Best Practices in HR

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Julie Winkle Giulioni
  April 1, 2017

Who Knows What Employees Really Want?


For decades, articles, authors and studies have tried to help managers come to terms with how to motivate employees and drive optimal performance by understanding what employees really want and need from work. The list is long (and alphabetized for ease).

  • Achievement and accomplishment
  • Appreciation
  • Autonomy and self-direction
  • Being part of a team
  • Boss they respect and trust
  • Career advancement
  • Challenge
  • Clear goals and objectives
  • Coaching
  • Connections and relationships with each other
  • Decision-making authority
  • Empowerment
  • Fair compensation
  • Fair treatment
  • Freedom to innovate
  • Growth and learning
  • Influence and power
  • Interesting work
  • Job flexibility
  • Obstacle removal
  • Opportunity to make a difference
  • Pride in the work they do
  • Recognition
  • Respect
  • Responsibility and authority
  • Security
  • Support to do a good job
  • Time and attention from the manager
  • Transparent communication
  • Use of strengths and talents

And this is just the beginning. 30 possible desires and answers to the “what employees really want” question offer nearly unlimited unique combinations of employee expectations in today’s workplace. Yet, in an effort to simplify and streamline their understanding of this complex and expansive issue, busy managers make one of several common mistakes:

  • They pick the few that resonate most for them personally and assume that they resonate as well for their employees.
  • They pick the ones that are easiest to act on and deliver in their own organizations.
  • They pick the ones they read about most recently in an airline magazine or blog.

These managers earnestly go to work to transform these employee wishes into realities to the greatest extent possible. But rarely do these efforts pay off as intended. The reason is simple: A monolithic approach with a uniform set of priorities applied across the board cannot address the unique needs and wants that each individual brings to work.

As much as we’d like to believe the latest or hottest listing of employee motivators, it’s not that simple. Getting to the heart of this matter requires nothing less than understanding what’s most important to each individual and tailoring one’s management approach accordingly.

So, how do you do this? Through dialogue with employees. It doesn’t have to be hard — and it can actually be as fun as it is powerful. Consider a few different approaches:

  • Send out the list of 30 possible wants and ask employees to identify their top five in preparation for a one-on-one conversation to better understand each employee.
  • Write the 30 possible wants on cards (creating a couple of duplicate sets). During a team meeting, randomly distribute eight to 10 cards to employees, asking them to work together to review their colleagues’ cards and trade as necessary until they’ve put together a “hand” of cards that reflect their top five wants. Then engage in a group discussion so that everyone on the team understands and can help each other have the work experiences they want.
  • Present the list of 30 possible wants during a team meeting and ask employees to create a visual representation of their top five wants (using images, symbols, markers, etc.). After they share their “artwork” with the group, collect the pages and use them in future one-on-ones as a visual reminder and scorecard to review how well these wants are being met.

It all comes down to appreciating that all of the lists (even those that are research-based) are an amalgamation of the wants, desires and needs of some group of people. And while they might offer an interesting jumping-off point, they’ll never reflect exactly what matters most: what your employee wants. One size can’t fit all. The important task of motivating and engaging employees can’t be simplified into a follow-the-checklist or paint-by-number exercise.

So, who know what employees really want? Each employee does. And it’s time to go to the source to answer the question, personalize your response, and start seeing real shifts in engagement, motivation and results.

Image: (c) Can Stock Photo / mills21

This post originally appeared at SmartBrief.

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