Stop Trying to Engage Employees and Do This Instead

Every company wants engaged employees. But trying to engage employees won’t work when they’re suffering through pain and frustration.

This is an admittedly weird analogy, but bear with me: If you offer me the world’s greatest backrub, that will make me happy. But how much will I enjoy that backrub if someone else is hitting my foot with a hammer? Yes, you did something nice for me by hiring that world-class masseuse for the back rub, but until you fix the pain in my foot, I won’t be able to even consider the massage.

In Leadership IQ’s latest study, “Frustrations at Work,” we discovered that the obstructions people face are so severe that around 60% say those frustrations make them want to look for other jobs. And 83% say that if those frustrations were fixed, they would be significantly happier at work.

The real kicker is that many of the frustrations people face are eminently fixable. Look at some of the frustrations that employees shared in the study:

  • Enforcing company policy to employees who are cutting corners, causing me extra work
  • Extending the work till midnight continuously without a break
  • Biggest frustration is my boss wants our department to fix all the broken processes instead of pushing back on the department that owns the process
  • Sloppy deliverables that must be fixed by others at the last minute
  • Setting and following through on priorities
  • Number of meetings I’m expected to attend
  • Micromanaging and bending rules to appease his favorites instead of following company and industry rules
  • Stop withholding information and controlling contacts
  • Too many unnecessary external meetings

What stops leaders from surfacing and fixing those frustrations? One big obstacle is that, in many of those cases, the leader is at fault. Cognitive dissonance is the unpleasant mental tension we feel when we’re told that we’re not as good as we imagine ourselves to be. And when an employee says, “Hey boss, you’re doing a bunch of things that are making me consider quitting,” we’re going to feel that unpleasant mental tension. It takes a decent amount of intestinal fortitude to hear, let alone embrace, that feedback.

Another impediment to fixing those frustrations is companies’ fixation on only talking about positive issues. As one example, far too many engagement surveys only ask about what would make employees happier; rarely do they delve into the frustrations that people face in the real world.

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I’m sure you’ve seen organizations where they conduct a survey and then spend a few months brainstorming how they could improve the employee experience. But you don’t need to brainstorm; if you simply ask people what’s causing them to consider quitting, I promise that they’ll spell it out for you.

One question we asked the thousands of people in the study on frustrations is, “What’s one frustration you have at work that you believe your manager has the authority to fix immediately?” This question (which we also use in engagement surveys) immediately surfaces the biggest and most fixable employee pain-points. Of course, you’ll surface a few intractable issues, but overwhelmingly you’ll find that many employee frustrations are fixable.

Before you spend the next year pondering how to give your employees more backrubs, I’d encourage you to spend a few days not hitting employees’ feet with hammers. In this era of widespread burnout, being a company that’s willing to make life less painful is truly a major competitive advantage.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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