Engagement Training & Development

Can You Afford to Fuel Employee Burnout?

[Note: This post first appeared on myHR Blog and is shared with permission from Tina Hamilton, PHR, founder of myHRPartner, an HR outsourcing firm. Tina is a well-respected business professional who is frequently quoted in the national media on HR-related issues in the workplace, and I’m proud to know her as a colleague and friend. To learn more about her work, please visit myHRPartner.]

Is employee burnout hurting your bottom line? via myHR Blog

Just like a broken down car, a burned out workforce will not take your business where it needs to go. And as much as some people would like to paint employee burnout as completely based in personal issues, it is more often than not a sign of serious organizational problems within a company.

What’s more, employers who don’t recognize and correct the kinds of workplace problems that lead to burnout risk hurting their company’s bottom line. Things like very heavy workloads, feelings of job insecurity, frustrations with massive amounts of meetings and impossible deadlines fraught with roadblocks create a toxic workplace environment where employees feel frustrated and stressed out.

According to a recent Harvard Business Review article, employee burnout costs an estimated $125 billion to $190 billion in American healthcare spending on psychological and physical problems it causes each year. But the real cost to businesses can be far greater because of issues such as low productivity and high turnover rates as great employees leave toxic environments for greener pastures.

When Harvard Business Review looked inside companies with high burnout rates, they found these common problems:

We saw three common culprits: excessive collaboration, weak time management disciplines, and a tendency to overload the most capable with too much work. These forces not only rob employees of time to concentrate on completing complex tasks or for idea generation, they also crunch the downtime that is necessary for restoration.

Excessive collaboration may prevent progress

Poor time management practices and overloading top performers are issues that are fairly obvious causes of employee burnout. Excessive collaboration, on the other hand, may seem counter-intuitive on its face. The article explains that this situation arises when teams have too many decision makers and too many decision-making steps. “This can happen in companies that really do mean well,” says Tina Hamilton, PHR, myHR Partner president. Going overboard on collaboration often leads to a cycle of endless meetings, hordes of emails and scheduling nightmares—all without significantly moving a project forward. “Stress can lead to personality clashes and get in the way of pragmatic, timely decision making and progress. You can see how this can lead to burnout.”

This being said, collaboration itself—when done right—is often a great thing for work teams. Hamilton recommends having a clear strategy and sensible team organization before collaborative projects begin in order to decrease frustration and to keep things from getting bogged down with meetings, emails and red tape.

Other causes of employee burnout mentioned in the article include:

  • The new “always-on digital workplace”
  • Constant multitasking that leads to exhaustion and lack of focus on any one task
  • Rigid approaches to team objectives that do not allow for re-prioritizing when new tasks are added or outside situations change
  • Managers who do not know how much time employees spend on activities, meetings, etc.
  • Lack of tools and training for employees to handle tasks
  • A corporate culture in which overwork is expected or celebrated
  • A sense of lost autonomy among employees.

As we have blogged about in the past, the danger of overworking employees is real. They will feel disrespected or unappreciated, and they won’t stay—especially if they are talented. As an HR outsourcing company that often helps clients avoid expensive, time-sucking high employee turnover rates, we can tell you burnout will burn your company. It’s just a matter of time.


A Business Consultant’s Rant

I love working with my clients, and yet I get so frustrated sometimes — not at them, but for them. I get frustrated on their behalf because of the organizational absurdity they have to deal with. For example:

  • A management team focuses on improving employee and customer engagement despite inconsistent or no corporate support.
  • An executive director struggles to move forward with a board-approved strategic plan while lacking sufficient resources that include board member support. (The latter is well-meaning but complacent.)
  • A department head labors to accomplish departmental objectives with conflicting goals and multiple agendas as the top executive’s vision and those of the division heads exist on different planes.

These clients know what they need to do despite being hindered by misplaced priorities, misguided executives, and misaligned goals. So they persevere.

“Do what you can, with what you have, where you are.” Theodore Roosevelt.

I care about and admire my clients, and I’ll do my best to help them succeed no matter what – even when it’s being a sounding board for them.

Unfortunately, there’s no magic solution for organizational lunacy. I just wish I had a supply of silver bullets they could bite.


