June 2 is Leave the Office Early Day, providing a good excuse for managers to let their employees leave early for a day, which could improve morale and ultimately employee retention. Simply put, successful employee engagement involves creating a neighborhood at work.
As the labor market continues to improve, employee retention is becoming more important. But, retaining employees is a hard thing to do, especially when a micromanager is involved. Just ask people who have left jobs and worked for micromanagers. Chances are they’ll cite “management style” as one of the reasons they left, if not the reason they left. It doesn’t have to be that way.
Many people promoted to management roles have little training to help them to manage people. Many of them were promoted to management roles because they were good at the initial job for which they were hired, which involved expertise in a particular discipline. Some managers have gotten MBAs, but most MBA programs focus on finance and accounting practices, with perhaps one course that focuses on the “soft skills” involved in leading people
It is expensive to have to hire new people and to train them to function in your organization, and the organizational culture suffers when there is constant turnover. For managers, a key aspect of promoting engagement requires navigating the tradeoff between productivity and talent development. There is always pressure to meet deadlines and to get projects completed as quickly as possible. That involves a focus on the task at hand. But, training team members to enhance their skills and put them in a position to advance requires letting them make some of their own decisions and allowing them to learn from their mistakes. This process slows progress in the short-term, but it makes people more effective in the long run.
Long-term employee engagement is all about the people. Human beings are wired to prefer what feels best in the short-term over what is best for the long-term. The productivity/development dilemma is a classic tradeoff of this type. Handling it successfully requires taking a neighborhood approach to management.
The neighborhood approach involves thinking about the kinds of relationships you have in your life. You can divide most of your relationships into one of three categories: strangers, neighborhoods and families.
Strangers are the people we do not know well. We interact with them warily, and when we do business with them, it is a strictly fee-for-service transaction. On the other side of the spectrum, there are families. Families share a close bond. They communicate often and engage in holidays and other rituals together.
In the middle is the neighborhood. Neighbors, which could be friends or co-workers, are people we see often. We communicate with them multiple times a week and keep up with what is going on in their lives. And, ultimately, we do things for our neighbors roughly in proportion to what they do for us. You can borrow a cup of sugar from a neighbor, but the expectation is that you will do something for that person in return in the future.
Creating a neighborhood at work starts with managers who think of their group as a team — a collection of neighbors — and not as a group of people who report to them. The neighborhood gets built through frequent two-way communication in which managers talk about their expectations, and team members are able to discuss their needs and to voice their concerns. In exchange for their efforts, managers look for opportunities to develop new skills in their team members.
This structure helps to resolve the tradeoff between short-term and long-term, because in those instances in which there is a real deadline that requires everyone to work together, the team is ready to respond. The group functions well in these situations in part because everyone knows that the organization is also willing to put in effort on their behalf.
When the management of an organization creates a neighborhood, it helps to stave off micromanagement. The more that managers communicate with their team members and provide them with training opportunities, the easier it is for them to trust that the work that is going to get done will meet the high standards of the organization.
Ultimately, then, engagement has its roots in the social structure of the organization. Build a neighborhood, and you will build a better company.
Art Markman is the Annabel Irion Worsham Centennial Professor in Liberal Arts and a professor of psychology and marketing at The University of Texas at Austin. He is founding director of the university’s Human Dimensions of Organizations program and the author of “Smart Thinking,” “Habits of Leadership” and “Smart Change.”