Natural Consequences Go Both Ways

There is a certain flow to the universe; a balance. When there is an action, a reaction of some kind is sure to follow. A cause has a subsequent effect. And every decision has a consequence. If you poke a hungry, hungry hippo, your arm will get eaten. Similarly, if you decide to skip work for a week without calling in, that promotion you were hoping for isn’t going to happen because, as Arnold once said, “You’re terminated.” 

Each decision has a natural consequence. It’s the way of things. In an organizational context, management practitioners talk about the concept of natural consequences for certain employee behaviors. 

For example, an employee who flat out refuses to work naturally can’t continue his employment. A business needs to make money in order to survive and cannot keep a deadbeat employee on its payroll. A good manager would explain these natural consequences (in much nicer terms, of course).  

I’m a fan of the phrase natural consequences. I much prefer it to “disciplinary action” because the latter implies some sort of parent/child relationship. You don’t discipline other adults. You’re no better than they are. You don’t sit on some higher plane of existence than they do. As your employees, you have an agreement with them, and if either of you fails to live up to your side of the bargain, there will naturally be consequences. However, managers tend to only think of these consequences relative to employee conduct. I can assure you, though, the door of natural consequences swings both ways. And if you’re not careful about treating your employees well, that door will indeed swing back and hit ya right where the Good Lord split ya.

What exactly am I talking about? 

Disengagement. Absenteeism. Presenteeism. Burnout. Turnover. Unionization. Low productivity. Errors and defects. Increased costs. Unhappy customers. Bad publicity. Lawsuits. 

Get the picture?

These are all natural consequences of a negative employee experience. If you bully your employees, overwork them, have unrealistic expectations for them, deny them opportunities for advancement, don’t give them the tools or resources they need, or force them to work in uncomfortable, unsanitary, or dangerous conditions, then something will happen as a result. And it won’t be something you’ll like.

That something might be disengagement or what managers would perceive to be “disloyalty.” 

A few years ago, several DirecTV contractors gave a television interview explaining that the company cut their pay after they were unable to upsell customers a telephone service they did not want. The contractors were subsequently fired for airing their grievances to the public and making the company look bad. A lawsuit led to the National Labor Relations Board stepping in on the contractors’ behalf. The Board ordered DirecTV’s subcontractor, MasTec, to reinstate their employment because they had engaged in what is called “protected concerted activity” to collectively address work conditions. 

The DirecTV contractors hadn’t acted out of malicious spite. They were acting on human nature. It is a natural human response to seek justice when we are wronged. And, as a society, we naturally cannot allow employers to prevent their workers from engaging in activity aimed at improving their working conditions. That’s why we have laws like the National Labor Relations Act.

It seems that there is a double standard in the modern workplace. Employers hold their workforce accountable for production, acceptable conduct, quality, service excellence, loyalty, engagement. Employees’ failure to live up to a certain standard results in consequences. Accountability is unilateral, apparently. Or is it? 

You’re probably familiar with the phrase “shit rolls downhill.” It’s a crude way of saying any abuse, mistakes, poor decisions, senseless processes, and crazy goals eventually make their way down the organizational hierarchy and land squarely in employees’ laps. There are indeed natural consequences for hurling the proverbial “shit” at employees and expecting them just to make the best of it. Natural consequences, in some form or another, hold employers accountable for whatever they send rolling downhill.

Take bullying, for instance. Employees respond to fear-based management in different ways, with passive aggression being one of them. Recent studies have even shown that employees who engage in passive aggressive retaliation — like slowing productivity — against their abusive bosses experience lower stress levels as a side benefit of “sticking it to the man.” There will always be some form of consequence for bad boss behavior, whether that’s withholding discretionary effort, taking more sick days due to stress, or passing the abuse on to customers. Cause/effect. Negative employee experience/natural consequence. 

The takeaway here is to understand that, as an employer, there are consequences for the way your treat your employees. If you mistreat them, they will eventually burn out, check out, act out, step out, or freak out. It’s called being human. As inconvenient a truth it may be, you do business with and work with humans. Employees expect to be treated fairly, with respect and compassion. That’s not unreasonable; it’s only natural. It’s your end of the employment bargain. When you renege on that deal . . . well, don’t say I didn’t warn you. 

