling that her boss was out to get her, possibly because of her race. The three sentences of her profile provided a roadmap for Mary’s success: a clear sense of the importance of her job; how it contributed to the department, the company, and customers; and how she could make a meaningful difference. As a result, Mary began bringing a level of energy and dedication to her job Chuck had not previously seen.
For people reporting to you, what actions are most needed for success? I’m not talking about a fantasy wish list or a run-on laundry list of qualifications. Star Profiles are succinct, action-oriented statements of what’s most important. They’re not mini-descriptions of jobs. They’re invitations to an ongoing, collaborative relationship that gives employees a sense of purpose, creates daily opportunities to make a difference, and connects them to their boss and each other as human beings.
Note: The Star Profile concept is covered in the chapter 2 stories “Beating the Coin Toss,” “The Professor Has a Close Call,” and “The Succession Scramble Sinks,” and the chapter 3 story “Course Correction or Corrective Action?”
With some trepidation, Cheryl agreed to support her husband’s dream. As a result, John quit his position as a senior computer engineer at a large company in Chicago, took out a second mortgage on their home, and started his own consulting business.
The new company struggled for a while but eventually turned a profit. John’s 90-hour workweeks began to pay off. He developed a loyal group of clients and a network of talented consultants.
Over the years, John developed a trusted lieutenant. An athletically built man in his mid-30s, Brad was as devoted to the company as he was to his boss. He combined a fierce sense of pride and loyalty. Sometimes passion got the better of him. However, the results he produced were consistently impressive.
As the business grew, John saw an opportunity to expand and open a second office in another state. He said to Brad, “What about opening and managing an office in St. Louis? I think you and the company would thrive.”
Without hesitation, Brad replied, “I’m ready. Let’s do it!”
Over the next several years, the St. Louis office grew to where it rivaled the Chicago office in revenue and profitability. By now, John had paid off both mortgages. He’d become financially well off.
Cheryl began to talk to John about her dream. It involved him retiring while the two were in good health and could travel and spend quality time with their children and grandchildren. John agreed, saying he was getting tired of his marathon workweeks. He added his own desire: to buy a sailboat they could use to explore places like the Caribbean and the San Juan Islands.
John faced a dilemma. “What do I tell Brad?” he asked himself. Unfortunately, he chose not to tell Brad anything. John reasoned to himself, “Brad is a great guy and has been indispensable, but he can get emotional and sometimes unpredictable. It’s better he not know what’s going on for now. Once I’ve got a deal in place, I’ll show him how well he’ll be taken care of.”
Time went by while Brad continued to build up the St. Louis operation. However, he began to notice that John had become less talkative about the future of the company. At one point Brad asked him, “John, are you selling the company?”
John replied, “Why no. I haven’t offered to sell the company to anybody.” John rationalized to himself that his statement was technically true since no offers had yet been made. However, he left out the part about retaining a broker.
A few months later, a large Asian company offered to buy John’s company at an extremely attractive price. The deal would include a large retention bonus and substantial raise for Brad as head of the St. Louis office. John also planned to sweeten the deal by giving Brad a generous personal “thank you” payment from John’s share of the profits.
The deal on the table meant John and Cheryl’s retirement dream would be fully funded. The deal just needed to close. However, with the closing two weeks away, John received an email from the buyer’s representatives: “Before completing this transaction, we would like to meet the manager of your St. Louis office since he will be an important part of the company going forward. We are in New York this week and request that he meet us there.”
This message threw John into a state of panic. He jumped on a plane to St. Louis, carrying plane tickets to New York for himself and Brad.
With sweaty palms, John opened the front door of the St. Louis office. “Hi Brad,” he said.
His eyes wide in surprise, Brad said, “What are you doing in town? I had no idea you were coming.”
“Brad, I need to speak with you in private. Let’s go downstairs to the coffee shop.”
Seated at a corner table, John explained what had been happening. Brad’s reaction was not positive: “What?! You sold the company! Without telling me?!”
