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Employee Experience

How effective leaders create excellent experiences to drive performance

What are the fundamental elements that enable organizations and leaders to not only create high-performance teams but also inspire, engage and help develop the talent of tomorrow? In this article, we delve into the intricacies of effective leadership, and what it takes to empower people to thrive.

The secret behind a successful organization is the people. While one could easily argue that there is more to success than people, one could also argue that people only empower an organization’s success when they themselves are able to thrive.

Talented employees want, and deserve, guidance, attention, and assurances of a promising future. Organizations spend a lot of time, money and effort to hire the best and the brightest, but those talents may lose their spark if not provided with the right experiences and environment to support their aspirations. Not only do we not get their best performance if the experience is not optimal, but we risk losing talented people to another place where their talents can be applied, grown, and valued.

An organization’s greatest assets in shaping culture and experience are the leaders and managers who influence the sentiment and day-to-day interactions with employees. Engagement and retention are not solely dependent on organizational action planning and programs; a large part of the success of those programs relies heavily on the leaders and managers who execute them.

For the last few years, we’ve had to manage how we work and interact with employees and colleagues differently. This change has caused an evolution in the employee experience. What is evident within these evolutions is the shift from relying on senior leadership for assurances during the height of uncertainty to local leaders and managers. Data is showing that engaged employees are more likely to stay longer and have a stronger sense of engagement if they have the following (and local leaders and managers play a key role in influencing these needs):

  • Clarity and optimism for the future
  • Potential career growth
  • Sense of being a valued member of the organization

Some leaders or managers took on the challenges of the last few years with ease, applying what perhaps came naturally, whereas others struggled to adapt and were challenged by driving results and supporting their workgroups. What sets the most effective leaders apart from others serves as a roadmap for strong leadership. This is defined as leaders who lead, engage, and equip employees to perform well, and are driven to guide people to the best of their ability daily.

This roadmap is broken down into three critical components of leadership that can be used to measure effectiveness and pinpoint areas of strength, impact, and opportunity. When a leader understands these elements, they can not only lead more effectively, but also understand how their abilities correlate and influence overall engagement.

Defining Lead: Enabling High Performance

The power of clarity can be a driving force, and creating a clear vision of the future for employees is a critical component to enabling high performance. The effects can be seen throughout history as we consider how groups of people persevere under the most difficult of situations to come together and achieve a common objective. From scientific breakthroughs and innovative products meant to improve the world, to the extreme of winning wars for the sake of personal freedoms, a singular focus was created that extends beyond a mere direction or strategy. What can local leaders and managers do to create this type of vision?

  • Provide Clarity – Without focus, talent and effort are wasted. This goes beyond simply providing direction. Understanding what needs to be done, what the target looks like, and how the team will get there brings a heightened sense of focus as well as a stronger sense of mission if the purpose is laid out. Employees are more inclined to feel a part of the mission when they are clear on the goals, as opposed to merely being directed or told what to do.
  • Harness the Purpose – This is a simple concept, but it is more than just explaining why we do what we do. Effective leaders don’t just share, they truly harness the purpose and align it with the collective goals and values of the team as well as each employee's contributions. Everyone has a role and is contributing in some way – so leaders ensure every employee knows how valuable that role is to the “end game.” At the end of the day, with all things being equal, people would rather work more for a purpose than a paycheck.
  • Conquer the “Competition” – What are we up against? Rivals, nemeses, or looming challenges — friendly or not — can serve as a catalyst for employee drive, amplifying focus, purpose, and the desire to succeed. Leaders can provide that context, whether it is internal teams, industry competition, or even the fight for a cause. It is a rallying point that brings people together and fuels motivation.
  • Champion the Cause – As senior leaders establish the strategy, local leaders and managers have the task of cascading and relaying to employees why it is important. They need to understand the goals but also convey them back to the team in a way that garners enthusiasm.
  • Connect the Dots – Every employee has a role, and without their contribution, the final outcomes won’t be achieved. Effective leaders acknowledge and emphasize the value of each effort, treating all roles and the people that perform them as essential.
  • Illustrate the “End Game” – Strong leaders talk about what success looks like and how it will impact each employee. This isn’t just about reaching a goal or completing a task, it is truly part of the vision and those that achieve it.