The Bus Metaphor Redux

If you have been in business and, in particular, in management for a certain amount of time, you’ve probably heard of Jim Collins’ seminal bestseller, Good to Great: Why Some Companies Make the Leap…and Others Don’t. The book uses a bus as a metaphor for your organization and tells you that, in order to become great, you must build a great team by getting the right people on the bus and in the right seats, and by getting the wrong people off the bus. Plenty of CEOs have latched onto this concept thinking it’s the greatest thing since sliced bread. All you need to achieve greatness for your organization is effective talent management. 

I won’t argue the value of properly attracting, retaining, and leading talent. However (and no disrespect to Jim Collins), the bus metaphor in Good to Great has two massive holes in it: 1) the bus driver, and 2) the bus itself. You can play musical chairs with your bus passengers all the live long day and still not have a truly great organization if you are not also looking at what’s going on with the bus driver and the bus itself. “Jonathan, what do you mean?”, you ask. Okay, let’s have a little fun with this bus metaphor . . .

What if the bus were on fire? What if the bus were driving the wrong way down the street, crashing into cars and scaring little old ladies? What if the wheels were about to fall off the bus? What if it were headed for a cliff? What if there were a bomb on board that was rigged to explode when the bus goes over 50 miles per hour? And when passengers try to warn the driver, all he says is, “You kids better sit down and shut up back there! I’m the one driving this bus!” Maybe the driver is totally incompetent or a psychopath or has a terrible sense of direction. Maybe he’s  been pocketing the bus fares for the last ten years. Maybe the bus driver keeps going in circles and insists he’s right in spite of the persistent warnings from passengers that they aren’t going anywhere. Maybe he throws sharp objects at passengers for being too loud.

Alright, so hopefully you get the point by now: you’re not perfect and neither is your bus. But what happens in the modern workplace when employees voice any concerns or feedback about their organization and its leaders is they get booted off the bus or threatened with the same. Don’t tell the bus driver he’s headed into oncoming traffic or that the brakes are making a funny noise, and certainly don’t cross the white line behind the driver’s seat. Just sit down, shut up, and be grateful for the ride. I’ve seen this over and over again in my own work experiences and in my observations of other companies and leaders. 

One example I use in my book, The Stepford Employee Fallacy, is the Wells Fargo account cross-sell fiasco. A few years ago, Wells Fargo’s CEO set a goal for all bank customers to have at least eight accounts. His mandate was unrealistic and was only based on the fact that the number eight rhymed with “great.” Still, that didn’t stop the bank’s managers from holding employees accountable for opening at least eight accounts per customer. Any employee who raised concerns, expressed dissent, or couldn’t meet the goal was punished. Since the goal could not be met, employees resorted to opening fake accounts for thousands of Wells customers. Of course, when the fraud came to light, the bank found itself in a public relations nightmare and the CEO eventually stepped down (after making millions of dollars while the scandal was going on). The employees who opened the fake accounts lost their jobs, as did many of their colleagues who were brave enough to stand up to their bosses.

In my book, I stress the importance of leaders seeking out and acting upon feedback from their employees. They are the ones who work closest with customers and can tell you whether a particular strategy is realistic or advisable. They are also the ones who make your organization successful. I believe the bus metaphor is flawed, but not just because it ignores the imperfect nature of organizations and their leaders. It is flawed because employees are not passengers on a bus. The word passenger implies someone who has no agency, who is just along for the ride. But organizations need partners in action, not passive riders who have no say. They are on the bus, so that means they have just as much of a stake in its safe and successful travel as you do, perhaps even more so. After all, their lives (or their livelihoods) are in your hands.

It’s true that you need the right people on the bus, but it’s more important that the bus is in good working order, that the bus driver knows what he’s doing, and that he listens when passengers are screaming that he’s about to drive them off a cliff.

#EmployeeEngagement #EmployeeExperience #Leadership #organizationaldevelopment #spreadthetruth

The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace is now available on Amazon, iTunes, Google Play, and through other major retailers. Buy direct here:

Leadership Lessons from ‘The Good Doctor’

I just recently hopped aboard the ‘Good Doctor’ bandwagon and, boy, am I hooked. It’s such a good show! The premise puts an interesting spin on the television medical melodrama formula. It focuses on a very gifted young doctor named Shaun Murphy, who happens to be autistic. He and several other new residents work at the fictional San Jose St. Bonaventure hospital, where they tend to emergency patients, assist with surgeries, and make plenty of mistakes along the way. The hospital President, Dr. Glassman, acts as a mentor for all of the residents and exemplifies what calm, nurturing leadership should look like.