Brad remembered John’s earlier denial of selling the company and added, “In fact, you lied to me!”
John started to explain that his statement had been “technically true” at the time, but Brad cut him off. “You sent me to St. Louis, and I built this operation from scratch. I busted my butt for you for twelve years and that’s how you treat me!”
“But Brad, you’ll be well rewarded. There will be a substantial retention bonus and salary increase. Also, I plan to write you a sizable check myself. You’ll still be fully in charge of the St. Louis office. These changes will be good for you.”
“Don’t give me that crap,” Brad replied acidly. “You just want me to play nice so that Asian outfit pays you a boatload of money and makes you rich. Don’t insult my intelligence with a bunch of BS about how much you care about me!”
The rest of their meeting did not go much better. However, Brad eventually agreed to fly with John to New York to meet the buyer’s representatives.
At the meeting, John introduced Brad to the others. At first, Brad was polite, although not very communicative. John tried drawing Brad out into a discussion of the St. Louis operation, its many successes, and future growth opportunities. Brad started to open up a bit.
One of the buyer’s representatives said, “We are pleased to have you work for us Brad. Your boss negotiated hard on your behalf to make us pay you a lot of money. But he promises we will get a good return on our investment.” The representative added, “You have a very loyal boss.”
The last comment was too much for Brad. “Oh yeah, John’s a hell of a loyal boss,” he said sarcastically. “You can’t do better than good old John when it comes to loyalty.”
John’s cheeks flushed as Brad continued, “As for your ‘return on investment,’ as you call it, who do you think built the St. Louis operation? John? Please! I did it myself while he sat back in Chicago counting his money.”
“Easy Brad,” John said. “This is a win-win situation here. No need to get angry.”
“Who’s angry?” Brad replied hotly. “I just want to make sure our Asian friends understand the facts, including that if I were to leave the company, the St. Louis office would fall to pieces. I don’t need to hear a bunch of crap about their getting a ‘return on investment!’”
The rest of the room fell silent. But Brad wasn’t done. “I’m not impressed with your offer,” he said to the buyer’s representatives. “You know, maybe I should start my own business. You guys wouldn’t stand a chance competing against me.”
“But Brad,” John stammered, “you’ve got a noncompete contract. You can’t do that.”
Brad stared directly at John. “So sue me,” he said, with a sneer. With that, Brad walked out of the room, slammed the door behind him, and went downstairs to catch the next flight to St. Louis.
After Brad left, the buyer’s representatives said they needed to speak with each other in private and asked John to leave the room. After about ten minutes, they called him in. Apologetically, they said to an ashen-faced John, “We are very sorry, but we are afraid your company no longer fits our acquisition guidelines. We wish you success in finding another buyer.”
The next two years were very difficult for John. After firing Brad, he assumed management responsibilities for St. Louis as well as Chicago. Instead of enjoying retirement with Cheryl, his workweek hours increased as he commuted regularly to St. Louis, desperately trying to preserve the business while finding another buyer. In addition, he had to fight a pitched legal battle with Brad over the noncompete agreement as well as Brad’s own claim of breach of contract.
Eventually the legal issues were resolved and another buyer found. However, the price paid for John’s business was less than half of what the Asian company had offered two years earlier.
What I most remember is the point when John described the impact on Cheryl. His eyes filled with tears and his voice caught. He shook his head sadly and said, “This was supposed to be her dream too.”
John had an understandable fear of sharing sensitive information with his employee. But his instinct to withhold information actually led to the very thing he feared most. Without realizing it, John sowed the seeds of mistrust. It also led to his rationalized “rational lie,” stating a technical truth he knew to be misleading. In doing so, he unwittingly set the stage for the disastrous meeting in New York. No amount of money would assuage Brad’s feeling of being deceived by his boss. John’s instinct to withhold information created a terrible environment for the time when that information had to be shared. Instead of engaging his most valuable employee in the sale, John converted him into an actively disengaged employee who sank the deal.