What’s the Problem with the Next New Management Trend?

The answer depends on management’s attention span.

No matter how well intentioned, executives who are unable to keep their focus on doing what it takes to make a new approach work will move on when the initiative fails and go after for the next best thing — frustrating their employees in the process.

In this situation the latest greatest management trend might be new, but not the employees’ experience with it. So they shake their heads and roll their eyes – out of management’s sight – when executives launch their business strategy du jour to increase/improve:

  • innovation
  • productivity
  • engagement
  • collaboration
  • all, or any combination, of the above.

Employees are asked to ascend the roller-coaster of executives’ initial excitement, only to endure a steep drop in efforts to sustain the approach. Without sufficient investment in the necessary resources and follow-through, employees are left feeling cynical rather than invigorated.

Jumping on the management bandwagon isn’t the issue; what’s critical is how seriously a new approach is considered and applied. As Robert Bacal writes in his article, Management Fads – Things You Should Know:

“Because management fads do usually have substance, those who take the time to explore the possibilities usually come away from the experience as better managers. Those who do not take the time to learn, but adopt a management approach on only a superficial understanding of the techniques, become worse managers.”

Engagement Training & Development

Here’s What Bad Bosses Say

Steer clear if someone you work for – or with – says any of the following:

“I’m not the boss because I’m always right. I’m always right because I’m the boss.”

“Why should I invest in your training? You’ll just take all this knowledge and go to work for someone else.”

“Lack of planning on my part will constitute a constant emergency on your part.” (Former boss mantra)

“You don’t need to know what this is for – just do what I tell you to do.”
Translation: “You’re paid to do, not to think.”

As Leah Arnold Smeets aptly puts it, “The bottom line is, bad managers are bad for business, and they’re even worse for their employees. That’s because no company or enterprise can win with disengaged employees drained of energy and enthusiasm.”

While many bad boss quotes and how to cope with them can be found online, here’s one of my favorites:

Boss: “It’s not my job to make my employees happy!”
Consultant: “It’s not your job to make them miserable either!”

Customer service Engagement Training & Development

A Manager’s Guide on How to Cope When Team Efforts are Taken For Granted

I had an interesting discussion with a colleague who manages an internal service department for a medium-sized organization. She’s a supportive manager whose team takes pride in providing quality service to internal clients. However, she finds it a challenge to keep her employees at the top of their game when some internal clients are unappreciative of their efforts. Part of her dilemma is rooted in an organizational culture where administrative support is taken for granted.

She and her team acknowledge the situation and focus on how to work effectively within – and despite – the culture. She also encourages employees to rise to the challenge of working with unappreciative clients. Yet there are still occasions when team members find it hard to muster enthusiasm to serve such clients.

You can’t fake it and other important tips
How does she continue to motivate her team? She knows she can’t fake her own engagement, so she starts by staying positive. She also focuses on how she can best support her team and internal clients with the following actions:

  • Keep the “big picture” front and center by reminding employees how they support the department’s mission and contribute to the organization’s mission in the process.
  • Engage employees in sharing what works to keep them motivated, such as providing peer support and finding the humor in their experiences and ways to safely blow off steam. This is done regularly in staff meetings and when difficult situations arise.
  • Share and reinforce client service success stories with the manager’s boss as well as with the team itself.
  • Acknowledge those clients who are appreciative of staff efforts, while also diplomatically standing up for employees dealing with difficult clients.
  • Maintain a positive culture within the department that values both clients AND team members.
  • Continue to acknowledge and recognize employee efforts with little gifts, food, and ongoing professional development.

Just as importantly, she models and reinforces what Chip Bell describes in his new book, Kaleidoscope:

“We are what we serve to others. It is our signature that sums us up each time a customer is on the receiving end of our efforts. And your customers remember how you served long after they have forgotten what you served! How can you deliver service in a fashion that says, ‘This is me, and it is my very best gift to you?'”


Open Workspace – More or Less Engaging?

