Is any relationship ever completely reciprocal? Not really, because one party always wields more power over the other. This is a human behavior dynamic that is tough to ignore, especially when we look deeper at workplace culture and team dynamics. There are leaders and followers, loved ones and lovers, employers and employees. We might like to think equality, common goals and unquestioned commitment are the norm but it simply doesn’t happen. It’s true in personal life and in the workplace.
I recently spent a weekend at a high school graduation where teachers glowingly described the fairly small class as a group of leaders. Although parents and kids basked in the glow of achievement and praise, it was clear that some in the group were more equal than others, more accomplished, more confident and composed. While the speeches were heartwarming they seemed insufficiently realistic: clearly not all in that class are destined for success, and not all will be leaders. Despite what we say as a society about equality, the best we can offer is what seems like a cop out: the promise of equal opportunity.
Leaders today talk a lot about loyalty, retention, and the business value of empowering employees to be brand ambassadors. Nonetheless, research literature and blogs abound which discuss the erosion of employee loyalty to the workplace, especially among Gen X and Y. The prescriptive leadership and talent management advice runs the gamut, from changes in compensation structures to more flexibility in work schedules, team building and more, all aimed at encouraging employee engagement with the employer’s brand. But the worry persists and with good reason: can the damage inflicted on employee trust by years of layoffs, pay cuts, IPOs and benefit claw-backs be overcome?
Speaking of IPOs and trust, look no further than the recent Facebook news breaks. Zuckerberg may face his biggest challenge yet as CEO when shaping the new Facebook workplace culture “post IPO” – The change in company climate will undoubtedly be reflected in the employees, a reality that Jena McGregor from the Washington Post sums up nicely here and with this quote:
“So how will Zuckerberg manage them? The Wall Street Journal has a great roundup of ideas for the 28-year-old founder. He’ll need to feed these new millionaires’ entrepreneurial mindsets, giving them time and autonomy to work on their own projects. He’ll have to become expert at stroking egos while not setting up cultures that give the lottery winners on staff too much sway. And he’ll need to keep people from checking the stock price, oh, every 10 minutes, and be willing to say goodbye quickly to those who don’t want to stay.”
So, is there a way to increase loyalty and engagement in the workplace? I believe there is, and it requires a near-equal exchange of information about the business’s goals and challenges and a shared sense of the value of work. This true for CEOs and for employees alike. It’s a two-way street of respect and trust.
All great leaders know getting there is the challenge, of course. Here are 5 behaviors for leaders and hiring managers to adopt when struggling to keep employees happy and loyal:
1) Tell the truth. Not everyone is a star. Pick out those with leadership or other valued talent potential and nurture them. This will come back to the business as these individuals, in turn, nurture other workers.
2) Communicate roles and responsibilities. Provide a path to success not only for those with leadership promise but for all employees. Sometimes this will mean difficult changes, but remember the most important skill of a leader: never surprise an employee with bad news. Have a development plan for all, and a get-well plan for those whose performance lags. Make sure everyone knows the plan.
3) Create a workplace culture that values real people relationships. For many employees, workgroup relationships and relationships between managers and workers drive engagement and loyalty more effectively than foosball machines, logo T-shirts, and Thirsty Thursday gatherings.
4) Be fair and open. This does not mean treat everyone equally – it means have transparent processes for managing and leading. Employees are more likely to respond positively to change when the process used to manage change is fair.
5) Model the behaviors you seek. Just as the headmaster at the high school did, accept your responsibility as a leader and act with engagement, commitment and responsibility. Do this every day.
Each of us possesses skills, strengths, talents and flaws. Each of us seeks to belong, to be engaged, to relate to those around us. Loyalty is built on relationships, shared understanding and trust. Engagement and commitment require loyalty, shared goals and fair treatment. Don’t take loyalty and engagement for granted – create a remarkable culture where there are possible and rewarding outcomes of the workplace.
We are only human after all – Every one of us. Every leader. Every brand. Every workplace. Every person.
A version of this post was first published on Forbes on June 4, 2012.