Don’t make your employees feel good. Make them feel successful.

I was recently in talks with a prospective client about how my company might help them with employee engagement. They’re in the health care industry, and the company operates a number of provider locations, each of which essentially provides the same service. I was brought in because front-line turnover is a massive problem for them, and several of their local directors had recently requested help. In our initial meeting, we spent three hours really digging into what might be at the cause of it, looking at everything from recruitment, to onboarding, training, and ongoing management. At the end of the meeting, I thought I had a pretty clear picture of where the opportunities were and what could be done.

The biggest opportunity, as I saw it, was measurement and feedback. As people, we like to see that what we do makes a difference. Whether it’s the difference of personal gain, removing something negative, or contributing to a greater cause, we find it easier to act and keep acting when we can see, feel, and hear the difference that our actions make towards those ends. Their front lines were working with a challenging population who often didn’t show much progress (that the front-lines could see). That makes it hard to see the immediate difference that actions make. Beyond that, they didn’t have a lot of formal structure for letting people know how their actions contributed to the organization and its mission. In other words, mechanisms for showing the long-term impacts were missing as well.

In the world of behavior analysis, we call that behavioral extinction. This is when a behavior doesn’t produce a change in the environment and, as a result, we see it decrease over time. In this case, the behavior that was likely being extinguished was coming to work. Facing work that is, by nature, difficult and demanding, and not seeing that their performance made a difference (immediately or long term) their employees chose to allocate responding elsewhere.

I was excited to do that work. If you can build the structures to let people know how they’re doing (performance metrics) and then help people to use those measures effectively (behavioral management training), research has shown you can meaningfully impact productivity, satisfaction, and turnover (in a good way!).

And that’s where things went a little sideways. In between meeting with them and coming to an agreement on the solutions we would provide, we did some management training for another client, and it went very well. It went so well that word got around. That’s not a problem. We are always delighted to delight our clients, and that they say they’re delighted when we’re not around is our favorite measure of delight. Trouble arose when word got back to my prospective client just how delighted their managers were. They all felt that they left the training with some very valuable tools to more effectively engage their reports and effectively use measures to impact performance and morale. Again, not a problem.

The problem arose when our prospective client, hearing how much the managers of our existing client appreciated the training, decided we should do a similar training for their managers. Without knowing their exact line of thinking, I’m guessing that they thought – consciously or not – our leaders said they need support, this training made other leaders feel supported, therefore, this training will make our leaders feel supported!

And truth be told, it probably would have had that effect. Research shows that, generally, providing training does improve morale. However, it also improves morale when people experience being successful in their jobs, and people being successful on their jobs also impacts basic measures of business health. To that end, here are four places to look that leadership can control and impact that, when in place, allow people to do work that makes a difference and experience doing so.

  1. Equipment.This is the first place you should look.Do people have the basic tools to do their jobs?At some point in your life, you’ve had to get something done with a piece of equipment that wasn’t ideally suited to the task.Maybe you had to drive a car on a doughnut for awhile.Or perhaps your clothes didn’t fit.At any rate, it didn’t feel quite right and when you got your tire fixed or changed into something more comfortable IT FELT GOOD!Believe it or not, people generally like produce results at work and, when they do, IT FEELS GOOD.Make sure they have what they need to do so.
  2. Expectations & Clarity.Imagine being on a basketball team.Now imagine that your team scores 100 points.Pretty good, right? Actually, you have no idea.Do you know why?Because I haven’t told you what the other team scored or how long it took you to score 100 points.You have no idea if 100 is good or not without knowing other reference points.Work is the same way.In order to know if they’re being successful, people need to know what to do, how much to do it, and by when. Of course, a pre-requisite to this is making sure that you’re measuring the right things and that you can trust your measures. If this isn’t in place, no matter how well people are performing, they won’t feel it, and they’ll start looking for situations where they can.
  3. Feedback & Incentives.I put this third because without the other two in place, it makes it hard to make good use of feedback and incentive systems.That said, this might be the most important.Imagine playing a game where you never got to see if your shot went in, or never knew the score.It wouldn’t be much fun.But often, that’s what we expect of our workers.Engaged people know when they’re meeting, exceeding, and falling below expectations and engaging managers don’t leave it up to their employees to find out.They tell them!
  4. Skills & Training.Though this is where companies often look first, this is the last place we recommend looking.This is especially true when training managers. If the front lines don’t have the basic tools to do their jobs, there’s no way management can make them successful.Training them might provide something, but it’s like taking an aspirin for a broken bone.This is why I was disappointed when my prospective client wanted to focus on training; the basic tools to be an effective manager weren’t in place. Which is not to say that training wouldn’t be of value, but in terms of maximizing impact – at the level of morale AND the level of business, training should only be a business solution when it makes obvious business sense.

To conclude, businesses don’t exist to make their employees feel good. They exist to meet the customer’s needs. In engaging your workforce, objective number one in engaging employees should be making it easier for them to do that and, once they are, making it obvious that they do. Once everything is in place for that, if skills are what’s missing, that will become obvious. However, if those aren’t in place, it’s like sending your batters out to hit with rubber bats. You’ll never know what they can do – or what training they might need – until they’re well equipped.