Open workspace, a trend in office design, is intended to foster a more collaborative and productive workplace with fewer organizational silos. Hearing from several people in different firms share their experiences adjusting to the design after their companies moved their offices, I’m concerned about its impact on employee engagement. Among the frustrations cited:

  • Although space is available when concentrated work and private meetings are required, it’s harder for some people to focus on work. As a result, these employees find themselves staying later in the office just to get work done.
  • The new open layout is noisy and distracting. One associate observed the irony of the layout encouraging teamwork and collaboration when people were “wear headphones that shut them off from each other.”
  • Desk set ups are flexible and interchangeable to encourage employee collaboration, allow for “drop-in” employees a place to work, and provide economies of scale derived from shared and reusable space. Such set ups also limit employees’ personalizing their workspace. A manager in one such organization told me employees were allowed one personal photo in a company-approved frame.

I asked a colleague who works in new office space to share her thoughts. Her adjustment was quicker than she anticipated, and she liked the interactivity with other departments. She also acknowledged the onus is on the employee to adapt, including utilizing the “quiet spaces” available when needed. When I asked her about any negative effects, she said she would email me after giving it more thought. A few minutes later she called me from a private space where she could be more discrete in discussing the downsides of the new office. She admitted there are times she feels “it’s like working in a fishbowl.”

The Ideal Workspace?
Researching this new work environment, I learned about Herman Miller’s “Living Office,” a well-thought out design concept that offers a variety of work space where people can work alone, in one-to-one situations, and in both small and large groups for collaboration. I was impressed with the logic behind it that emphasizes the “human experience.”

“In the new landscape of work, creativity and idea generation drive value, and humanity is the distinguishing capability. Processes don’t create ideas, think up new products, or maintain relationships, people do.

[Workplaces] need to attract, nurture, enable, and retain the talent that will drive innovation and execution, and bring an organization’s strategy to life. Through an optimized variety of settings a Living Office will give individuals something that cannot be had anywhere else: a spiritual connection to work and colleagues; a platform for increased productivity and effectiveness; and, a more naturally human experience of interaction and creation.” Herman Miller brochure

Other firms in the office furniture and design industry also embrace and promote this type of layout.

In addition, I learned the open space office is not new, as Frank Lloyd Wright used it in designing the Larkin Company Administration Building in Buffalo, NY, in 1903. Contemporary interest in open workspace is to enable individuals to take control of their environment with options to move to where they can work best, such as quiet spaces for focus and larger spaces for discussion and collaboration. Granted, it is more liberating than employees isolated in pod-like cubicles.

What about employee engagement in open workspace?
The open office design is not without its critics, however.

” … as the number of ‘open’ companies is increased, so too have the questions over whether the environment is all it’s cracked up to be [as] all that togetherness comes at a cost, including distractions, a loss of privacy and the potential for the lightning-fast spread of germs.”  David Ward, “Beyond the Open Office”

“An open concept often poses the question, ‘Where is my space?’ People like to set up personal spaces to make them feel more at home [with] pictures, posters, etc. Some individuals also need to feel separated from the group and free from distraction (visually and audible — people moving about the office or [in] discussions).”  “Open vs. Closed Space: Finding a Balance,” by Mia Rossi for Corporate Environments.

As a result, I have serious concerns related to employee engagement:

  • People engage when they’re involved in meaningful work and making progress in that work.  If engagement is about making progress, what does it say when you’re challenged to focus and concentrate?
  • People also engage to belong, to connect and be part of something special.  If engagement is about a sense of belonging, what does it say when your workspace is interchangeable and with limited options to customize it?

The evolving workspace
Creating an effective work environment involves considering a variety of factors that include employee demographics, the degree to which people are introverted and extroverted, the type of industry and work to be performed, organizational culture, etc. Most likely, the ideal workspace design will continue to evolve with a hybrid approach combining elements of flexible, fixed, open, and private space that best accommodates both employees and employers.

An effective and engaged workplace ultimately depends on the strength of an organization’s leadership and culture — its consideration of the above factors, how it solicits employee input and involvement in changing the office layout, sensitivity and response to employees’ workspace needs, support to help employees adjust to a new updated environment, and ongoing communication and feedback throughout the process.

[Special thanks to Chuck StehlyCorporate Environments, and Joseph Biondo, AIA, Spillman Farmer Architects, for their help with this post.]