Last night’s episode saw the hospital staff pushed to their limits when a bus crash flooded the ER with dozens of casualties. One patient asks resident Dr. Claire Browne if her wife survived the accident. Upon seeing that she’s not listed on the intake roster and is nowhere to be found in the waiting area, Dr. Browne surmises the woman’s wife is still at the crash site. She locates her in the woods several yards from the bus and determines she has a dangerous brain hemorrhage. After having a breathing tube inserted and the fluid drained from her brain, the patient is transported to St. Bonaventure where an EEG shows zero neural activity: she is deemed brain-dead.

Dr. Glassman catches up with Dr. Browne before she can tell the patient’s wife the devastating news. He asks her whether she checked the patient’s respiration after intubating her. She stumbles trying to remember, explaining her focus was on aspirating the hematoma. Glassman then informs her that she inserted the breathing tube too deep into the patient’s damaged lung causing a lack of oxygen to the brain while she was en route to the hospital. The hematoma did not cause the woman’s brain death; it was Dr. Browne’s mistake that did.

Glassman quietly and compassionately tells Browne what she did and how it affected the patient. But instead of going on to berate her for making an honest mistake, he recounts a story from his own residency in an ER many years before. A patient presented with a bad cough, so he prescribed her antibiotics and sent her on her way. Paramedics brought her back to the emergency room hours later in full cardiac arrest. She was having a heart attack the whole time and he had missed it. She unfortunately died because of his mistake.

This was a perfect example of a leader helping one of his employees learn from a serious mistake while reminding her that we are all human. He didn’t harshly criticize her or go so far as to threaten her employment. This was a teachable experience for her, albeit one with much higher stakes than most any other profession. She understood what she did and the dire consequence it had for her patient. Still, her boss’ intent was to teach her in that moment so she can be a better physician for future patients, not to break her spirit with stern admonition.

The best leaders are not those who bark orders, dole out punishments, and crack the whip when followers step out of line. Holding a leadership position is an honor and a privilege because it gives one tremendous responsibility for developing employees into their best selves. Effective leadership means growing and guiding those in your charge. Leaders lift up their people, especially when they mess up. They even admit their own errors to show that anyone can learn from mistakes and grow to be successful in their careers. Nobody is perfect — not doctors, and certainly not leaders. But both do help the people in their care to overcome imperfections and go on to lead better lives because of their support. I’m excited to see what other leadership lessons Dr. Glassman can teach his residents (and us, the viewers) in upcoming episodes.

The Other, Other ‘B Word’

As an advocate for gender parity and diversity, I strive to broadcast a message about the immense economic potential of advancing women in the modern workplace. Often, my content is couched as a rallying cry for more men to become allies on the journey toward gender equality. Aside from the obvious egalitarian reasons for having more women in leadership, it also makes sense from a purely business standpoint. If organizations had gender-balanced leadership teams and equally valued the contributions of both sexes, they would be better suited to adapt and thrive in a complex, volatile global economy. The advantages of diversity in business have been studied for years and are well-documented: There would be higher employee engagement, less turnover, and greater profitability.

Considering the clear benefits of diverse leadership, why are there still so few women in C-level roles today? Facebook COO, Sheryl Sandberg, founded the Lean In non-profit organization to address this issue, and one of their campaigns is to ban the ‘B word’. No, not the one that rhymes with pitch. The other ‘B word’, bossy, is a term applied to young girls and women who are decisive, confident, and direct in the way they relate to others. It’s a pejorative used to discourage females from acting contrary to societal norms; i.e. that they should be agreeable and docile. Of course the male-driven business model encourages cutthroat competition and a commanding leadership presence, creating a Catch 22 for women who hope to be successful. If they try to fit in as one of the boys, they are perceived as aggressive and difficult. But if they are simply authentic, their kindness and cooperative nature work against them. The Ban Bossy project aims to empower women of all ages so they embrace their innate leadership qualities and are recognized as leaders in their own right. While this is an important effort in the push for gender parity, I worry that the message can be misinterpreted by some women who take it as free license to be the other, other ‘B word’: bully.

