As life gets more complicated, rarely anything is what it seems and what we use to regard as undeniable facts are now reduced to individual opinions. Humankind is hardwired to identify problems and come up with ways to eliminate danger, solve issues, and move on to the next thing. This is partly why it can be extremely frustrating to engage in conversation without necessarily coming to an agreement or landing on one absolute truth.
As companies increasingly become aware of the importance of creating a psychologically safe workplace, the focus on competency building through emotional intelligence increases, and the need for academic discourse becomes paramount. Think, for instance, about one of the main components of emotional intelligence: empathy. Or take the entire concept of employee engagement. Both have such a strong underlying focus on the uniqueness of the individual that sharing of what gives an action meaning to a certain individual or group of individuals is crucial in order to determine the true collective definition of these terms.
Why do we anticipate a laborious process filled with trial and errors before we get to the thrilling moment of having solved a complex problem, but we expect to get it right at the first try when we deal with employee relations issues?
Even though we crave the need to express ourselves in all our uniqueness, this is exactly the part that can be frustrating to leaders of people. With predictability removed from the equation, even the best intentions can lead to a misstep. And what worked in one situation for one group of people might not work at all for the next team. Managing others can be tiresome, and despite the many books that are written and podcasts that are recorded, there is no one formula for success.
When trying to reframe the problem described above, I landed on the concept of innovation. Innovation has its root in the Latin word “innovare,” meaning “to make changes” or “to do something differently.” There is a school of thought that there are no new innovations, that everything has already been discovered. Still, it is the inventor’s unique perspective on life that allows her to come up with solutions we didn’t know were possible before, simply by combining already existing elements or ideas. And even though the process of innovation can be frustrating at times, it also refuels and is exciting.
So if leading others centers on “making changes,” then why is this experience often far removed from feeling re-energized and excited? Why is the process of employee relations more closely associated with feeling drained and nerve-wracking? Why do we anticipate a laborious process filled with trial and errors before we get to the thrilling moment of having solved a complex problem, but we expect to get it right at the first try when we deal with employee relations issues? Taking a closer look at the five essential stages of successful innovation (they are: idea generation and mobilization, advocacy and screening, experimentation, commercialization, and diffusion and implementation, as described in MIT Sloan Management Review) can help uncover ways to adopt a more optimistic attitude towards employee relations, one where failing is a crucial driver of success.
Here are five tips for adopting an innovative attitude towards employee relations.
1. Set expectations of failure ahead of time
When setting out to solve an unsolved problem, the concept supersedes the timeframe of when to reach your intended outcome. It may take many reiterations, tweaking, and tinkering before the final version holds up to your expectations. We often put leaders on a pedestal. And by “we,” I am not referring to employees looking at their leaders with a certain reverence. I am talking about the leaders themselves. I often get the sense when talking to new leaders that they have a self-imposed weight on their shoulders where they need to know all the answers and can’t make mistakes anymore, now that others depend on them. But thoughts like this only widens the perceived gap between manager and subordinate and erodes the possibility for shared accountability and realistic expectation setting.
Instead, be vulnerable and tell your team that you will be making mistakes. Ask them to have patience with you, but also to be courageous and point out when mistakes are made. Amy Edmondson states in her book, The Fearless Organization, that high functioning teams don’t necessarily make more mistakes, but they talk more freely about them. For something so complicated as building relations with your team members, be ready to make mistakes, and create a safe space for your team to do the same.
2. Engage your team in idea generation
Identified as the first step in the innovation process, idea generation focuses on the freeform of exploring options driven by the need to solve a problem or meet a need. Instead of wrecking your brain on what the appropriate level of discipline is for an employee who rides the coattail of a team’s performance to the point of frustration of many members, what if you would include him in a conversation where you express the problem you’re identifying and collaborate on ways to improve it?
Thomas Edison once said, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work”. Psychologist Dean Simonton elaborates on this idea in his work on understanding creativity that Johann Sebastian Bach differentiated himself from his mediocre colleagues simply because he had more ideas. Beth Comstock builds even further on this in her book Imagine It Forward, where he argues that “more ideas, more innovation, and more contact between people lead to more insights, theories, and observations.”
Part of what makes employee relations so difficult is that there are so many variables, including the fact that each person is a unique individual. But the more you try to discover what doesn’t work, the better you will become in finding correlations between these variables. And this could be the catalyst for new and better ideas.
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4. Get outsiders’ perspectives
Dan Ariely tells a funny story during his Ted Talk on “what makes us feel good about work.” As he was watching children play at a playground, including his kid, he started engaging other parents in casual conversation. As such, he mentioned how cute their kids were. Getting ready to leave, he calls his kid over and starts to walk home. But before he was able to exit the gates, the other parents called him back. “Hey,” one of them said, “you mentioned you thought my kids were cute. I will sell them to you, how much would you pay?” Of course, this is a fictitious story, but it illustrates an important point. Our children are so valuable to us, not just because of who they are, but because of how connected they are to us.
If you’re trying to solve your engagement issues single-handedly as a leader, you’ll soon find out that after the first improvement you make, you’ll be leading the second one, the third, and so on, without truly reaching the desired improvements in engagement. We value what we invest our time and energy in, more so than what others can do for us. So when removing barriers to engagement, do so with input from the team by getting their perspectives.
But this concept goes both ways. In order to make sure you’re not blinded by the human flaw that we appreciate our own work solely because of the energy and attention we put into it, run your thoughts by an outsider. This perspective makes sure your ideas for addressing employee relations issues are vetted, similar to the stage of commercialization in the innovation process where inventions make it to the next round only when customers agree that it truly solves their problems.
5. Focus on incremental improvements
Lastly, success in employee relations is extremely volatile. Chasing it can feel like chasing the wind, with a chance of never truly capturing it. And even if you do reach a healthy culture made up of highly engaged team members, this can all be undone with a simple change such as the introduction of a new team member, personal challenges in an individual’s life, or additional pressure from the company to perform to a higher standard with fewer resources.
Creating a culture with buy-in is a journey and takes patience as you circle through the different stages of the innovation process. If applying the above-described tips correctly, you will also find more solutions than you have time to implement, causing you – and your team – to have to prioritize.
As with the first tip, setting realistic expectations related to what improvement looks like can help with avoiding being overwhelmed or feeling anxious and drained. Rather by breaking down the magnitude of employee relations into smaller achievable goals with milestones and celebrations, you will find joy and excitement in the process as you continue to kindle the flame of innovation.