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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