In a recent interview I did with award-winning employee engagement leader Nicholas Wardle he made the following statement that I felt summarised the challenges so many businesses currently face with employees very neatly:
"People don't like having change done to them"
We live in a time where businesses must embrace a culture of change to survive and thrive. Technology is changing the ways we live, communicate and therefore do business at an exponential rate.
To me this creates a simple math equation that sums up this common challenge well:
[Businesses need to embrace regular change] + [People having change done to them] = Ongoing issues
I've had the privilege of working with many teams across a wide variety of industries and businesses sizes since 2018. During this time I've come to see that one of the most common challenges businesses and teams face is their approach to change of doing change to people. Whether it's a small firm or a large corporation, the mistakes and problems are always similar.
The general picture of things goes like this:
The leadership team (or business owner) are highly motivated and visionary. They see all of the opportunities for change and come up with lots of great ideas.
The team are highly motivated and wants to do a good job. But they feel disconnected from the leadership team. New ideas create new jobs and they get passed down to the team without them having much or any input.
Due to this the leadership and the team end up feeling frustrated. The team feel unappreciated and not listened to and therefore take on the new tasks without a high level of enthusiasm. The leadership team or boss feel that the team are negative and not giving the new projects the effort and energy they deserve.
I will explore why this happens in another post, but for now, let us just accept that this isn't a good thing and it happens due to human nature.
In order to stop this from happening and create positive cultures of change, we have to put some structure in place to battle that human nature.
Below are five steps that I've found have the most transformative impact on businesses, teams and culture of change. Taking the time and effort to put these steps in place can feel daunting, but the benefits of doing so are creating a positive culture of change that energises your employee and leadership teams. Not only will this save time and money through reduced sickness, lost productivity and employee turnover, it will also generate more business opportunities and efficiency (as we'll explore below) than you might realise:
1 - Clear, Well Communicated, Vision & Mission
A clear, well-communicated vision and mission are critical for the success of a business and team. Your vision and mission should be inspiring, easy to remember and make it very clear to you, your employees and your customers what you are trying to achieve and why you are different. Every employee within your organisation should be able to recite your vision and mission at any time and understand how the job they do supports it.
Your vision should tell people the ultimate change you want to create in the world. Your mission should tell people the 1-3 ways in which you are going to achieve that vision.
Psychologists, scientists and countless studies are demonstrating time and time again that, after basic needs are fulfilled, people are way more motivated by purpose and meaning than they are by money. What this means for businesses is, that if you're not reminding people every day how the work they do is contributing to the bigger picture, you're not getting the most out of them and significantly increasing your risk of losing them. If you don't have a vision and mission, it's virtually impossible to show someone that the work they do is anything more than just work.
There's a famous story about John F.Kennedy meeting a Janitor whilst taking a tour of NASA headquarters in 1961. Kennedy asked the Janitor "why are you working so late?", the Janitor responded, "Mr President, I'm helping put a man on the moon."
Your team or business might not be trying to put a man on the moon, but you're most certainly trying to achieve something meaningful. You mustn't play that down. I meet lots of business owners and teams that have these wonderful visions about why they do what they do, but they play it down and don't communicate it. They tell themselves other people won't get it, they might sound silly or they might not get it right... this is human nature but you have to battle it. It doesn't matter if you're an accountancy, a comedian, a public office or a school, you have a vision and mission that make you different, communicate it.
I have some simple guidance on creating vision and mission statements here but have found the most effective way to get this done is to get some help.
2 - 3-5 regularly communicated yearly objectives
In any business, of any size, in any industry, there always is and always will be a never-ending to-do list of important tasks. If our approach to business is to constantly try and complete this list we very quickly become a 'reactive' business. Reactive businesses have the 'cultural feel' of being constantly busy and overwhelmed. They have a poor ability to innovate and experience high levels of stress and burnout (as well as all of the sickness, productivity and turnover costs associated with that) amongst their employees. We clearly don't want to create 'culturally reactive' businesses but it's very common to do so, again due to human nature.