Of course, sharing sensitive information should be done with preparation and care. There may be circumstances when withholding information from employees is appropriate. However, the presumption should be to share the information with those to whom it would be important, not withhold it.
Imagine if John had sat down with Brad early in the process and said:
“Brad, I’ve been doing a lot of thinking lately. Like you, I’m a workaholic. Cheryl’s had to keep the house, raise the kids, and tend to aging parents without much help from me. Yet she supported me when I left a secure job to pursue my dream of starting my own company.
“Well, Cheryl has a dream of her own. It’s that I retire while we’re both still in good health so that we can travel and get to know our grandchildren. And I’ve also got my own little dream, which is to buy a sailboat and spend a lot of time on it.
“With your support, we’ve built a great business over the years. But I’m starting to get tired. A business broker told me the market is right to sell to one of the big players in our industry. With what we’ve saved over the years, Cheryl and I can establish a comfortable retirement if we sell in this current market.
“I’d like your help in making this dream a reality.”
Courtesy of the U.S. legal system, I got to know Brad—via deposition taking, mediation, and other proceedings. Based on what I learned about Brad, I have no doubt in stating what his response would have been had John conveyed a message like the one above. John wouldn’t have needed to add the part about Brad being well compensated. Considering Brad’s fierce pride and loyalty, as well as his zealous devotion to results, Brad’s wheels would have been turning instantly. “I’m going to deliver one final victory for John and Cheryl!”
If you want to keep your employees engaged, when it comes to sharing versus withholding information, here are the questions to ask yourself:
If I were in the employees’ shoes, what would I want to know?
If I keep this information to myself, what are the potential negative consequences?
If the information is potentially problematic for my employees, what can I say or do to minimize negative reaction?
Many years ago, I founded and managed a law firm. I employed a receptionist, Gladys. In her 50s with a prior career in the military, Gladys was intelligent, reliable—and a bit sharp around the edges. When interacting with others, she had a suffer-no-fools manner.
One day, Gladys put a call through to me while I was in my office.
“Jathan,” she said. “Your client Bill is on line two. Do you want to take the call?”
“Yes,” I said. “Please put it through.”
(Note to millennials: This was in the old days.)
During my conversation with Bill, he said something unrelated to the legal matter we were discussing. “What’s up with Gladys?” he asked.
“I don’t know,” I said. “What do you mean?”
In a surprised tone, he said, “She was actually quite pleasant on the telephone.”
I had no explanation for her unusual behavior and finished the conversation.
Having recently given a presentation about positive employee recognition, it struck me that now would be a good time to practice what I preached. I got up from my desk and walked out of my office to the reception area.
“Gladys,” I said.
“I was just on the phone with Bill, and—”
Gladys cut me off. “Well duh,” she said. “Don’t you think I know that? Who do you think put the call into you?”
(As you can see, Gladys’s suffer-no-fools style meant suffer no fools—even if the fool was the boss.)
Gladys didn’t say anything in response. However, I observed a faint blush on her neck and face.
Thereafter, as I and others in the office noticed, when Gladys answered the phone, there was a degree of warmth not detected before.
This story illustrates the power of direct recognition of behavior a manager thinks is worth repeating. Our brains are wired in such a way that when someone—especially someone in a position of authority—positively recognizes an action we’ve taken or result we’ve obtained, we want to do more of the same.
Unfortunately, managers generally do a lousy job of giving recognition. (For years, I was no exception.) There are several reasons why. Their own bosses were probably not good role models. Managers are busy, and giving recognition takes time; it’s easier to take positive behavior for granted. Besides, isn’t that what their paycheck is for?
I tell managers who think and act this way, “You’re leaving money on the table. You’re missing out on quick, easy opportunities to get more of what you want: productivity, reliability, quality, initiative, and accountability. Highly engaged employees give you that. A boss’s direct recognition of positive behavior links the employee to a shared purpose, underscores the difference the employee is making, and connects the two of you as human beings. That spells engagement.”
