During the economic downturn of the late 2000’s companies everywhere struggled to survive. Many companies were forced to make decisions that directly affected their employees both in the short term and the long term.
Companies reduced staff; cut wages; re-level employees; reduced benefits; reduced or even eliminated pension plans and post retirement health care; eliminated discretionary spending and whatever else they needed to do to survive. Some survived but many didn’t. A few companies took a different path. These companies chose to involve their employees by sharing all related business information and asked the question “what can we do together to cut costs and survive through the crisis period”? Most of these companies not only survived but came out of the crisis stronger and more capable of satisfying the customer and dealing with business challenges. These steps significantly attributed to building trust with employees and the payback was employee engagement.
Those companies that made decisions that negatively impacted employees probably noticed that employees stayed and tried to help the company survive during this period. They had to stay, they had no choice. There were no other jobs to go to. The employees had families to feed, mortgages to pay, kids to put through school. And when employees stayed and helped, many leaders thought that this was the time to eliminate other things that they really didn’t like or want to provide. This told employees a lot about what leaders truly believed, not by what they said but by what they did.
Most employees have accepted that the old concept of employment for life is now a myth, both from the employers’ perspective as well as the employees’. The employer-employee relationship is much more complex than when it was based simply on the exchange of wages and benefits. Employers can no longer afford to provide traditional pension plans and health care benefits of days gone by. The projections of life and life expectancy and medical advances, as well as the spiking costs trends of health care and prescription drugs have made those promises unsustainable.
So now that we are coming out of the economic crisis what is important to employees is the work environment and how they are treated by employers. Employees want to feel valued, to know that they are making a contribution and that their contribution is wanted and recognized. Employees want challenge and support and information, and they want to feel like they belong and are important. These attributes are going to become ever more critical for employers to understand as the job market opens up and employees have choices. Couple this with the foreshadowing of what the shortfall of talent will be when baby boomers start leaving the workforce in numbers well beyond the numbers available to replace them. The creation of an engaging environment will be the key to retaining talent and having a competitive advantage.
What is meant by having an “engaging environment”? We mean that employees feel committed to help the business succeed. Employees know what the customers want and strive to exceed their expectations; employees know what the business priorities are and are actively involved in helping to achieve the business goals; employees openly share their ideas in a welcoming environment and are recognized for their contributions; an environment where everyone is treated with respect and dignity; an environment where everyone understands and accepts that their personal success is dependent on the success of the business; and an environment where everyone treats company resources as if it were their own.
To understand the challenge of creating this type of work environment we need to develop a deep understanding of what levers are available to leaders to use within their organization to help change the culture. Leaders need to understand how critical their role is to changing the culture of an organization. Leaders have to accept and understand that they cannot delegate the lead role in changing a culture. The leader has to accept that they have to be an active participant in the process and that they need to be the role model and teacher for the rest of the organization. Leaders get the culture they deserve!
The culture that exists in an organization is a reflection of what leadership demonstrates to be important, not by what they say but by what they do and where they focus, and the decisions they make. The challenge of changing a culture starts and ends with building trust in the organization; trust that the leader cares about the business; trust that the leader cares about what happens to employees; trust that the leader care about the customers and shareholders AND trust that when necessary the leader will step up to the plate and do what’s right for the business and the people and the shareholders not one at the exclusion of the other.
Just like you, your employees get to make choices about where they work, how they work, whether they share their ideas and opinions with you; whether they step up to the plate and make you aware of a pending problem or issue or whether they wait until the impact is felt and the losses occur and you or your management team finally get involved and take control of the situation and work to find a solution.
All of the reasons for the choices that your employees make are highly dependent on many factors. The good news is, as the leader, you are in control of most of those factors! And, just like it is for you, the choices you make will affect the choices your employees make, and not the other way around!