Early in my career, I accepted a position heading HR for a growing medical office. The owner and CEO was a doctor and, while he envisioned himself as a business-minded entrepreneur, he did not understand what it took to keep employees engaged or create a company culture by design. Which is why he needed me.
During my interview, he explicitly told me one of the main reasons he wanted to hire in-house HR was to “turn the culture around.” Once in the position, it didn’t take long to see why the turnover rate was astronomical, behavioral issues were constant, and there was this ever-present, stagnant fog of discontent weighing on the entire staff. There was a running joke before the weekly staff meetings, “what will management change this time.” There were no SOPs, no performance management system to speak of, and any thought of professional development was quickly shut down. It was an organization full of chaos and run by fear.
Determining the cultural deficits of an organization takes time and the CEO wanted results - now. He kept pushing me to plan events: schedule company dinners, organize staff book clubs, and arrange staff hiking trips. This was the exact opposite of what the staff needed.
The best way to understand why dinners were not the answer is to borrow from Maslow's Hierarchy of Needs. This is a physiological framework used to understand human motivation. The model is typically represented as a five-tiered pyramid with psychological needs (food and clothing) at the base. Above that is safety (job security), then love and belonging (friendship), and esteem and self-actualization at the apex.
The premise is that certain needs must be met before we can ascend to focus on the next need. For example, it's hard to be concerned about self-care when there isn't enough food to eat. One place I’ve found this to be categorically true is in the workplace. It needs to be noted, that in my adaptation, I’ve left out Total Rewards due to its complexity. What I can share here is that while pay isn’t a strong driver of motivation and engagement, it’s hard to deny that if your employees don’t make enough to justify being there, they’ll leave. Compensation is one of the main ways companies communicate value to their employees – so make sure they feel valued.
1st Tier – Job Clarity
Employees need to know what’s expected of them and what success in their role looks like. When processes and procedures are either undefined or constantly changing, the result is chaos. Employees are on edge, unable to relax in the knowledge that their leadership team is taking care of them. When operational foundations (e.g, SOPS, 1:1s, policies, job descriptions, etc...) are lacking, employees can not do the one thing they're there to do - their job.
2nd Tier - Manager relationship
We’ve all heard the adage, “people don’t leave companies, they leave managers.” I have found this to be accurate. If an employee dislikes their boss, they will never be truly engaged at work. Likewise, if an employee truly admires their boss, or better yet, sees them as a true mentor, that employee will not only go over and above out of loyalty to that manager but will endure more than they would have otherwise. However, this is not to be exploited. The manager/employee relationship is one of the most important connections in the workplace. Foster it. Respect it. Nurture it.
3rd tier –Opportunity for Growth
I’ve been recruiting for many years and the one thing I hear ad nauseam is that people leave companies lacking growth opportunities. Admittedly, not everyone wants to move up the ladder, but even so, workers want to feel they’re growing their skill set, influence, and knowledge base. Organizations must offer employees a way to develop in some capacity. Without challenge, individuals become bored and disengaged.
4th tier - Psychological Safety and Values Alignment
If one feels they are working for an organization that is antithetical to their values, they will never truly connect and engage with that organization. The job will become a temporary means to an end until something better is available. Similarly, employees must feel they can speak up without fear of repercussions. Working in an environment that promotes fear among its employees is not an environment with fulfilled, engaged teams. Allow your teams to speak up (professionally and appropriately) and enrich the thought pool. Be willing to have hard conversations. Engaged workers are more productive, more creative (because they’re willing to take risks), and more likely to stay with the organization.
5th tier – Purpose/Fulfillment
When you have a workforce with clarity of role and processes, good relationships with their managers, professional development, and safety speaking up…then you likely have fulfilled employees. Now, go take your team to dinner!