Why Employees' Big Dreams Should Be Your Company's Top Priority

The best employees don't work because they love their company or boss—they do it to advance personal goals. By helping them do so, you create driven, loyal teams that will go the extra mile to help your company succeed.

As a manager, you can create a tremendous amount of loyalty just by listening to your employees. And loyalty matters—a lot.

When Kelley Lindberg became a manager at a software company several years ago, she inherited some employees who were confused about where they were headed. She sat down with the project managers individually to learn more about their job questions, career goals, and ideas. One employee in particular had been working with the company for months with no solid assignments and only a vague idea of what he was supposed to be doing.

"I asked him what his career goals were, and he surprised me completely," Lindberg says. "Instead of the standard ‘I want to move up the career ladder into management’ answer, he told me he really wasn’t interested in management, and he wasn’t even very interested in a long-term career in software at all. His passion lay in a completely different field, but he needed a few more years of steady income before he could make the switch."

Lindberg found the perfect job for him—a job that required plenty of skill and client interaction, but didn’t come with a management path or lots of visibility. Once this employee had found a way to make his goals happen and had a clear understanding of his job description, he worked very quickly and efficiently. He became loyal to Lindberg and would fulfill any assignment she gave him…all because she listened to his dreams and helped make them happen.

Creating a sense that you care about your employees can both motivate and inspire them. In a recent survey, only 19% of respondents were happy with their jobs. This can be tremendously costly in terms of turnover and productivity: Unhappy employees show up less, work less, and their work quality suffers, too. On the other hand, employees are more likely to have new ideas on the days when they’re happier. Employee perceptions about the organization they work for can directly affect the bottom line.

Whitney Johnson, author of Dare, Dream, Do: Remarkable Things Happen When You Dare to Dream, believes that people’s dreams matter. "Far too often, we think of our employees as a sentient version of [property, plant, and equipment], looking to drive productivity as if people were automatons," she says. "Yet the real returns are to be had when we remember that every employee …carries a secret dream hidden in their hearts, and we as employers invest in and harness the power of those dreams."

The idea of helping your employees chase their dreams may seem unusual, impractical, or even strange to some. After all, your employees work for you, not the other way around. And your competitors are focused on marketing and research, so why should you risk your money on yet another morale-boosting program?

Matthew Kelly, author of The Dream Manager has heard these objections and more. But the one he hears most often is that investing in your employees’ dreams takes too much time. "The truth is, when you help people accomplish their dreams they will do just about anything for you... and that saves a lot of time," he says.

One reason Kelly’s "dream manager" techniques work so well is that even employees who have repetitive or low-status jobs can be engaged in their work. "The most highly engaged employees…don’t come to work because they love the company, or love the work, or love working for their boss," he says. "They come to work because they have dreams for themselves and their families and believe that by hitching their wagon to a particular company those dreams will be furthered."

Placing a priority on employees’ dreams might require some shifts in the way you perform your job. These changes could include schedule changes, increased flexibility, and pay raises, or it could be as simple as listening to employees’ suggestions and concerns. Once someone else’s dreams take center stage, it might seem like the company’s goals drop to the background as management style shifts to accommodate employees. But the confidence you have in your employees gives them more time and space to be creative in achieving goals for themselves and for the company.

This means that as you and your employees find a way to help each other, communication is key. Finding out your employees’ goals requires a high level of listening. This is especially true if your employees are accustomed to being told what to do all the time. You may have to ask a lot of questions.

And as you help them understand what you need from them, employees will appreciate complete honesty from you. If they know their manager is approachable, they’re more likely to feel that their employer trusts them, and this will motivate them to raise concerns or discuss ideas in the future.

Part of honesty also means making the effort to give credit where it’s due and to recognize the efforts of your employees, especially when things are going well. As Lindberg says, "You might just get a hundred miles of hard work out of those few inches of recognition."

So how do you help your employees achieve their goals? In his book, Kelly offers several steps.

•First, start with yourself. Write down all your dreams. Get a dream book and scribble them all down.
•Second, find out what your employees want from life. Get to know them and find out what their dreams are. You could request a formal meeting or talk more casually over lunch.
•Third, call everyone on your team together for a dream meeting. If you give everyone a chance to talk about their dreams, you may be surprised at how inspired people become.
•Fourth, follow up. Together, your team can start by choosing one dream and finding ways to help that person accomplish that goal. Make sure the person chosen has an opportunity to report back to the group.

Your employees want to feel that they matter and that their work makes a difference in the world. If you help them to achieve their goals, they’ll work hard to honor the trust you place in them. So before you use traditional means to motivate your employees, find out what they want and see if you can work together to make it happen. Before long, they’ll do the same for you.

—Kaylie Astin is the founder of familyfriendlywork.org, a site that identifies solutions for balancing work and family.

