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You Get What You Give – Engaging and Retaining Employees

A few weeks ago I flew an airline whose employees were universally nasty. Every person I interacted with –from the person who checked me in for the flight, to the gate agent who scanned tickets, to the flight attendant on the plane–was nasty without being provoked.

you get what you give

There are two reasons why employees in various roles and locations are universally nasty to customers. Either employees feel they are treated poorly by the organization’s leaders, and they knowingly or unknowingly take their frustration out on customers, or there are insufficient expectations for good customer service. Given the competitive nature of the airline industry, I’m going to assume customer service standards are in place, and employees are reacting to how they feel they’re treated by the organization.

Your employees will not treat customers better than you treat your employees. You get what you give. Expecting employees to treat customers better than the employees feel treated is akin to buying subpar building materials and expecting superior construction. It isn’t going to happen.

Your organization’s handbook and customer service training programs can outline explicit instructions for how customers should be treated, but if the practices for treating employees are markedly different, don’t expect great customer service.

This begs the question, what does it mean to treat employees well? Don’t all employees need different things to be happy? What about the differences between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y employees?

In my experience people of all ages need many of the same things to be satisfied in a job. Employees want to learn, grow, and feel challenged. They want to work in an environment in which they feel comfortable–they like the people and feel accepted and respected. They want to make a difference and contribute to something bigger than themselves. And they want the flexibility to control their schedule and personal lives. Depending on an employee’s stage in life and career, some of these things become more important than others.

The difference between Baby Boomers, Generation X, and Generation Y: I don’t think each group needs drastically different things to be satisfied at work. In my experience, the key difference between the groups is that Baby Boomers and Gen X’ers will put up with not having everything they want. Gen Y’ers will not. Baby Boomers and Generation X will put up with a boss or job they don’t like for two years, waiting to see if things improve. Millennials are more impatient. If they don’t think they can get what they want from a job or organization, they move on quickly.

The quickest and easiest thing managers can do to engage and retain employees of all ages and stages in their careers is to ask what employees need to be satisfied. And no, employees may not tell you. There is an almost universal and pervasive fear in organizations to speak candidly with one’s manager. But employees definitely won’t tell you what they need to stay with your organization if you don’t ask. And even if employees aren’t candid about their desires, you still get points for asking the questions most managers don’t.

In every leadership, management and coaching class I teach, I ask managers to answer these questions:

• What are your employees’ career deal breakers? What would make your employees leave your organization?
• What kind of work do your employees like to do most? What kind of work do they like to do least?
• So you can provide personalized recognition they’ll appreciate, what are your employees’ favorite
hobbies, foods, and places to eat or shop?
• What are employees’ pet peeves at work?

I’ve asked these questions of thousands of managers, and few can answer the questions. If you can’t, without absolute certainty, answer these questions about your employees, don’t be surprised that you aren’t getting the performance you desire. How can you manage and motivate employees if you don’t know what’s important to them?

The easiest thing to do today to raise employee performance, and in turn improve customer service, is to ask your employees what they need, and when appropriate, give employees those things. If you can’t provide what employees what, tell employees why you can’t honor their requests. Rationale, the answer to the question why not, goes a long way.

You may be wondering, isn’t it worse to ask employees what they want and have to say no, than not to ask at all?” Quite simply, no. Not asking about employees’ needs because we may not be able to tell them yes is akin to the fallacy that if we don’t talk about something it doesn’t really exist.
Employees want what they want, regardless of whether you talk about those desires or not. I’d much rather have an open discussion about not being able to meet an employee’s needs, and know they will job hunt, then be surprised when they quit. If employees’ desires are truly deal breakers, you’ll lose them anyway. If you know what employees want, you can negotiate and attempt to meet some or all of their needs, giving you more control over employee engagement and retention.

Ask what employees need to stay with your organization and be satisfied, and watch performance, morale, and customer service rise.

About 

Shari Harley is the founder and President of Candid Culture, a Denver-based training firm that is bringing candor back to the workplace, making it easier to give feedback at work. Shari is the author of the business communication book How to Say Anything to Anyone: A Guide to Building Business Relationships that Really Work. She is a keynote speaker at conferences and does training throughout the U.S. Learn more about Shari Harley and Candid Culture’s training programs at www.candidculture.com.

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