Have you been feeling the pressure of trying to do more with less? I know I have, many times in my career and I have witnessed many organizations struggle with the same challenge as they felt they didn’t have enough skilled or talented people to accomplish the work that had been deployed to them. While we continue to develop more sophisticated ways to hire and train people and provide them with better systems and work processes to reduce waste and increase productivity, statistics consistently show that only 30% of people are actually engaged in the work. In most workplaces, of the small group of people who are engaged, only a handful are entrusted with the truly important tasks. there are a few “go to” people who are extremely busy, even to the point of being overworked, and then there are the rest who, despite—or because of—the lack of responsibility entrusted to them, often report being dissatisfied at work. As long as this is the case, we will continue to get, at best, 30 cents on every dollar we spend on hiring more people and installing systems whereas cracking the code on employee engagement would yield an infinitely more attractive return. The good news is that there is something each of us can do immediately to make an immediate and meaningful impact on engaging the other 70%.
There are a number of reasons why employee engagement is a problem of epidemic proportions but one of the most significant contributing factors is that we, as leaders, are constantly judging and evaluating people, not based on legitimate differentiating factors related to competence but based on our own unconscious biases, whether positive or negative. Rather than looking for the unique talents people bring and ensuring that they have the opportunity to contribute, we unintentionally treat large portions of our employees as if they don’t matter or as if they are fundamentally different from another group of employees.
This is very easy to comprehend if you have ever been discriminated against or ignored, but it’s much harder to relate to if you happen to be on the other side of the table. More often than I would like to admit, I have been painfully reminded of my own tendency to write people off based on a variety of factors that ultimately have no bearing on the actual value they bring to the table. Whenever this happens, I remind myself that this is an automatic process that I don't have much control over but, as a leader, it is my responsibility to become aware of this process, recognize when it is acting on me, and make intentional course corrections so as not to perpetuate the lose-lose cycle of acting as if some people don’t matter only to cause them to believe the same and prove me right. The more we as leaders believe and act as if our biases and judgments are true, the more true they become in reality, resulting in implicit favoritism toward “good employees” and distrust or even dishonesty toward those we consider to be “bad employees.” The end result is a vicious cycle in which biases are projected and confirmed through self-fulfilling prophecies, employee morale erodes and crumbles, and in which the actual issue underlying it all is never solved. The longer this cycle goes on, the more difficult it is to break.
Unfortunately, knowing all of this makes no difference. What is required is an honest examination of our own motives and biases that are operating in the background. I remember an incident many years ago that opened my eyes to my own biases and illustrated the magnificent power that just feeling valued has on both morale and results. At the time, one of the employees on my team was “known” to not be very bright. Everybody “knew” she wasn’t the sharpest tool in the shed and, as a result, she seemed to have accepted it too. The result of this was that it was assumed that she couldn’t be counted on to take on too much responsibility or deliver superior results, and this was an assumption that she confirmed through her own behavior. Then, one day, during a team building event at a bowling alley, that all changed in an instant. She showed up with her own bowling ball and shoes and kept bowling strike after strike, as the rest of us constantly struggled to knock down more than a few pins at once. We all left that event with a whole new appreciation for who she was.
Although her bowling skills were obviously not relevant or helpful to her work in the organization, we now all saw her as someone who was the best at something, and she consequently saw herself that way as well. The very next day, the way everybody treated her and the way she carried herself was completely different. She had an air of confidence about her that permeated everything she did. In short order, she went on to do great things and eventually became a team leader, which is something no one—possibly including she herself—could have ever imagined happening.
What impresses you about a person says a lot about who you are and what you value. You may judge people based on the kind of car they drive, the house they live in, their political views, their religious affiliation, how competent they are at what they do, how they dress, and countless other factors. To a certain extent, this is normal and manageable. We as leaders, however, cannot afford to be oblivious to the profound implications of these subconscious judgments on the people who rely on us for leadership. Our biases drive who we consider to be impressive and worthy of our time and attention, and who we write off as mere background characters who are about as good as they’re going to get! As a leader, whether you think an employee is worthy of the opportunity and resources to improve themselves, or you think it would be a waste of time and effort to even try, the truth is this: you are right either way!
