Experience by Design
Getting Employee Experience right requires enhanced leadership philosophy and organizational structures
What if I told you that the last action thriller you watched was really about…employee experience? Don’t believe me? Watch this: So you’re in the middle of another action thriller. As the car cruises down the city street, the camera angle shifts to just inside the driver’s window. It holds there for a couple of seconds as the car enters the intersection. And then BOOM!! Your car is t-boned at full speed by another vehicle.
This kind of sudden impact collision isn’t reserved for Hollywood. All across the world of business today, employees feel the shock of being blindsided. It’s when the manager gives you negative feedback weeks after the incident occurred. It’s when your manager swoops in to take over one of your work assignments instead of coaching you. It’s being publicly ridiculed by a co-worker.
These are all examples of preventable negative employee experiences.
Every year companies spend millions of dollars on Employee Experience and aren’t realizing any ROI. This problem affects not only employees and leadership, but it even impacts potential recruits and customers. Its impact can be seen and felt throughout the employee life cycle.
A 2019 study by Gartner showed that only 13% of employees reported being fully satisfied with their experience. This stat is important because the employee’s experience influences not only the story the employee tells themselves about the company, but also the one they tell others. That’s why the impact of dissatisfied employees can range from high turnover and low productivity to a loss in revenue and poor customer service. (BizFluent.com)
Hey there! I’m Wayne Burrell. A curiously creative connector, husband and father of four daughters. I’ve spent the better part of the last 20 years in multiple fortune 500 companies. My experiences have a run the gamut from the good, to the bad to the downright treacherous. I’ve been praised and plotted against. I’ve been recognized and ridiculed. I’ve been honored and humiliated. I’ve also collaborated effectively and behaved callously. I’ve inspired and infuriated. I’ve mentored and made work life uncomfortable.
I’ve survived 4 layoffs, been laid off once and fired once. I’ve been written up on trumped up charges. I’ve been falsely accused of inappropriate behavior in my performance review. I’ve even had safe spaces compromised by the very Senior Leader that created it. Some of the darkest and worst times were when I’ve felt completely alone. Not knowing who I could go to for help.
By no means do I have it all together when it comes to employee experience. I’ve also made some awful blunders that resulted in very negative experiences for coworkers. In fact, two were committed against one particular coworker…in the same quarter.
All of these experiences have been painful. Both being on the receiving end and also in seeing the pain caused by my poor judgement. These experiences and seeing/hearing countless others have fueled my passion and burning desire to better understand Employee Experience and how organizations can harness its power to propel their businesses. My hope is that in so doing it will help improve the way employees are treated at work.
In this manifesto, I answer this core question: Why do so many companies fall short when it comes to employee experience? by sharing my thoughts and suppositions supported by external sources where possible. I also share bold and thought provoking ideas for how to remedy the situation.
Let’s start by defining Employee Experience. First with what it is not. And then by what it is in actuality.
Employee Experience is not any of these things:
These are all check-the-box activities that make departments feel good about having done something. At the end of the day, these are not sustainable approaches for improving the employee’s experience.
Employee Experience is a worker’s perceptions about his or her journey through all the touchpoints at a particular company which span Attraction, Onboarding, Employment and Offboarding. The journey can also be mapped against three categories: culture, technology, and physical space.
According to best-selling author Jacob Morgan, “employee experience is creating an organization where people want to show up.” Employee Experience is often a reflection of the company itself. A canary in the coal mine of an organization’s culture.
Here are some examples of what Employee Experience is in practice:
One thing you notice is that these are all feelings. Yes, feelings based on the story the employee is telling themselves. But stories that the company has a large hand in writing.
My favorite car was my 2000 Honda Accord Coupe. I drove it for 10 years racking up close to 170K beautiful miles. The best thing about her was that it was a manual transmission and how it always kept me engaged in the driving experience.
Having a better understanding of what Employee Experience is and why it’s so hard to achieve is vital if you want to do more than pay it lip service in response to the annual Employee Engagement Survey.
Let’s use the stick-shift manual transmission to get a better idea of how employee engagement and employee experience work together. Think of employee engagement as a gear and employee experience as the speedometer. Here’s description of the Engagement Gear and its resulting effort.
I believe that all employees are already engaged, it’s just a matter of what gear they are in. The gear the employee is in will depend on the speed at which they’re going at any given point in time. You could see an employee join a company at 4th gear. Eager to make a great first impression, excited to learn, and eager to deliver value. A series of negative experiences sends the speedometer down and results in a downshift. Unlike a car, the experiences needed to upshift into greater engagement are a lot more and consistent than what can cause the downshift.
