Skip to navigation
13 Min Read

Leadership Insights: What To Do When Your Employee’s Heart Just Isn’t In It

David Mizne
David Mizne

You could tell his heart just wasn’t in it.

I’ve always liked that phrase. Or rather, I appreciate the reverse, that a person who is fully present and contributes something valuable does so because they feel inspired, alive, and open-hearted.

Is that true though? Is positive emotion really what creates the highest levels of employee engagement? Well, not according to this disheartening Gallup post:

Measuring workers’ contentment or happiness levels, as well as catering to their wants, often fails to achieve the underlying goal of employee engagement: improved business outcomes.

The piece suggests that engagement is derived not from employee happiness, but by “focusing on concrete performance management activities, such as clarifying work expectations and getting people what they need to do their work.”

To be fair, they also credit leaders who provide employee development, create opportunities for people to work in their zone of genius, and promote positive coworker relationships. Many of these initiatives occur at companies where leadership is indeed focused on employee happiness.

The overall theme of the post, however, is that culture is not about happiness, and that managers should focus primarily on employee engagement. They also suggest a data-driven approach, where upper management should hold managers accountable for measuring engagement and how it relates to performance metrics. Engagement says Gallup, is the determining factor in profit, productivity, employee retention, and customer satisfaction:

Simply put, engaged employees produce better business outcomes than other employees do — across industries, company sizes and nationalities, and in good economic times and bad.

Gallup presents an example of an over-reliance on data around business outcomes that might embolden those who still cling to outdated notions of performance management, like command and control leadership. Yes, leadership should provide clarity, tools, and employee training. They should absolutely measure performance. But not at the expense of employee wellness.

When workplace stress is considered by some to be the health epidemic of the 21st Century, being completely focused on business outcomes is a mistake. Everyone benefits when culture is taken into account as well as engagement. 

I’m not suggesting that you coddle your employees. There are also inherent dangers in creating too cushy a work environment, and people need a certain amount of healthy stress to do their best work. Swords can only be forged by fire, and only pressure can turn coals into diamonds.

However, there is a middle ground between a focus on outcomes and being conscious of the employee experience. Many leaders agree that catering to an employee’s heart will provide the highest level of sustainable energy, creativity, and high performance.

Emotional Intelligence & Employee Engagement

The emotional intelligence based approach states that engagement strategies fail because they focus on external mechanisms like rewarding employees or clarifying expectations around work. Employee engagement, according to this model, comes from the employee’s relationship with the employer and with the work itself.

Therefore, every manager has the opportunity to create a positive experience for their employees by creating an environment that nurtures these experiences:

1) A sense of autonomy

2) A feeling of competence

3) Relatedness to the broader work of the organization

4) Connection to the community of fellow employees

For now, let’s just focus on number three. People want to know that what they do is making a difference. Every employee should be aware of the top company objectives for each year and quarter, and how their contribution fits. A great method for this is to use Objectives and Key Results (OKRs) or some other system of management by objectives. Nest individual objectives beneath team and company objectives, and each employee can see their impact.

Managers can also bring things full circle by showing the impact that individual contributions have on the customer experience. This is particularly important for those who are not customer-facing, as they seldom get to see how those customers benefit from their hard work.

Relatedness to broader work can be difficult to provide in certain circumstances, like with a six month long project that involves the efforts of fifty different people. It can be months until an outcome is realized, and working on a small piece of a grand puzzle can seem meaningless until then.

For situations like these when a new feature or product is being built to respond to a pressing customer need, share comments from customers with the team during the development phase. Customers will likely continue to express demand for a new feature, or frustrations with the existing iteration of the product. The team can read feedback and imagine how pleased customers will be when the product or feature is finally released. And after it goes live, share the actual positive feedback that comes in.

Love in the Workplace? Really?!

Where is fancy bred, in the heart or in the head? 

~ Willy Wonka quoting Shakespeare

In this Fast Company article, Mark Crowley explores what drives engagement and inspires full commitment to work. He identifies the “leadership practices that affect people so deeply that they become uncommonly loyal, committed, and productive”.

What did Crowley discover?

Leaders need to love their employees.

I’ll wait for those of you working in HR who fainted at this proposition to come to…

Feel better? He’s not suggesting a sordid workplace romance, he means that positive emotions are the source of human motivation. Ironically, it was Gallup’s CEO, Jim Clifton, who first suggested to Crowley that employee engagement is ultimately driven by something deeper, that people really are seeking love in return for their work.

Crowley interviewed various “leadership luminaries”, including the founder of the Great Places To Work Institute. He also met with executives at SAS and Google (two companies with world class employee engagement) to learn more about the systems they implemented to create outstanding workplace happiness and phenomenal profits.

He learned that, “how leaders and organizations make people feel in their jobs has the greatest impact on their performance by far”. Here are some of his leadership insights for creating maximum impact:

1) Supervisors must genuinely care about employee well-being and personal growth.

2) Employees routinely feel valued and appreciated.

3) Strong bonds must be developed among the people on the team, especially between employees and supervisors.

Not convinced that there’s more to management than a focus on data? Here’s some data for you:

In the Harvard Business Review article, Employees Who Feel Love Perform Better, the authors share their results from a study of over 3,000 employees in a broad range of industries. They found that people who worked in cultures of caring and compassion were more satisfied, committed and accountable.

The leadership insights from this article basically contradict Gallup by advising that people broaden their definitions of culture beyond the cognitive (values such as teamwork, results-orientation, or innovation). Managers can also cultivate a compassionate culture where emotions like happiness or pride are valued.

Some leaders even go so far as to create company policies around caring. For example, Cisco CEO John Chambers asked that he be notified within 48 hours if a close member of an employee’s family passed away. At the very least, managers must be aware of their energetic presence, since they create the emotional tone for the organization on a daily basis.

Gallup does make a good point that optimizing for employee happiness is problematic. There will always be times when boring or overly-challenging work needs to be done, work that employees don’t really want to do and there’s nobody to hand it off to who would enjoy doing it. All employees have to get used to performing those tasks, but if that’s the majority of what they do, their work will suffer in the long term. And if the work environment sucks, so will the work being produced. No amount of managing for engagement will fix that.

Instead, managers can ensure that the company culture is a network of healthy relationships, where people value honest communication and the emotional experiences of their peers. Because when people feel appreciated and inspired, they can call on the positive emotions produced by those experiences to get sh*t done.

David is Content Manager at 15Five, a lightweight weekly check-in that delivers a full suite of integrated tools – including continuous employee feedback, OKRs, pulse surveys, and peer recognition. David’s articles on talent management have appeared in TNW, TalentCulture, and Follow him @davidmizne.

Image Credit: Naja Rich