For more than twenty years I’ve been doing an exercise in the opening session of supervisory skills training programs. Participants identify a time when it was great to come to work.
Then they develop a list of why it was great. In other words, they make a list of the characteristics of a great work place.
The lists were always the same. The words vary a little bit from one class and group to another. But for twenty-plus years I’ve listened to people in class tell me about great workplaces they’ve experienced and what makes them great.
My trainees describe teams t hat are highly productive. They’re proud of the work they did in those teams and what the teams accomplished.
They describe their own behavior and feelings, too. They were excited. They worked hard. They came up with ideas to make things better. They pitched in. That’s the kind of workforce you want.
You want engaged employees because they produce better results. There’s been a lot of research on this, but one powerful study was done in 2006 by ISR, a consulting firm based in Australia.
They surveyed more than 664,000 employees from around the world and correlated engagement with financial performance. Over a one-year period, the operating income of high engagement firms increased by almost 20 percent while income for low engagement firms fell by almost a third.
Other research has found positive results that aren’t strictly accounting measures. Engaged employees treat customers better. They’re less likely to leave for greener pastures.
What I’ve learned in decades of watching trainees describe these “times when it was great to come to work” is that they describe a consistent set of characteristics for great work situations. Here’s my list.
Interesting and Meaningful Work
People find work interesting when they’re striving for excellence or mastery. They find work interesting when they’re learning and developing. Sometimes the interest comes from competition with other teams, competition with “standards” or competition with the team’s own prior performance.
People in great work situations describe their work as meaningful. It might be meaningful because it’s intrinsically important, the way a police officer might describe what he or she does. Or it might be meaningful because of contributions to the company or to other people.
Safe and Friendly Workplace
People want their workplace to be safe. They want to be safe from physical dangers, from unchecked bosses and from workplace bullies and jerks.
People also want to work with people they get along with and who pull their weight. Sirota Survey Intelligence polled 34,330 employees on this issue. They found a 73 percent engagement rate, almost double the national average, in companies where employees felt that management was taking steps to remove poor performers.
Bosses can be the problem instead of part of the solution. In a study presented at the Academy of Management convention in 2007, only about a fifth of employees responding said that a bad boss they worked for was either punished or removed.
Clear and Reasonable Expectations
This is pretty simple. People want to know what they’re supposed to do and they want to be able to do it. They also want to know where they stand.
It’s great if people know what their company stands for. But it’s more important that their supervisor sets clear and reasonable expectations for their work.
Regular and Usable Feedback
In a great work place, feedback is a way of life. That’s because it improves both performance and morale.
In a 1988 study, researchers tested how much feedback, goal setting and incentives affected performance. Feedback alone increased performance by 50 percent over the baseline.
In great work places people who aren’t performing up to expectations get early feedback that helps them correct. Effective feedback is limited to behavior and performance, leaving out words like “motivation” or “attitude” or “personality.”
Feedback also improves morale. In 2006 researchers led by Teresa Amabile at Harvard found that feedback was one of the key behaviors that result in a perception that the team leader is supportive.
People want to be treated fairly by their company and by their boss. They don’t necessarily want to make a ton of money or have the best benefits. But their pay and benefits should match up well with other people doing similar work.
The boss delivers the consequences of behavior and performance. People describe that as fair when behavior or performance and consequences match up.
Be careful not to confuse treating everyone fairly with treating everyone the same. In fact, treating people differently according to their behavior and performance is the key to fairness.
People will tolerate a wide variety of styles in their leaders. But they want their leaders and the system to be consistent.
They don’t want their boss to have mood swings. They don’t want a different reward system or initiative every time they turn around. Every day when they come to work, people want to have a pretty good idea of what it’s going to be like.
Maximum Control Possible over Work Life
People want to make as many basic decisions about their work as possible. They’re not unreasonable about this.
Workers expect the boss to give more freedom to experienced workers and top performers. But they value a boss who helps them develop so they merit more of that freedom in the future.
Supervisors are Key
Supervisors make the difference. Companies create reward systems and offer benefit packages. But the supervisor has more to do with the quality of day-to-day work than any other person or influence.
If you have a bad boss, you will have a terrible workplace. If you have a great boss you can have a great workplace in the most awful and dysfunctional of companies.