The upshift will also be heavily impacted by the team climate. Is there trust, is there safety, is there a sense of belonging, do they feel included? If not, the engagement will likely not upshift no matter how many virtual happy hours you have. To get into 5th gear will likely take an exceptional leader for which that the employee is willing to run through a proverbial wall.
I’ve had such a leader once or twice. Time goes by so quickly as it’s much easier to get into the blissful state of flow coined by psychologist Mihaly Csikszentmihalyi. I’ve been on the other side where time went by so slowly that you’d swear the clock’s hands seemed to be moving through sludge.
In his book, Employee Experience, Ben Whitter writes “exceptional experiences can create highly engage people…with the potential to deliver astounding business results.” Studies show that highly-engaged employees perform 20 to 28 percent better than their disengaged peers, and disengaged employees generate 40 percent less revenue than their engaged coworkers.
Getting employees engaged and committed will often require more substantial interventions to address the heart of ineffective employee experience efforts. It is my belief that many organizations lack the emotional intelligence, adequate personnel and effective structures needed to acknowledge, anticipate and attend to the emotional needs of their employees.
The first reason companies are not getting employee experience right is due to an intolerance of emotions. Why is there an intolerance toward emotions?
First, many leaders don’t appreciate the enormity of the challenge that leadership presents. Dealing with humans invariably means dealing with emotions. This is difficult, risky and not for the faint of heart. Too many managers approach management as one would a computer program, somehow expecting rationality and predictability. Not appreciating the fact that people are not only 70% H2O, but they’re also 80% emotions. Making them totally unpredictable.
“Vulnerability is the core, the heart, the center of meaningful human experiences.”– Brené Brown
Leadership requires courage. According to Brené Brown, you can’t get to courage without rumbling with vulnerability. Brown defines vulnerability as “uncertainty, risk, and emotional exposure.” It’s that unstable feeling we get when we step out of our comfort zone or do something that forces us to loosen control.
Vulnerability is a tall order for most and it’s especially difficult for managers. Vulnerability is a risk that far too many managers are uncomfortable taking. There’s the fear of appearing weak and losing status. The fear of being demoted from management. And ultimately the fear of job loss. Rather than engage in the emotional discomfort, far too many managers simply disregard emotions.
[Book Recommendation: “Dare To Lead”, by Brené Brown]
Such managers lack the confidence to wade into even the shallowest of emotions because despite being one of the most common traits among high-quality leaders, there is a lack of competency when it comes to emotional intelligence.
To avoid this discomfort and the risk of losing control as well as to manage insecurities, many managers simply take emotions off the table. Choosing to ignore or dismiss them all together.
Privilege is defined as a special right, advantage, or immunity granted or available only to a particular person or group. In the manager-employee dynamic, managers possess a certain privilege. This privilege is emotional.
Emotional Privilege is when a leader is able to behave in a way that rubs their employee the wrong way without regard for their feelings. This all the while knowing that the emotional burden of that situation is not theirs to bear. The implicit expectation being that it is the employee that must get past it because there’s no place for emotions at work.
Another key reason companies aren’t getting employee experience right is the scarcity of good leaders. Here are a few reasons that may be the case:
“Leadership is getting someone else to do something you want done because he wants to do it.”– Dwight D. Eisenhower
Leadership isn’t about wielding authority. That will only engender resentment and disengagement.
Leadership isn’t a profession, it’s a calling. For many, it’s about the status, the pay and usually it’s the only means of career advancement. Unfortunately, this produces some of the worst leaders.
Leadership isn’t just management. They do not grasp that leadership is much more than handing out work, gathering and reporting status updates, providing performance reviews.
Most middle-managers are content with just being a boss. You can see that in the amount of time that is not put in perfecting their craft. Ask the average boss how many leadership books they’ve picked up on their own, what leadership podcasts they consume, how many hours of personal development do they fit in each week.
During the pandemic I was in a training session with several team members. When we got to a part discussing the role of a People Leader, one of the Directors chimed in and said that he hadn’t known that coaching was going to be as important to leadership as it is. 😳 How does a leader NOT know that their #1 job, first and foremost, is to coach and develop? 🤷🏻♂️
Although billions are spent each year on Leadership Development, that in and of itself is not the cure all for producing quality leaders.