I stumbled across a YouTube video secretly recorded by a Georgia middle school janitor as he was being reprimanded by the principal for leaving work 8 minutes early. (You can watch for yourself here.) Throughout the meeting, the principal was rude, condescending, dismissive, belittling, and downright cruel. She repeatedly asked the janitor what his hours were, interrupted him as he attempted to explain the situation, and spoke to him in a manner unfit for conversation between grown adults. It was obvious from her smug demeanor that she was accustomed to using fear and menace to bend employees and students to her will. I’ve worked for and with women like this throughout my career. They either adopt this ‘dragon lady’ persona as a means of survival in a company or industry dominated by men, or it’s just their personality. This management style is unacceptable regardless of a person’s gender, but, as I mentioned before, there’s a double standard for women. They’re damned if they do act like men, and damned if they don’t.

How, then, can we ensure equal representation of women in leadership while discouraging bully behavior? Well, there are plenty of excellent books on the former, so I’ll tackle the latter because I believe bullying is an employee engagement issue, not merely a gender issue.

In my employee engagement practice, I teach managers to embrace a mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. Without these virtues, you are a just boss, not a leader. And you certainly won’t earn the respect or engagement of your employees if you forgo true leadership in favor of being a bully.

Empathy is our ability to relate to and feel for others. It’s what makes us human. When we empathize with people and “put ourselves in their shoes”, it causes us to think more carefully about how we behave and speak toward the the individuals in our lives. When meeting with an employee to have a potentially difficult conversation, empathy can make the difference between a mutually acceptable outcome and a result that leaves one party — invariably the lower-ranking person — feeling unheard, disrespected, mistreated, or cheated. Had the principal in the video practiced empathy by asking herself how she would want to be treated if she were the janitor, things would have gone much differently (and saved the school quite a bit of embarrassment).

While empathy means having an open heart, curiosity is keeping an open mind. Being a curious leader requires a willingness, even a desire, to hear positions other than your own. Doing so gives you an opportunity to build stronger relationships with employees. By asking them for their views, their feedback, their stories, and then listening without judgement or interruption, you are positioning yourself as a leader who wants to collaborate on solutions, instead of just bark orders. When leaders curiously listen, they are sending a message that they wish to co-create a positive and engaging employee experience. Woodrow Wilson once said, “The ear of the leader must ring with the voices of the people.” The principal made it clear during her meeting with the janitor that the only voice she cared to hear was her own.

Curiosity also means questioning your motives and behaviors. This takes a high degree of emotional intelligence that comes from being humble. Humility allows us to challenge the ego and make decisions that are more effective in the long run, as opposed to satisfying our own immediate need to feel important. Many people, when given power over others, tend to let it go to their heads at the expense of the relationships with those in their charge. They haughtily believe their management title grants infallibility and deity; that it somehow elevates them to a higher stratum than the peons being managed. But we are all flesh and blood. None of us is any better than the rest. What makes a leader is not her status, nor her ability to control and punish. The measure of a great leader is seen through the eyes of people whose lives are better for having followed her.

In order for us to have an impactful conversation about developing more women into leaders, we need to agree that bullying is the antithesis of effective leadership. We need to hold everyone in management positions, gender notwithstanding, to the highest standards of conduct and preserve the integrity of what it really means to be a leader. It will take a dramatic shift in the business world, one that champions the merits of empathy, curiosity, and humility. To start, those with the power to make this change will have to be another ‘B word’: brave. Courageous leaders — both men and women — must shape the modern workplace into an environment where bullies aren’t welcome, one where success doesn’t come without kindness.

You Can Lead a Horse to Water… But Can You Make an Employee Engaged?

There’s an old proverb used by many to describe the leader/follower dynamic with respect to employee engagement: “You can lead a horse to water, but you can’t make him drink.” This is a way of saying ultimately people will only do what they choose, even if you show them the way. In other words, just as a horse has to choose to drink, an employee must choose to be engaged.

Well, yes and no. Getting the horse to drink is the desired outcome, but what happens up to and during that point will influence his willingness to do so.

