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How to do more with less while engaging and retaining your people.

I’m a true believer in constraints fueling innovation and creativity. I’m all for productivity, efficiency, and harnessing high performance. However, going about it through ‘hardcore’ mandates, invoking the fear of layoffs, and squeezing the life out of people will just alienate and burn them out. Instead, let’s work smarter, not just harder.

In this uncertain environment, as organizations push for more efficiency, productivity, and survival at all costs, we need to get clear on what drives real efficiency, productivity, and sustainable high performance. Many of the highest-impact levers for increasing motivation, performance, and engagement are low/no cost and improve the bottom line as well. However, they require being deliberate, overcoming old mental models, and embracing new ways of operating.

I’ll be exploring many of these levers and practical ways to implement them in my upcoming book, but will simply highlight a few at a high level in this article.

1. Treat people like owners to scale leadership, problem-solving, and an ownership mindset

  • Transparency. When organizations share information freely with their people, it not only democratizes context, and reduces anxiety, but as a bonus, it helps cultivate strategic thinking and business acumen, and an ownership mindset in employees. Every person should understand how the business works, its revenue, who its competitors and customers are, the goals, vision, constraints, and how they fit into it. This enables them to act like owners and make better decisions. Pushing as much information as possible, as low in the organization as possible increases innovation, speed, and agility at scale.

  • Autonomy and agency. When we don’t provide people with autonomy and agency, we’ll see disengagement and learned helplessness. According to Neuroscientist David Rock. “When nothing feels in your control, why even try?” Organizations can reverse this passivity by providing employees with more autonomy and agency wherever possible. For example, provide flexibility in when or where they work, give them a voice in how decisions are made, and push decision rights as low in the organization as possible. This scales leadership and a bias for action across the organization because people can operate more judiciously, in agile, and in collaborative ways to drive the business forward.

  • Co-creation. People do not decide to join or stay with your organization for free lunch and dry cleaning. They do it for the opportunity to solve important problems and be part of something exciting. Inviting employees to solve important problems the business is facing not only provides more and likely better solutions since they are closest to the work and customers, but it also provides your people with experience and the sense of accomplishment and entrepreneurship they crave. If they can get this need met within the organization, it will make them think twice about leaving.

    • One way to do this is to create cross-functional Tiger Teams that operationalize ideas and strategic initiatives throughout the organization. Many of the large consulting firms do this and leverage consultants who may be on the bench to be part of tours of duties like this.

    • Implement this at scale by hosting an innovation hub platform where employees can submit ideas on problems the business is facing, improvements, new products, and new ways of doing things.

    • Hold frequent focus groups or create advisory councils to weigh in on upcoming programs and policies

2. Appreciation. Equally important to providing agency to employees to take action, is to recognize them for their contribution and impact as a result. Research shows the largest contributor to burnout, the Great Resignation, and Quiet Quitting is a lack of recognition and appreciation. Companies with a recognition program have 70% less voluntary turnover. Gallup and Workhuman research shows putting employee recognition at the center of your workplace quadruples employee engagement and saves around $16.1M annually. Bonus points if you have peer-to-peer recognition programs.

3. Activate the passion and potential of your people to engage and retain them while driving business goals. Only 5% of people feel they are contributing to their full potential at work. This means organizations are missing out on a ton of value and their people are languishing and leaving because of it. Microsoft recently found 76% of people would stay at their organization longer if they had more opportunities for learning and growth and 55% of people believe changing companies was the best way to develop their skills. When organizations see people solely as resources to perform a few bullets in a job description it forces them to play small to fit into those bulleted parameters and fails to leverage the full breadth of their skills, experiences, and energy. There is a big opportunity here to provide work that leverages the skills, experience, and passions of your people while growing them into better versions of themselves. This is inexpensive, intrinsically motivating, and can make a direct contribution to business outcomes at the same time. Job crafting, internal marketplaces, and apprenticeships are just a few ways to do this.