Having three to five well planned out and well communicated overall yearly objectives in your team/business help keep everybody focused by enabling teams and individuals to prioritise what's most important. Three to five is the magic number. There will be a temptation to try and more to the list (remember the never-ending to-do list) but when we try to do everything, we achieve nothing. If you want your team and business to make solid progress each year in a sustainable way, you have to prioritise. Each of your objectives should also have three to five measurable results. This way you and your teams understand what needs to be done to achieve success and progress can be tracked.
An example of an objective and measurable result might be:
Objective - Make [our business] a great place to work
Measurable result - Achieve an average employee satisfaction score of 8+
In the book 'Measure What Matters' John Doerr shares the stories of multiple companies that went from struggling year to year with overwhelm trying to achieve everything to achieving laser focus and rapid growth through prioritisation including Under Armour and Google (when they had just 40 employees).
The most powerful driver of motivation for humans them feeling that they are making steady progress in their profession or skill towards mastery
The feeling of being stuck in the mud, spinning the wheels and not getting anywhere is the largest drain on motivation scientists have discovered
Think about that. If you don't have 3-5 objectives without clear measurable results, are you creating a culture where people feel like they and the business they are a part of are progressing, or are you creating a culture where everybody just feels busy spinning their wheels?
3 - Quarterly Team Objective Setting
Quarterly objective setting is really where the magic happens. Most of what we have talked about so far is, by and large, the responsibility of the leadership team (although smaller businesses and teams might choose to involve everyone in the previous stages). Quarterly objective setting is where we move away from 'this is what we want to achieve' and towards 'how can you help us achieve this?'.
It's this stage that helps us shift from 'people having change done to them'.
Your teams should replicate the yearly objective/results setting process that has been done for the business, for their team for each quarter. In simple terms they look at the vision and mission, they look at the yearly and measurable results and they decide what they are going to do over the next three months to help achieve this. The same rules as before should be abided by, 3-5 objectives each with 3-5 measurable results. Not only should each team do this but each individual within the team.
The format of this should be an open discussion. The manager or leader takes the team through yearly objectives and how those yearly objectives support the long term vision and mission. They then ask the team what they think can be done over the next three months to help achieve this. Lots of great ideas will come up. Before the end of the meeting, those ideas will be prioritised and have key measures of success attached to them.
I find the main reason that most businesses don't do this already is twofold.
They're stuck in the old fashioned way of leading which is: Leadership come up with ideas then pass them down to the employees to pursue because that's what they are paid to do
We can't justify taking our employees out of production time for planning time, that's what leadership and management are paid for.
Here we have to again consider human psychology. By and large, people aren't motivated by just doing work and getting paid. They want to feel like a part of something, to feel meaning, to feel valued and listened to and like they are developing. If you're not creating time for them to share ideas (which as we'll cover in the next section will usually justify this time tenfold) and feel listened to you're not tapping into their human psychology. Regardless of how much you pay them or give them in bonuses, their motivation and productivity levels will be nowhere near optimal, you increase your risk of losing key players and lack appeal to potential great team members.
A simple action to take is to plan 4 x 2-4 hour sessions quarterly throughout the year for your teams. By the end of those meetings, you want each team and team member to create 3-5 objectives and key results for the quarter. They should write and stick these up in their working areas.
To find out more you can read 'Measure What Matters' by Jonh Doerr. Or contact us if you want help implementing this process.
4 - Autonomy
The previously mentioned neurologist and author Steven Kotler also shows us in the book 'The Art of Impossible' that autonomy is a key driver of human motivation. Although we humans like structure and planning, it's also hard wired into our DNA to crave our own level of autonomy. But how can this be harnessed in business?
