Strengthen the Bond with Employees by Customizing

Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D.


There is no magic bullet, no single condition or payoff that can create the gung ho! rush of excitement and engagement in everyone. 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.

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 identical. Fair 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.


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