Sounds odd, but not all employers appreciate individual differences among their workers. What do we mean by that? Well, too often employers want their workers to fit the mold, to do their jobs in a particular manner, and, well, to be interchangeable. On many levels this makes sense, especially if you want to deliver a product with consistency.
It is just that people at work are unique, quirky, and like to be thought of as special. It is the way people are. Consequently it only makes sense to accept this fact, embrace it, and honor individuality. Luckily, appreciating individual differences in your employees brings a host of rather positive consequences.
The People Side of Business, our book about understanding people in the workplace, proposes six psychological principles. The sixth of which is that Individuals are Different from One Another. Appreciating individual differences makes the implementation of all the other principles possible. One cannot truly accept and nurture people, build family and support growth, unless you like people the way as they were designed in their own unique way.
Nurturing employees depends on accepting individuality. You can’t just walk around saying you care for everyone interchangeably. People feel cared about because you recognize something in or about them. You have to see their uniqueness in some way. Then you can acknowledge “Betty”, the most special assistant in accounting, or “Sally”, who tries harder than everyone. People hate feeling like worker #283, who should produce reports that look the same as others.
People like to be recognized for something special about themselves. “Bob always has a spring in his step. We need that around here.” Otherwise they experience their work world as a place where they are not needed and where they don’t make a contribution.
When people feel appreciated for who they are, they are proud, more confident, and think more creatively. It takes nerve to express oneself through problem-solving on a team or through suggesting organizational changes. You want people to feel safe so they can fully contribute. Appreciating them in some special individual manner helps make that more possible.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
While I have been discussing communications in the workplace, I view communication as one of many aspects of structure. Communication is a vehicle for conveying support and structure to employees. The turn of a phrase or the wording of a memo can make huge difference in how employees perceive the attitude of their managers and leaders… and how the employees perform.
When it comes to reward systems the communication matters. You see, it is important that the rewards are seen as the success of great performance, not as a tool for enforcing performance. In work cultures where people work primarily for the reward (like in jobs that are fundamentally about the commission, for example) there is generally less loyalty to the company, less interest in the quality of the work product, and less personal satisfaction. People can switch from selling one product to another.
In companies that offer meaningful work and autonomy of work process people find intrinsic satisfaction from their effort. When people feel like they have some autonomy in accomplishing their work, they feel mastery for themselves, and increased loyalty to their company or organization. When that good commitment, effort and outcome occur, and it is celebrated with rewards, then workers feel even better about themselves and the job.
A year ago I wrote a post about the work of Daniel Pink, the author of Drive. He pointed out how, paradoxically, when cognitive tasks were rewarded, or incentivized, performance actually decreased. He noted that when people were given the time to think freely, without incentives or requirements, they were their most creative. For example, Australian software workers were give an afternoon to “do what they wanted” and see what ideas they had for their work. It turned out that the most useful and creative ideas in the company came out of that short creative period.
Humans need to feel autonomy and mastery. They also like to win and to succeed; to light up the score board. As managers and leaders we want to communicate to our employees that it is their job to figure out, creatively, how to move the ball down the field. We don’t incentivize exactly how they zig or zag. But we do jump up and down when they score. This is how we keep reward systems from detracting from autonomy and reducing performance.
So what you want to communicate in building a reward system is that the intention is not to control or micromanage your employees. Good performance is greatly appreciated, and the outcome (in terms of organizational goals) essential. Success brings the organization (and individuals) rewards. This delicate balance of “you can do it” and “the organization must achieve its goals” is the trick in presenting and implementing reward systems. In the People Side of Business, we call this the critical balance of support and structure.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
The guiding premise for communications in the workplace is that they are aimed at implementing the six people principles. That is, the purpose is to provide support and structure for the employees. Communication must be intended to nurture, build a family-like environment, and offer opportunities for growth. It also should reinforce the structure needed to accomplish the work; not just defining policies and procedures, but clarifying outcomes.
