Context: The Why and Who of Work
In the push for higher productivity and better communication, it’s disturbing how many managers neglect the crucial task of creating context. Most managers are so concerned with instructing employees on how to do their jobs that they ignore the equally important questions of why the jobs need to get done, and for whom they are doing the work. If employees don’t understand the context of what they do, it makes the work meaningless. For an idea of how dangerous this is to a company’s health, a recent Gallup study showed that 71% of workers are “not engaged. When asked what caused them to disengage, the workers overwhelmingly cited the requirement to perform useless tasks. This begs the question, why are managers assigning so many useless tasks? Aside from our addiction to superfluous PowerPoint presentations, it seems more likely that employees only think their work is useless. Creating context is instrumental in giving employees a new perspective on how their work fits into the company as a whole.
The idea of creating context for employees isn’t new, but the most popular method used to make workers feel invested and relevant to the operations of the company – stock options – has been largely ineffectual. While stock options give employees a legitimate ownership stake, they do little to show workers how they actually impact a company’s overall performance. Most low and mid-level employees perceive their stock options as kind of a lottery ticket over which they have no influence, while the actual performance of the stock is dictated by market swings, senior management, and other forces beyond their control. This feeling of irrelevance tends to increase in direct correlation to company growth, especially in larger companies; in general, as the size of the company increases, workers’ sense of professional value decreases.
For senior managers who are making strategic decisions, the need to create context for their team takes on an even higher level of importance. Most executives are many levels removed from customer interaction. Instead, customer feedback comes in the form of reports and research. Tapping into the experiences of employees who interact with customers can provide a valuable new source of information in the decision making process. Consider a general trying to gather information from the battlefield. Would he be able to make informed strategic decisions if his forward units didn’t understand the importance of their role? And how effective would those units be if they didn’t understand their mission? The same conditions apply to corporate leaders. Low level “troops who clearly understand their role and mission will always be able to provide better feedback to senior leaders in charge of major decisions.
When a company is small, worker context exists naturally. It should be obvious how much individual contributions matter in an organization of five or ten people. But as I wrote in a previous Inc.com column, growing companies almost always reach a tipping point when the team environment evolves into a corporate Dilbert’s world. Managers skilled at providing worker context can help stave off this tipping point. If your company has already passed this stage, one of the most powerful trends in management and a fantastic tool for producing employee involvement is Open Book Management (OBM). In a nutshell, OBM does away with all confidentiality in regard to company finances. By showing employees where the company stands, its financial health, how key metrics affect profitability and revenue, and perhaps most importantly explaining to employees how their pay is affected by all of the above, OBM does a far better job at involving employees and giving them job context than simply handing out a block of stock options.
For companies unwilling to make the jump to OBM, or managers working within a larger organization, the first step to forming context for your workers is to understand all of the work and information flow affecting members of your team. Only when a manager understands all of the interactions between her employees and other departments, can she show her employees how their work fits into the overall structure of the company. For anyone familiar with ISO 9000/9001 standards, one of the points stressed by the standards is the explanation that everyone in an organization has a customer. ISO explains that your customer is whoever receives your work output, and for most workers their customer is not the end customer but rather another person within the company. This way of thinking should reveal each employee’s relevance as well as uncover meaningless work. Managers should understand and be able to articulate to their employees how their jobs add value and why particular tasks are required. If an employee is performing tasks that are not needed by someone else in the company or by the end customer, those tasks should be eliminated.
In considering the importance of employee context, think of the directory at your city’s mega mall - the one with the red dot that says, “You are here. If you erase the map and directory, all that remains is a dot in a blank white field. If you were then expected to find a particular store, the directory clearly would be of no value. Much as the map gives context to the red dot, providing context to your employees allows them to understand their place within the company. As a manager, you will have transcended the mindless commands of telling them how to do their jobs and shown them why, and for whom those jobs get done.
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