by: Elizabeth A. Jenkins, PhD
In his HBR 2004 article on leadership, W.C.H. Prentice emphasized that “a great leader’s unique achievement is a human and social one which stems from his understanding of his fellow workers”, and he suggested that a successful leader is one who appreciates the values, goals, and needs that motivate employees’ behaviors and who elicits employee buy-in by aligning those interests with the organization’s goals. How does a leader effectively do this while encouraging creativity and innovation?
Invest in knowing your employees and you are investing in your organization. Employees serve as the arms of your business, and engaged employees are a valuable asset. Engagement predicts employee buy-in for, ownership of, and follow-through with the organization’s initiatives.
An effective leader approaches employee engagement as an ongoing process. Developing trust occurs across time and is driven by a leader’s willingness to listen in order to understand versus hearing in order to respond. An effective leader explores employees’ broader interests, including their values and needs. A leader’s appreciation of these interests increases employee engagement and the likelihood that organizational goals will be met.
Focusing amounts to identifying the “what” of change. An effective leader maintains a commitment to the organization’s mission and specific (or team’s) goals or initiatives. A successful leader also demonstrates support for employees’ interests, by exploring their goals, needs, concerns, and innovative ideas. The tone is a collaborative one, rather than one of force.
When a leader begins directing in the absence of genuinely listening, the emphasis can quickly shift to power and control. It is human nature to reject feeling coerced by pushing back or resisting control. This discord between leader and employee has historically been referred to as “resistance”, although it is really less about the employee’s failure to comply/resistance and more about the relationship between the leader and the led. At best, it is a misalignment between the employee’s interests and the organization’s initiative. At its most extreme, it is a breakdown of trust between the leader and the led.
A skilled leader maintains employee engagement by focusing on both the organization’s mission and the employees’ interests and seeking to identify a shared agenda or common focus that benefits both the organization and the employee. This shared agenda constitutes the “what” of change. It is an alignment of the employees’ interests with the organization’s mission. Focusing essentially amounts to the leader and the led reaching a mutual agreement that “it matters to you and it matters to me so let’s look at this some more.”
3. Exploring alignment of interests by evoking employee change talk
It is tempting to assume that your good reasons for change should be your employees’ good reasons for change, but that’s not necessarily true. Nor is it accurate to assume that all innovative ideas from employees will be well aligned with the organization’s mission. If employees are to work collaboratively with leadership towards a shared initiative, it is important that the leader and the led have explored how the employees’ values, goals, and needs are aligned with the organization’s targeted change or initiative.
An effective leader explores this “why” together with the employee. It is this process of the employees identifying their own “why’s” for implementing a change that drives employee motivation and follow-through. The leader’s role is to listen and communicate an explicit curiosity about how the employees’ desire, ability, reasons, and needs align with the organizational initiative or overall mission.
This exploration of employee interests within the context of the organization’s mission and specific initiatives is not achieved when a leader directs a change or simply tells an employee why an initiative “should” matter. Finding alignment in interests is determined by asking and listening. “Why is a particular behavior important to this employee?” “What interests does the individual have that make this change important?” “Why does he or she want to engage in this change?” “What lets the employee know that he or she will succeed in making this change and what does the employee see as the benefits to this initiative and the costs of failing to implement this initiative?”
4. Planning and Implementation
Planning is the “how” of successful implementation of an initiative. It is what we as leaders tend to rush into when an organization has determined that change is needed. However, without first developing a foundation of trust and collaboration with employees, clearly identifying the shared agenda, and exploring how this change aligns with the employee’s interests and the organization’s mission, leaders will not effectively facilitate change. Successful planning occurs with input from both the leader and the employees.
Employee engagement, clear identification of both organizational and employee interests, and alignment of these interests with the proposed initiative are all essential to successful planning and implementation of change. The process of exploring and valuing the interests of the individual employee and connecting them to the interests of the group is relational, yet its tangible ROI lies in its potential to translate into measurable benchmarks of success for the organization.