Customer service Engagement Training & Development

Hey, Wells Fargo: You Should’ve Followed Aretha Franklin, Not Gordon Gekko

I’m saddened and shocked, but not surprised, about the recent Wells Fargo sales scandal that lead to bank employees opening bogus customer accounts in response to intense pressure to meet unrealistic and aggressive sales goals.

I was once a sales manager for a local bank. It was some 30 years ago when the banking industry was trying to build sales into its service culture. At the time most of our customer service reps (CSRs) were not comfortable with cross-selling. The attitude was, “If I was interested in sales, I would have gone into retail. I got into banking because I didn’t want to sell!”

Integrating sales in a service environment
Aware of this mindset, my bank was careful and deliberate about changing the culture. Our approach was sales was part of service and that “suggestive” and “consultative” selling provided a better customer experience than just being “order takers.” It wasn’t the customer’s job to know about all the products and services our bank offered; that was the CSR’s, teller’s and branch manager’s job. It was branch team members’ responsibility to educate customers about additional products/services that might better meet their needs for savings, credit, and convenience. We used extensive training and a formal incentive system to support branch sales efforts and reinforce this new service & sales culture.

What I remember most about that time was the role of respect in the sales process — respect for both our customers and employees. It was part of the CSR’s job to suggest additional services, and if the customer declined, that was OK. This was based on my issue with fast food’s “Would you like cheese with that?” approach. As a marketer, I understood that the counter person at MacDonald’s was trained to cross-sell cheese with its hamburgers. But as a consumer, I sometimes became annoyed because if I had wanted cheese on my hamburger, I would have asked for it! Understanding and respecting the customer’s needs took precedence over “sales for the sake of sales.” That was the service & sales culture my bank’s leadership supported.

Wells Fargo brand damage
My former boss in branch administration, who endured several bank mergers, used to joke that the operational metrics in the large banks were so extensive, they probably tracked how much toilet paper was used in the employee restrooms. That’s why I find it hard to believe that Wells Fargo management was unaware of what was happening. The banking giant’s meet-your-sales-goals-numbers-at-all-costs-if-you-want-to-continue-working-here culture created a lose-lose-lose situation for its customers, employees, and brand — the result of greed, not respect.





The Psychological Recession & Generational Engagement: Interview with Dr. Judith Bardwick

I don’t remember when I started reading (and frequently quoting) posts by Judith M. Bardwick, Ph.D., but I was hooked on her insight into employee and organizational development. A highly respected writer, consultant, and speaker, she is known for combining “cutting-edge psychological research with practical business applications to optimize organizational performance.”

I recently reached out to Dr. Bardwick and am honored to feature her here.

QSM: You wrote about the “psychological recession” nearly ten years ago to describe the work environment in your groundbreaking book, One Foot Out the Door: How to Combat the Psychological Recession That’s Alienating Employees and Hurting American BusinessWhat is the Psychological Recession, and why does it still matter? 

Judy: The Psychological Recession is a bleak feeling of vulnerability to bad forces that are too large for an individual to control or manage.  It can be triggered by individual events, i.e., losing your job, or huge events like the periodic recessions our economy falls into.  A Psychological Recession lasts much longer than the economic one because being/feeling depressed leads to greater feelings of being powerless and hapless.

A perfect example would be the endless reference to the Great Depression (and now the Great Recession) over several generations.  My grandparents raised it as a lesson for their children to be economically prudent and I was taught the same lesson by their children, who were my parents.  As a result, I pay bills quickly, never borrow money, and am never in debt.

One Foot Out the Door by Dr. Judy BardwickThe Psychological Recession matters a hell of a lot because the economy grows as a result of OPTIMISM and TRUST.  There is little or no trust of government or business in the face of a Psychological Recession and, equally powerful, there is PESSIMISM AND THEREFORE ECONOMIC CAUTION which means little or no investing because investing depends on being able to see the future in a positive light.

At the present time we have very large, very vulnerable groups of people including, especially, the long-term jobless or under-employed, recent college grads, uneducated low wage populations, and scariest of all, the previously successful middle class.

These phenomena were clearest first in developed economies and now include emerging economies.  At the present time, you can see the effects of expecting future blows and endless vulnerability world-wide in the general low levels of investment and the destructive growth of caution-creating bureaucratic regulations.

