How many companies or organizations do you know of that proudly state, “Our people are our most important asset” every chance they get? Quite a few, I bet. How many of them genuinely behave that way? If you’ve traveled some of the same roads I have, you may find the answer to be “not many…”
Why is that? Do you think that company executives don’t believe that statement at all? Do you think they have another asset hidden away somewhere that they don’t talk about that really is more important? I don’t. I think most executives really believe their people are their most important asset. They just don’t know how to put that belief into practice.
This is a perfect example of Peter Senge’s fifth discipline, Systems Thinking, not being put into action. To effectively treat your employees in a way that convinces them how valued they are (because remember, it’s THEIR perception, not YOURS, that matters…) you have to delve into root cause and effect relationships. Many executives are afraid to do that, because:
a. They will hear things they would rather not hear.
b. They believe all root causes will come down to compensation and they are certain they can’t afford or justify that level of investment, so what’s the point?
The reality is not actually that scary once you set your ego aside. My experience, along with many conversations I’ve had with extremely valuable employees, tells me that you can go a long way toward creating that belief system by doing the following:
- At reasonable intervals, invest in something that clearly ONLY benefits employees.
and not the business as a whole or the management team. That could be an investment in equipment or facilities targeted toward a common gripe that employees have (uncomfortable office furniture, an important missing benefit, or better internet bandwidth perhaps) or free pizza on Fridays. If you are worried you can’t afford a big investment, just about anybody can afford 10 or 15 pizzas and a few liters of coke.
- Make sure there are no implied or subtle strings attached to the gesture.
I hate to tell you, but when you buy pizza for people who work late, they don’t think you’re being caring, they think you’re trying to placate them to avoid paying them overtime.
- Offer employees the opportunity to work in small teams on improvement or morale projects.
Don’t force them to do it. Don’t make them do it on their own time. And for God’s sake, when they come to you with a few suggestions, make sure you implement at least one, even if you don’t agree with it.
- Be intensely and acutely aware of hypocrisy.
Your employees already are. It’s understood and accepted that some ‘perks’ come with being a leader in an organization; a bigger office, maybe mileage reimbursements, and perhaps more latitude with expense accounts, etc. But there’s a fine line between that and inadvertently creating a ‘caste system’ that will unintentionally create a gulf between you and your staff. When you’re about to do something that benefits just management, just you, or just the business, ask yourself (or a trusted employee!) how it will be perceived by others.
- OK – here’s the big one.
If you read carefully, you’ll notice I DIDN’T say that this ISN’T about compensation. I don’t care what all the industrial engineers and HR consultants in the world say about employee motivation, most people I know work to support themselves and their families. An extra ten or fifteen thousand dollars a year DOES matter. They won’t compromise their ethics, their spare time, or work in an unbearable environment for a few extra bucks, but they sure as heck will go work at one of your competitors if they think that everything else is more or less equal.
So here’s what happens. Your best folks are constantly being solicited by competitors or other organizations. You can pretend (see bullet a above) that isn’t happening, or you can acknowledge it and deal with it.
Here’s how ineffective leaders deal with it – they wait til one of their best people gets an offer from a competitor. In a panic they decide whether to make a “counter offer.” For a while, due to inertia and instant gratification, that might work (nice bandaid!) but what you’ve really said to the employee is, “I was underpaying you for as long as I could and hoping you wouldn’t try to find out what you’re really worth on the open market. Now that you know, I’ll pay you a competitive wage… won’t you please stay with us? We love you.”
So what is the alternative to the last bullet?
At a minimum, have quarterly market-based compensation discussions in groups with your employees. Ask them what they are hearing “on the street” about what certain roles in your geography are being paid. Be certain that similarly experienced and capable employees are roughly in the same compensation range. Be ready to make adjustments if you find a glaring inequity. Do it over time if you have to.
You’d be surprised at how patient employees can be if they think you are genuinely trying to right an injustice. Your reward for this will be that you won’t have to tell anyone that your employees are your most valuable asset ever again. Your employees will tell them…