Give Employees What They Need

By Larry Sternberg

Oct. 1, 2009

It seems that the worst of the recession may be behind us, and organizations are turning their attention to how they will retain and motivate employees as the recovery takes hold. As economic woes pass, managers should keep in mind that people will remember how their organizations treated them in the bad times (and the good times too). That treatment is a significant factor in a company’s ability to motivate and retain the best people, as well as attract them in the first place. Here are two principles to keep in mind:

1. Each person has a unique configuration of needs—their own goals, wants, desires and aspirations.

2. People stay in organizations that meet their needs.

Here are five stories of how employees’ needs were met—or not met—and the impact on the organizations that employed them.

The hotel staff
Early in his career, Horst Schulze, former COO of the Ritz-Carlton Hotel Co. and CEO of The West Paces Hotel Group, was appointed general manager of a small, poorly performing hotel. Upon assuming the role, he told his team, “Go home and decide the next job you would like after we succeed in turning this hotel around. Write down that goal and bring it in tomorrow.”

The next day he reviewed the goals and said, “I make this commitment. When we turn this hotel around, I will do everything in my power to get each of you the position you have written down.” The team accomplished the turnaround and each received the assignment they requested.

How do you think each of those individuals would respond if Schulze called them today with an opportunity? What would they say about working for him?

What Schulze knew and what we should all learn is this simple technique, which is the least expensive and most effective way to understand someone’s needs: Ask.

This may not be a profound notion, but some tools don’t have to be deep to be effective. Consider asking the following to identify a person’s needs:

1. Tell me about the best supervisor you’ve worked for. What was it about their management style that worked well for you?

2. Tell me about successes you’ve had. How did those situations contribute to your success?

3. In what kinds of situations are you at your best?

4. What do you need from me to be at your best?

5. What are your career goals?

6. What was the most powerful gesture of recognition you have received. Why was that recognition meaningful?

Use this information to tailor an approach to meet individual needs. Expand and clarify your understanding of those needs and ask yourself: Can I meet those needs? Do I want to meet those needs?

If you can answer yes to both, you increase the likelihood of retaining that person and motivating him to perform with excellence. You can achieve impressive results through people.

Managers continually ask: How can I retain and motivate employees? Here’s the answer: If you cannot meet their needs, it cannot be done.

Imagine asking an analogous question: How can I retain customers when I cannot (or will not) meet their needs? Again, it cannot be done. Employees, like customers, will stay only if their needs are met.

The ‘Win Back’ genius
At a long-distance telephone company, a manager was the leader of the company’s “Win Back” department. The company was losing customers at such an incredible rate that telephone salespeople called former customers to “win them back.” Each telemarketer’s goal was to win back 20 customers per 40-hour week, an average of four wins per day.

On this team was a single mother. Because of child-care challenges, she could work only three days a week. In those three days, however, she routinely won back 100 customers.

She came to her supervisor one day and said, “I’ve lost my child-care provider and am having a problem finding a substitute. I can’t keep a regular work schedule until I get this figured out. I’ll guarantee you three days a week, but I just don’t know what three days they’re going to be.” To the supervisor’s surprise, she added, “I want a raise. I’ll still work only three days a week, but I want to make the pay others make for 40 hours a week.”

Her supervisor consulted his peers and came back with the following response: “We can’t establish a precedent where employees tell us what schedule they can work. And, we’re not prepared to pay you for five days’ work for three.”

Not surprisingly, she resigned. They should call her back and offer, “Work whenever you want—we’re thrilled to pay you for 40 hours a week.” She was five times as productive as the other employees and was only asking for the same pay they were receiving. She was a bargain at twice the amount!

Instead, they lost 100 sales per week—what was the cost of that turnover? You may have your hands tied by similar bureaucracy. If you are, remember this story when you’re in a position to establish parameters: You cannot tell employees what their needs ought to be. And you cannot improve retention and motivation by giving people something that doesn’t actually address their stated need.

The department manager
The manager in a company’s No. 1 department for four years has told management she would like expanded responsibilities—specifically a multidepartment leadership role that constituted a promotion. She has the skills, knowledge and talent and knows it. And she has developed an individual to be her replacement.

Management didn’t promote her. Can you guess why? They’re worried that if they do promote her, that department’s performance will suffer. Essentially, her success prevented her from being promoted. Instead, they increased her compensation.

She is an intelligent person and understands why she’s not being promoted. She appreciates the raise, but wants the promotion for her career movement. How do you think this makes her feel? Her motivation is deteriorating. She will probably leave the company unless they meet her need for expanded responsibilities. Some may interpret this as an ultimatum. In reality, it’s a statement about human behavior. People act to meet their needs. If their current environment does not enable them to do that, they’ll seek an environment that does.

The irony is that the same managers who try to keep her in that job don’t accomplish what they want either. She will eventually leave or her engagement and motivation will deteriorate—resulting in the eventual deterioration of the department’s performance.

The bellman
A hotel with a strong union employed a bellman with borderline performance. Frank was street-smart, and did enough to get by, often finding ways to avoid even minimum efforts. He received so many disciplinary memos that a second file was created. Frank‘s union prevented his firing.

