Employee engagement gets a lot of air time. I fear it has become an abstraction. A concept we speak of at the surface level only. It is important. Of course it is. But employee engagement isn’t what runs through my brain every night when I should be sleeping. At least not at such a generic, high level.
I worry about retaining and inspiring the top performers on my team. I need them to be engaged. I need them to see forward momentum and opportunity. If a low performer is not fully engaged, I can live with that – at least in the short term. What I can’t allow, is engagement for high performers and high potential team members to dip.
Today I’m going to discuss four very specific habits I have observed in some leaders, which are sure-fire ways to crush high performer engagement. If you’re honest with yourself, as I have been, you’ll probably find yourself in a couple of these. I’ve doubled down my commitment to eliminate them from my repertoire.
I have been critical in the past about managers and media speaking about engagement as an abstraction. As some high-level program or company-wide initiative that lumps everyone together. You’ve read the stat that more than 50% of us have quit a job because of a bad manager. You’ve heard the saying, people quit managers, not companies. This completely lines up with my experience. My observation is that employee engagement is the biproduct of a very personal relationship between an employee and a manager. It’s the result of a partnership based on fairness, opportunity, challenge, and development. I get frustrated when I hear people speak about engagement at the surface level only. As though some system or program or policy is actually going to change how engaged a high performer is.
I spent some time thinking this weekend about the periods where I have felt unengaged at work. They weren’t during the most challenging times, or the times when the company was struggling. They weren’t when I had a crappy vacation plan or a when I couldn’t wear jeans to work. My lowest periods of engagement came when I felt I was being treated unfairly. My engagement withered when I felt the game was rigged, when I couldn’t win. My great efforts no longer resulted in great outcomes.
If you want to retain and engage your top performers, you should never do the four things below. You may find these to be extremely specific and tactical. They are. They are directly related to creating and maintaining a fair playing field at work. I’m sharing with you because after 20 years of career, these are the four things tattooed into my subconscious as guaranteed engagement suckers for top performers. They caused me to leave companies which tells me they’re likely to have the same effect on others.
1. Friday-night Flames
I used to work with a leader who made a point of sending incredibly harsh emails every Friday afternoon. At first, I thought it was unintentional, but as the months and years went by I became quite certain it was purposeful. Every Friday afternoon around 3 or 4 o’clock, this manager would send a nasty, pointed, critical email seemingly designed to create chaos and anxiety. He would target key members of his team and stakeholders from groups he worked closely with. For about three years, I went home just about every Friday, thinking about or worrying about some critical message this guy had sent.
This was obviously an extremely divisive and frankly, sadistic management technique. And, as I reflect on it now, it was clearly an attempt at exerting control. We’re all nodding our heads as we read this – what a jerk – but ask yourself, do you have any habits like this?
I make a point now, of saving my harshest criticism for a time when we will have the chance to actually talk it through. This may sound like a truism, but I try not to ruin people’s evenings and weekends whenever possible. Even when something really upsets me, and I feel compelled to admonish a person, I’ll hang on to it until Monday and deal with it in a 1-1.
My advice to managers is to dial up your level of self-control. Stop sending flame emails or harsh criticism on Friday afternoons or weekends or evenings when the target of your admonishment isn’t able to talk to you and resolve it. If I’m still painfully recalling those Fridays and Saturdays I spent stewing over flame emails, you can bet your top performers feel the same way about yours.
2. Copy Staff Members on a Critical Email to their Manager
Don’t undermine your leaders in front of their team members. There is little worse as a manager, than getting crushed on an email or in a meeting in front of your team. If I’m honest with myself, I’m sure I’ve done this more than I should. You tell yourself you want to send a message to the team, or you come up with some other justification for why a hard, public reprimand makes sense. The problem is, when you admonish a manager in front of her team, you create an amplification effect that may have unintended consequences.
When you de-pants a leader in front of the team, you give the team members tacit permission to question his or her competency. You send a clear message to the team that you’ve lost confidence in their leader. It’s easy to imagine the trickle-down effects of this. You crush the manager, the team sees this, they question the leader’s skill and career prospects, they start second guessing direction given to them by the manager, projects start suffering, the member and team perform poorly as a result. Your “message” accomplished exactly the opposite of what you wanted it to.
My advice to leaders is to give hard, critical feedback directly to managers. If you want to send a message to the larger team, I suggest first engaging with the manager and then delivering a purposeful message to the team together. That way you preserve the manager’s ability to lead the team, you have the opportunity to voice your criticism, and you get to deliver a larger message to the team.
3. Harsh Criticism Too Soon After a Big Effort
I’ll never forget this one time my team and I pushed hard for two months on a massive project – really went above and beyond – the team was completely fried by the end of it. By all accounts it was a success. And then, not even eight hours after it was over, when we were still basking in the glow of our crazy hard effort, we received a flaming email about a mistake we’d made on some other, unrelated project.
If you want to take engagement from 100 to 0 in 5 seconds, this is how you do it.
As a manager, you must pick and choose when and how you criticize. I’m the first person to point out we need to be more critical of our teams. I wrote an entire blog on the subject. But be smart about it. If your team has just worked hard on a tough project, give them a minute to enjoy the success. Have the self-control to hold your criticism for a few days.
In the same vein, if your team is in the heat of the moment – during a big event, in a big customer meeting, about to do something pressure packed, hold your feedback until its done. I’ve never understood managers who insist on crushing their people in the heat of the moment. If they were unprepared, nothing you will say now can fix that. All you will do, by admonishing them in the moment, is make things worse. Performance and engagement will suffer. Wait until it’s over and set up a productive feedback session to share your criticism and advice.
My advice to managers is to be more purposeful in your delivery of feedback and criticism. Too many leaders operate from emotion instead of purpose. Yes, you may be pissed. Yes, your team may have screwed up. But that doesn’t mean you have to react recklessly to satisfy your emotional needs. That is short sighted. Stop reacting. Think through how you want to deliver criticism. Act from purpose, not from anger.
4. Coddle Underperformers
I wrote about this one in my blog, How to Lose a Team in 10 Days. I won’t dwell on it. Except to say, a guaranteed way of losing your top performers is to be seen coddling or favoring underperformers. Some managers, who aren’t comfortable delivering pointed, critical feedback, or who are unwilling to make hard changes on their teams, can get sucked into a habit of lowering the bar for low performers. You must never do this. I realize it can get exhausting having to constantly provide performance feedback to low performers. It can be tempting to give them a pass just to save the energy. The problem is this behavior sends a clear message to your higher performers. It says the game is not fair.
The worst thing we can do as managers is to sacrifice the engagement of our top performers to coddle our low performers. My advice to leaders is to set a consistent standard for performance and stick to it. Your high performers need to see you pushing lower performers, otherwise you risk losing them.
I think we speak about employee engagement too generically. We rarely get past the surface level in our discussion of it. If we’re not careful, we risk missing the real point. Our goal as managers is to behave in a way that motivates, engages and retains our top performers. I’ve shared a handful of behaviors I’ve seen over the years that do the exact opposite of that. I try really hard not to do these things. I’d love to hear from you about other behaviors you’ve seen that are sure fire ways to suck the engagement from high performers.