Think about it from a business standpoint. Assume you were the owner of my firm, Janove & Associates. Profits went into your pocket, and losses came out of it. Would Gladys’s behavior change matter to you? How about in your business? Does customer service matter?
Yet did I “command and control” this positive behavior change? Did I rely on a job description? Did I fall on bended knee and beg, “Please, Gladys, be nicer on the phone. Please!” No. Direct recognition of behavior worth repeating is powerful stuff. Make a habit of it and get ready to smile at the results.
To get started, I recommend the following exercise. Reflect on the things your employees do that are worth repeating, whether major or minor. These could relate to productivity, reliability, flexibility, initiative, treatment of others, safety, quality, team play, or anything else you value. List in writing as many things as you can think of. Turn to this list at least twice a workday, once in the morning to prime you to give recognition and once at the end of the day to reflect on how well you did.
Here’s another thing you can do: Get a battery and put it on your desk or otherwise keep it present. Why? Because batteries have two terminals. The negative terminal is to remind you not to let employee problems fester, a topic I’ll cover in chapter 3, “Performance Management.” The positive terminal is your behavior prompt to give recognition instead of taking positive behavior for granted.
Now, if you’re an environmentally conscientious type, no worries (we have lots of them in the Pacific Northwest). Instead of getting a battery, get a picture of a battery—preferably on fully biodegradable, recyclable paper.
Before I had my own firm, I worked in other law firms. In one of these firms, a young, ambitious attorney came to us with a vision. Max wanted to create a specialty law practice he felt was largely untapped and could be extremely lucrative. He said he needed two years to put all of his time and effort in building up a referral network and other resources that would make this new practice a reality.
We were impressed with his pitch and negotiated a two-year deal. We agreed to pay him a modest salary while exempting him from all firm, client, and other responsibilities.
As the two years neared an end, the cost of Max’s salary, overhead, and professional support still exceeded the revenue he’d thus far brought in. However, it was obvious that he’d laid the foundation of what would be a long-term highly profitable practice.
“Why?” asked another partner. “We’re still in the red on him.”
“I know,” said Dave. “But does anyone doubt the kind of revenue that will soon be flowing into the firm?”
Another partner spoke up:
“I agree that Max has done an outstanding job and the firm will eventually do extremely well. However, that’s when we should give him a bonus, not now. He hasn’t asked for a bonus and isn’t expecting one. He made it clear he only wanted a modest salary and administrative support. He said he’d talk to us about a new deal once we’ve gotten back our investment.”
“It’s precisely because he isn’t expecting a bonus that we should do it. He will be totally surprised and probably try to refuse it. But we should insist. We’ve had an excellent year financially. We can easily afford to take $5,000 out of the pot and give it to Max.”
“Okay Dave,” another partner said jokingly, “we’ll take it out of your share.” Several partners laughed.
The partners took a vote. Dave’s proposal went down in defeat.
Years later, after I’d left the firm, one of my former partners told me that once the revenue did roll in and Max had repaid the firm’s investment, he drove a hard bargain about his compensation going forward. “Basically,” this partner said, “Max made it clear he’d leave the firm unless we agreed to treat his practice as a business within a business. This meant that while we got something out of the deal, it wasn’t that great. Max took the lion’s share.”
Subsequently, I bumped into Max at a community event. We scheduled lunch.
After we met and ordered our food, I couldn’t contain my curiosity. I asked Max about what happened after he’d turned the corner on his new practice.
“I told the managing partner, ‘It’s time for a new deal,’” Max said. “He responded by saying the firm would make me a partner and that given how strong my numbers were, I’d do well in their system.
“I told him I didn’t want to be paid under the firm’s system. I wanted my own system. I’d built this business on my own and it was entirely dependent on me.”
“The managing partner looked at me in surprise. Hard bargaining followed. Things reached the point where I made plans to leave, including having a lease drawn up for space in another building, obtaining a bank loan, and putting together a network of attorneys to work for me. I went to the managing partner and told him I planned to leave and take the business with me.