We need the bottle to be seen as half-FULL for nations to return to GDP growth levels of 3.5-4.00.

QSM: You’ve written extensively about optimizing organizational performance, advocating “the well being of employees has to be perceived not as a cost — but rather as an investment with a large pay-off.” Given little improvement in national studies on employee engagement, why are we making such little progress in increasing employee engagement? Also, what do you think is most important for the next generation of managers to know about building a workplace culture with employees based on trust, respect, and commitment?

Judy: I don’t see enough direct data to be certain of the answer but my sense of it is no employees are perceived as individuals and individuals want and need to be respected, included, and valued.

It’s my belief that most HR people and many executives define FAIRNESS as treating everyone identically.  When everyone gets the same benefits, same forms of recognition, same incentives … none of it has any value.  If someone believes they are making very significant contributions to the business of the business, and others make some contributions and some contribute nothing, and the organization does not differentiate between them, the result is resentment and anger followed by apathy.

You will notice that the actions are decided and directed by the employer with basically little or no input from the employee.  This is no way to make friends.

What people most want changes over a period of a decade or two depending on large part on the economy and the size of opportunity.  It was absolutely logical that the Great Generation, which experienced the Depression and WWII, greatest wish was for economic security, and the great companies gave employees security for life if they were loyal and stayed with the organization.  The next generation, the older boomers, took security for granted and most wanted opportunities to succeed, become autonomous and find meaning in their work.  Younger boomers looked for a balanced life as many parents were educated and women began to enter the professional labor force.

Following the Great Recession security reappears as hugely valuable.  There’s no surprise there.

There are other important motives at different times:  Before the Great Recession the Millennials wanted their coworkers to be their equals; they wanted their lifestyle to reflect their basic values so many businesses moved from an urban environment to a suburban or rural one.  They put flexibility high on their list because both parents were employed and their kids needed to be driven to school and other activities …

How do you know what’s most important to an INDIVIDUAL who also happens to be a member of a generation?  The fundamental answer you ask is, “What would make your life more satisfying or easier that we could help you with?”  That requires a trusting relationship between the questioner and the employee.

The question is open-ended. It provides no guidance or limit.  How could an organization handle an unlimited number of answers?  The answer is, if you think ABSTRACTLY, the number of things people most value will range from 1-3 in or following harder economic times and 3-6 when the economy is good and creating opportunities.  The vast majority of what people want most will fall into a limited number of categories.  Any organization can handle 6 kinds of categories.  And if someone asks for something impossible, say that and encourage an alternative.  And, the question might be posed every year or two because the answer can change.

For example, autonomy is highly desired when times are good.  What might that include?  How about having freedom about the time when you come to work and when you leave; having freedom to decide where you work or what you are working on; having time to create and initiate new projects; having freedom about the team you join or the members you invite to join the team you’re building.

Chapter 8 in my book, One Foot Out the Door, discusses CUSTOMIZATION at length.  But the take-home of this answer is while “WE” characterizes great teams and families, it is also necessary to recognize that there’s also always an “I” that needs to be recognized.  Customization is all about responding to “I”.  If an organization, or a family, or a group does that, Engagement and Commitment will soar.

QSM: As a business professional and academic, what do you think should be taught in schools – and in life – to prepare young people to be engaged and productive members in the workplace?

Judy:  I’ve been married twice.  My second husband was “a Mustang” in the military.  That means he started out as an 18 year old high school graduate who entered the Coast Guard as a black shoe sailor and rose to become a Captain (next rank is Admiral).  When we married he still had some of his high school books and I was amazed by their content.  He and the other students in his small, rural high school were required to think, comprehend, abstract, and write and talk at the college level.  And, in addition to the academic learning, they also mastered cooking and sewing, building and gardening, ethics and behavior.  When they graduated from high school they were ready to become responsible and independent adults.

What a difference a generation or two makes!

Young people today are generally vastly more skilled in using technology than their parents.  In that sense they’re sophisticated.  But personal development, taking on responsibility, being independent and inter-dependent is hit or miss.  They are very aware of what’s in and politically acceptable but they run in groups.  Real independence is as rare as divergent thinking.