[Image: Flickr user Darwin Bell]

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  • Nick

    I once worked for a company that promoted it's employees goals. We have an employee with the dream of creating his own long haul trucking company. He said he needed 3-4 years of income to save up enough to start. Well at the end of the day he accomplished his goal, and we supported him along the way. At the very end he needed a bit of funding to get off the ground. We even provided this. We are now one of his biggest clients and use his services often. We of course get the best prices he can provide cause he supported him along the way. He no longer works for us, but the relationship is still on going.

  • Olise'

    Romantic, and realistic...nothing like a leader that connects to his people on a personal level, and no stronger workforce than people who are passionate and motivated because of how connected they are to their teams and to their bosses.

  • Dstep1

    Great comments, but I would like to add that superior listening skills go well beyond the spoken word. One of the best traits a manager or leader can learn is to listen to what is NOT said. Body language is a part of that, but to take it another level, "listen between the lines!" Listening between the lines gives someone the ability to find areas of compromise and opportunity, whether that be in change management, diplomacy, or in the development of others.

    In one of my new roles at the time, I had a leader of a section who was getting bad reviews from thew manager of that division. Comments were he was not available for the people he supervised at all times. He also had some of the same complaints from his workforce. I reviewed his schedule and found he was involved in many different training sessions offered by the company - he was spending a lot of time in various training courses. I also reviewed his most recent performance report (written by him and accepted by previous manager). I read several things "between the lines" which I thought were important.

    After thought and a little planning, I had him come into my office. We chatted, and I found out he had also attended outside training, at his own cost, to earn recognized training certificates. His passion was training and development! He did not want to just be a traditional supervisor of people - he wanted to develop people! In my research, I determined a potential new leader for that section, should the current leader not work out. But through the conversation and reading between the lines, I found a win-win solution for the individual and the company.

    Being new at t5he company, I wanted to know exactly where the competencies of my team was. So, I created a new role of Mentor for my total group, and moved this guy into that role. I also moved the other person into his former role. First goal - begin one-on-one mentoring for those obviously behind, to see if their careers were salvagable. Next, create surveys and assessments for the overall team, so we could see where work was needed - not directed at individuals, but assessed based on expectations as a whole. He excelled at this role - to the point that the company expanded their Organizational Development & Training (OD&T) around the principles used for this success.

    So yes, listening is a powerful tool, but going beyond pure listening can yield super-performance results!

  • Tom McDermott

    Thanks for the great article Kaylie!  This is great advice.  Specific to moving up the corporate ladder and our career paths within an organization; we need to stop thinking everyone wants to or should want to...  Our individual purposes is never be about one company...  Even though we may love the company we're at and the role we're currently in, we should not define ourselves by that job/company or place and time - it's simply a stop along the journey for our much bigger purpose.  Therefore, if we help everyone find their own purpose, encourage them to dream about it, and show them the path, we'll all lead much richer and rewarding lives.  We need to think about it like our relationships - people come in and out of our lives and we're richer for it.  People come into our organizations and we should feel richer for it.  We have to stop being so worried and protective about who we hire - help people achieve their dreams and everybody wins.  I own my own business, and I know the costs of turnover.  However, my business and personal ROI is much higher when I help bring purpose to life!  

  • Pranav Raval

    An anthropologist proposed a game to children of an African tribe. He put a basket of fruit near a tree and told the kids that the first one to reach the fruit would win them all. When he told them to run they all took each others hands and ran together, then sat together enjoying the fruits.When asked why they ran like that, as one could have taken all the fruit for oneself, they said, "Ubuntu, How can one of us be happy if all the others are sad?"Employer,Employee and the business are three member of African tribe. None of them will get to enjoy fruit if any of them are sad.

    Sooner we learn to live in harmony is better for us. Ubuntu is a philosophy of African tribes that can be summed up as "I am because we are"

  • gusmelo

    That's a very romantic view... I like how it describes the need for alignment in priorities - each party understanding the other's goal, and making a shared decision that helping one another is mutually beneficial. Reality is not quite so romantic but the principle is very powerful.

  • Phil Marsh

    From my personal experience, my best work was always done when I was allowed to innovate.

  • Amber King

    We need this kind of leadership especially now. These days, leaders are too busy to have time to sit down and listen to our employees. I admire Kelley Lindberg for what she is did.

    Loyalty is one thing that companies should acquire from their employees. A loyal employee does more than what is expected not because they need to but because they want to.

  • RolePoint

    Thought leadership posts on employee development often dance around this topic, so thanks for taking it head on. But you’re right, most employees are in your business because of personal goals, not necessarily the company culture or brand. When focusing on career development, you MUST understand and recognize your employees’ dreams, goals, and big ideas. Otherwise, you’re providing a disservice to them and yourself.

  • Esl Kingston

    A manufacturer of electrical transformer core winding machines is utilizing linear actuators from Schaeffler to ensure that sheet metal parts are handled and positioned with repeatable accuracy. The dynamic handling of transformer core sheets to repeatable jobs and more jobs in manufacturing especially.  Quite the contrary of the Chinese jobs that President Obama referred to.