“He said, ‘Wait a minute. Let me talk to the partnership.’
“Evidently the prospect of my leaving changed their perspective because we got a deal done that’s still in place.”
At the conclusion of lunch, I told Max about the partnership meeting years before and Dave’s unsuccessful effort to obtain a $5,000 bonus for him. Max hadn’t known anything about it. He hadn’t expected a bonus then and wasn’t disappointed when he didn’t get one.
“I’d probably have voted against Dave, too,” he said.
“Max,” I said, “let’s assume the partnership had told you it wanted you to accept a $5,000 bonus because it had complete confidence in your eventual success and wanted to make a gesture of appreciation.”
“I probably would have declined it,” Max said. “I hadn’t earned it yet.”
“What if we’d insisted and perhaps added a condition that you not use the money for ordinary expenses but something special, like a family vacation or contribution to your kids’ college education fund?”
Before Max could answer, I added with a smile, “Let me put it another way Max. Let’s say we did something like that back then. In terms of the deal you ultimately negotiated with the firm, the hard bargaining you described, how much money would that $5,000 gesture have cost you long term?”
“I don’t know,” Max said. Then he slowly shook his head, chuckled, and said with a big smile, “You know, I’d rather not even think about it.”
The earlier story, about Gladys the receptionist, emphasized words of recognition; this one focused on gestures. When we do something for someone that’s not expected, the impact can be powerful.
It doesn’t have to be money, and it doesn’t have to be substantial. Just something affirmative to show you value the person’s contributions and care about him or her. The gesture could be a gift card, a handwritten note, a meal, a bottle of wine, or something creative like what a friend of mine does, sending people customized cards with personalized pictures.
The impact of these gestures isn’t limited to compensation negotiations as in Max’s case. Consider employee retention. When talented people leave your organization, do you rely on what they tell you in exit interviews? Typically, it’s a partial truth: “The pay will be better,” “The commute will be shorter,” “There’s better growth opportunity,” etc. What’s missing is what made the employee return the head-hunter’s call, follow up on the Internet job inquiry, or otherwise consider alternative employment possibilities. What’s also missing is why they never told you their plans until it was too late to retain them. Had you asked them how appreciated they felt at work, and had they answered honestly, I predict the answer would not have been encouraging.
Max’s law firm was perfectly justified in not giving him a bonus. They had a deal: a modest paycheck and administrative support in exchange for Max having two years of freedom to build his new practice. The firm kept its end of the bargain as did Max.
In other words, their relationship was transactional. It was an arm’s-length exchange between two parties as opposed to a bond formed between human beings. This meant that once the first deal ended and Max held the leverage, he could negotiate as good a deal for himself as possible without qualms or guilt pangs.
Most workplace relationships are transactional. From the employee’s perspective, it’s, “I put in my time and do my job in exchange for the money and benefits I get.” From the manager’s perspective, it’s, “I give the instructions, and assuming my employees follow them, they keep their jobs and continue to get their pay.” Transactional relationships are self-focused versus other-focused. They’re functional but not engaged.
If you want to move from functional to engaged, I suggest adding gestures to your words of appreciation.
As an executive coach, I was working with Phil, director of finance for his company. He shared frustrations he was having with one of his staff accountants, Melinda. She wasn’t performing to his expectations, yet he struggled communicating with her. “She gets defensive so easily,” he said. “I have trouble speaking with her about performance issues. I feel like we are pulling in opposite directions.”
I suggested that as clearly and specifically as he could, Phil should explain his performance expectations, including the reasons. I also encouraged him to frame his communications in a go-forward, future-looking, positive way.
I suggested we do a role play. Pretending I was Melinda, I said, “You’ve come to my office. I invite you in and you sit down. Now speak.”
Phil proceeded to lay out each of his expectations in great detail, providing reasons for each, and identifying gaps in Melinda’s performance with those expectations. Phil then articulated specific solutions by which Melinda could close these gaps.
He finished and looked at me for approval.
