by Paolo Gaudiano

Ask not what your employee can do for you

Jun 26, 2017
CareersIT LeadershipStaff Management

Companies too often focus on asking what their employees can do for them, without considering the importance of how their workplace policies and actions impact employees.

A job interview gone wrong.
Credit: Thinkstock

In his famous inaugural address on January 20, 1961, John F. Kennedy urged his fellow Americans to “ask not what your country can do for you — ask what you can do for your country.”

Kennedy’s inspirational words remind us that the relationship between a government and its people is a two-way street: the government creates and enforces regulations for the well-being of its people, but the people must contribute to the well-being of the government.

A similar relationship drives the behavior of organizations of all sizes, including of course corporations, whose policies and regulations influence the behavior of its employees, who in turn influence the performance of the company as a whole. This type of “feedback loop” can generate complex ripple effects, often impacting the overall behavior of the company in unexpected ways.

When it comes to talent management, today’s corporations appear to be forgetting the two-way nature of this relationship, focusing too much on asking their employers what they can do for the company, while ignoring what the company can do for its employers.

Diversity offers a particularly clear example of this problem: many companies are spending millions attempting to increase diversity, without thinking carefully how their actions impact both their existing employees and future employees. For instance, in an attempt to broaden their talent pipeline, companies sometimes forget that new employees from underrepresented minorities will be interacting with teammates and supervisors. To the extent that multicultural training and workplace policies are not put in place, the new employees may face significant challenges and negative experiences that may lead them to leave. This, in turn, impacts morale, decreases operating efficiency, and can even lead to negative consequences such as confirming the negative biases of those who did not think diversity would work, while potentially damaging the company’s reputation with the very segments of the population the companies are trying to attract.

A more pervasive example can be seen in the way performance reviews are done at most organizations. Regardless of how reviews are done, they almost universally focus on the behavior and performance of the individual, trying to evaluate what the employee is doing for the organization. What is usually absent is any attempt to understand what the company could be doing to maximize the performance (and satisfaction) of each employee.

This approach to performance reviews underscores a flawed mindset toward company performance. Put simply, human capital is by far the most important asset of any organization, not to mention the largest line item in its P&L. And yet, most organizations think of their employees as if they were parts of an airplane: if a part is not working according to specifications, find a way to fix it or replace it with a better part.

But unlike an airplane, in which every part plays a specific role and influences performance in a predictable way, people are not simple parts. Most individuals impact the organization in a multitude of ways, not just through the specific tasks they execute, but also through their professional and social interactions with colleagues, clients, suppliers and competitors; and, unlike airplane parts, the behavior of employees is linked to their satisfaction, which in turn depends heavily on the people with whom they work, the environment in which they work, their compensation and benefits, and the workplace policies that govern their behavior.

I have suggested before that organizations are complex ecosystems, whose overall behavior emerges in sometimes unpredictable ways from the behaviors of its employees, and from the interactions among employees, and between the employees and their environment. We have also argued that traditional business management tools are unable to cope with this type of complexity. However, there is no excuse for leaders to ignore the importance of creating an environment that maximizes the satisfaction and performance of individual employees.

There are many ways in which a company can improve the experience and productivity of its employees: develop performance reviews that are more focused on what the employees need from the organization to increase efficiency and satisfaction; conduct internal surveys to identify roadblocks and sources of frustration, and instate policies to remove those roadblocks and frustrations; explore best practices to boost team efficiency and morale; be as generous as possible with compensation and benefits, realizing that these investments have the potential for substantial ROI.

More generally, leaders need to buck the trend of treating employees like disposable commodities and recognize that satisfied employees are critical to the success of the company. Once you realize the importance of your human capital, you will stop asking your employees what they can do for you, and start asking what you can do for your employees.