The key lies in not needing to be too extreme with our approach. We don't want micromanagers in our business, we also don't want 100% autonomous team members that have no structure, connection to the rest of the team or bigger picture. We've already started to tap into autonomy by getting everyone in the organisation involved in the quarterly planning process and that MIGHT be enough, but there's likely more value to be found for both the individual and the business.
By finding a way to support and encourage your team members to come up with ideas to improve the business, you are likely to achieve two huge benefits:
Positively tap into your employees' psychology making them feel more valued, creative, productive and likely to stick around
Get your employees genuinely valuable insights and ideas that can and often do transform companies
Again the first and most significant roadblock businesses find in making this happen is finding and justifying the time. But as many companies have already demonstrated, the cost savings (decreased turnover, sickness and recruitment costs, increased productivity and revenue from ideas) pay for this time tenfold.
Put yourself in one of your employees' shoes and ask them their top 5 frustrations at work. More often than not one of those top 5 is going to be 'frustrated because they can see a better way to do things but nobody listens or cares, we're all just too busy'. Allowing time for autonomy is the remedy for this motivation killer.
Not only do we know this works, we know how other companies are doing it.
Google implement a 20% rule. They allow their staff 20% (one working day) of their working week to come up with and work on their own ideas. Some of Google's most successful products such as Gmail and Google Earth are the result of this 20% time.
Of course, you're not Google and you most likely can't just start giving your teams a whole day a week to be creative. There are other well-documented cases where businesses achieve amazing results by giving their teams just 45 minutes of autonomy time a week and Patagonia gives their team members autonomy by allowing them complete control of their working schedule.
Your team members are full of great ideas about how your business can be even better than it is. Amongst those ideas are ideas that could completely transform your business and by enabling them the time to explore and share these ideas you will significantly employee engagement levels.
5 - Psychological Safety
We've explored in detail why you should and how you can implement a positive culture of change in your business or team. A lot of what we have discussed moves us away from the old fashioned industrial model of rigid structure toward a more modern creative and collaborative model.
In order for this model to be successful, we have to create environments of psychological safety. By and far the best thing we can do to enable this ensures that we personally have created a healthy relationship with two common, what I like to refer to as 'mindset demons'.
Fear of failure
From both personal experience and working with others I find that it's the controlling presence of these two demons in leaders or managers that create psychologically unsafe environments.
We have to constantly remind ourselves that MOST ideas will fail and that for ideas to get traction they have to start scruffy.
If our people don't feel safe making mistakes, innovation and change will die a very quick death.
If our people don't feel safe launching new products or initiatives without them being perfect, innovation and change will die a very quick death.
Again, it's human nature to want things to be perfect and to avoid making mistakes (historically it meant life or death), so we have to be aware of and battle that to create awesome teams, cultures and businesses.
Compare the original I-phone to the current model. It was riddled with errors, in comparison to today's models, it was awful. But they got it out there, and even the customers didn't care that much about the issues. The perfectionist wouldn't have released the original iPhone. They would have rejected it for its floors and their teams would have been scared to push it because they knew it had errors too... and we'd all still be using Blackberrys (obviously not but the point is made).
When we have a basic understanding of human psychology we recognise that the modern, fast-paced ever-changing environment our businesses and team exist in isn't a challenge it's an opportunity. We realise that the equation:
[Businesses need to embrace regular change] + [People having change done to them] = Ongoing issues
is easily fixable. Not by hiding from or wishing away change, but by changing how we communicate with and involve our people:
[Businesses need to embrace regular change] + [People actively involved in change and innovation] = Thriving individuals, teams and businesses
Whatever you decide to do, the first part of the equation isn't changing (no pun intended).
I'd love to hear your thoughts below. If you'd like to chat about implementing any of this into your team/business/organisation, I'd love to chat with you so contact me:
Author: Mike Jones
After suffering Burnout in his first business, Mike founded Better Happy in 2018 with the vision of 'Enabling organisations & employees to thrive together'.
Mike writes, consults and delivers training days on everything health and performance at work.