The communication process might be thought of as a sandwich. The bread on both sides is supportive, with the center filling or meat being structure. Here’s how it looks. The communications between manager and employee should generally start with a greeting or a check in, or some sort of personal connection. At a minimum there is a “hello”, or a “how are things”, or a “nice to see you.” It might include an “I’d like to cover these topics, do you have something?” These comments make a personal connection that optimizes human receptivity for the discussion about the tasks of work.
The center of the sandwich is the meat of the conversation. “Let’s look at these technical processes together,” or “I need some changes to the report you gave me.” This part of the conversation is the business at hand. It is focused on what needs to happen for the organization to succeed.
Not to squeeze the metaphor too hard, but the bread is always personal, and the meat is generally impersonal. When going over the business at hand, you are never judgmental or derogatory about the person. It is all focused on the needs of the business. You are not critical of the person, but you may express the need for the work product to change.
The communication interaction or meeting closes with some form of personal connection. It can be as simple as “great” or “good luck” or “nice talking with you.” One of the best examples of this type of ending occurred weekly on Hill Street Blues, a show about the work of an inner city police precinct. At the end of every assignment meeting, before sending his men into duty, the Sergeant would invoke, “Hey, let’s be careful out there!” Now, there’s a meeting end that communicates the importance of its members.
Great leaders know how to put these sandwiches together. Buon appetito!
Tom DeMaio, PhD
The six principles of the people side of business do not specifically include a section on communication. I have been asked where it fits. The six principles are the keys to managing and leading in the workplace. A critical component to implementing the principles is effective communication. It is a vehicle for conveying the support people need and it must be structured to be an ongoing benefit.
Our first four principles (acceptance, nurturance, family, and growth) require that management and leadership convey – on a regular basis – that employees matter, need to be cared for, and are offered opportunities for development. You convey support through your words and actions. For example, support is conveyed in every interaction between supervisor and employee. It happens when the employee is asked, “How are you today?” It happens when a supervisor takes an interest in the latest ideas an employee has for solving a problem. These are communications that must occur continually through the work process.
Communication is also needed for administrative functions, for implementing the fifth principle, structure. The employees need to know the policies and procedures, the goals, the rules and strategies of the organization. This keeps everyone in the loop and moving in the same direction.
When communication is not steady, humans have a tendency to get worried and uncomfortable. They wonder why they are being left out of the loop or if they are going to be rejected in some way. One might say that humans have a natural “paranoia” about things being wrong when there is not regular communication to refute the feeling.
Most of the places I have consulted pay too little attention to the need for and subtleties of regular communication. This is understandable since many of the communication processes (like staff meetings, e-mail blasts, or supervisory interactions) take valuable time, can be boring, or result in negative experiences.
Consequently, in my consulting, I always recommend a careful look at the communication process in the organization. The guiding premise is that the communications are aimed at implementing the six principles. Communication is not there because it is the right thing to do, but to have purpose. Implementation of the six principles requires that the communication process be structured in the sense that the meetings or interactions have clear function and regularity. More on this to come.
Thomas J. DeMaio, PhD
Employers intuitively and practically understand the need for structure in the workplace. Structure provides the roles, rules, and plans to achieve the outcomes desired by a business or organization. Too often, however, the structure becomes a control mechanism instead of a guide for individual and organizational success. When this occurs, structure becomes counterproductive and an impediment to creative problem-solving.
People need structure as a guidepost for their efforts in the workplace. They need a framework for operating in relation to one another and toward organizational goals. The key to operating a useful, healthy structure is in not letting the structure take over and ruling what people do. Structure works best when it focuses more on defining work outcomes instead of work behaviors. Workers want to understand how their work product contributes to organizational success, not every detail of how they are supposed to make that contribution. This focus on the outcome is how structure can exist while still allowing employees an opportunity for autonomy and mastery in their work. The focus on outcomes can help workers maintain the creativity and flexibility needed to master their jobs, find efficiencies, and be part of the team.
