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Why Your Employees Think They’d Be a Better Boss

What are your employees thinking? A new survey offers surprising answers.
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Ever wonder what's really going on in your employees' heads? A new University of Phoenix survey of more than 1,000 working adults may provide some insight into what those who work for you are thinking--but not saying out loud.

The results are surprising. You might guess that employees want massages and gourmet lunches (just like at Google), but their secret desires have more to do with their own career advancement and fulfillment. You can satisfy most of these desires without spending a cent, and they're likely to benefit your company as well. In fact--in another possible surprise--it's probably smart to give them most of what they want.

1. They think they'd be a better boss than you.

All right, I'll admit it: This one result isn't so surprising. Every job--especially running a company--looks easier from the outside than it is on the inside. And indeed, 85 percent of survey respondents believed they either were or would be great bosses. Of those who didn't run their own businesses, 76 percent could point to specific changes they would make to run their businesses better.

This last item deserves some thought. More than three quarters of employees believe they could improve their workplace, which suggests they aren't getting the chance to try. And that's a loss for everyone. Make sure you're doing everything you can to solicit input and ideas from employees.

2. They think you should offer more training.

About 37 percent of respondents said things would be better if their companies provided more training and educational opportunities, narrowly beating out the other desires employees expressed. That's a little disturbing because employee education is one of the best investments you can make. It's a clear expression of the interest in their welfare that leads directly to more engaged employees. It's also a powerful way of showing employees that you trust them. You're willing to risk that they might turn around and demand higher pay commensurate with their new skills, or even leave for a higher-paid position at a different company.

Truthfully, either of these things could happen. But assuming the newly acquired skills are ones you can use, you're better off paying that higher salary to existing employees than recruiting new ones who may require the same pay and won't be as versed in your company and its culture. And even if they do leave, they'll remember your generosity and recommend your company as a great place to work.

3. They think you should hire better people.

I was really surprised that this desire, expressed by 35 percent of respondents, ranked only slightly below their top choice. Put these top two results together, and they paint an unflattering picture: Employees seem to believe that neither their colleagues, nor they themselves, are as good as they should be at their jobs.

Hiring the best possible people is certainly a challenge in the currently tight market for skilled labor, which is why many entrepreneurs put so much time, attention, and creativity into getting it right. But many are overlooking a key resource: If 35 percent of employees want better-qualified co-workers, they may be willing to pitch in and help with recruitment, using their own networks and persuasive powers to help you find and hire the best possible candidates. Combine that with the offer of education and you can wind up with significantly more skilled employees overall.

4. They think you should offer more flexibility.

The biggest surprise for me is that this wasn't the No. 1 item employees thought their employers should change. Having flexible work hours and working remotely seem to be huge motivators for many people. Thirty-two percent of respondents wished for this change.

Consider granting that wish. Allowing employees to work from home at least some of the time is the closest thing you'll find to a free lunch for both you and them. If an employee who works from home saves 90 minutes by not commuting to the office, he or she can spend an extra 45 minutes on family life and still have 45 more to devote to the job. Yes, there are meetings everyone needs to attend, and other moments when only face-to-face will do. But letting employees use their own time most efficiently means you'll have a more efficient company.

5. They want you to foster teamwork.

This result, in which 27 percent of respondents said they wanted their employers to "rely more on teamwork and collaboration," surprised me most of all. It's also worrisome. Respondents seem to be saying that they're not encouraged enough to work together and that management is making decisions in a vacuum, without enough input from the rest of the team.

Whether that's true or only perception doesn't matter. It's up to you to make sure all employees know their input is valued, even when you don't follow their suggestions. And it's doubly important to open lines of communication and create autonomous teams so that you can unleash the full potential of collaboration. You'll wind up with a more vibrant company, quicker to react to market conditions, and with more engaged employees.

6. They wish they had more opportunity.

Nearly two thirds of employees, 64 percent, say they have limited career opportunities at their companies. This is a particular conundrum for a small company, where the smaller number of management positions and new projects may mean employees will be stuck in the same jobs well after they've proved themselves ready to move on.

What to do? Two other survey results provide a clue. More than half of employees, 53 percent, admitted that they needed to be "more entrepreneurial" about their careers. And 40 percent reported that they did not even have career goals. That points to an important lack in management at companies large and small. It's vitally important to sit down with each employee, at least once a year if not oftener, to discuss his or her career aspirations and prospects. While it may seem great to you to have the same people doing the same jobs over the years, it isn't necessarily great for them.

Be honest about their prospects within your company, and be willing to help them move on to other positions in other places if that's appropriate. That will let them know you care about their interests and not just your own, and having employees who feel cared about will pay dividends in countless ways. You might even consider offering advice and support if they decide to start their own businesses. The survey showed that 39 percent of employees hope to do so someday.

Like this post? Sign up here and you'll never miss my columns. Next time: How leaders learn to improvise.

Last updated: Aug 25, 2014

MINDA ZETLIN | Columnist | Co-author, 'The Geek Gap'

Minda Zetlin is a business technology writer and speaker, co-author of The Geek Gap, and former president of the American Society of Journalists and Authors. Like this post? Sign up here for a once-a-week email and you'll never miss her columns.

The opinions expressed here by Inc.com columnists are their own, not those of Inc.com.



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