By Mike Cook
For The Bellingham Business Journal
If you are thinking in terms of investments, your employees are likely one of or maybe the largest investment you make in your business every year, year in and year out. Thinking of employees as investments opens up an entirely new arena of thinking. It’s like going to a restaurant you have frequented for some time and suddenly realizing that there is a page in the menu that you have never seen or visited. New choices mean new thinking becomes possible.
So, let’s think about employees as an investment. If we note that an investment is not growing, we might be OK with that depending on the purpose for which we purchased it.
If employees simply show up to work and do their jobs, in many cases we are happy.
However, what about if they show up but were not looking forward to it — they are there in body but not entirely in spirit.
Now you could immediately have a couple of thoughts.
“Well if they don’t like it here they can go someplace else.”
Honestly, if you are thinking like that then you are unaware of how tight the labor market is right now. You do not want to be inviting less than enthusiastic employees to go to work elsewhere right now. Another thought you may be having is, “OK then, I’ll ask them if they are looking forward to coming to work.”
I’ll admit this is a better approach than inviting them to leave, however, with this type of approach you run smack dab into the emotional intelligence of your workforce. My caution to all my MBA students is to know that the greatest challenge that they will face as managers, if they get there, will be the emotional intelligence of the people who report to them. Many, many employees have strong survival skills, they know a trick question when they see one, even if it isn’t a trick question. Unless your workforce is highly attuned to its own inner life, the likelihood of a conversation with employees about whether they are looking forward to coming to work is likely to yield inconsistent or unreliable results.
So what other options do you have as an employer or manager?
Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford University professor, has some useful insights to share on this topic. I use Pfeffer in my MBS classes when we talk about developing power and influence in the workplace.
He has a new book out titled “Dying for a Paycheck: How Modern Management Harms Employee Health and Company Performance—and What We Can Do About It”. Though the title may sound negative, Pfeffer does a lot more than offer his opinion. His work Is research-based and points to several factors that a manager or employer can address without the need to conduct employee surveys or put employees either on notice or on the spot.
In a recently published McKinsey article that reflects his book titled “The Overlooked Essentials of Employee Well-Being”, Pfeffer addresses two factors that are well within the current prerogative of managers and employers, job control and social support.
Job control seems pretty straight forward until you look at the way employees’ control of their jobs is constrained/limited by the personal practices of managers. Often times priorities are set and then changed arbitrarily, underdeveloped managers or supervisors micromanage or limit the amount of discretionary action employees are allowed. Expectations are frequently communicated in terms that are too general, requiring employees to constantly consult managers to make sure they are on track, discouraging initiative.
How to combat this? One way is to limit the amount of supervision by simply reducing the number of supervisors or managers. After all, much of management’s role can be accounted for as overhead, and overhead is a non-performing asset. When employees are given more autonomy they often times experience that they are more highly regarded, that their work means more, and they will evolve their performance naturally with more opportunity to initiate new approaches, leading to higher productivity and improved customer satisfaction.
Social support? Pfeffer’s research shows that “Almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful context—from holidays to community service to events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes such as product launches—helps build a sense of common identity and strengthens social bonds.”
I don’t have space here today to say more about both social support and job control. I’d encourage you to do yourself a favor read Pfeffer’s article, maybe buy the book but certainly stop looking at your employees as expenses.