Workplace researchers conservatively claim we spend a third of our life working. Given that we're living longer, I believe it's closer to half our lives or more. And as we spend more time working, we're beginning to understand the effects of bad management better. Gallup's research finds that 70 percent of employees have a negative experience of work. Unfortunately, both Gallup and Hay Group in separate studies found that 70 percent of the experience of work is shaped by the manager. Oddly the percentages are the same, but the relationship between underperforming managers and business results cannot go unexamined.
While it is common practice to make culture the scapegoat, it is managers and employees who create the culture. In short, blame the culture blame the people. It is no easy task to change the culture. It's arduous work. It can take years. And it often comes with a hefty price tag. There is good news, however. Leaders who want to change a company's culture can do so by changing the experience of work.
What Is the Experience of Work?
Think of the experience of work as having two parts. The first part focuses on results. How easy is it for employees to contribute to team and business results? The ease or difficulty shape employees' perceptions and assumptions about doing their best. Together, these three inputs--ease of results, perceptions, and assumption--benefit the organization, at least in part.
There is a human side, too. The second part of the experience of work is wholly about the employee. Do employees find the work fulfilling? And do they feel valued and wanted? These basic human needs profoundly influence the quality of work, the tone of relationships, and ultimately results.
Typically, in workplaces where the experience of work is positive, we find that bosses are coaches and mentors. Also, frequent in these work environments is the perception that employee input is sought out and valued. Consider this example from work we did with a healthcare client. Our client wanted to transform their service delivered to internal customers. Traditional consultants would design a solution and roll it out to employees through training and communication tactics. Instead, we partnered with employees and formal leaders and guided them through a process that taught them how to design solutions to solve their customer service problems.
As for assumptions, the most common tactic that helps shape the experience of work is developing habits linked to what is valued. For example, if your company has a value of family first, it should be safe to count on you, the manager, being flexible with an employee's commitments when a family emergency happens. The assumption here is straightforward: Workload impacts can always be resolved, but family emergencies may not.
Shaping the Experience of Work
The secret sauce to forming the experience of work is this: Equip the managers who lead employees who are closest to the work with the know-how to shape how, when, why, where, and with whom employees experience time at the office. Traditionally, changes of this nature have been a top-down approach. This is fraught with costly delays, resistance to change, and underwhelming results. A better way is for managers to make changes to the experience of work in a way fitting for their team. Simultaneously, executives and other senior managers provide support and help to remove barriers that interfere with progress. We call this a middle-out approach.
With the above in mind, the following are some areas where managers can positively affect change in their employees' experience of work.
The rate of change today is hyper-accelerated. Businesses need to respond quickly to change to remain relevant. Leaders need to be nimble and understand how to coach employees to be more change adaptable. Transformative leaders rely on empathy, vulnerability, deep listening, radical candor, and fostering a sense of belonging, for example, to help employees become and remain high performers. Transformative leaders are quite capable of linking business needs and human potential to achieve superior results. These leaders do not turn away from "soft skills." They see such skills as the glue that boosts performance and work enjoyment.
Create Optimistic Workplaces
In my book, The Optimistic Workplace, I show leaders how they can create a positive workplace climate. Climate is what it feels like to work on your team, and it's based on employee perception. The most significant influence on climate is you and your leadership style. An optimistic workplace is one that gives employees hope that good things will come from their hard work. Additionally, there is a bias for what's possible and right.
There are many elements to help create an optimistic workplace. A few of them include regular practice of recognition/feedback, focus on well-being, psychological safety, belonging, meaningful work, values alignment, and having the right tools to achieve desired results. The key for a leader is to create a "recipe" for their team that moves the climate in an optimistic direction.
Culture and Workplace Climate Change
To change the culture, it's best to focus on climate elements, like those listed above. Working directly to change culture is difficult, as I mentioned earlier. The practice of improving the climate helps move the culture in the desired direction. Other climate factors that can help move the culture in a desirable direction include decision-making practices, goal setting practices, growth opportunities, and autonomy. This is hardly an exhaustive list. Leaders who focus on changing what they can influence and control, like their team's workplace climate, can have a positive impact on the company's culture.
Employee Engagement Reimagined
Too often organizations conclude that if they only could make culture changes, employees would be engaged. The inherent problem with this conclusion is engagement isn't a permanent outcome. Engagement occurs when employees have an environment that allows them to be absorbed in their work, find reasons to be dedicated to the company, and can complete their work with vigor. These three influences--absorption, dedication, and vigor--combine to create a mental state that is called engagement. Managers and their employees need to work together to uncover how engagement can occur.
The red thread that connects the four categories explained above is the leadership quality of managers. Organizations can make significant progress in their objectives by selecting, preparing, and supporting the growth of their middle-managers. There is too much at stake, both for the company and its employees, when managers don't understand the impact they can have. A significant impact they can control is how they shape each employee's experience of work.