4. Make the work meaningful to engage, retain and build intrinsic motivation in your people. One of our most important human needs is a sense of purpose and meaning, a feeling like we are making an impact on those around us. Organizations can leverage this human need as a source of intrinsic motivation, engagement, productivity, innovation, feelings of connection, and well-being while achieving business goals. Research shows 90% of people are willing to take a pay cut - some up to 23% of their total lifetime earnings for more meaningful work. GPTW Study found when millennials believe their work has meaning, they are 3 times more likely to stay.

The beauty of building meaning into the work is that it costs organizations nothing and any job can be meaningful if the person has a compelling reason why they are doing it, values alignment, and/or can see the impact their work has. This is illustrated by the famous example of President John F. Kennedy passing by a janitor at Nasa and asking him, what he did there. The janitor replied, “I’m helping put a person on the moon.”

Build meaning into work by showing your people they matter and the impact they make on others. Often, when organizations think they have a motivation, engagement, or retention problem, it’s a mattering problem. Mattering, as Colorado State professor, Zach Mercurio posits, is feeling noticed, affirmed, and needed.

Noticing others is just that; paying attention to someone and showing them you see and hear them. It can be something as simple as remembering someone’s name or asking about their child who was sick last week. Affirmation is showing them how their unique strengths make an impact. You want to ensure that people can regularly see, hear, and feel their work’s impact on teammates, leaders, the broader organization, customers, and the community. A practical way to do this is for leaders to collect and share stories across the organization, on the website, and social media of the way employees impact their clients. You can show people they are needed by saying something like “if it wasn’t for you……” when recognizing something they did.

5. Detox your culture and create an abundance of psychological safety. The saying “culture eats strategy for breakfast” is a vast understatement. Culture will make or break your organization in the form of profitability (22% increase) productivity, engagement (72%), agility, collaboration, innovation, customer satisfaction, burnout, turnover, and healthcare costs. Besides the $223 billion cost of attrition due to toxic cultures, the cost of those who stay in the organization is another $100 billion. The business case for cultivating a great culture is compelling, to say the least. Check out one of my recent articles on how to do it. A recent MIT study found the largest predictor of the Great Resignation was toxic work cultures. This was cited 10 times more than the runners-up; compensation and work-life balance. Toxic culture is cancerous and includes things like exclusion, disrespect, lack of recognition, politics, bullying, discrimination, harassment, and cutthroat behavior. But even beyond these big-ticket items, even environments without an abundance of psychological safety will see a lack of idea and solution contribution, accountability, and bias for action.

6. Embrace hybrid/remote/distributed work to cut costs while increasing the engagement and retention of your people. Employees have spoken. They want flexibility in where they work. 71% would even pass on promotions to preserve the ability to work from anywhere at any time. Microsoft found workers without flexibility were 2.5 times as likely to be looking for a new job because of it. In addition to increasing engagement, retention, and improving inclusion, belonging, and culture, embracing distributed work enables organizations to shrink expensive, carbon-heavy real estate footprints and access more diverse and lower-cost talent from anywhere.

7. Remove friction and focus on the employee experience to increase efficiency, effectiveness, and engagement.

  • We’re all too familiar with the amount of time and soul sucked from meetings. Stop making them the default. An estimated $37 billion is lost per year to meetings. Follow the example of Shopify, who recently led the way in the calendar purge, eliminating recurring meetings, and freeing up 76,500 hours a year for other work. Start scrutinizing the necessity of your meetings. Ask yourself, are your meetings short, strategic, and few, or are people in meetings all day that could have been an email, voice memo, or asynchronous document?