Establishing Trust is another critical component to enabling high performance. It is difficult to get someone to follow you if they don’t trust you. Trust was, and still is, key to managing through uncertain or unstable times, and the key aspects of trust and how to establish it remains consistent.

  • Create Confidence – Assurances around direction and decisions are necessary for creating confidence. The most effective leaders communicate often, are transparent, and share expected outcomes, good or bad.
  • Listen Effectively – Open door has a whole new meaning given our new way of working. Managers need to ensure employees know they are available, welcome, and at the same time, truly listening (whether by asking questions, staying focused, and/or responding).
  • Care – Knowing a manager cares is a top predictor of employee retention, a theme that has risen in importance over the last few years. Basic human caring is a given, but the secret to success is having a genuine, personalized approach. It’s having awareness of each person’s preferences, and how they work and interact to recognize them as a complete human in and out of work.
  • Be Present – Sometimes, employees just want to know their leaders are human too and share the same life experiences and challenges. Managers allow employees that humanistic view through interactions, shared experiences, and openness.

Defining Engage: Psychological Needs

Investing in employees and taking a genuine interest in their career growth and/or professional development has traditionally been a long-standing driver of engagement and a key aspect of the employee experience. This is not just mere one-on-one meetings but rather a true show of investment into an employee and helping them see a future for themselves.

  • Take Interest – It seems basic but is often overlooked. Strong leaders don’t simply ask about employees’ goals or aspirations, they provide an avenue and support them in achieving those goals.
  • Provide FeedbackTimely and valuable feedback is a top driver of leadership effectiveness, and through studies, more impactful on employee performance than traditional scheduled performance reviews or one on ones. Strong leaders will be intentional about providing feedback, both constructive and positive, in the spirit of strengthening talent.
  • Allow the Wins and Losses – Learning comes from trying, and effective leaders know how to create a safe space in which employees can step out of their comfort zone and challenge themselves, regardless of success. The most effective managers allow employees to own their losses and wins, which in turn cultivates confidence and ownership in the work while still feeling supported as they develop.

Value employees’ contributions. It is easy to rely on recognition programs, such as peer-to-peer or rewards or “pats on the back” for a job well done. These are appreciated and valued, certainly, but recognition serves for a moment in time – a task, or accomplishment that is just one part of an employee’s real contribution. Valuing an employee’s contribution is enduring, and it fosters a sense of belonging, team building, and purpose.

  • Involve – Seek out employee ideas, involve them in decisions, and emphasize how important their view is to making improvements and delivering quality outcomes.
  • Trust – One of the most difficult things for a leader to do is “let go” and trust those around them to get it done. While difficult, trust is a distinction between strong leadership and failing to lead. Empower employees to do what they are there to do, and rely on them for their part. The role becomes theirs, and their value increases through their achievements.

Defining Equip: Operational Ability

Drive performance by equipping employees with what they need. When leaders have led the right way, the rest should come easily — comparable to building a well-oiled machine: all the parts are maintained with care. Give employees what they need to do the job and let them achieve. Simply put, create direction and help remove any barriers that might stand in the way of their goals or frustrations created along the way.

  • Provide direction
  • Provide training or information
  • Provide resources
  • Share the progress

Leaders are key to shaping the employee experience, and in turn, they foster a sense of engagement in employees that lead them to care more, stay longer, and essentially work harder. The best leaders know the way to create this momentum, and engagement with employees runs deeper than mere themes, prescriptive words, and step-by-step actions. It is about daily interactions and establishing a culture that inspires, empowers, values, and grows employees’ talents to achieve excellence.

Read more research and insight on the employee experience in the WSA Performance Lab.

Lisa Wager

Lisa Wager, M.S., joined WSA as an executive consultant in 2019. Previously, Lisa worked for IBM/Kenexa for over 18 years as a managing consultant, primarily assisting organizations to enhance and improve the employee experience through employee engagement, leadership assessment, and development programs. In her most recent role, Lisa served in IBM corporate leadership, learning and inclusion, where she was responsible for redesigning and implementing a global leadership assessment and development strategy, designing, and deploying programs to identify new and advancing leaders all the way to executive succession and development.

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