Leadership isn’t something that can be learned in a classroom. It is something that requires a great deal of emotional intelligence and self-awareness. These come best through Executive Coaching or Clinical Therapy. The next best form of leadership development for a People Leader would come from their own People Leader. Unfortunately, it’s not hard to see that Senior Leaders are not doing an adequate job of coaching their direct reports (middle managers).
Senior Leaders are busy and often much of the One-on-One with their direct report is focused on the employee’s status update. If coaching does come up, it’s usually from the stand point of someone having to deal with an employee. It’s at this point that coaching is highly effective. Asking questions to get the direct report leader to re-examine their assumptions and approach. This alone takes up to an hour. How many leaders are having separate meetings for coaching and for work updates with their Senior Leader each week? I presume not many. But it’s at this level where coaching & development matters the most!
“What gets measured, gets improved.”– Peter Drucker
Most companies seemingly hold the People Leader above reproach. Why else would the only mechanism for gathering information on them be the annual Employee Engagement survey? When an individual contributor reports on their work they must get stakeholder feedback.
If leading people is such a big part of a People Leader’s duties, how come they aren’t getting feedback from the direct reports on that work? If the intent was to truly improve leadership performance this would be a more standard practice.
I once heard a CEO say that a core part of their role was culture. Then a few moments later made culture out to be some amorphous catch-all bucket where all the things that couldn’t really be understood about business are collected. 🤦🏾♂️
I’m still surprised at how many leaders all across the board do not understand culture. Especially when leaders are the ambassadors of culture. Culture starts out as a reflection of the founder’s values and beliefs about what it takes to be successful. It then becomes the unspoken norms and beliefs that influence what truly gets done in an organization.
“Culture is the way we do things around here”.– Seth Godin
Many leaders see culture as something handled way above them, by HR or the CEO. They have no grasp that “culture is what the leader celebrates and what they tolerate.” That the only culture that matters to an employee is the one maintained by their leader. They fail to realize how much control they have over the team climate (the conditions that determine how that culture feels to the employee) of the local culture.
Lastly, it’s hard to get the Employee Experience right when there are no comprehensive and coordinated process focused on the Employee Experience. Here are some reasons why this may be the case.
First is that the job of managing the entire employee life cycle across multiple functions and through various career phases is simply not in any one person’s job description.
Typically, HR is responsible for the employee life cycle. However, there is a significant portion of time when that employee is largely outside of HR’s purview. I guess a pulse survey alone does the trick there, huh? I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t consider that comprehensive.
You will also find various siloes each addressing their own part of the life cycle in isolation (such as HR, IT, Facilities, etc). I don’t know about you, but I wouldn’t consider that coordinated.
To discuss the second reason, lets imagine all employees as citizens of the “Company State”. Your management are the law enforcement. The Senior Leadership are your mayors and other officials. Your CEO of course is the Governor. Your Attorney General would be the Chief HR Officer (CHRO). In an actual state, the AG’s duties are to uphold the laws of the state, not just obey the will of the Governor. However, in the vast majority of organizations, the CHRO is accountable to the CEO. How then would the employee truly be protected?
In many organizations, Human Resources is seen as an extension of the management arm. When an employee is being treated unfairly, there is often little or no recourse. Are there effective mechanisms in place for reporting ineffective leaders? No wonder employees leave bad managers and not companies.
My vision for Employee Experience is one where everyone feels safe and eager to show up as the best versions of themselves. To make this vision a reality requires us to challenge our assumptions, question our doubts and shift our minds to a new way of approaching leadership. This will involve re-imagining what it means to be a Leader and creating new structures to support that re-imagination.
What type of leaders do we need to be for our employees? To answer this question, why not go to the source – employees. “But we already do go to employees. We get their opinion on the Annual Employee Engagement Survey.”
While that is great, what’s not great is having all of that feedback being fitted into the existing philosophy propped up by the existing structures. Instead, to truly do more than pay mere lip service to employee experience, be willing to innovate, disrupt and evolve the culture.
“People won’t care how much you know until they know how much you care.”– Maya Angelou
In order to make this shift, leaders much make every intention to cultivate and develop the following capabilities:
It is this recognition of humanity that is vital to producing the care and respect that is at the core of good employee experience. It is care and respect, watered by vulnerability that are the seeds that yield trust and commitment. These are all crucial components in developing the all-important Psychological Safety needed for all thriving teams.
