Active Discussions with Employees

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


There is no single change in working conditions or in payoffs that has enormous power in creating commitment and engagement for a whole group of people.

But a single intervention could be enormously powerful in terms of changing or reinforcing the attitudes and behaviors of an individual if that condition or outcome is what that person most needs or wants now.  If the organization is responsive to an individual employee’s priorities, the outcome is most likely to be increased passion on the part of that individual for the success of the organization.  In order for this to happen, the well-being of employees has to be perceived not as a cost – but rather as an investment with a large pay-off.

Paying attention to the priorities of individuals sounds like an impossible task because of the sheer number of possible preferences.  In fact, in reality it doesn’t work out that way.  The priorities of individuals always fall into a relatively small number of clusters at any one time.

After the book “The Plateauing Trap” was published in 1986, I gave lectures on that subject to many thousands of people. I would ask members of the audience to call out answers to the question, “What do you need from your work in order for you to feel satisfied?” and I would write their answers down on flip charts or a blackboard.  It was not unusual to have thirty to fifty different responses.  But those responses could always be clustered into four groups: opportunities for challenge which involved continuous learning and manageable risk; empowerment which meant greater autonomy and decision-making authority; people wanted to do significant work and be treated as a significant contributor and lastly, some wanted money and other extrinsic rewards.  Four clusters of preferences is a very manageable list.

There seems to be a natural limit to the variety of outcomes that achieve a high priority at any moment in time.  There are relatively few answers to what do you most need or want now?  In the decade from roughly 1985-1995, the first response that was called out was always “challenge” and “money” was never called out until we had at least a third of the total list.  In the years from 1995-2002 the two leading responses were money and autonomy.

The basic idea is for the organization to create a cafeteria of options that individuals could choose from, once a year or once every several years, with a financial ceiling.  In order to create a program of outcomes and conditions that are in line with the organization’s values, the organization first needs to get input from people at every level and function in the organization as to their needs, wants and priorities.  In my experience, in large organizations a sample of about 100 free-flowing interviews is sufficient because after that no new information is gained.

After a sufficient sample of interviews has been held, the basic clusters can be identified.  Then individual entries can be assessed as to feasibility and value within the organization before they are either assigned to a cluster or discarded.  Every few years, the organization should repeat this process.  Re-interview a substantial sample of people and determine if priorities are changing.  At the same time – or every year – assess the program’s effectiveness in terms of financial outcomes – employee and customer retention, sales, profitability, share price, return on equity – and commitment and engagement.

The conditions and outcomes that people can earn need to be in line with the organizations’ values and employee’s priorities, they must be effective, and they need to be affordable.  While the choices that people make should be generally binding for some designated period of time after which their choices can change, some flexibility is a good idea because it further demonstrates the organization’s commitment to an employee’s well-being.

A few years ago I delivered a talk to an audience of Human Resource specialists.  One of the observations I made was that younger Baby Boomers, Generation Y and Gen-Xers had a wider range of core motives than did the older Depression-Impacted generations for whom security was the singularly important motivator.  As a result, I said, those of us involved in HR issues will need to pay attention to what individuals want.  “That wouldn’t be the same for everyone, a woman called out, and that wouldn’t be fair!”  Fair does not have to mean identicalFair is everyone is free to make choices.

The first step in learning what an individual’s priorities are involves asking them questions and listening hard to the answers.  The second step involves an active discussion between the employee and his or her manager in which options are selected and choices are made based on their importance to the individual and their feasibility in reality.  And, really listening and relating to an individual employee is, in itself, a powerful demonstration that the employee’s well being is important to the organization.

Perhaps most important of all, the specifics of what people can earn is often less important than the communication delivered by what the organization actually does, that employees’ performance is crucial to the organization’s success and therefore employees are not taken for granted, ignored or casually discarded.

In a nutshell, “Humanize the Workplace” simply means pay attention to the people who do the work.  This is not kindness; it is at the heart of being able to succeed and be profitable in a very competitive environment.