“You did a very thorough job of explaining the current situation,” I said. “You explained what needed to change, why, and how. You were specific and detailed without being judgmental. You didn’t dwell on the past but focused on the future, including how Melinda could succeed.
“Your message was terrific except for one thing.”
“What’s that?” Phil asked.
I showed Phil a picture of a large period and a large question mark with a ratio sign between them. “Do you know what this is?” I asked.
“I’m not sure,” Phil replied.
“I never thought about it,” Phil said.
“What would you estimate?”
“I don’t know.”
“How about just now in the role play where I was Melinda?”
“Beats me,” Phil said. “Probably more periods than question marks.”
“You’re a numbers guy,” I said. “What’s the symbol for infinity? I counted over a dozen sentences without a single one ending in a question mark.”
“That bad?” he said.
“It’s not that it’s bad, it’s just a missed opportunity. You did a terrific job of laying out the facts. Now to really engage Melinda, you need to blend in questions. Invite her to be part of the process.”
I taught Phil the “EAR” method of listening, where “E” stands for “explore,” which means asking open-ended, exploratory questions; “A” is for “acknowledge,” by which the listener confirms his or her understanding with the speaker; and after the speaker confirms that the listener’s understanding is correct, the listener “responds,” the “R.”
After some practice, Phil built questions into his planned discussion with Melinda. What did she think? How did she see things? What did she see as a solution? “How can I [Phil] help you succeed?”
In “An Employee Engagement Lesson Learned from a Volunteer Experience,” two stories down, I identify three pillars of engaged workplace relationships: (1) making a difference, (2) sharing a purpose, and (3) connecting personally. I can think of no better way to support all three than developing a habit of asking employees questions and listening to their answers.
The Period/Question-Mark Ratio and EAR method form an excellent one-two combination. The first is for self-awareness. It’s a check-in. I’ll find myself speaking to someone when a little voice inside my head whispers, “What’s your ratio Jathan?” I’ll make a quick count. If it’s skewed toward periods (my wife would say a not-unusual circumstance), I’ll stop and ask a question instead of making another statement.
The EAR supplies the methodology. Its three parts are normally done in sequence.
1. Start by exploring the other person’s position, asking open-ended questions such as, “What do you think?,” “How do you see it?,” “What are some examples?”
3. After the person confirms that you understand what matters, respond.
1. It improves the quality of your response. Instead of shooting from the hip, following the EAR sequence will give you the information and time to craft a nuanced, intelligent response.
2. At the psychological level, the “E” and the “A” combine to create a receptive environment for communication. Think about how you felt the last time someone heard your point of view and showed he or she had paid attention and understood. You felt pretty good, didn’t you?
3. The EAR method eliminates perhaps the number one culprit in relationship breakdown: the erroneous assumption. Far too often, we jump to our response, basing it on what we assume about the other person. We shouldn’t be surprised that our response elicits a negative reaction—its inaccuracy offends the other person, who feels misunderstood.
The EAR listening method is useful in essentially all exchanges. However, it’s especially useful in building engaged relationships. You can use it to create a shared sense of purpose by asking employees what they think is most important. You can help them enjoy a greater sense of accomplishment by asking them what will make them more effective in their jobs. And simply by using this method, you will create a stronger personal connection with your employees.
The EAR method isn’t a rigid, mechanical tool. Rather, it’s an approach to keep you other-focused versus self-focused and maximize the likelihood of your having positive, constructive relationships with your employees.
Sam was in his 50s and ran his company’s marketing department. He called me one day to vent his frustration. “What’s wrong with these millennials?” he said. “They frustrate the hell out of me!”
“What do you mean?” I asked.
“First of all, they have no loyalty,” he said. “It’s here today, gone tomorrow. Second, their work ethic is lousy. They’re too caught up in their own personal worlds. And third, they don’t know how to communicate. It’s probably because they’ve spent their lives on their various electronic gizmos!”
“Let’s take your charges in order,” I said.