I saw structure become a problem when I was consulting to a group home system. The system had built an elaborate set of procedures and rules for the staff and the troubled kids. If the kids broke enough of the rules, there were clear sanctions and they were eventually removed from the home. While the system was there to work with “troubled kids,” over time the rules took over and the kids failed at an alarming rate. The director was clear: “We have a set of rules that need to be followed.” Unfortunately those rules became more important than the creative challenge of helping kids adjust, heal, and become productive members of the community.
Don’t get me wrong. The rules were needed. But they got in the way of real success. The enforcement of the rules became the project.
In the work environment, people can use the structure to help them produce products or provide organizational service in an efficient manner. But when the rules become more important than the actual product, then it is time to revisit the rules.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
Safety and security in the workplace is usually discussed in terms of the emotional support and protection provided to employees. But there is another component to safety and security often overlooked. People feel safer and more secure when there are clear rules and expectations for performance; that is, when there is a healthy structure.
Healthy structure is about clear rules, roles, rewards, and consequences. Work is a place where employees go to perform a job. They need to know what needs to be accomplished, and how their work integrates with the overall production of the organization. Without structure – think the boring stuff like policies and procedures – people will be hesitant, unsure, and worried about judgment of their work. Rules provide a framework for guiding a person’s sense of how to operate in the environment.
Without a definition of needed organizational outcomes, people have no way to feel successful, accomplished, or motivated for hard work. Goals provide the essential measure for workers to compare their performance and to know that they have done a good job.
One trick to having organizational structure succeed is to have employees participate in building, or modifying, their own structure. It keeps them from feeling controlled and managed in a very negative way. Participation also helps make the structure relevant and efficient for achieving employee outcomes. And, when workers participate, they are more likely to follow and enforce the structure in their small work group. It cuts down on refusals and rebellion, keeping people within safe and productive parameters.
Safety and security is achieved through communal buy-in of the structure. When workers agree that the fundamental structures, like pay policies and organizational procedures, are fair and reasonable, they will maintain a safe and secure work culture. The few people who behave counterproductively will be contained and corrected by the vast majority who respect the structure.
When I was consulting to a facility for troubled kids, a counselor was asked how he was so successful in getting the kids to listen to and obey him. Mickey replied, “You govern by the consent of the governed.” After we finished laughing, we agreed it was too true. Don’t forget, it is the same in your organization, and it makes for a safe and secure environment.
Tom DeMaio, PhD
So what do you do if your organization isn’t paying attention to the issue of work-life balance and you are working too many hours? This is a real predicament for so many employees, most of whom just endure the trap. After all, everyone needs their job. It puts the bacon on the table.
Remember, your employer may not realize or think they are taking advantage of you. It is just hard for managers to support a work-life balance if it is not driven by organizational leadership. Having people work longer hours does help the bottom line, especially in very difficult financial times. Longer hours makes scheduling complex staff teaming a bit easier, and it definitely helps with meeting deadlines. Managers get promoted and succeed if they get more done with fewer resources.
How do you talk about this subject without being a trouble-maker or risking your job?
• Don’t imply that the boss is intentionally treating you badly or using you. Actually you don’t know and it may just be a “work ethic” in the culture.
• Don’t threaten anything, like leaving or suing.
• Don’t demand, bully, or be defiant.
There are good ways to go about the discussion:
• Do explain that you are committed to the organization and want to succeed in it.
• Do be respectful.
• Do explain that you are having difficulty with the time required to work on the job.
• Do explain that you have personal or family obligations – without mentioning what they are. It is not appropriate for the organization to know or judge a valid use of your personal time. Whether you have an obligation to a family member or not, remember that you have one to yourself.
• Do ask if there is some way to accomplish your job in the time you are paid for.
• Do think about the response you get and say, “I will think about what you have said to me.”
If your employer is willing to work with you, thank them and work earnestly to solve the problem. If your employer is not willing to make a plan with you, tell them you feel that is unfortunate. Keep working hard (“I’ll do the best I can.”)…and start looking for that next job.
Tom DeMaio, PhD