Employers and employees want fundamentally different things—not just out of the workplace but out of their relationship with one another, too. Most management advice tends to downplay those differences rather than bridge them. But it doesn't have to be that way.
Anyone who's worked to bring change to a team or organization knows the sorts of dangers that differing expectations can bring. Change that's good for a company can be unsettling for the people charged with carrying it out. And fear and uncertainty can cause everything to go sideways.
But what's less commonly recognized is that the disparate needs, priorities, and assumptions held by employers and employees are always there, even during times of stability. It's only the high pressure during times of change that brings them all into the open.
Typically, employees want choice, flexibility, and the ability to do their jobs the way they think will work well. Employers want employees to follow best practices and achieve a uniform, predictable level of performance. Employees want safety and security in their jobs. Employers want bigger profits and better results.
These desires aren’t necessarily incompatible, but when companies just focus on one side (their own), the other gets forgotten. There's no surer way to breed resentment in the ranks and harm your company's culture.
Employees and their managers tend to hold different attitudes toward work itself. Recent research by Impraise found that managers were 85% more interested in presentation skills and 42% more interested in productivity skills than their employees. They were also 55% less interested in their own listening skills than their employees were.
While the Impraise research only examined a small, selective sample, it hints at wider differences in emphasis. Other research has shown that employees tend to value warmth—for instance, the way managers deliver messages—above competence, which usually comes through in the content of the message itself.
That's hardly surprising. Employees are rightly concerned for their own treatment and well-being. They read their career prospects in the way they feel they're perceived at work. And while actual competence plays a part in that, those finite skills are more closely linked to performance of the business and subsequently to the concerns of managers and leaders.
No one doubts that keeping employees happy is important to performance. Focusing on the bottom line at the expense of team members' sense of personal agency can hurt the bottom line as morale and engagement slump. So does this mean that you need to compromise your company's standards in order to meet your employees halfway?
Of course not. Working together isn’t a zero-sum game. The best teams are those where everybody wins together.
Stay aware of what your employees want (hint: go ahead and ask them!) so you can combine those priorities with the organization's. Deliver important news—including news about changes ahead—with warmth and some forethought of how it will affect employees. When managers lay down the law on performance standards and best practices, involve employees in defining the finer details so they can feel that they're working their own way. If you're a leader, focus on improving your communication alongside your listening skills.
Human beings easily slip into conflict. You can see it on the Internet and in social media every day. Without context or nuance, conversations devolve into mudslinging, fueled more by intolerance of others’ perspectives than by a desire to understand them. If, as a leader, you don’t show that you're looking out for the interests of your employees—even (and especially) when you don't share them—then your teams will assume that you're working at their expense.
Whenever you discuss the company's concerns, discuss employees', too. Whenever you share your perspective, give them a chance to express theirs. Compromise is about making room for multiple perspectives without compromising the values you all share.