The company I worked for in my first professional position gave all of the employees a ham for the holidays. Although I was grateful and surprised to receive anything at all, there was a bit of dismay for this gift because:
- They didn’t ask me what I wanted
- My salary was barely a living wage
- Management treated employees as a commodity, with firings for minor transgressions
- I was vegetarian (but was able to donate my ham to someone who could use it)
The next company I worked for was a wonderful place to work. We were paid well and treated as individuals and with respect. They gave us a holiday bonus which was a percentage of annual salary. I was happy and grateful about this until I worked in corporate compensation and discovered that the CEO’s holiday bonus equaled my annual salary.
Now I was getting the picture. Throwing food and gifts was supposed to — what — make me work harder? Be more loyal? Do as I was told?
Whatever the reason, it wasn’t what worked for me to feel connected and motivated.
At some point, I realized the intangibles were important to me, and, as I moved up the ranks, I did my best to learn what employees really wanted.
And you should, too.
If your employees are making a good, competitive wage and are doing work they enjoy, it only makes sense for you to listen beyond the requests they make for money and promotions to figure out what really brings out their best work. They want you to ask them. And even if they don’t know the answer right away, they will walk away and think about the question.
You may find that their answers are surprising. They aren’t what you expect. And they are intangible, but they are something that you have some power to provide to them, if only you will change the way you lead. When I talk to employees, the responses I hear about what they’d like from their managers show up most often in these areas:
Freedom to figure out how to do things on their own, to make mistakes, and to pick up and continue to learn from them. Most employees don’t want to be told how to do something unless they fear retribution from you. Almost all employees will need to be pointed in a general direction or will ask for your advice, but if you allow them to figure it out and make mistakes, they will grow and develop into better employees.
Respect for them personally, and for the work they do. Employees want to be appreciated and told when they do good work (hearing this is rarer than you might think), and to be respected as the resourceful, smart and perfectly capable human beings that they are. Believe in them as fully able to go beyond what they think they are capable of, and you might be surprised to see them achieve even more than their own expectations.
Connection to a vision and purpose that is big and inspiring. Inspire them to see what is possible and to understand how the work they’re doing connects to a bigger picture than they can currently see. This is the kind of connection that powers great organizations to succeed and make a difference in the world, since it is powered by motivated and inspired employees.
The ham and the bonus were gifts that were appreciated, but not really what I wanted. Likewise, your employees really want freedom, respect, and a connection to something bigger. Those are the real gifts you can give to them. Why not ask them what they want and find out for yourself?
Mary Jo Asmus is an executive coach and a recovering corporate executive who has spent the past 12 years as president of Aspire Collaborative Services, an executive-coaching firm that manages Fortune 500 corporate-coaching initiatives and coaches leaders to prepare them for bigger and better things.
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