Now, I am not denying that there are legitimate considerations that leaders ought to use to determine how rewards and recognition and opportunities are offered to their people. Depending on the situation, level of education, skill, or experience, or certain level of aptitude may be key factors. Setting a high bar for these factors and having people strive to meet high standards is not the issue. The issue arises at those times when we end up withholding the very basic levels of courtesy, respect, and attention from those who don’t fit our image of an impressive person and treat them as if they have nothing to offer. When we as leaders withhold opportunities from those we consider less impressive and privilege in our decisions those that we consider more impressive, we have elevated our own personal values above the well-being of the organization and its members, and we have become complicit in the vicious cycle of projecting and confirming our biases that eventually infects every productive relationship with chronic and counterproductive toxicity.
Most people who are treated as if they have nothing to offer, unsurprisingly, offer nothing in return. Some may end up leaving the organization in pursuit of higher levels of growth, accomplishment, and recognition, but those who do remain end up becoming consenting partners in a cycle of mediocrity, much to their detriment and that of the organization.
So what are we to do? It can be overwhelming to suddenly realize that you are constantly making involuntary, instantaneous, and subconscious judgments about others that may not serve you or them well. However, if you have a genuine interest in ensuring you are part of the solution and not the problem, I suggest three steps you can begin to take immediately to take a giant leap in the right direction:
- Begin to observe how you personally treat others, as well as why you treat some people differently than others. Is the basic courtesy and respect you extend to others conditional based on their position, their performance, their education, and so on? If so, you have work to do. Establish a minimum level of attention you are willing to give everyone, whether they are the CEO or a temp who just started yesterday and will be gone in a week, whether they are your star performer or someone who is in the last step of your performance correction process. Condition yourself to treat people not based on what they have or what they bring, but based on who they are – a person just like you or me.
- Evaluate whether your organization tends to systematically create “have’s and have not’s” and, unintentionally or otherwise, make certain people feel like second-class citizens. I don’t mean to imply that everyone ought to be paid the same amount and have the same perks; any reasonable person knows that it takes a certain level of compensation and benefits to attract employees at certain levels of the organization. The problem is that sometimes these perks go a little too far and unnecessarily divide people into the elite and the ordinary. That a CEO might need to fly on a private jet so he/she is not spending hours on end at airports can be understood and justified, but it will probably not be received well that that same CEO has to have the luxury of parking his/her car in a climate controlled garage while everyone else has to deal with the elements in the “regular” parking lot. Look for signs that say basic things like creature comforts (e.g. air conditioning) are reserved for certain people in the organization and eliminate the disparity to demonstrate that you truly care about everyone in the organization.
- Examine the level of investment that is made in developing the people in the organization. Are certain people continuing to have the opportunity to better themselves while others are treated like hired hands, or are you actively looking for and capitalizing on opportunities to offer development opportunities to everyone?
So, do you believe Theory X or Theory Y? More importantly, do you realize that whatever Theory you believe is true is the one you will find the most evidence to support? If it isn’t the case now, you as a leader will certainly make it the case as a result of speaking and acting in accordance with it. Are your employees lazy and unreliable, or are they simply waiting for the opportunity to feel valued enough to freely offer up their commitment? Neither answer is true until you choose it and make it so. Choose wisely and watch the talent and enthusiasm of the other 70% make your resource crunch problem disappear.
THE BOTTOM LINE:
As we try to learn to do more with less and employ all kinds of sophisticated methods to increase productivity, the fact remains that only a small percentage of employees in the workplace are engaged and there is something each of us, as leaders, can and must do about that immediately.
We all evaluate others based on what we ourselves value. We tend to think highly of those who share our values, and poorly of those who do not. We do this automatically and subconsciously for the most part. This rule-of-thumb process has served us well in making quick decisions that kept our ancestors alive, but it has a generally lousy track record of ensuring our judgments are accurate.
While it is useful to evaluate others based on characteristics relevant to a certain content or function, more often than not, the personal values that we judge others against have little to no bearing on whether they are an effective employee or a good person. Moreover, the very act of buying into our biases influences those that look to us for leadership and encouragement, causing them to feel alienated and act in a way that confirms the biases that we are subconsciously allowing to influence our own behaviors.
As leaders, it is our duty to recognize and interrupt this faulty process of rule-of-thumb evaluations, and behave in such a way that each and every employee understands that they have the same potential and opportunity to make a difference in the organization as anyone else does. To be able to achieve this, leaders must transform their language, practice being open to the fact that their judgments may not be correct, assume positive intent whenever possible, and recognize that it is ultimately their responsibility to perpetuate or eliminate dysfunction in their organizations.
We must remember that we do not see others as they are, we see them as we are. As leaders, this is something we can never afford to forget.
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