One day Frank asked the director of human resources for a meeting. The director anticipated that he wanted to file a grievance. To his surprise, Frank said, “I just got engaged, so I came to see what I can do about all those disciplinary memos in my file. I haven’t been a good employee and until now I didn’t really care. I’m going to have a family now and need to get serious. I really like this business and I’d like to make a career here. Those memos will prevent me from making progress. Is there anything we can do about that?”

A need was presented and the HR director saw an opportunity to motivate Frank. The HR director had a need too—better job performance.

“Frank, I’ll make you a deal,” the HR director said. “If you go six months without a disciplinary memo, I’ll remove those memos and give you a fresh start.” They drafted a memo to the union as a record of the agreement.

Overnight, Frank became one of the hotel’s hardest-working bellmen. He was meeting the hotel’s needs. After six months, the human resources director fulfilled his commitment and removed the memos from Frank’s file.

The need for significance
Not every employee’s needs can be met—not all business situations enable this. Even if you could meet the needs, you may not wish to do so. But think back to when you joined your current organization. Why did you join? You believed you would have more of your needs met. See how powerful this principle is? Conversely, if you cannot or will not meet someone’s needs, you diminish your ability to retain and motivate.

There is another step you can take, however. When you want to meet someone’s needs and can’t, demonstrate that you care. If you are doing everything in your power to meet expressed needs, employees will know and appreciate it.
Although everyone’s needs are unique, most people share the need to be significant. If the people you manage know they are significant, you increase the likelihood of retention.

How do you demonstrate that an employee is significant? Shalom Saar, a former Harvard professor, founder of the Center for Leadership Development and current MIT professor, is a renowned authority on leadership and believes caring and time are key factors.

“To mobilize employees, leaders need to be tough and caring at the same time,” Saar says. “When employees know that their leader genuinely cares about their well-being and their development, they will go the extra mile. Moreover, the best gift that a leader can give their employee is time: time to ask, listen and conduct an honest dialogue.”

In other words, make yourself accessible. Give people your time when they want it and need it. Imagine that the president of your company visits unexpectedly. No appointment. No notice. What would you do? You would interrupt what were doing and invite him to come in. Why? He’s important, and the more important people are, the more likely you’ll meet with them on their terms.

When one of your employees wants to meet with you, he has a need. When you interrupt what you’re doing to listen, you confirm that person’s significance. Here’s an example from personal experience.

An administrative assistant
When I was appointed corporate director of human resources for an organization, my supervisors asked me to fire my administrative assistant because of her bad attitude. The person who preceded me in the job, they said, should have done that before he left.

Instead, I got to know the assistant and realized she had excellent skills and knowledge. To be at her best, she needed 30 minutes of my time daily to discuss what was going on. This was not something she articulated but something I discerned. The former director didn’t give her this time, which was the root cause of her attitude problem. When I gave her the time she needed, the attitude problems disappeared and I had an excellent administrative assistant.

Giving people time sounds easy, but some people may feel they cannot get their work done with this open-door policy. I would counter that when you don’t make time for people on their terms, you diminish their significance and the likelihood of retaining them. The message they get is: “I have more important things to do than listen to you.”

More tools for motivation and retention
Here are two more effective tools for motivation and retention:

Show people you care: Demonstrate to employees you are fiercely interested in helping them succeed. If you truly care about a person, extend yourself to help them— simply because it benefits them. Proactively getting to know employees is a powerful way to demonstrate caring and convey significance. Find out what they value, understand their aspirations and show interest in them. Dr. William E. Hall, Talent Plus’ co-founder and one of the fathers of positive psychology, studied this for more than 50 years and found you can never know enough about another person, provided that you want to know in order to benefit that person. He believed great learning came from relationships you create.

People tend to stay in organizations where their supervisor genuinely cares about them. That is, they stay in organizations where they know they are significant.

A caution about caring: People are smart. If you are not authentic, they will see through you immediately. Caring is not about technique and it’s not about tactics. It’s about character.

Emotionally rehire your people: This is another powerful tool, particularly in this difficult economic time. When you tell an employee—sincerely—why you’re thankful to have them on your team, they are rehired. For example, you say: “Marianna, your incredible attention to detail makes a huge contribution to our efficiency and the quality of the work we provide. I’m glad you’re here.”

You have emotionally rehired Marianna in 15 seconds. The statement is sincere and Marianna knows it, and it contributes noticeably to her motivation. You’ve told her why she’s significant.

(As an aside, this technique can be used with family and friends. Try it. You’ll find it’s quite rewarding. And another aside: When was the last time your supervisor emotionally rehired you?)

Here is a quick recap of the lessons that can be gleaned from these five employee stories:

• To increase retention and motivation, meet people’s needs.

• Understand each employee as a unique individual.

• For employees to give you what you need, they must see you as an ally, willing to extend yourself to help them succeed.

• The more you know about a person, the easier it is to determine how to help him or her. Be proactive in getting to know employees. You cannot know enough about a person, provided your motivation is of benefit to him.

• Significance is created through one-on-one time and genuine caring.

• Emotionally rehire people. Tell them they are significant and let them know you sincerely appreciate them.

If you implement these strategies with conviction, you dramatically increase retention and motivation.

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