People are still the reason an organization succeeds or fails.

That’s why we should all be troubled to know that according to Gallup only 15% of employees strongly believe that the leadership in their organization makes them enthusiastic about the future. The same survey showed 91% of employees left their current company for another opportunity. Before dismissing this as obvious, shouldn’t we do a better job of retaining our high-performers and not let them go to the competition? Having these high-performers leave the company can be damaging for employee morale.

-- Learn more with Lonnie at the Insights Leadership Conference, November 5-7 in San Diego. --

You probably heard the dreary news about the lack of employee engagement, right? There’s been a surge to address this situation in the American workplace because of these headlines. But, in my opinion, this laser focus and priority to improve employee engagement is energy misplaced. We might be over complicating it and probably need to slow down just a bit. Let’s keep it real.

The No. 1 thing you can do to influence your company culture and attract and retain high-performers is treat your employees like the incredible humans they are. When you get this right, engagement naturally follows.

Let me explain.

LEVEL 1: THE BASICS

This is the stage most companies get right but this landscape is changing fast. It’s the compensation package that an employee agrees to in exchange for their time and talent to help achieve the company’s objectives. Compensation includes an employee’s wages and competitive benefits such as health insurance, 401K, paid time off, stock options and more. An employee might even accept a position without a great deal of information about the leadership if they sense it’s a good company with a high-level vision, has a plan to continue a growth trajectory and seems to offer them an opportunity for their own professional growth.

If Maslow’s hierarchy of needs was built from a business perspective this phase would represent the lowest levels required in the relationship between an employer and employee.

Level 1 alone gets results but it can be a short burn if Level 2 is not part of it. As a leader, if you view your employees only as a means to achieve targets in exchange for rewards that you give them—even if those rewards are some of the best wages and benefits available in your industry—something is still missing.

Leaders that really get this always enter Level 2 with relentless focus to get to know their employees as humans with unique and diverse needs and goals. When you understand this as a leader you then understand what motivates them to be the best version of themselves. This is what you ultimately want. 

LEVEL 2: LIGHTS OUT

Best-in-class companies such as Google, Wegmans Food Markets, The Boston Consulting Group and Baird with its famous “no assholes” policy, know how critical the human factor of Level 2 is to driving performance.

Similarly, I really got power in leveraging the best versions of people who reported to me when I took the time to get to know each one of them as an individual. What were their motivations and their passions? Where did they want to be in 2-5 years? For some it was money but for most it was something greater. Identifying that greater component for each individual was the key to inspiring them to achieve the company goal while also achieving their own professional and, in some cases if appropriate, their personal goals.

First, the company vision with objectives, goals and a solid strategy must be set and clearly explained. There can’t be ambiguity. But, high-performers require something more. They want to understand the tactics and expectations for how their individual role will help attain that stated objective. They want to be respected as an individual contributor who is critical to achieving the higher company vision. They expect and covet feedback about their performance and understand that this is how they grow. This may actually come as a surprise to many of you but employees want feedback. 

Next, trust needs to be built between the individual and you as the leader. Employees look for evidence to confirm they can trust you as a leader and if you will trust them as an employee. High-performers want autonomy and need room to fly. Micromanaging will not work and will cause people to leave. They joined your team to use their unique talents to impact the organization, not to be stifled or put into a box where they don’t have a way to contribute to the company’s overall success.

That’s why I invited the sales exec to a meeting that was specific to the engineering department and vice versa, just to give those employees an opportunity to contribute on a larger platform. High-performers value the opportunity and thrive in that situation rather than feel burdened by it. They want to crush their individual role but they also want the chance to sit at a broader table when appropriate.

Employees crave communication. Your integrity as a leader and theirs as an employee is based on doing what you say you’re going to do or walking the walk. As a leader of an organization, cancelling meetings with your employees—no matter how many different directions you’re being pulled—ultimately damages your relationship with them. They don’t feel like they are respected.

There’s a true lack of honest communication in many company cultures as supported by the fact that 78% of employees who call in sick really aren’t. Wouldn’t it be better to follow the lead of this CEO and have a company culture where employees can honestly share with you they need a day off to handle family issues, personal needs or to take a mental health day? Keep it real.

As a leader open and honest communication is critical in getting your employees to open up to you. Vacation time is a great example. Old-school leaders used to claim that they never took a vacation and then secretly did anyway. New-school leaders proudly announce their time off and where they are headed. This openness of new-school leaders gives employees space to do the same.

As trust is built over time because you as the leader spent the time and effort to develop a relationship with your employees as a human, they are more apt to follow your lead with open and honest communication because they trust the company culture is one that values it.

To deepen my own insight to truly understand people’s individual tendencies, I would have my employees take a personality assessment. The results of these assessments not only helped me learn what made my employees tick, but also how they would relate to me based on my own personality assessment.

Because of these tests, I knew those people that needed constant feedback and those that just wanted my time as well as those that wanted to contribute at the broader table. It was hugely helpful to me as a leader. I was able to inspire them based on what was important to them.

Then, I took the time to get to know them as a person.

Ask yourself this: Have you taken the time to truly understand each of your employees—ALL of them, not just the portions that tie directly to what you pay them to do?

Do you know what they are scared of? What keeps them up at night? What truly makes them tick? How they prefer feedback? Who they are and what’s important to them? What inspires them? Your employees want to believe that you:

  • Hear them
  • See them
  • Trust them
  • Communicate with them
  • Inspire them
  • Invest in them
  • Challenge them
  • And hold them accountable

Contrary to what many leaders believe, employees DO want to be held accountable and DO want to be challenged to become the best versions of themselves even if that involves tough conversations. The fact that you are willing to have tough, but always constructive conversations is further proof that you value them as a human and you care about them on a deeper level and truly desire to see them become the best version of themselves. 

LEVEL 3: THE ICING ON THE CAKE

This is the phase where all the fun stuff gets added from the ping-pong table to the company lunches, the bean bag chairs to the unlimited snacks, and the yoga sessions to the weekly masseuse. The mistake many organizations make in pursuit of higher employee engagement is to jump right to adding this fun stuff. But the fun stuff is meaningless if you skip Level 2 where the magic happens.

If your company starts at Level 3, but doesn’t have the solid foundation of levels 1 and 2, you will ultimately not succeed even though you arguably have the cool factor. If you’re at Level 1, those scary statistics about low engagement and high attrition will be your reality if you’re not experiencing it already. If you stay at Level 1 you will probably lose your people over a period of time. Even though companies that have levels 1 and 2 are pretty solid and amazing, the best companies to work for have achieved levels 1, 2 and 3. They know you have to have every level to fly as an organization.

In order to build a company culture where you get the absolute best versions of each employee, as the leader you must value them as a human being. Throw out the surveys and the data points that seek to understand what employees want and spend the time and energy on building relationships.

Treat your employees like the incredible humans they are and the results will always follow.