Crucial Skills®

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Energizing the Undervalued and Overworked

Have Dear Crucial Skills,

I have a team of three individuals. They are all hard workers and have been with the company for a long time. I have been their manager for almost five years now. Over the last year, we have gone through some organizational changes that have made them feel, as they have stated, “undervalued” and “overworked.” In an effort to boost morale, I have tried to provide them with random perks to show how valued they are and how much I appreciate them. However, it seems like they are now starting to take advantage of my kindness. For example, I gave each of them alternating Fridays throughout the summer to leave at 3:00 p.m. as long as there wasn’t anything major pending. Now I am getting emails like “I am leaving on Thursday at three because I have a something I need to do.” Or, “I am going to work from home today since it is my Friday to leave early anyway.” How can I pull back from some of these “perks” without them spiraling down into their previous feelings?

Perk ‘Em Up

Dear Perk ‘Em Up,

Managing employees who feel “undervalued” and “overworked” is common. In 2011, the American Psychological Association reported that 48 percent of U.S. employees feel “undervalued” at work. Much has been written about what organizations can do to foster a healthy work environment. Yet the question remains—what can a single manager of three people do? Individual managers don’t have all the levers that organizations do. They can’t change the compensation system, the building layout, or whether there is free food in the cafeteria and an onsite masseur. However, most of us intuitively know what research has shown: people quit their managers not their jobs. A manager has a huge impact on employee engagement and retention—even more than a Ping-Pong table in the break room. So, what is a manager to do?

First, get really, really clear on what you want and why you want it. As a manager myself, I have been highly influenced by the work of Clayton Christensen. I will always remember reading an article by Dr. Christensen in which he described what the core of management is—giving people the opportunity to learn, grow in responsibilities, contribute to others, and be recognized for achievements. What is absent from this list? Free sodas in the break room.

I believe that one of the most important things I do as a manager is making sure my people go home feeling good at the end of each day. I want them to feel as if they have accomplished something, been recognized for it, and contributed positively to others. I want to send them home that way because the most important work we do is not in our organizations—it is in our homes, our families, and our communities. Sending someone home to her six-year-old daughter feeling overworked and undervalued creates an unproductive home dynamic.

So, that is what I really, really want—for work to get done in a productive manner under conditions in which employees thrive. Our friend and colleague Rich Sheridan, CEO of Menlo Innovations, would sum this up more succinctly: “I want to create joy in the workplace.” The benefit of getting clear on this is that it allows you to put into perspective all the things that don’t matter. If work is getting done productively and people are taking joy home to their families, why does it matter if someone leaves early? Why would I feel taken advantage of if someone assumes they can work from home? It only matters if I think my role as a manager is to make sure people are in their offices from 9 to 5 each day. That is not the role I choose as a manager.

Second, understand what really creates joy, satisfaction, and value in the workplace. In all honesty, it is probably not what you think it is. It is a very human tendency to look first to perks, rewards, and incentives to motivate, recognize, and engage people. I do this in my own life. When I have a hard task that I am tempted to put off, I promise myself a reward: finish this newsletter article on time and I can treat myself to that chocolate-dipped Oreo I have been craving. When it comes to dealing with others, we do this as well. Need to motivate your teenager to clean his room? Withhold his allowance until it is cleaned to your satisfaction. Want your employees to feel valued? Let them have “early-out” on summer Fridays.

Don’t mistake me—rewards, incentives, and perks are important influence tools in our manager toolbox. But they can backfire, especially when used in isolation. If all you do is offer a reward, you miss out on other more powerful sources of motivation and engagement. As you think about ways to engage “overworked and undervalued” employees, consider these other sources of motivation.

1. Get things done. Again, I learned this from Rich Sheridan. People love to get things done. There is incredible satisfaction that comes from checking off an item on the list of things to do—the ability to look at a finished result and say, “Yep, I did that today.” As Sheridan says, “Done releases endorphins, the body’s natural opiate, and it’s addictive.” People want to come to work and finish something. But too often, process and people get in the way of getting things done. So how can you as a manager make sure you are taking down barriers and allowing your people to actually accomplish work?

2. Connect to what they value. This is especially important in times of organizational change. It is imperative that managers find ways to connect the work that is being done to the things that people value most. Not only do people want to get work done, they want to get meaningful work done. Make sure you find ways to regularly and powerfully connect the work people are doing to the value that work provides.

3. Recognize achievement. When you do give a reward of some kind, make sure to link it to a specific behavior or achievement. This is different than just giving someone a perk—it is frequent, specific, and timely. It requires a manager to have a great deal of insight into what is important to an employee and how best to recognize someone. And it is not recognition for recognition’s sake. It is not saying, “Good job for showing up to work today.” Managers should link recognition to specific behaviors, e.g., “I really appreciated how much time to you took to address that client’s need. You demonstrated a lot of empathy.”

Third, have a conversation. If you believe that employees are behaving in ways that are dragging down the organization or your relationship, talk to them about it. Be transparent and treat your employees as your equals. It is absolutely fine to approach them as a group and say, “You three have done wonderful work this past year as we have navigated through these organizational changes. I know there were times when you felt overworked and undervalued. I attempted to mitigate some of those feelings by introducing the policy of leaving at 3:00 p.m. on alternate Fridays during the summer. Now, I notice, there are times where you are taking off early on Thursdays or working from home on Fridays. I don’t want to curtail a perk that is meaningful to you and helps you know how much you are valued. At the same time, I am starting to feel like you are taking advantage of the initial perk by stretching it past the original boundaries. Can we talk about things I can do to help you feel valued and recognized for the great work we do, while also not feeling like things are being taken too far?”

When you involve them candidly in the discussion, you can surface the issues and come to a joint resolution that everyone will be committed to.

Best of luck!


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7 thoughts on “Energizing the Undervalued and Overworked”

  1. Sarah Telfer

    Love this.

  2. Tiffany Hall

    I have had similar situations in past management roles where employees start to treat “perks” and “rewards” as if they are entitled to them and they begin to take advantage. Even worse, out of a team of 6, there was one individual who really abused the perks. Eventually, the rest of the team started to notice and the perception of favoritism began. Why does she get away with coming in 2 hours late?…why does she work from home 2 times per week?…etc. I finally had to have a conversation with the team to remind them that the perks were a privilege, not a right.

  3. Donna

    Your response was spot on. I have experienced the same thing. Thank you for this insightful article.

  4. Terry

    Thanks Emily, finding ways to support intrinsic motivation takes a bit more creativity than just bringing donuts to the office. I really appreciate your citing examples.

  5. Mark

    Thank you Emily for this exceedingly timely article. Specifically, adding a quote from your friend that he “wants to create joy in the workplace”! Imagine that?! You helped me not only imagine it, but start something here that I hope will help people who have been through a wringer. We are all wonderfully, fearfully made and our gifts need to shine for all! Have a great evening, Emily!

  6. Ray Ellison

    Great article!!

  7. menloprez

    Emily – Great writeup and thanks so much for the call outs.

    I would add that for us at Menlo, joy has a tangible definition and goes straight to our purpose as an organization: We want to create software that delights the people we serve, the users of that same software. If we focus our attention on a worthy external goal, and we understand our own role in help the team get there, it energizes everyone and leaves less time for self-attention. I believe we all want to work on something that is bigger than ourselves. As leaders, then, we must figure out a way to do this without burning out our team. We must work at a humanly sustainable pace or else our team will lose faith in us as leaders, and begin to believe that our external purpose is false, and we are simply striving to make the company, the boss, or the shareholders a lot of money. That never works in the long run.

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