Resist the Urge to Take Employees for Granted

We’ve been here before, the point in an economic cycle when managers need to take special care. The job market is awash with candidates and the competition for available jobs is intense; it’s a recruiter’s dream. This type of situation always encourages managers to become lazy about how they treat their employees. As business psychologists, we stress extreme caution.

When the job market rebounds, which it will soon, the best employees will be off to greener pastures. Employees have long memories and can be unforgiving. Who can blame them, given the managerial carelessness we see every day? Despite what they say, people don’t leave only jobs, they leave bosses, too.

So how do you ensure that your staff will remain loyal when new blades of green grass sprout on the other side of the fence? It’s simple; there are just a few basic managerial principles to follow. Still, you can bet that some managers aren’t following the rulebook.

Too many managers are more autocratic and controlling than employees would like or their business requires. Employees want more than just tangible rewards, such as money, material goods and job titles. They also need the satisfaction provided by a sense of achievement and the knowledge that they’re valued as individuals.

In a down economy, many organizations fall into a damaging “transactional state,” where the employee does “this,” in return for the employer doing “that.” Of course, this approach is easier in the short term and requires less effort on the part of managers than truly engaging employees and making a real effort to be involved with them.

One way to avoid this trap is to listen to employees and give them the chance to shape their own work. We all love to have choice in what we do and how we do it. Choice usually brings more ownership and commitment to work.

Engagement between managers and their staff members is critical. Research by psychologists has shown that people are at their most engaged — when they reach a “flow state,” in which time seems to pass more quickly — when they think the challenge of the task at hand matches their abilities. Imagine pleasantly realizing that half the day has gone, rather than looking at your watch and wishing that it were really four hours hence. If you asked every person reading this column if he or she were in “the flow” at work today, fewer than half would say yes. How productive can that be? This drain on productivity is a hazard of the current business climate.

Managers must realize that employees are most engaged when their tasks are neither too difficult nor too easy. Employees become stressed if a task’s requirements outweigh their skills. On the other hand, work that underutilizes their talents will leave them bored and frustrated. I’m not suggesting that it’s easy to get the balance right, but managers must at least try. It starts by initiating a dialogue with staff members. The temptation in a weak job market is to think that you don’t need to make the effort.

What many managers fail to realize is that if a customer-service representative thinks addressing a customer complaint is difficult, it doesn’t matter if others believe the task is straightforward. People feel stress and become demoralized when they believe the task they’re performing is just too tough.

The real challenge is creating a dialogue between manager and employee that allows employees to strike a balance between their talents and abilities — and the stretch necessary to optimize performance and enhance competence. This takes time and effort.

Another common trap is to fail to give feedback and praise. There’s a temptation to move on to the next challenge when a project is completed. Why should we thank employees for just doing their jobs, the thinking goes. This logic is flawed. Managers must check that employees know exactly how well things went. Most employees need feedback, and they want to learn from what went well and what didn’t. .

When giving negative feedback in particular, managers must be aware of the impact of their personal style on their employees. Too many interactions go awry because managers have little sense of the damage their behavior is inflicting. Successful managers appreciate how they come across to others, both when things are going well and when they aren’t.

Effective managers delegate work so that achievement and task completion become rewarding in themselves. Their employees also understand the link between performance and rewards. Is the reward for the effort or the achievement of the task? In a healthy organization, employees know what gets rewarded and why.

Again, effective managers are judicious when rewarding employees. As with simple praise, the power of a reward diminishes in proportion to its overuse. Cash or monetary equivalents can lose their appeal if there’s no direct relationship between the size of a reward and the work completed. Managers can and should be creative with rewarding people. The most powerful method is to know what appeals to your employees on an individual basis. Is it cash, time off, or a weekend break for two?

What tops the bill for an effective manager? It’s simple: Good managers don’t just provide feedback, they practice what they preach and accept it. They work to create an atmosphere in which employees are willing to share their views. After all, who wants to work in a place where everyone agrees with you all the time and just does what you say? That’s hardly creative and productive for business.

What are the magic ingredients to good management? Engage people, help them to own their work, balance ability and task, adjust reward to personal needs, give and receive feedback — and act on it. Do all of these well, and you’ll increase the likelihood that employees will stay with you, because the grass will continue to seem greener on your side of the fence.

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