“Charge number one, lack of loyalty. How much loyalty do you expect? Millennials grew up during the Great Recession. They probably had parents who lost their jobs or feared losing them. Today, they work in the era of mounting college debt that’s not offset by attractive career options.
“Employers continually strive to do more with less. They proclaim, ‘Our employees come first,’ yet when times get tough, ‘first’ usually means ‘out the door.’ In many workplaces, new hires start off receiving lengthy handbooks, sets of rules they’re told to obey subject to harsh consequences if they don’t. They get lectured on avoiding harassment and other misbehavior and are pointedly reminded they’re ‘at will,’ meaning they can be fired whenever the employer feels like it. How’s that for a welcome? Frankly, the term onboarding reminds me of another kind of ‘boarding.’
“Charge number two, poor work ethic/self-absorption. Let’s assume you’re right. Are you satisfied with your efforts to tap their motivation? What are you doing to give them a sense of purpose, the belief that they’re engaged in a cause that matters? Are you creating opportunities for them to make a difference and giving them recognition when they do? What’s your What/Why Ratio? For every time you tell them what to do, how often do you tell them why, as in why it matters? And what are you doing to connect with them on a personal level, to make them think you understand or care about them as human beings? In other words, what kind of investment are you making from which you might expect a favorable return?
“Charge number three, poor communication skills. On this one, I’m afraid millennials don’t have the market cornered. Managers of all generations are guilty of undercommunicating, overcommunicating, or miscommunicating. Here’s one way you might change this: Engage them in a conversation about how their familiarity with those “electronic gizmos” might help your company or department. Perhaps your millennials could bring innovation to the table that older, less-gizmo-oriented people might miss. Also, I understand your marketing efforts include millennials as potential customers, especially as they age and their purchasing power increases. Your millennial employees may be an untapped resource on how to maximize this potential. You just have to reach out and tap it.”
I’m not going to say that after hearing my speech, Sam leaped to his feet and said, “Hallelujah! I see the light!” Nevertheless, it did get him thinking about what he might do differently that could produce better results. And he subsequently did say that millennial relations and results had gone up, while his frustration level had gone down.
I’ve heard many similar complaints about millennials from managers like Sam. They follow the same theme: Millennials aren’t loyal, they’re too self-focused, their work ethic is problematic, and they don’t communicate well.
My response is always the same: Don’t create self-fulfilling prophecies. The minute you indulge in the stereotypes, you’re doomed to experience what you don’t want.
A better idea is to use your millennials as a test case for the concepts and tools I’m sharing in this book. Start with the What/Why Ratio: Every time you tell an employee what to do, explain why, the purpose served by the action. Think of the alternative reference to millennials: Generation Y (as in the one that followed Generation X). Only think of it not as the letter Y but the word why. Make the What/Why Ratio 1:1 and watch what happens to the relationship.
Next, make the EAR method of listening a regular part of your management practice. Find topics of interest to your employees, including ones that involve their work as well as their lives away from work. Explore what matters to them while showing you’ve paid attention and actually listened.
Lastly, break the habit of taking positive employee behavior for granted. Make it a point to give direct recognition of behavior worth repeating. Periodically supplement your words of recognition with concrete gestures.
If you do these things, I make the following prediction: Within weeks, if not days, you’ll say, “Who would have thought? These millennials aren’t so bad.”
Motivated by the thought of helping feed needy families at holiday time, I volunteered to work a December Saturday at a local food bank.
That day was rice assembly. In a large warehouse-like room were placed a dozen or so rectangular metal tables. At each table, food-bank employees placed large vats of rice, which they periodically refilled during the day.
Teams of seven volunteers surrounded each table. Two people used plastic scoops to dip into the vat and pick up the prescribed amount of rice. Two baggers received the rice from the scoopers. One person put a twist tie around the neck of each bag. One person affixed a sticky label to the bottom of each bag. And one boxer counted out 19 bags, put them in a box, sealed it, and started a new one.
I was a scooper, and happy to be there. I worked diligently and energetically, experimenting with my scoop technique. Elbow in or elbow out? Supple wrist or stiff wrist? I strove to maximize my productivity.
