Imagine the power of an entire workforce when employees feel excellent while delivering excellence. Here are four areas of focus for leaders who are ready to create a culture of excellence.
by Christine Render
December 6, 2021
Leaders have typically defined an excellent employee by the results they deliver, how impressive their presentations are and whether or not customers respond favorably to them. These qualifications relate to what the employee is delivering, but not the experience they have while performing.
The employee who delivered amazing results last month did so by skipping all her daughter’s soccer games. She feels appreciated by her manager for her results, but ultimately resents the sacrifice she made and would not refer others to her company due to lack of flexibility.
The employee who made a favorable impression among leadership achieved this by acting like the leaders, not acting like himself. He hates feeling like an imposter, but sees it as a necessary evil to move ahead at his company. He wonders whether he should look for a job somewhere else, where he fits in.
If employees can produce excellent results under these disengaging conditions, imagine the power of an entire workforce when employees feel excellent while delivering excellence.
Each employee has unique needs, expectations and preferences. This can feel overwhelming to some leaders because they feel like they can’t win. They are paralyzed trying to figure out where to start or they do nothing because they know they can’t please everyone.
With all that transpired over the last year and a half, the way companies treat employees has transitioned from being a competitive advantage to table stakes. Companies that have not previously prioritized workplace culture will have to do so now to survive.
So, leaders need to get unstuck and begin to transform. A holistic approach sets leaders up for success by appealing to the various needs, expectations and preferences for optimal impact across an entire workforce.
Leaders who dedicate themselves to developing genuine behaviors and practices that make others feel excellent are on the path to creating a culture of excellence. When employees feel excellent, it can multiply the excellence a company delivers, thus influencing a culture of excellence. Below are four areas of focus for leaders who are ready to transform:
Some leaders shy away from discussing the topic of well-being because they don’t see the value (most likely they do not tend to their own well-being) or they interpret it as an invasive topic of discussion due to health or mental health connotations. The Oxford Dictionary defines well-being as, “the state of being comfortable, healthy or happy,” so leaders should feel comfortable addressing the well-being topic with employees.
Leaders, start by taking care of yourself. Not only does this set a good example, but doesn’t your team deserve the best, most effective version of you? Not to mention, the more you take care of yourself and notice the difference you experience, the more likely you are to naturally foster this behavior in others.
Watch your habits – leaders may send unintended messages through their own behavior.
- If your company uses MS Teams, Slack or another platform that displays availability status and you are working late into the evening or on weekends, consider changing your status to away. This will avoid giving your team the impression they need to stay online in case you need something from them.
- If you had a week of heavy meetings or business travel and you are catching up on email over the weekend, consider scheduling your replies to go out on Monday morning. When you send a barrage of emails to your team on the weekend, even if you communicate that you don’t expect a reply, it can result in an unintended obligation for your team to respond to emails.
Set your employees up for success:
- Create an environment for all voices to be heard and respected.
- If your company doesn’t already offer robust health (including mental health) benefits, advocate for change.
- Encourage employees to use their PTO to avoid burnout. Send a reminder each quarter.
- Balance the type of work you assign to your team members – firefighting vs. strategic.
- When you’re wrapping up a meeting with an employee at the end of the day, take the opportunity to encourage them to end their day at that point.
- Be especially mindful of employees who work remotely since their start and end times may be blurred. Suggest walk-and-talks so they can take a break from sitting and ask how they repurposed their typical commute time, implying you don’t expect they repurposed it to work.
When employees feel comfortable, healthy and happy they can focus on delivering excellence without concerns or disengagement detracting their efforts.
Dedicating time to development and feedback for each employee is crucial. You wouldn’t spend time on development if you didn’t think an employee was making or could make a meaningful contribution. When you collaborate with an employee about how to build skills and plan future experiences or projects that might benefit their professional growth and development, you imply they are important and valuable – you make them feel significant.