  • This is not the time to lose focus on the employee experience. Your customer experience will never exceed the experience of your front-line employees who deliver your organization and brand to your customer daily. Employee experience is not about making people “happy” or foosball tables and Taco Tuesdays. These cosmetic things may give you a slight, short-term bump in engagement, but the sustainable motivation, productivity, and discretionary effort you are striving for come from the ongoing experience. Josh Bersin released a study recently that found a great employee experience produces 3X more innovation and change agility in the organization, 5X the engagement, retention, and belonging of their people, and 2X the customer satisfaction and revenue conversion. However, organizations need to be as deliberate about designing, nurturing, and monitoring it as they do the customer experience to produce these benefits.

8. Inclusion and belonging. While over the years, organizations have gotten better at creating more diverse workplaces, without an equally important sense of equity, inclusion, and belonging, benefits such as innovation, higher performance, better decision-making, and better problem-solving will not be realized. HBR found high belonging was linked to a 56% increase in job performance, a 50% drop in turnover risk, and a 75% reduction in sick days. Employees with higher workplace belonging also showed a 167% increase in their employer promoter score (the willingness to recommend their company to others).

There are many ways to create greater inclusion and belonging. One of the biggest needle movers is flexible/remote work. The pandemic shed light upon inequitable experiences, microaggressions, code-switching and other emotional labor previously experienced in the workplace. The data show a significant improvement in the sense of belonging, engagement, and levels of burnout amongst our underrepresented colleagues when working remotely.

Microaffirmations are ways anyone in the organization can recognize, affirm, and validate another person’s identity, experience, and expertise to build trust and belonging. Some of these include listening closely to and mirroring the language someone uses to describe their own identities such as their name and pronouns. Acknowledge people’s expertise and skill and solicit their opinions and ideas. Recognize people’s contributions and achievements in public forums. Helping colleagues and inspiring confidence in one another’s ability to meet work goals. Acknowledging others’ contribution to the team or the organization. Sending others belonging cues such as eye contact, mirroring, turn-taking, attention, and body language, disarms the subconscious limbic brain and signals that you see them, they belong and have a future here.

9. Articulate and activate an organizational purpose. Today’s younger workers would rather work with purpose or not work at all. A recent Deloitte study found that purpose-oriented companies have higher productivity, 3X growth rates, a more satisfied workforce, 30% higher levels of innovation, and 40% higher levels of retention than their competitors. McKinsey research shows 82% of employees believe it’s important for their company to have a purpose and 93% say they are likely to recommend that company to others if inspired by its purpose. This is valuable to customers as well. Research shows 80% of consumers would be willing to pay more if a brand raised its prices to be more environmentally and socially responsible or to pay higher wages to its employees. When it comes to the market, we’ve seen nearly 7X return in the market for companies whose employees feel a sense of purpose at work.

10. Leverage new and expanded sources of value created by employees. There are many new sources of value creation employees bring beyond the bullets in their job descriptions that are not being leveraged by organizations…but should be. For example, in today’s transparent, social, activist world, where customers and candidates alike prize authenticity and glimpses into a day-in-the-life, over-polished advertising campaigns, organizations could greatly benefit from leveraging the brands, reputations, influence, and social media presence of their employees.

A great example of what not to do is the Sherwin Williams firing of Tony Piloseno for making a TikTok video of himself having a blast while mixing paint at work for his 1.2 million TikTok followers. As PR Daily reports, “Piloseno’s immediate superior loved his passion and told him to take his work to company headquarters. Sherwin-Williams’ marketing team told him to get lost—and a month later, they canned him. The corporate office’s decision cost them a passionate, dedicated employee who wanted to help Sherwin-Williams attract young customers. Instead of cultivating Piloseno and his brand, Sherwin-Williams sent him, his brand—and his 1.2 million fans—to another company”, along with future customers and employees.

In today’s hyper-transparent, connected world, the line between candidates, employees, customers, and advocates for your organization is no longer discrete. Candidates and employees are now your referral partners, customers, future/boomerang employees, and brand ambassadors. This of course is predicated on the organization leading with generosity, treating them well, and nurturing the relationship.

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