To have leadership that recognizes and appreciates the fact that emotions aren’t an inconvenient truth that can be ignored or side stepped, requires that they recognize the humanity in all. Employees are to be seen as partners essential in the achievement of team success.
Leaders must see themselves as servants. Shift from an attitude of “What have you accomplished? Where are we on [this]?” to “How may I help you with…?” Leaders must now realize that while they guide the ship, that will only go as far as their employees, who propel the ship, will take them.
Root out emotional privilege and emotional intolerance by making “Caring” a Core Value. Go even further and make it “Give a Damn About People”. Focus the leaders on the concept that people truly do come before profits (and targets, and goals, and every other metric). The obstacle is most definitely the way (especially when it’s emotional in nature) and shouldn’t be side stepped out of convenience, fear or privilege.
A former colleague and good friend, let’s call her Jaleesa, while an Operations manager at a major telecommunications firm, had a young employee come into her office clearly distraught. Jaleesa quickly recognized that the source of this distress was her employee’s boyfriend. Though this was not work related, Jaleesa took a few minutes to listen, acknowledge and empathize with her employee. The sobbing soon started to break. Jaleesa then asked “Now, what would have to be done to make the rest of your shift end better than how it started?” Having felt listened to, the employee’s emotions simmered down allowing her right brain to shift into problem-solving mode. That employee was able to go back to work and meet her targets. Thanks in large part to how Jaleesa responded to the employee’s emotions.
As a manager, your employees will come with different levels of emotional temperament. Some can handle a more direct approach while others will be effected in a deeper manner. Since it is your job to help your employees succeed by being as productive as they can be, you will sometimes have to help them weather their emotions so they can regain the focus needed to be productive.
“Part of your job as a boss or human being is to acknowledge and deal with emotional responses not to dismiss or avoid them.”– Kim Scott
Acknowledging emotions with a little empathy allows the individual’s emotional tidal wave pool to slowly calm down as they feel seen and heard. This only takes a few minutes, but frankly even 0:15 will provide a tremendous amount of ROI in employee productivity.
[Book Recommendation: “Radical Candor”, by Kim Scott]
If you couldn’t tell by now, I’m a huge fan of Brené Brown. So, I know the term “armor” is something she tells us should be shed. I feel that when it comes to emotions, there’s a balance between armoring all the way up to protect the ego and shedding the armor so you can be more emotionally vulnerable. It isn’t best to be completely protected nor completely vulnerable. That balance demands situational awareness.
Chances are good that your team or department would benefit greatly from developing the skills needed to not only develop their emotional “armor” but also the awareness of when to loosen or remove it. In that case, consider consulting with a trained expert in the field of handling emotions in the workplace.
A leader must be someone that is self-aware, emotionally intelligent and willing to grow as a person and continually work on perfecting their craft – leadership. The best way to do this through working with a coach to identify and address emotional blind spots. This self-awareness is critical for adopting a leadership mindset built on caring, humility and service.
Another radical step to shifting the mindset around Leadership is to truly reflect what’s at its core in the very job title. By removing ineffective terms like Manager and Director and replacing them with more indicative terms like Coach and Leader, a strong signal is sent as to what you want leadership to truly be.
|Finance Manager||Finance Coach|
|Marketing Director||Senior Marketing Coach|
|Senior Director, Compliance||Compliance Leader|
|Chief Executive Office||Chief Culture Officer|
Titles signal a shift away from activities such as:
Titles truly are powerful mechanisms for communicating behavioral expectations and thus powerful mechanisms for evolving a culture.
The Future of Work is Personal. The one-size fits all approach, while great for leaders is terrible for the employee experience. It’s a sign of lazy leadership and cowardice. A person is not a part that can be run through the same process as the next part. Like snowflakes, people are all custom.
Leadership is about knowing when, where and how to guide employees. It’s tailoring the message to the audience. At times its heavy instruction bordering on dictating. At other times it’s facilitating and guiding the thought process.
One great method for leadership personalization is “Situational Leadership”. The new hire requires a different approach than the 3-year veteran even down to the very questions asked while coaching.
Another great method is Daniel Pink’s M.A.P. – Mastery, Autonomy and Purpose. Of the three, only Purpose will look the same for all. However, how often it’s stressed will depend on the individual.
[Book Recommendation: “Drive”, by Daniel Pink]
Leadership isn’t a one-way street. The employee experience isn’t the sole responsibility of the leader/coach. Employees have a significant role to play in managing themselves and their leadership.
