One of the big issues that has percolated to the top of most leader's wish lists is how to keep good people. They worry about what they need to do to encourage their high performers to stay and at the same time, improve the performance of low performers.
It seems like a lot to work on. Yet, the reality is that there is only one thing you need to focus on to improve performance and that is to help employees love their job.
As Mikhail Csikszentmihalyi said in his ground-breaking book, Flow, about fifty years ago, the reality is that when workers really enjoy their work they not only benefit personally, but they’re also more efficient. That's because they go into flow.
In positive psychology, a flow state, also known colloquially as being in the zone, is the mental state in which a person performing some activity is fully immersed in a feeling of energised focus, full involvement, and enjoyment in the process of the activity.
As Marcus Buckingham contends in his latest book, Love + Work, we must redesign jobs around a simple powerful concept: love for the content of the work itself. We assume people won’t love a job, but that’s not taking on board peoples specific likes and preferences. As leaders, we need to stop designing or even thinking that people won't love their job. This requires ensuring that we lead our teams to make it easier for them to be in flow.
Eight things that help employees love their work
1. Help employees with prioritisation
According to Microsoft’s Work Trend Index Pulse Report, 81% of employees say it’s important that their managers help them prioritise their workload, though only one-third receive this guidance.
Many employees feel like they are working harder than ever, but most leaders aren’t so sure. Microsoft calls this phenomenon 'productivity paranoia'. The reality is that employees are working hard, but sometimes they aren't focused on the right initiatives. The result is leaders don't value their effort and get disappointed by their output, while employees feel exhausted and under-appreciated.
According to an Energy Project Study, only one-third of respondents said they were able to effectively prioritise their tasks. Those who did were 1.6 times better able to focus on one thing at a time.
As a leader, it’s your responsibility to provide guidance and clarity to your team. It's really about getting clear on what's essential or what's urgent. A great tool to help is The Eisenhower decision matrix that provides a simple way to prioritise tasks.
2. Provide autonomy
Helping your employees with prioritisation segues nicely with also providing them with autonomy.
People thrive in their jobs when they have autonomy and the power to control their work environment. It also sends the message that leaders trust employees to do the right thing, which is one of the most important building blocks of trust. According to research, if we lack autonomy, we feel devalued and suffer more depressive moods.
Leaders can make tasks more enjoyable by giving people control in how they do it, where they do it, when they do it and choose the pace.
For example, give people the ability to focus on one task at a time. According to the previously mentioned Energy Project Study, only 20 percent of respondents said they were able to focus on one task at a time at work, but those who could were 50 percent more engaged.
Setting a team up for success requires establishing clear goals that empower everyone to know how their individual work ladders up to the bigger picture. Autonomy helps employees feel like there is room for creativity within their role, driving satisfaction across the team.
3. Trust your people
According to a 2022 Deloitte Digital Study, employees that trust their boss are 260% more motivated to work, have 41% lower rates of absenteeism and 50% less likely to look for another job.
What the pandemic has highlighted is the importance of employees feeling trusted by their boss. We all want to feel that we are trusted to be working when we can't be seen.
Usually leaders will tell me that they want to build trust so that their team will do work right, other teams will collaborate better with their team, and executives will trust what they are doing.
While this is all important, what few realise is that trust is reciprocal. It requires honest self-awareness to assess whether you are perceived as a trusted leader.
Are you turning up to work on time? Are you owning and fixing up mistakes to the best of your ability? Do you truly understand what the other person wants so you can deliver to their expectations? When we don’t take the time to understand each other’s expectations, the relationship becomes unbalanced resulting in each side questioning the other’s intent.
As a leader you model the right behaviours for your employees to follow. Often, when they are not doing what we like (eg: getting work done well), it is often a reflection on areas we need to improve. Leaders who are open, humble and willing to practise self-awareness are more likely to be trusted.
4. Feeling safe to learn
One of the benefits of psychological safety, is that it creates an environment where people are willing to learn. We are more likely to adapt to change in a culture where learning from mistakes is rewarded and indeed, celebrated.