Employees feel excellent when they know you have their best interest in mind and are confident in their abilities. They can focus on their work and try to perform their best instead of wondering what you think or worrying the absence of development discussions means they are not valued.
Beyond a development discussion, many employees get a professional high from overcoming an unfamiliar challenge, such as a stretch assignment. Research by Korn Ferry found that stretch assignments are the most valuable developmental experience. This type of accomplishment contributes to an employee’s sense of excellence and leaves them wanting more. Offering development opportunities that are impactful for both the company and the individual can result in a multiplier effect when creating a culture of excellence.
Leaders are encouraged to be authentic with others. If leaders demonstrate they are comfortable being their authentic selves, employees are more likely to feel comfortable being authentic. However, leaders can encourage authenticity from others beyond role modeling.
Saying, “I’ve never thought of it that way, tell me more” during a 1:1 meeting shows the leader thinks differently, but is welcoming the individual to share their authentic, alternative point of view. A statement such as, “I think Maria has raised a point we haven’t considered, let’s pause and discuss it” during a team meeting shows Maria and others it’s ok, in fact valued, to share ideas and opinions that are different from others. Employees who once felt it required courage to speak up may become more comfortable sharing their authentic ideas and feedback in an environment where it is actively encouraged.
When leaders are authentic and positively recognize others’ authenticity, this builds trust and support. In a culture where employees feel leaders and co-workers support their authenticity, they feel excellent because they are not holding anything back or acting as imposters to fit in.
Show employees you care about their whole person (work + life) by role modeling flexibility. Gone are the days of posting a flexible work policy on your company’s intranet, but only rewarding behaviors that are misaligned with the policy, such as amount of time spent in the office.
Leaders need to transition from “I noticed you were in the office until 9 p.m. yesterday, thanks for your dedication” to “I noticed you logged in after your son’s football game to finish up that report. I really appreciate your commitment to meeting deadlines and I’m glad you were able to attend his game.”
Not all employees need or want flexibility or remote/hybrid working options, but those who do, can find it with another employer now more than ever before. Granting employees flexibility isn’t giving them permission to slack off, it’s showing that you care about their life outside of work and trust they will get their work done if given autonomy over where and when they do it.
LinkedIn found that when employees are satisfied with their organization’s flexibility, defined by work time or location, they are:
- 3.4x more likely to successfully balance work and personal obligations
- 2.6x more likely to be happy working for their employer
- 2.1x more likely to recommend working for their employer
Encouraging flexibility among your employees will leave them feeling so excellent they will be more likely to refer others to work for your company.
HR leaders play a significant role in bringing these matters to leaders in their organization. HR can support business leaders’ transformation in the following ways:
- Role model behaviors outlined above.
- Share this article with leaders to create awareness. Facilitate a discussion to gauge readiness to transform and uncover anticipated barriers to success. Ask leaders, what is the single most impactful thing you can do this quarter to transform?
- Share examples of old vs. new commentary, such as the examples included above. What common phrases/statements do you hear within your leadership team and what do you suggest they change to send a different message? Suggest common opportunities/forums in which leaders can practice changing their behavior.
- Encourage leaders to have open discussions with their teams about transformation goals. Invite feedback and suggestions from employees.
- Ask leaders to share examples of their transformational successes with each other for learning.
- Be transparent with employees about the changes that leadership wants to make and why – this is a great first step to show employees that leadership cares.
- When employees feel comfortable, healthy or happy they can focus on delivering excellence without concerns or disengagement detracting their efforts.
- Employees feel excellent when they know you have their best interest in mind and you are confident in their abilities.
- Offering impactful development opportunities, such as stretch assignments, can results in a multiplier effect when creating a culture of excellence.
- In a culture where employees feel leaders and co-workers support their authenticity, they feel excellent because they are not holding anything back or acting as imposters to fit in.
- When employees are satisfied with their organization’s flexibility, defined by work time or location, they are more likely to be happy working for their employer, successfully balance work and personal obligations and recommend working for their employer to others.