Too many of our children and adolescents are much too coddled by parents and teachers.  They have too little freedom to explore and take risks and start developing confidence and resilience.  “Good” and “Bad” have lost their ethical power for behavioral guidance and have become too judgmental in this solely relative world of explanations and excuses.  “Selfies” are prized photographs because narcissism is endemic.  High School and College kids know nothing of America’s founding and its historic values.  Civics, Government, History and Geography are not addressed adequately or at all in many schools.  In general, there’s too little discipline imposed, much less self-developed, and there’s too much ignorance and lack of appreciation of what came before them.

In short, there’s not much perspective as a result of most contemporary education.

Most of what I’m talking about in terms of personal development is taught in places like Montessori schools and to some extent in charter schools.  But to a harrowing extent none of this is taught in most schools partly because the focus has shifted to national test scores.  While we certainly need all of our children to be able readers, writers and users of math, we also need them to grow up.  Much of that process now depends on parental models of behavior and rising expectations by parents of growing maturity, insight, autonomy, responsibility and empathy on the part of their children.

My brother and I grew up in a tiny village of 3 or 4 square blocks in New York City.  Most of the parents were immigrants, all of whom valued education as one of their highest priorities.  I don’t remember our parents helping us with our homework or supervising our play.  There were known rules and we pretty much obeyed them, and we certainly worked hard at meeting our parent’s unspoken expectations of behavior and achievement.  I don’t think we gave any of it much thought in the sense that our friend’s parents had the same rules and high expectations.  And in our little village, everyone knew everything about everyone.

Without the support of institutions like schools, churches, and neighborhoods where many people know each other and each other’s children, optimizing your child’s academic and personal development is an enormous burden on parents. Changing the circumstances of academic and personal learning will require a major shift in cultural values and priorities.  Unfortunately, but frequently, that kind of huge change needs things to get worse before there is any way they can get better.

QSM: Thank you, Judy!

Customer service Engagement

Companies Get Lucky (?) with Partial Engagement

“I love working with my customers. They’re what keep me engaged. Can’t say I feel the same about the company I work for.”

“I’m upset by the lack of professionalism in my office. Co-workers dress sloppily. They curse in the office and don’t seem to take work seriously.  What keeps me going are the conversations I have with my counterparts in other offices.”

These highlight discussions I had recently with business professionals in different fields. I’ve heard similar sentiments from employees who stay engaged for the satisfaction of working with their customers and/or co-workers. According to a TINYPulse study on engagement and organizational culture, “Peers and camaraderie are the number one reason employees go the extra mile … not the money. Camaraderie plays the true motivating role in encouraging employees to outperform expectations.

Enjoying their work with co-workers and customers is key to employees being engaged, but it’s not enough. Total engagement happens when employees connect on three fundamental levels:

  • with the organization itself  – when employees understand the organization’s purpose and strategy, including knowing where they fit in and what’s expected of them.
  • with customers – when employees know who the customers are and what is important to them so employees can better serve them.
  • with fellow employees – when employees also understand and respect how everyone’s work is interconnected in achieving organizational goals.

The people I spoke to acknowledged they’re not disengaged, just partially engaged. How fortunate for their employers. But I can’t help wondering how much better they and their respective companies would be if they were fully engaged on all levels.

As Meatloaf sang, “two out of three ain’t bad.”  Or is it?





There’s No “Me” in Leadership

I spoke recently with a colleague about the organizational damage done by CEOs whose egos outweigh their management and people skills. Rather than creating a legacy of their greatness, these executives often leave a toxic workplace in their wake.

“If a leader with a big ego and threatening manner takes over, employees become focused on satisfying the leader instead of focusing on the organization’s mission. … Big threatening egos produce apathy as they focus on the ‘me’ instead of ‘we.’  They refocus most people on protecting themselves from the wrath of egos. Hardly the path to success.”  Kate Nasser in a post about leadership.

Ultimately, as my colleague pointed out, “The organization’s culture should be bigger than any one person.” The good news is most organizations are resilient and can survive such executives.

But at what cost?

The fallout is low morale, high disengagement, and high turnover that result in a weakened internal brand struggling to retain or attract talent. With the right leader in place, however, the organization can recover.

It just takes a lot longer for employees who had to suffer through the former CEO’s reign of terror.