Today’s Cluster of Priorities

Fortunately, most of the priorities of individuals will fall into a reasonably small number of clusters and that makes the task of identifying them and making them operationally available relatively easy.  Today’s clusters are a little different from the ones we saw in the past twenty years.  People want to:

These are familiar priorities:

Keep learning

Achieve reasonable security

Be successful

These are new priorities:

Have both my work and my family flourish

Like and respect my colleagues and bosses

Find meaning in my life and my work

The following are generic suggestions.  Every organization needs to customize its offerings according to its values and the values of those whom they want to hire and retain.

I want to:  Keep Learning

  • New assignments
  • Advanced professional education
  • Training which may involve mentors and coaches
  • Work that’s different in content, place or responsibility
  • Challenges which involve some risk
  • A customized career which develops a whole range of professional skills
  • Assignments that develop interpersonal skills
  • Experiences which increase self-knowledge
  • Periodic sabbaticals to expand the breadth of my experiences

 I want to:  Achieve Reasonable Security

  • Job security is conditional on the organization needing my skills, my performance and attitude are excellent and the organization can afford to pay me
  • Vacations, salaries and benefits are cut before there are major lay-offs
  • Employees collaborate continuously to improve performance and keep work in-house
  • Affordable and portable health and dental insurance with costs shared by the organization and employees
  • Portable pensions
  • Defined benefit pensions
  • Individual Retirement Accounts which are owned and managed by employees with help from financial advisors
  • Safety on the job is a major goal
  • Hiring and promotions are based on merit and involve peer review as well as assessment by bosses
  • Career counselors are available to help employees increase their value to the organization

 I want to:  Be Successful

  • Recognition and rewards, both symbolic and monetary
  • Travel and merchandise awards
  • Significant amounts of merit compensation
  • Acknowledgement in the form of opportunities to lead and make decisions
  • Increased autonomy
  • Opportunities to be entrepreneurial and create new projects or businesses
  • Opportunities to “be at the table” with the decision makers
  • Opportunities to control, use or invest increasingly large sums of money
  • Acknowledgment of my contributions to my profession and my community

I want: My Work and My Family to Flourish

  • The basic value that healthy family relationships are an asset to the business
  • Respect and consideration for dads as well as moms.
  • Short-term family leaves and assistance for child and elder care
  • Agreed upon rules in regard to employee accessibility
  • Flexibility about career interruptions for outstanding employees
  • Training and education available for employees during a period of career interruption
  • Mentors or coaches, and part-time jobs or assignments, for employees during a period of career interruption
  • On-site services that minimize time running errands
  • Professionals can earn a partnership or tenure while working less than full-time
  • On-site services for child and elder care or referrals to excellent and affordable care.
  • Flexibility about when and where work is done
  • Shared jobs
  • Training for managers in managing distributed workers
  • Work schedules aim to minimize the number of times employees have to choose between work and family.
  • Professionals can earn a partnership or tenure while working less than full time.

 I want to: like and respect my colleagues and bosses

  • Hire great people
  • Select managers based as much on their ability to lead and interact with people as on their professional skills
  • Strong values about sharing what one knows so team work is a natural outcome
  • Rewards for effective development of subordinates
  • An “open book” culture in which employees as well as managers know what is happening
  • People tell the truth because the truth is respected and expected
  • The organization encourages a sense of belonging and community
  • Management is accessible and is trained to listen to employee’s input
  • Competition is directed at the competition so peers can be colleagues

I want: my life as well as my work to have meaning.

  • Work that contributes to causes or outcomes that I really value
  • Employees have opportunities to see the difference their work makes
  • The organization is passionate about new ideas
  • The culture doesn’t punish reasonable mistakes
  • The sense I’d prefer to work here even if I won the lottery
  • The perception the world would be worse off if we didn’t do our work

Organizations can afford to be psychologically flexible and generous to employees who have earned generosity through their sustained excellent performance.  Organizations demonstrate their commitment to employees and their appreciation of employee’s achievements, by responding positively to an individual employee’s priorities whenever that is feasible.




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