  • If you’ve been running the horse ragged without any time to recuperate, he won’t have the energy to make it to water.
  • If you’ve been shouting at the horse and beating him with a stick, he won’t trust you no mater where you’re trying to lead him.
  • If the terrain is rocky and you force him to walk in busted, rusty horseshoes, he isn’t going to be all that thrilled about going the distance.
  • If you feed the horse 1 pound of oats a day when he really should be getting 3 pounds, he’s going to focus on finding food elsewhere instead of following you.
  • If the water is polluted or tastes funky, the horse isn’t going to drink.

Here’s what I’m getting at: If the employee experience at your organization sucks, employee engagement isn’t likely to happen. Too many leaders fall into the trap of thinking a lack of engagement is the employee’s fault; that they’re choosing not to be engaged. Take a good look at what it’s like to work for you before making that judgement. And start with the basics — a reasonable workload, an empathetic leadership style, effective tools to get the job done, fair pay, and a healthy work culture. Then make adjustments if anything is wrong. As a leader, it’s your job to create an employee experience that makes them want to go above and beyond.

Horses need to be enticed, not forced, to drink water. What kind of employee experience are you creating, and is it enough to entice engagement? Remember, employees don’t engage themselves. Leaders engage employees.

Why You Shouldn’t Discount Glassdoor Reviews

I’ve seen a number of recent posts on LinkedIn questioning the value and veracity of Glassdoor company reviews. Specifically, the posters dismiss negative reviews as emotional rants from current or former employees who simply have axes to grind. At best, this is dangerously naive. At worst, it’s terribly arrogant.

No company is perfect. And many have serious cultural or operational problems that employees are too afraid to discuss with management, so they resort to anonymous forums like Glassdoor to vent their frustrations.

I’ve worked with such organizations where any employees who raised concerns were labeled as “complainers” and either ended up quitting or were forced out the door.

Organizations that treat their talent in such a way deserve negative Glassdoor reviews in which employees use inflammatory language like “psychological torture” and “evil management” to describe their experiences.

Unless you currently work – or until recently had been working – in that reviewer’s same position, for their same manager, you really have no basis to presume that their words don’t ring true. I challenge anyone – whether you’re in HR, middle management, or executive leadership – who questions another’s negative work experience to go sit at that employee’s desk for a few months, working for the same boss under the same conditions, and then reconsider whether or not their Glassdoor review counts.

There’s a difference between a review written by someone who simply says “this place sucks”, but leaves no other details about their function or experience, and a reviewer who cites specific examples of why working for their employer was so awful. The latter review is more credible, even if its content paints a less-than-flattering picture of the organization.

Just because you don’t like what someone has to say about your company, doesn’t mean it’s not the truth.

Perhaps the reason these issues had not previously come to light in employee surveys or discussions with management or Human Resources is because there are cultural barriers preventing such candid discussions from taking place.

Most workplaces today operate within the cultural bounds that dictate employees should not tell management what isn’t working, unless they feel like jeopardizing their careers. I have worked in environments like this. Although I’m not inclined to write a review (positive or negative) for these employers, I have read through some reviews in which employees shared very specific criticisms that I knew were, indeed, factual, not just disgruntled fabrications.

Instead of discounting a negative Glassdoor review, use it as a wake up call that there really might be something wrong in your organization. The fact that an employee didn’t trust management or Human Resources enough to have an open and honest conversation should set off an alarm indicating your culture is unhealthy.

Job seekers today do use Glassdoor to determine if your organization is a good fit for them, whether you like it or not. Ignoring negative reviews won’t change that.

Attracting and retaining top talent requires more than just pretending everything is A-okay and firing anybody who refuses to drink the Kool-Aid. The practice of reinforcing a broken culture eventually backfires. Just look at what happened to Uber.

By the time you read about it on Glassdoor, the damage is already done. But don’t make it worse by ignoring the bad news or trying to sweep it under the carpet. And certainly don’t try to retaliate by pursuing some form of legal action, because that will just make you look like a bully who can’t take feedback – basically reinforcing what your current and former employees already know to be true about the way you treat talent.

Your people can give you critical insights into facets of your organization that are preventing it from being a great place to work and conduct business, such as ineffective technology, disengaging management practices, or strategic missteps that impact customer service.

Today’s ultra-competitive business environment makes it hard enough for organizations to hire and keep the best people. Don’t make things more difficult by refusing to accept some hard truths about what it’s really like to work for you.

