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Leaders are missing what employees really need

Leadership consultants Lindsey Caplan and Josh Levine say that by fostering meaningful connections between workers and their work, managers will begin to see the emergence of that mythical creature it seems every company wants: the highly engaged employee.

Leaders are missing what employees really need
[Photo: fizkes/iStock]
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When it comes to concerns about employee engagement in 2021, The Great Resignation is quickly making conversations about hybrid work and hot desks seem quaint. In fact, research from Microsoft warns that nearly half of all employees are considering leaving their current role this year. Leaders at every level of business will have to contend with a new talent truth. It isn’t enough to focus on how to bring their people back together, they must figure out how to keep them from leaving for good. 

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Now that not coming to the office is the norm, recruitment and retention plans that attempt to compete with the convenience of working from home fall flat. Fancy beverage machines and flex-time don’t seem all that compelling anymore. And if a company isn’t prepared to offer 100% remote work, competing on the more-days-at-home scoreboard will always be a losing game.

To slow the inevitable losses, companies should adopt new strategies that forgo the one-size-fits-all benefits of the past that any company can offer, and start providing the one thing everyone wants, but no one can copy: personalization.

When an individual develops a meaningful connection to an object or experience it becomes personal. A child’s first stuffed animal, a couple’s favorite restaurant, an old friend. The same can happen at a job with a project someone puts their heart into, a manager who went to bat for an inexperienced employee, a message from the CEO on a workiversary. By fostering meaningful connections between workers and their work, managers will begin to see the emergence of that mythical creature it seems every company wants: the highly engaged employee.

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HR literature is crammed with studies and thought pieces describing the benefit of engaged employees—more discretionary effort, longer company tenure, and even more revenue. It’s not a mystery why: an employee who feels a meaningful connection to their work has an emotional stake in the outcome. Luckily for hiring managers that bond is what many talented people want in a job. 

“For the first time in a long time, people are asking if the work they’re doing is really valuable, ” says Credit Karma’s chief people officer Colleen McCreary. “What is the value of my time, the impact I’m making on the world, and the sacrifice I’m making relative to other things I could be doing?” 

To compete with the inevitable onslaught of opportunities elsewhere–whether self- or recruiter-driven–employees need to understand their hours and efforts are having a tangible impact. They want to know their days aren’t being wasted. After more than a year of working from home, seen only through computer screens, what employees want is to be seen for their contributions. 

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Recently, one manager told us about losing a key employee. The reason the employee cited was simple, he felt invisible because consistently his work went unnoticed. The breaking point for him was not being ‘invited to interview for an internal role. What’s worse, it was for work he was already doing well. When a new opportunity came along that aligned with his interests, validated his efforts, and saw his value, he resigned. The stinging postscript to this story: the new job paid less.  

Anyone who has felt invisible at work knows all about jobs that lack personalization. The same Hint water, the same cubicles, the same all-hands meetings. Like a ride at Disneyland that people shuffle through, they feel replaceable, and it’s likely managers saw them that way, too. 

The skeptics might say that cultivating a deep personal connection to work is something the individual is responsible for. After all, they’re the ones doing the work. But McCreary lays out a stark truth: “The [responsibility] is on the employer to know what employees value and to be able to articulate why the work they are doing matches the value they say it is.” 

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Leaders who are ready to create a high-performing team that can’t be poached, and might even be willing to come back to the office may want to take these steps. 

Step 1: Know your people

To create connections, managers need to understand on a personal level who it is they oversee.

  • What do your employees care about? Recognition, promotion, camaraderie?
  • Why are they working for this company in this role: do they love what they do, or happened to fall into this job?
  • What’s at stake for them? Is this about a career or supporting a college-age child?

Good recruiters and hiring managers ask these questions at the beginning of an individual’s employment journey, why not continue?

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Just the act of inquiring is a powerful engagement tool that says to your humans “I’m interested in you.” Most people will be more than willing to share what is important to them if the person that’s asking shows an earnest interest. McCreary offers one more key question most managers never ask but should: What would another offer need to include for your employee to leave?

Step 2: See your people

Understanding is the prerequisite to the real work. It creates a deep connection by ensuring employees feel seen. What employees want is to know that they matter. A desire to be seen goes beyond turning their camera on in Zoom—it’s a core human need we all share. People feel seen when shown how important they are to the company and its success and when they can connect their needs to the company. Even introverts appreciate quiet acknowledgment. Something like a quick note on Slack thanking them for the hard work on last night’s presentation can go a long way. Fair warning: “Great job” isn’t enough. It is time to go the extra keystrokes and be specific about what they did and its effect. If you can say the same phrase to anyone on your team, this is a sign that the feedback isn’t unique or personal enough.  

Step 3: Make it about your people

Personalization is possible at scale. Managers need to shift from a ‘made for everyone’ to a ‘made for me’ mentality. It starts with a desire to view employees as irreplaceable and necessary to the team’s and the company’s success, no matter the size. For example, when bringing people together (whether in person or on Zoom), participants will be more engaged and connected to the content, when everyone present can find a personal connection that makes the experience unique. Ask, “what does this topic make you think about?”, or “what’s top of mind for you about this topic?”. The gathering feels personal not because it’s been customized for each person, but it is made to be about them. 

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We hope that the talented but unappreciated individual who left their job in the story above was welcomed to their new role in a personal way: “We are so glad you’re here. We were looking for someone exactly like you.” 


Lindsey Caplan helps HR leaders and change champions enhance their communication impact so that change sticks, both through her consultancy, The Gathering Effect, and as the Lead Communication Strategist at Pyn, the world’s first employee-centric communication tool.

Josh Levine is a speaker, consultant, and educator of all things culture and author of Great Mondays, one of BookAuthority’s best culture books of all time. 

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