As a leader, you want to take your direct reports on a journey where you are all learning together. Learning is safe and protective. You want to learn forward. Not only does that increase safety, but it also improves people’s confidence and competencies. It's how you transition your team into high performance.
Learning forward as a team enables employees to expand their abilities. It creates a wonderful virtuous cycle where employees learn, try something new and receive positive results. Boosting motivation and confidence to continue.
It reverses the negative impact of a vicious cycle where people feel uncertain and fearful, fail to get results and their confidence drops; so they refuse to learn or try anything new.
Career development is of huge benefit for employers. It not only makes your current workforce more proficient at their jobs, but it is also a powerful employee recruitment and retention tactic.
5. Feeling connected to others
We are biologically wired to want to be with other people. Having a sense of connection to those around us improves our well-being.
Neuroscience experiments show that when people intentionally build social ties at work, their performance improves. Those that have high trust levels at work have more meaningful relationships and feel both secure in and loyal to their group. They also know they have support when they need it.
Furthermore, we trust people who are similar to ourselves. You can unite people together, no matter how different they are, by aligning them to the company purpose or a really compelling goal.
Other ways to bring people together are by introducing employees to other colleagues in other departments, talking about what makes your company great and how the group achieves more than what an individual can achieve on their own.
Furthermore, appreciating employees publicly is a great way to reinforce the right behaviours and for people to feel seen, heard and valued.
Give teams time to socialise and talk about things that are non-task related. Sponsor lunches, activities and after-work parties.
6. Focus on meaningful work
When people have clear direction, understand the meaning of their role and how it contributes to the success of the organisation, they feel as though their contribution matters. Their work inspires them to get out of bed each morning excited to go to work.
Essentially, people love their job, if it matters if they show up to work because their work makes a difference. When employees understand their overall role in the business 91% will work towards that success, but the number plummets to 23% if they don’t (Bill Quirke, Melcrum).
Work with each of your employees to challenge them to higher levels of performance through helping them set stretch goals combined with regular feedback on progress.
Ensure that you align an individual’s self-interest to the greater impact of the organisation. Take the time to align people's personal goals to their work goals. Find out what your people are passionate about and work towards helping them find meaningful tasks in the company that matches their passions.
To improve this, clearly communicate accountability structures, set clear expectations and align employees with a mutual purpose. Once people are clear on what is expected of them, make sure that you let them know how their performance is positively impacting those around them.
Where possible, encourage employees to meet with others in the company or customers who actually benefit from their work. When employees discover how their work positively impacts others it becomes highly motivating. This also strengthens people’s sense of belongingness and connection. According to a study from Adam Grant at Wharton School, it even improves productivity by 6%.
7. Focus on a meaningful future
When people don’t know what’s going to happen next and the situation feels unsafe, they will push back from committing to goals. The way to avoid this is to involve people in a meaningful future through clearly articulating the company vision and people’s career pathway.
This pulls people into engagement and out of the low performance zone in the brain.
As a leader, it’s vital that you reduce uncertainty by letting people know where the company is headed and why. When employees feel that communication is ambiguous or they don’t understand what is expected of them, they fall into fear and low trust.
As a leader, you want to regularly paint a picture of the exciting future that everyone is working towards. You want to create a perception of certainty and that you have a plan to get there. You want people to feel that their effort will be worth it.
8. Improve fairness
A common complaint that I hear from employees during my research in companies is that leaders or company practices aren't fair.
Make sure you treat everyone equitably and avoid favouritism. Never take any action that could be construed as helping out your friends, higher-ups or those who are like you.
Ensure that the path to promotions or further training is transparent and achievable to all. Also, make sure that resources are equally available to get work done well. Otherwise, you risk creating resentment and even anger, that reduces people's ability to enjoy their job.
Love Your Work
It’s a myth that successful leaders provide the strategic vision, give directions, and take charge. Instead, to lead and manage teams effectiveness requires creating the right conditions for people to perform.
This involves creating an environment where people can love their work. A place where they have autonomy, the ability to focus deeply, feel safe to learn and fail and supported by their leader to work on their passions. An environment where people feel connected, appreciated. treated fairly and that their effort will be rewarded by a powerful future.