Take feedback from your employees as a gift, and invite them to give it as often and honestly as they need to; then act on it! That way they won’t feel like they have to anonymously post it online for customers, candidates, and the whole world to see.

8 Leadership Communication Habits That Disengage Employees

One of the crucial elements of an engaging work experience is quality, effective communication between leaders and their employees. Communicating to engage requires managers to be aware of not only what they say, but how they say it, how often they say it, and the impact of their message in terms of employee engagement.

Unfortunately, whether through training or because of their personalities, many in managerial roles have developed disengaging communication habits that they might not be aware are undermining employees’ trust and commitment.

Below are eight of the most common habits, the underlying message each communicates, and better approaches leaders can take that improve engagement by focusing on how employees will perceive a particular message and move forward after receiving it.

1. Multitasking during conversations

You might be really busy. You might have a handful of burning tasks that each require your immediate attention and working on them while having a chat with an employee might seem like a good way to make a dent in your endless to-do list. I get it. Nobody will fault you for wanting to streamline your work day. But doing so at the expense of giving an employee your full attention can have unintended negative effects on his or her engagement. Also, it’s just plain rude. For example, if an employee comes over to your desk and you’re typing away on your computer, even if you say “I’m listening”, the fact that you aren’t facing her says that you’re not fully engaged in the conversation. Why should an employee be engaged in her work if her boss only pays partial attention when she needs to talk?

The message it conveys: “You’re not important enough for me to give you my undivided attention.”

What to do instead: Drop whatever it is you’re doing, face your employee, and have a conversation without interruptions or distractions. It’s that simple and it will show that you are engaged.

2. Listening to respond

Active listening is fundamental to effective communication, and for good reason. Listening with the intent to understand, instead of listening to respond, helps to build a positive, trusting relationship between communicators. This kind of relationship must be in place if leaders expect to engage their employees as partners in action. But some managers do not listen to understand; they look for loopholes or weak spots or inaccuracies in what an employee says so they can exploit those weaknesses and “win” the conversation. Or they are so anxiously chomping at the bit to insert a rebuttal that they miss much of what their employees are trying to say.

The message it conveys: “I don’t care about what you’re saying. I care about showing you that I’m right/smart/in charge.”

What to do instead: Take off the boss ear muffs so you can actually hear what your employee is trying to say, wait for her to finish talking, and then acknowledge what she said by asking for clarification and paraphrasing back what you understand to be her message.

3. The ‘deflect and pivot’ maneuver

Often done when listening to respond, managers use this Jedi mind trick to shut down an employee’s argument when they know she is making a valid point, but they just don’t want to admit defeat because the boss is always supposed to be right. Rather than conceding the employee’s position, the manager ignores what she says and pivots to another topic that provides a tactical advantage. For example…

Employee: “We don’t have the resources needed to meet all of the demands of this project. We just can’t keep up with all of the customer issues being raised with the number of people we have trying to respond to them.”

Manager: “I’ve noticed you have developed an attitude problem. I think it’s time to put you on a Performance Improvement Plan.”


The message it conveys: “I can’t handle the idea that you’re right and I’m wrong, so I’m just going to ignore your point and talk about something else that will reinforce my authority over you. Ha! Boss: 1. Employee: 0.”

What to do instead: Acknowledge what your employee says. Even if it stings a little to be wrong when you’re a leader, at least start by indicating you’ve heard her point. Then try something different. Instead of responding to protect your position, practice a little curiosity and humility. Ask for more information. And if you’re wrong, admit it. Leaders don’t always have to be in the right, but they do have to be humble and support their employees if they want them to be engaged.

4. Condescension

When you talk to your employees like they are two-year-olds, it drives a wedge between you that makes it nearly impossible to have constructive, engaging conversations. The exasperated tone, the downward vocal inflection, or using their name when you’re looking right at them – these mannerisms sound like a parent chiding her toddler for drawing on the wall with crayon again. You hired adults. Talk to them like adults. Don’t treat them like children even if they haven’t met your expectations.

The message it conveys: “I’m better than you are simply by virtue of my title, so I’m just gonna go ahead and talk to you like you’re beneath me. Mmkay?”

What to do instead: Treat employees as business partners whose expertise and contributions are just as valuable to the organization as yours. Use the same tone and demeanor as you would if you were speaking to the CEO.

