Why Humanizing the Employee Experience Matters

At Gagen MacDonald, we’ve long believed that love in business is good business. And that’s why it was wonderful to read about Dr. Rita Linjuan Men’s latest research study, 
It’s about How Employees Feel! The Impact of Emotional Culture on Employee-Organization Relationships. Her survey provides empirical evidence on whether emotional culture truly matters for an organization’s success.

Dr. Men found that organizations with emotional cultures of love and joy positively influenced employee-organization relationships, and cultures of fear and sadness cast negative effects.

Well, of course, you might say. What you focus on manifests itself. Agreed… but: look around your organization and check the reality. What drives culture—in either a positive or negative way? And who has the ability to impact culture significantly and create a culture of engagement? With our clients, we’ve found that creating a culture of engagement requires pulling multiple levers and navigating many organizational stakeholders, starting with leadership as the ultimate owners of culture.

Dr. Men’s survey found that a positive emotional culture matters not merely because it makes work more pleasant, but because it promotes employee trust and humanizes the employee experience—which makes employee engagement that much more possible. “When employees’ need for mutual respect, care, connections, and reliance on one another is satisfied in the organization,” writes Dr. Men, “they tend to trust the organization more, be more satisfied with, and committed to the organization, and feel the balance of power in the relationship with the organization.”

Engaging leaders who engage others isn’t just a “nice-to-have.” Data demonstrates leaders are the key ingredient to creating a culture of engagement that sustains business results in a complex global environment. As the graph from Aon Hewitt below illustrates, companies that invest significantly in leader engagement have significantly higher operating income than those that do not.

So, how as a leader—or a communications professional who supports leaders—do you do it? For those of you uncomfortable with that touch-feely definition of “love in business,” there are simple and rational things you can consider to help humanize the employee experience. And it starts with the word “experience.” Too often, we think about changing someone’s behavior in order to achieve a different result. (How many of us have tried to change a teenager’s behavior? Or a pet’s? A parent’s? A sibling’s?) The truth is: you can’t change someone’s behavior because you can’t control it.

What you can influence is someone’s experience based on your actions (which you do control), and that in turn shifts their thinking, which in turn creates a belief—and that belief prompts a different behavior, and you will realize a different result.

Here’s an example of how that might work, based on what we’ve observed with clients: How many times does a company ask for innovation, and employees respond—but their ideas are ignored? Or, worse yet, an employee gets “shot down” for bucking the system or offering a “bad” or “unpopular” idea? The collective organizational and cultural experience is that it’s bad to stick your neck out and offer a new idea, and others see that. Therefore, the collective belief is that speaking up with new ideas is bad and the behavior is that no one speaks up. As a result, the company gets no ideas from employees closest to the customer that can lead to innovation.

How do you change that cycle? The answer is to create new experiences. With our clients, we’ve found four important levers a company can consider to influence culture. Some of these are more obvious; others are ones we all need to pay closer attention to, because you may be communicating unintended messages without even realizing it.

  • Behaviors. How do leaders, peers, our teams, and our partners behave? What do they do—or not do? What messages do those behaviors send? We once worked on-site with a brewery where the plant manager commanded a workforce of 500+ people and wanted the culture to become less hierarchical and more inclusive. The plant was built on a small plot of land, so parking was at a premium. It might take an employee 15 minutes to walk from the edge of the parking lot to clock in, but she had to walk by the plant manager’s SUV parked in the first spot (with a big RESERVED sign on it) closest to the entrance. What message did that send?
  • Energy. What’s the energy level we feel? What’s the atmosphere? The tone? How many of us have worked at a company where we say there is a “burning platform” for change, but it takes weeks to schedule a meeting to realize a critical decision, or to provide a tool necessary to complete one’s job?
  • Symbols. What environmental signals does the organization observe? Does your company’s purpose, vision, mission, and values match the rhetoric? What’s measured? How is the workplace designed? How are decisions made? What does the organization invest in? Consider another company that wanted to communicate the need to diversify its workforce to be more inclusive of women, yet for every three men’s restrooms, they had one women’s restroom.
  • Technology and systems. This isn’t limited to technology in the literal sense, but also encompasses systems and structure. How do we organize? Do our systems and structure support our strategy? What does the employee handbook say and how are our policies and procedures applied?

I don’t have all of the answers and would love to hear more from you. What other levers should we pull to change culture? What do you find the best leaders are doing to drive a culture of engagement at your company? Where are companies failing? When we say we need to humanize the employee experience, what does it mean to be “human”? I look forward to continuing the conversation!

Sherry Scott is president of Gagen MacDonald, a strategy execution firm specializing in employee engagement, culture change, and leadership. She is a recognized industry leader with deep expertise in supporting clients undergoing business transformation to address the human struggle of change and drive reputation from the inside out.

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  1. Maybe creating high levels of employee engagement is not about the superiority of one approach over the other. Rather, the bottom-up approach advocated by Sherry Scott and the top-down approach advocated by Jim Smith complement each other. They address different but equally important drivers of employee engagement. The former is about taking away everything that makes employees miserable, like corporate bullies, overly bureaucratic procedures etc., the latter focuses on fostering a culture of trust, respect and collaboration from the bottom up.
    About the chicken-egg dilemma, while a company’s success is certainly likely to positively influence engagement, there are many examples of well-performing companies with horrible cultures. I suspect that their success is unsustainable. Unless people simply don’t matter for the business model.

  2. The issues I’m about to share are actual experiences occurring over 20 years with several companies and CEO’s. In all the research I have done over the past several years, I have come to believe I’m living in an alternate universe. I spend at least an hour a day searching for EE articles that give examples of the benefits that EE has delivered, in other words, where an EE initiative has actually transformed the level of EE to the point a significant business metric, like the income statement has been positively impacted. The research you have mentioned here addresses corollary results. Restated, they are saying that companies with great leaders, great products, great ,marketing & sales are successful and thus their employees are more engaged. The engagement is a result of the components of success, EE is a result, not the cause of the success. Contrast that thinking with selling an EE initiative to the CEO, not to HR, and telling the officers that no budget is required, the initiative will last only ten weeks and the fees will be determined by the employee caused positive change in the income statement. With this approach, employee engagement , or experience if you prefer, is the cause of the success being measured by what they were actually capable of doing with management out of their way. In fact with this approach, HR has no part to play except dealing with their own employee driven transformation. Our survey is only a single 9 work question posed to the employees by the CEO. We, as a third party receive all the responses and go to work managing management, making almost daily announcements of what has been changed. No waiting for the survey to complete, then for the committee to recommend only those they believe they can sell to management. There should be no wonder why employees don’t get excited, excited about what?
    What one client’s employees were able to do when the politics, culture and silos were removed: a $300 million SG&A reduction, a $200 million capital reduction, a $45 million inventory reduction, corporate bully (an officer) was sent home, many sacred cows were killed, over a hundred policies were killed or altered and previously announced layoffs were reduced by 1800. THIS TOOK ONLY TEN WEEKS. The problem everyone is having in this space is believing that HR can make the changes which need to be made. HR is never positioned to too make the tough calls. Nearly every battle we have is with an officer trying to block change. The next stop, the CEO’s staff meeting for a debate with all the officers present. Not a single blocker has ever won in that situation. So, no budget needed, done in ten weeks and nearly every one wins. The most consistent employee comments we receive are that they cannot believe we were able to get this or that changed. It isn’t about changing the employees it’s about changing what makes them disengaged. Read into that “management”. You asked for feed back!😇

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