Speak Honestly With Employees

If employees feel disengaged from your organization, it’s time to restore the connection – with fierce transparency.
Speak Honestly With Employees
Susan Scott

Employee engagement is one of the biggest hot-button issues facing employers these days. As well it should be: Studies consistently show that disengaged workers contribute heavily to lost productivity, low morale, high absenteeism and costly turnover, to name just a few of the detrimental side effects.

There is no lack of solutions out there. In fact, a Google search on the topic reveals a staggering amount of information — more than 214 million hits. But Susan Scott believes it’s not all that complicated. Instead, the founder and chief executive officer of Fierce Inc. (www.fierceinc.com), a leadership development and training firm, proposes a two-pronged approach that’s simple, effective and doesn’t cost a dime: Create a culture where management connects with employees through “fierce” conversations and operates with transparency at all levels.

“Organizations must connect with employees — and customers — at a deep level,” says Scott, the author of two best-selling books, Fierce Conversations: Achieving Success at Work and in Life One Conversation at a Time, and Fierce Leadership: A Bold Alternative to the Worst “Best” Practices of Business Today. “Human connectivity is where it’s at right now. It’s the next frontier for exponential growth for both individuals and organizations — it provides the only sustainable competitive edge. And most companies just are not there yet.”

To support her contentions, Scott cites some interesting data gathered through an employee engagement survey conducted by TINYpulse, a Seattle-based company. Here’s what the survey discovered from polling more than 40,000 employees at 300 companies around the world:

  • Transparency is the No. 1 factor that contributes to employee satisfaction and happiness.
  • Team play and collaboration are among the top traits employees love about co-workers.
  • Only 42 percent of employees know their organization’s vision, mission and values.
  • In terms of happiness, having great colleagues is way more important than having good managers.

“In addition, 41 percent of the people that our company recently surveyed believe that negative attitudes are the most detrimental factor in the workplace,” Scott adds. “They affect morale and productivity and raise stress. About 23 percent of employees try to ignore (those with negative attitudes), and only 47 percent of employees believe managers would actually fire those toxic employees. And 88 percent believe that even if a person has amazing skills, that doesn’t compensate for toxic behavior.”

So how do transparency and meaningful conversations factor into all this? Let’s start with transparency. In short, being open and honest is critical. That’s true whether it’s something as broad as sharing pertinent news ­and information (both good and bad) and talking about challenges the organization faces, or as small as forthrightly explaining to employees where they’re underperforming, Scott says.

“One reason we do so much business worldwide is that people are afraid to be completely honest and transparent,” she notes. “We teach people the skills to be completely honest and to enrich relationships, not harm them — take the fear out of transparency.

“If things aren’t transparent, employees feel that keenly and deeply,” she continues. “And if you don’t give them information, they’ll fill that vacuum on their own with rumors. Moreover, you need to invite employees to weigh in on topics. One big thing about engagement is inclusion. … Employees want to be viewed as valuable collaborators when companies set goals or solve problems.”

Companies where managers don’t hold employees accountable — especially those who are toxic — aren’t being transparent and, as such, hurt other employees who only want to get along and do good work.

Why is this so difficult for some managers? Most of them find it difficult to confront others, so they avoid issues instead, Scott asserts. “Generally speaking, we’re not taught how to do it,” she says. “And it’s not easy to do even for people who have the skills. So managers put off talking about problems until it’s ‘exactly the right time’ — when the sun, moon and stars are exactly aligned. They wait and wait and wait and it doesn’t happen, and meanwhile this person continues to wreak havoc behind the scenes. And suddenly you have a real problem.”

If managers just can’t find it within themselves to handle issues with honest conversations or develop close relationships with employees, then they shouldn’t be managers, Scott contends. “If someone is fundamentally hardwired in such a way that they can’t do those conversations or get close to employees, there are other jobs they could and should do,” she says. “I wouldn’t give up on that person right away, but I’d tell them if they want to advance, there’s an area where they’re lacking — ‘Let’s get you some training and talk about the impact your reluctance to have these conversations has on your career and your co-workers.’”

Meaningful and “fierce” conversations are a necessary component of transparency. In fact, Scott says conversations are the single most important tool companies have for engaging people — as well as the most overlooked. “The conversation is the relationship and our most valuable currency is relationships — it’s emotional capital,” she explains.

“Most conversations sort of water ski over the issue — skate along the surface. But it’s entirely different if you scuba dive below the surface, where there’s a whole other world.”

In the end, business is fundamentally nothing more than an extended conversation with both employees and customers, and unfortunately, most companies fall short of where they need to be, she concludes. “Employees desire more than just coming to work and doing a good job, and customers want more than just a fair price,” she explains. “They want connectivity — close, playful, happy and fun relationships with people they interact with every day. And without that connectivity, employee engagement suffers.

“Organizations need to understand that they succeed or fail one conversation at a time, and it’s the missing conversations that cause the biggest problems,” she adds. “They need to accept that this is a skill set that’s critical to success.”


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