5. Intimidation

I’ve talked before about how ineffective and damaging intimidation is in the long run. Yelling, threatening, glaring: whatever weapon you choose to put to an employee’s head will certainly make her do (or not do) what you expect, but only to avoid immediate danger. I promise you that doing so will have cancerous effects that far outweigh any temporary benefits or results. Intimidation buys you begrudging compliance today at the cost of engagement thereafter.

The message it conveys: “I’m the boss! I speak loud and carry a big stick to protect my fragile ego. Cross me and I will destroy you.”

What to do instead: Practice empathy. Do you enjoy it when someone tries to intimidate you? Do you feel inspired to partner with them toward achieving a common goal? Didn’t think so. Always lead with kindness.

6. Under communicating

Keeping employees in the dark about important matters, whether intentionally or because you’re too busy, can degrade trust and engagement. If your team lacks guidance and information about the organization, their roles, or their performance, then they can’t contribute their best toward executing priorities. I was guilty of this during my time managing a team. Luckily I worked with some truly awesome and self-directed individuals, but I still should have been more visible and communicative. Even if you’re totally swamped and there just seems to be no time to meet with your employees, you have to make time. If they feel informed and included in the goings on of the team and the organization as a whole they are more likely to be be engaged.

The message it conveys: *…Crickets*

What to do instead: Talk with your employees individually and as a group about what engaging communication looks like for them. Do they benefit from long team meetings, brief Scrum-style check-ins, regular one-on-ones? Whatever approach works best for you and your team, stick to it and make communicating a priority.

7. Over communicating

At the other end of the communication spectrum is the tendency for many managers to inundate their employees with messages throughout the day. They e-mail, call, e-mail some more, instant message (or “ping”….ugh), pop up from their desk like a whack-a-mole a few dozen times, and then lob seven or eight more e-mails each with different questions to answer and conflicting demands that are all top priority. Here’s the thing you might not realize: every time you interrupt an employee with another message, it takes her away from whatever task she was working on (probably another burning issue you threw her way) to deal with it. This can be frustrating, exhausting, confusing, and, of course, disengaging.

The message it conveys: “I don’t respect your time or boundaries. You should always just drop everything and respond to my e-mails. Why haven’t you responded to my e-mail yet? I’m going to send you another e-mail asking you to respond to my e-mail.”

What to do instead: Practice reflection and restraint. Do you really need to reach out and ask your employee that question, or is it a bit of research you can do on your own? And please, for the love of all that’s good, stop flagging everything as high importance. Seeing multiple emails from you with that red exclamation point is enough to make your employees scream.

8. Overwhelming energy

Nonverbal cues like body language and facial expression, as well as verbal cues such as tone of voice communicate more about a speaker’s message than what is actually being said. There is another element that encompasses both types of communication and it can have a huge impact on how your employees perceive you when you interact with them: your energy. If you come charging up to them and rapid-fire questions with a tone and demeanor that feels like you’re at DEFCON 1, you’ll immediately overwhelm them even if you’re simply checking in. Using language that implies a sense of panic, like “Oh my God!”, will incite feelings of panic among employees.

The message it conveys: “Ahhhhhh! We’re all gonna die!”

What to do instead: Relax. Move slowly with calm, reassuring body language while respecting employees’ personal space. Speak slowly with a positive tone and cadence. Unless it’s a true emergency (a real emergency, like the building is on fire; not a business “emergency”, like the VP is demanding a status update from your team) take your level of excitement down a few notches and be the beacon of unperturbed, positive energy that your employees need.


What do you think? What are some other communication habits that leaders should break in order to better engage their employees?

About the author: Jonathan D. Villaire is a bridge-builder, truth-teller, and advocate for empathy who helps leaders understand how to effectively engage their employees and, more importantly, how to stop disengaging them. He founded Cognize Consulting with the aim of giving supervisors, managers, and executives a new perspective on employee engagement: See employees as human beings, not as human capital. Understand how to create an employee experience that increases retention and attracts top talent. Engage employees with a leadership mindset of empathy, curiosity, and humility. He is a speaker, coach, blogger, and author of the upcoming book The Stepford Employee Fallacy: The Truth about Employee Engagement in the Modern Workplace.