If you’ve ever been on the receiving end of employee engagement results, you most likely know the, “How in the world could they feel THAT WAY after ALL I’ve done?” head-scratching frustration. I know I have. You’ve recognized, mentored, career-pathed, taken some bullets, helped them win… and yet, it somehow wasn’t enough for everyone. A few folks still feel frustration and are not afraid to make that perfectly clear on your “stupid survey that no one ever does anything with.”
The truth is, what makes employee engagement so hard is that it’s not just about what’s happening today. Your employees are impacted by all their yesterdays, and their view of how they will fit into the future of your organization tomorrow.
Winning Well managers are translators of the past and sherpas toward the future. Before they motivate, they translate.
Winning Well managers know they need to help employees recover from their memory of past experiences: a boss that took credit for their work; an organizational structure change that made their role less meaningful; a shift in strategy which made their project less of a priority… and at the same time help them see a bright future for themselves in the organization. If employees are skeptical that they’ll matter in the future, they’ll be less likely to go the extra mile today.
How to Help Employees Make Sense of the Past
1. Have a private conversation
I actually had one manager who had worked in my organization for three years tell me how intimidated she was around me for a very long time. I was shocked, as I’d never treated her with anything but kindness and respect, and was always working to connect with her at a human level.
She confided that she’d “been burned so many times before” by other female leaders that she just didn’t trust my motives. Her opening up to me allowed me to share some of my personal stories of my career growth and why I believe and act like I do now–based on mistakes by myself and others in the past. I then explained that all leaders (whether they admit it or not) have similar insecurities and regrets–that instead of starting from a place of fear or skepticism of a new leader, it’s much more productive to get to know one another and give them a chance. Assuming mal-intent will color your perceptions and potentially lead to false interpretations.
After we had that conversation, she became much more secure in her role, took more risks, shared her opinions, and eventually was promoted. Her fear from her past had actually been holding her back from being her best self. Once she realized the past did not define the future, she was able to truly engage and build a better one for herself and the company.
2. Help them understand the context
Often when something negative happens, the employee doesn’t have all the context. Start with questions: Do you know WHY they made the decision to close that office? Do you know WHY the project lost funding? Often employees are so caught up in the impact, that they may not have truly sought to understand the bigger picture (or someone may not have explained it well). Translators take time to help employees understand the greater context of decisions so they seem less arbitrary.
And Get Excited About the Future
3. Help them understand what they can control
Nothing creates anxiety more than feeling out of control. Helping employees understand that although they may not have influence on some of the bigger strategic moves that could potentially impact their future, they have much they can do to prepare to be a utility player that adds value when circumstances change. Finishing their degree, learning new skills, networking with other departments, all go a long way in helping people feel better about themselves and their future in the company.
4. Help them see the road ahead
The main reason employees don’t think strategically is that they aren’t given enough information to connect the dots. Help employees see the strategic and competitive environment and where the organization is headed. Help them understand how the work they do contributes today and where it fits into the future. When holding career discussions, help them develop the skills that will be most important as the company grows and transforms.
To feel better about their jobs, employees need support making sense of the past and understanding what’s possible in the future.
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