Taking a Tough Look in the Mirror
By Dr. Karlyn Borysenko
There's not a leader out there who would tell you their goal is to create less productive employees, and yet data shows us that is precisely what many of them end up doing. About two-thirds of employees in the United States and Canada self-report that they are unengaged at work, 79% of employees do not see professional growth opportunities in their current organization, and 79% of employees who quit their job credit a "lack of appreciation" as their reason for leaving. Perhaps most telling, as many as 65% of employees would choose to fire their boss over getting a pay raise. Study after study shows that leaders are failing to live up to the promise of providing the supportive, engaging culture that employees expect to find.
Why the disconnect? If we understand theoretically that engaged employees will produce better results, then why aren't leaders cultivating environments that support that experience? I argue that it comes down to one core thing: A lack of awareness of the impact of everyday actions on the employee experience, and how those actions support or detract from the goal of an engaged workforce.
The world is a not a perfect place. It's not perfect in that we get what we want the minute we want it. However, it is perfect in that we get exactly what we should expect to get based on our contribution to the situation. For example, if you say you want to lose weight, but you eat a large pepperoni pizza for dinner every night, your contribution isn't aligned with your goal. If you say you want to run a marathon, but you won't do runs that are longer than a mile, then your contribution isn't aligned with your goal. And if you say you want a workforce that is passionate, motivated, and creative, but instead your employees feel micromanaged, stifled, and unappreciated every day, then your contribution isn't aligned with what you say you want.
Leadership is about accepting responsibility, even when it isn’t pretty. Therefore, before you hold your employees accountable for achieving a level of excellence, you have to take responsibility for how you’re contributing to their context. That requires a tough look in the mirror and some serious self-reflection. If you're up to the task, here are some questions to guide your thought process in exploring some of the more relevant aspects of the employee experience.
Do your team norms induce stress?
Stress is one of the great productivity-inhibitor in any organization. Employees who experience high-stress levels are less creative, produce less impactful work, are less open to diverse points of view, and cause more interpersonal challenges in the office. But are your team norms inadvertently supporting a stress-filled employee experience?
• Do employees commonly work outside of business hours? Are they coming in early and staying late every once in a while, or is it more of an everyday act? Does their workload support maintaining regular business hours that allow for downtime outside of the office?
• Are emails, texts, and Slack active outside of work hours? Are employees sending emails at all hours of the night, with the expectation of receiving an immediate answer? What would happen to an employee if they waited until the next business day to respond?
• Are your employees taking their vacation days? What percent of your employees are banking large quantities of times from lack of use? Are they prompted to take time off if they aren’t using their benefits?
Does your organization support employee success?
Research shows that the average worker spends 2.5 hours a day on drama, indicating a lack of focus on the things that matter. Frequently, this is just procrastination – they are avoiding doing their work because they may not feel they are going to be successful at it. So, we have to ask, why is that? What about their experience sends the message that failure is inevitable? The best cure is additional facetime and attention in which the leader provides information transparently, offers opportunities for reflection, and encourages them to contribute value rather than focusing their energy on negativity.
• How easy is it for your employees to come to you with requests or questions? Do you ever proactively go to them and ask if there’s anything they need?
• Do you have consistent, weekly meetings with each person that reports to you? If so, are you using that time in a way that supports their success? Could you be using that time better?
• Are you sharing information transparently with your team, or do you hold information back to those who “need to know?”
• How often do you give out positive feedback and recognition? Do your employees feel their contribution is valued?
• Are you tolerating negative attitudes that bring down the team? How are those employees dealt with? What can you do to intervene and get them back on track?
Are you listening?
The easiest way to know what you want to experience is to look at what you don’t have. For example, if you’ve ever taken a cold shower, you know you prefer a hot one, but if you don’t know what a cold shower feels like, it may not come to mind specifying it. So, when we see statistics like 88% of employees wanting a boss who listens, we can surmise that those employees perceive a lack in that area.
• Do you practice active listening techniques to emphasize that you’ve heard your team member’s contributions? Do you ask substantive follow-up questions?
• Do you use your laptop or phone during meetings, or do you give the person speaking to you your full attention, without any indication of distraction?
• What message are you sending with your body language?
Are you modeling the right behaviors?
Finally, consider if you're the right role model for your team to look up to. What type of example are you setting?
• How are you managing your stress? Can your team tell when you’re stressed out? What have you done to look after your own work/life balance?
• Are you sending and answering email at all hours? What message are you sending about expectations?
• What policies – official or unofficial – have you implemented with your team with the specific goal of supporting employee well-being and success?
• Do you know how your employees feel about your leadership? Have you conducted 360 reviews, or asked for feedback?
This is about awareness and iteration
The goal of this process is to become aware of your contribution and assess if it’s contributing to the right employee experience or detracting from it. If it’s detracting, then you can take work to change it. As you work your way through these questions, you might find that you have a few improvements to make, or you might have a whole laundry list. If it’s the latter, don’t try to do it all at once – start by selecting 1-3 things and take committed action to do them better. Once you’ve mastered those, move on to the next.
It's never fun to look at yourself and pick apart all the things you’re doing that are contributing to the problem, but doing the hard stuff is what separates the leaders from the mere mortals. Try not to judge yourself too harshly in the process. You’re a human being, filled with strengths and glorious flaws, and there’s not a single human being in history that has ever done it all perfectly. But the ones who come out on top are the ones who get back up when they’re knocked down, reflect on what they need to do to move forward, and then take the actions that align with their goals, knowing that if they make a misstep here or there, it’s okay. Every moment is a chanced to set a new course and get things back on track.
Karlyn Borysenko is the Owner and Principal of Zen Workplace , a consultancy dedicated to fixing the “people problems” to help individuals achieve professional happiness and success, and organizations to drive productivity and results. She is the author of Zen Your Work: Create Your Ideal Work Experience Through Mindful Self-Mastery.
A version of this article was previously published in January of 2019.