Time flew until the other scooper left. He simply walked off the job and didn’t return. His absence created a bottleneck on the rice assembly line.
I looked for a solution and found it. I grabbed the unused plastic scooper and, with a scooper in each hand, dipped both into the vat simultaneously, shoulder length apart. I moved each scooper toward the other on a collision course. Just before impact, I brought both up in a continuous motion. With a little practice, I was able to scoop and pour rice into the two baggers’ bags at essentially the same rate as when we had two scoopers.
I had solved the problem, and I was engaged. Not only was I a scooper, I was an inventor, the creator of the “Janove Double-Scoop Technique.”
Time flew until one of the baggers walked off the job and didn’t return. Now we had a new problem: How do you utilize the Janove Double-Scoop Technique with only one bagger? Answer: You don’t.
Again I looked for a solution and found it, or so I thought. I noticed that the labeler had taken advantage of the production lull to label bags in advance. She now had a large stack of prelabeled bags. So I said to her, “Hey, how about coming over here and filling in as a bagger?”
She looked at me coolly. “No,” she said. “I’m a labeler. That’s not my job.”
Bereft of further ideas, I returned to my scooper work—back to one scooper. In desultory fashion, I scooped out rice and dumped it into the bags. I had one eye on my job and one eye on the clock as I muttered to myself, “I can’t wait until it’s 5:00 and I can get the $%&#!* out of here!”
When I first told this story to managers, I drew three morals of the story:
1. Employee engagement matters. When employees approach their jobs with enthusiasm and commitment to the organization’s goals, they make a positive impact on the bottom line.
2. Employee engagement is not fixed. It goes up or down depending on the environment. Based on conditions in my working environment as a scooper, I went from high engagement to going-through-the-motions low engagement.
3. Without leadership and accountability, you’ll never maximize employee engagement. After basic instructions, the staff left us alone. There was no management leadership when we needed it. As a result, engagement and productivity plunged.
Although I still think these story morals are accurate, based on subsequent reflection, I added three new ones:
4. Accountability begins with each individual. My initial analysis was external. I judged the behavior of the people who walked off the job and the labeler who wouldn’t bag rice. I also judged management. Yet what about me? What might I have done differently? It’s easy to look out the window and assess others, but what about looking in the mirror and assessing yourself? It struck me that self-accountability was a critical ingredient of high engagement, and I needed to apply this principle to myself. That’s when I realized I could have done more.
5. Fully engaged relationships share a sense of purpose, something greater than each of us. We aren’t simply following orders or collecting a paycheck, we’re making a difference. Presumably all seven of us volunteers shared a sense of purpose and wanted to make a difference, at least in the beginning. Think of the labeler. What did she do during the production slowdown? She stayed productive. Yet when I approached her, I mentioned none of this. I was caught up in my solution. I told her what I wanted without explaining why. I said nothing about how she could help our team, the food bank, and needy families by stepping outside her comfort zone into a new job, an opportunity only made possible because of her initiative in labeling bags in advance. Like most managers, I missed an opportunity to connect the two of us to a shared purpose and opportunity to make a difference that mattered.
6. In fully engaged workplace relationships, people connect as human beings. Employees are more than badge numbers, job descriptions, or robots that can fog mirrors. Yet I didn’t know the name of the labeler or any other volunteer. We never introduced ourselves. We received our instructions and went to work. Had I made an investment at the personal level, something as simple as learning and using people’s names, perhaps the labeler would have been more inclined to listen to me, and perhaps the vanishing scooper and bagger would have felt more of an obligation to support their fellow human beings at the rice assembly table.
The first set of morals counts: Engagement matters, it’s not fixed, and leadership is important. So does the second set of morals: Connect with your employees as human beings. Create a shared sense of purpose with opportunities for your employees to make a difference. And while keeping your window clean to observe others, keep that mirror close at hand, continually asking yourself, “What can I do to create a highly engaged workplace?”