I’ve written about corporate culture a number of times in previous articles. While not as well-covered as the “harder” sciences of business management, it is still a topic of great interest to many tech businesses. In this article I’ll discuss 5 categories to consider if you have an interest in improving employee relationships, leading to an enhanced employee productivity corporate culture. While this article is written with tech businesses in mind, its points are equally applicable to any type of business. Spoiler alert: it’s all about happy employees.
Understand that a paycheck is no longer enough for happy employees
Compensation is important! Let there be no mistake about that, it is still the core reason for working. It’s important that it’s at least fair, and aggressive on the high side is of course even better if you want happy employees. But these days it’s just not enough, especially for the millennial crowd and younger. It’s just one of many important elements in the work experience in modern times. Many other things are highly important motivators: career and personal development, work/life balance, climate change and “doing good” in general to name a few. To sum it up, employees today want their job to have “meaning”. Management teams should keep this trend at the top of their minds when considering corporate policy.
Focus more on coaching and less on “bossing”
I’ve worked in older, more traditional industries as well as software and hardware technology businesses, both of the Fortune 50 and startup variety. Amazingly, I still see management teams whose approach to engaging their employees resembles those dinosaurs of my early career than they do the enlightened approach attributed to the modern tech company. I almost always see this as highly problematic and even poisonous to corporate culture. Today’s employees are much more motivated by positive engagement and carrots rather than they are by sticks. There are still times when the sticks may be necessary; but in general these are a short term tactic. They won’t work if counted on in the long term. You’ll just end up losing your best employees.
Provide continuous feedback, not just annual reviews
Along the same lines as the desire to be coached instead of being bossed around, today’s employees don’t want to be subjected to the often surprising feedback that comes at annual review time. Now, in some companies annual reviews have gone the way of the Dodo bird. Myself, I still believe that there is a role for an annual review. It can be an excellent tool to ensure that there is both comprehensive feedback at least once a year, along with a development plan for the coming year. The key is that it can’t be the single, sole feedback event.
Even more importantly, it shouldn’t contain surprises. It serves best as a summary of the direction and feedback provided throughout the year. Your feedback to employees should be continuous throughout the year, and is most effective if given relatively close to the time of relevant events that precipitate the feedback. This is true both for positive and negative feedback. This doesn’t mean that employees should be receiving constant, instantaneous feedback on nearly everything they do, of major or minor consequences. This can be overwhelming and actually cause the employee to tune out or grow weary of the feedback. Like most things, a thoughtful balance – tailored to the employees personality and preferences, is ideal.
Build on strengths as well as improving on weaknesses
Sometimes managers – especially the less experienced ones – unfortunately interpret “giving feedback” as “correcting mistakes”. This is indeed an important aspect of providing feedback to employees. But if it’s the only time you give feedback, it can easily backfire and have the opposite of the intended effect. Most people aren’t built to receive a steady stream of strictly negative feedback without developing bad feelings about the deliverer of the feedback. Once this happens, the results of your efforts will be less than optimal and the employee may tune out his or her manager’s input. Worst yet, they can even become so offended that actively resist the and work against the feedback. Absolute worst case, they simply quit.
The old adage of “you get more bees with honey than you do with vinegar actually rings true in the area of manager/employee engagement. So it’s important to reinforce positive behavior along with correcting the negative, whenever possible. Optimally your positive feedback frequency should be several times the frequency of your negative feedback. It’s important to note that I’m not suggesting that “make positive feedback up”. Feedback of any tone needs to be based upon fact; people will smell B.S. a mile away and the manager will lose credibility quickly. But if you are able to provide more positive feedback than negative, it greatly increases the odds that the negative feedback will be listened to with an open mind and taken to heart.
Make happy employees a core cultural goal
This may sound overly ambitious as a goal; maybe even silly! Or at least outside of the scope of what we consider “business management”. Yes, I mean not just productive or engaged employees, but actual happy employees. This is indeed ambitious, but think about it a little deeper. If your goal is to develop and retain productive workers, what are the roots of that? In my opinion, at the end of the day what most folks desire and how they measure their current life status is on their level of “happiness”. A job is an integral part of that life.
Now happiness is a squishy thing to define, and means different things to different people. So I don’t mean to imply that perfection is possible when a management team specifies “happy employees” as a goal. But if “happiness” is truly what we’re all seeking, doesn’t it make sense to spell that out as an end goal? That way, we can expand our management tool-set to include things that actually make a difference in the happiness of our employees. Without setting this expansive goal, we might easily exclude things that aren’t considered part of traditional “management” but might lead to greater employee satisfaction and performance. So what does this look like as a practical matter? Let’s look at a few important things to consider as a framework for enlightened management policies:
- Fairness: I believe that a basic tenet of widespread employee happiness in a work culture is based upon this principle. Employees MUST believe that they are being treated fairly. This is true both in an absolute sense (fair wages) as well as a relative sense (Jane is treated as well as John). Note that this doesn’t equate to managing everyone in the EXACT SAME, inflexible way – seen point #2 below.
- Flexibility: Since happiness means different things to different people, it’s important to not be hindered by an inflexible, one-size-fits-all policy in how you manage them. Employees have different needs, desires and beliefs. Being flexible enough in your policies allows management to customize engagement with employees to MAXIMIZE individual employee happiness. For example, a working mom my highly value being able to work from home after 3P on Tuesday’s and Thursdays. An individual with children entering college or saving to buy a home might be thrilled with a bonus program based upon meeting certain goals that greatly benefit the company. A third individual may find the opportunity to earn extra vacation days. A fourth might be highly motivated and energized by equity participation. All of these are just examples; the point is that flexibility can enable a company to build a culture focused on individual employee happiness that is highly differentiated from most competitors for your employees.
- Reasonable Standards: It’s important to point out that not EVERYTHING needs to be or should be flexible. There still needs to be standards as well as rules that everyone must live by (eg, everyone must work at least 40 hours/week). But if you allow flexibility where you believe you can, it can be a powerful competitive differentiator as well as a source of happy employees.
- Positive public recognition: When your people do something selfless or exceptional in the company’s interest – don’t hide it! It’s good for you, for them and your corporate culture in general.
- Private reprimands: The opposite of #4 above is don’t publicly embarrass employees when they do something you’d rather not have seen happen. If it’s something that needs to be corrected with direct discussion, don’t hesitate. But rarely is it optimal to do it out in the open. Managers that “make examples” of someone publicly may feel that they’re accomplishing something; but in my mind it’s one of the most corrosive things you can do to a corporate culture.
Corporate and company culture is a topic with a lot of room for personal preferences and disagreement. There is no one way to build a great software, SaaS or hardware company culture. But I do believe that especially in highly competitive tech businesses, it’s important to be innovative not just in the tech aspects, but in management issues as well. So above are my thoughts on how to improve your own company’s culture, in no small part by putting “employee happiness” front and central as a goal. What are your experiences and views on how best to optimize a corporate culture?
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