The employee owns the responsibility for managing the energy and attitude they bring to work. Employees would do well to devote themselves to continued personal growth as well. This doesn’t mean that an employee should be expected to shrug it off after their People Leader dumps on them in staff meeting. But it allows the employee to have tools to effectively deal with negativity.
Employees must also be responsible for the flow of information to their Coach / People Leader. Their deliverables and feedback should be provided in a manner in which the People Leader has said is most convenient for them. This all falls under the realm of managing up.
[Book Recommendation: “Managing Up”, by Mary Abbajay]
A great deal of the negative experiences comes from interactions with other employees. As I mentioned earlier, two of my worst failings was dishing out two pretty negative experiences in rather short successions. Employees are responsible for how they conduct themselves, but must be trained and coached in conflict resolution.
At the end of the day, employees are fish in the department fish bowl. Leadership is ultimately accountable for the condition of the water (team climate). Leaders place a significant role in making the environment one conducive for trust, candor, sharing, collaboration, risk taking and learning.
The way we think about and approach leadership is just one side of the coin. A more powerful way of making a meaningful culture shift toward a better employee experience is through changing the physical structures in which that leadership approach is carried out.
If people leave managers and not companies, who says that an employee needs to have a direct manager anyway?
“We’ve been taught we need a manager. Only because so few take ownership and responsibility to manage themselves. Be the manager/coach to yourself that you deserve. Truly identify yourself as that person.”– Peter Drucker “Managing Oneself”
Employees do not need to be managed by you as a People Leader. What they need (and seldom get) is your prompt feedback as a Coach. So why not work to scale your impact as a People Leader by delegating the day to day “management” of employees to themselves and the team?
Now I’m not advocating every person for themselves. Groups with clear guidelines and trust have the ability to hold themselves accountable and deliver results. Look no further than the world of Agile Scrum where Scrum Masters facilitate rather than manage. By making expectations and assignments clear, teams can manage themselves with the support and accountability needed to advance the work.
Look up and imagine the solar system. Eight planets (sorry Pluto) the orbit the sun. Each planet (work team or cell) would orbit and gather warmth (coaching, advice, support, discipline, promotion, etc) from a sun (leadership cell). Progressive tech such as Google make many of the typical People Leader decisions in such a committee.
This Leadership Cell would be structured in such a way to protect employees from the withering effect of one People Leader’s bias or even the crippling bias of that People Leader’s Senior Leader. This dramatically lessens the likelihood of the negative voluntary attrition related to management conflict.
Open new avenues for stellar individual contributors to advance their careers. Returning to the interstellar analogy (see what I did there?), you can have moons (support cell) that provide as-needed support. This would be a multi-disciplinary group made up of various roles: Business Analysis, Change Management, Quality, Technical Advisory, etc.
Among the many common refrains my wife uses is “Don’t ask a question you’re not prepared to hear the answer to.” This probably explains why so very few People Leaders bother to ask for employee feedback on what usually comprises 50%+ of their job.
Lily Zheng, a Diversity, Equity & Inclusion (DEI) Strategist and Consultant, in making recommendations to address poor DEI adoption in leadership teams gave these two suggestions:
Source: LinkedIn (Lily Zheng)
What effect would these two structural changes have on the employee experience? It’s really hard to tell, but a little accountability and feedback never hurt nobody.
Human Resources should work for the “Company” – not for the CEO. HR should report to the Board of Directors just as the Chief Compliance Officer does. It is only in this that HR will be able to truly look after the interests of both leadership (the powerful) and employees (the powerless) without bias and pressure from the chain of command. The long-ignored inequity between management and employee will get much needed attention as employees will now feel as if someone is there to protect and serve them, too.
Not talking about a pseudo-union. Just ensuring that leadership doesn’t run roughshod over employees. And that bad managers are identified quickly and removed from the company. Want to evolve your culture faster? Reduce the time it takes to discipline and dismiss a toxic manager.
At the end of the day, the answer to why do so many companies fall short when it comes to employee experience is unique to each company. I’ve raised but a few that form common themes from my research and studies on the subject. Those reasons boil down to the leadership and the structures in which that leadership takes place.
Ultimately it becomes a question of culture: What does the CEO believe to be true about how the company is to achieve success? It is my firm belief that employee experience is integral to achieving greater levels of performance and company success in the marketplace. Any company that’s hitting it out of the Employee Experience ballpark is doing a lot more than paying it mere lip service. And you can see the differences in their leadership philosophy and structures.