In my years of experience as a business leader, I’ve met my fair share of complacent employees. You know how to spot them. They do the absolute bare minimum to get by. They’re focused on not getting fired and couldn’t care less about delivering exceptional customer experiences. Their poor attitude and lackluster work ethic can infect their fellow employees and lead to big lapses in productivity.
We all know that employee engagement matters. In fact, a 2013 Gallup study found a direct correlation between engagement and business outcomes. And it’s common to feel a sense of powerlessness about these underperforming employees. Talent is hard to come by, and some days it’s a good thing to simply maintain a full complement of staff (regardless of their level of motivation). But there are things to be done about this situation. For a relatively small investment of time, resources and energy, I believe business owners and leaders can spur their once-complacent employees to far greater heights of motivation, productivity and profit generation.
1. Ease up on the pressure.
It may seem counterintuitive, but I’ve found that one of the best things you can do to fight the complacency of your employees is to cut back on your use of performance-based pressure (such as sales-centric promotion criteria, team lectures and public shaming). Exerting emotional pressure and stress on your employees is not usually an effective way to spur them to motivated or inspired action. In fact, it’s often a great way to turn them against you and your organization. Some employees, driven to the breaking point by overuse of high-pressure tactics, might even look for opportunities to rebel or act out in ways that could hurt your company. Instead of resorting to these outdated “motivation” techniques, opt to steer employees toward wanting to perform well at work instead.
2. Encourage trial and error.
Once you’ve lifted the weight and intensity of any overly demanding expectations off the shoulders of your employees, it’s time to cultivate a culture of experimentation, play, and friendly trial and error. As demonstrated by some of the most innovative and successful companies on our planet, I believe that great ideas and game-changing customer service can come from any corner of an organization. When employees are allowed and empowered to try things out, take risks, generate off-the-wall ideas, ask “dumb” questions and get creative, they often feel excited and motivated to engage with their jobs. Work also becomes a lot more fun.
3. Emphasize purpose and value.
Every customer-focused, profit-generating business has a purpose in the marketplace and offers real and distinctive value for its customers. It’s your job as a leader to ensure that your employees – from frontline and call-center staff to the upper echelons of management – completely and deeply understand that purpose and value. Better yet, find ways to help your team feel and live that purpose and value. For example, at face value, our company is an online fashion retailer. But our value is also more than that: we provide a boost in mood, self-esteem and self-image, as well as a sense of belonging in a community. We help our employees understand and feel the value that they bring to people’s lives, which in turn keeps them motivated to continue delivering that value.
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4. Put yourself in the employee’s shoes.
As a manager or leader, it’s easy to get caught up in the day-to-day expectations and demands of your position. You’re responsible for revenue growth, strategic planning, customer acquisition and countless other senior-level tasks. It’s easy to forget what it was like to serve in a frontline, customer-facing or junior role on a bustling team. Take a moment to place yourself in a seemingly complacent employee’s shoes, and consider the daily challenges and nuances of their stressful, sometimes thankless work. Ponder the simple but meaningful changes (such as breakfast parties, bi-annual volunteering field days, team-building games or small spot bonuses) that might completely transform that employee’s day, mood or work life. What would make a difference for you if you were in their position?
5. Cut the corporate-speak.
If there’s one way to make your employees feel patronized, excluded and unimportant, I believe it’s the use of conservative, stuffy and opaque corporate-speak. Today’s workforce, particularly the millennial generation and their younger counterparts, sees right through the aloof, buttoned-up messages and materials that some businesses deliver via email, meetings and break room posters. If you’re not communicating with transparency, authenticity and a sense of humor, experience tells me that you’re a major step behind the times. I encourage every leader to examine their recent employee-facing communications for any hint of corporate jargon, obfuscation or paternalism. Be tough on yourself when crafting a message, and always opt for a “let’s get real” tone. If you master the casual nature of the 21st century employer-employee conversation, I believe it’s inevitable that your employee retention will improve.