How to make your employees happy and get the best out of them

A couple of weeks ago, I got a copy of Now, discover your strengths by Gallup’s Marcus Buckingham and Donald Clifton. I received it at work, as a mandatory reading for managers. My initial impression was not good: the book read as a self-help book with an aggressive attitude and, above all, a money-making vehicle for Gallup.

Based on a study of “two million people” aimed at discovering the secret of professional success and taking on a “positive psychology” approach (develop your talents, don’t focus just on patching up your weak spots), the book provided a unique code to measure one’s five highest strengths, and suggestions on how to move from an organization from “managing weaknesses” to developing their employees’ strengths. (The program also offers expensive coaching sessions to develop one’s strengths and become more successful at work.)

Surprisingly, the book turned out better than I first assumed. And even more surprisingly, in the last few pages it took on the revolutionary tone of a Corporate America Reform Manifesto. Most traditional corporations got it half wrong, Buckingham and Clifton write: they understood that prestige and rewards are important for productivity, but have implemented a simplistic and flawed version of a reward system that does more harm than good.

If employees do well, the company rewards them by moving them to jobs they don’t love, where they are asked to do things they are not good at. In most companies, the only carrier path is climbing the management ladder. This single-path career solution creates the biggest obstacle to productivity in modern America: middle management; and frustration for the many who get satisfaction from exercising their expertise and their craft rather than from exercising power over other people.

In a knowledge economy … anyone who is excelling is his or her role, whether individual contributor, supervisor, manager, or leader, deserves prestige. Many different kind of prestige should be made available to reflect the many different near perfect performances the organization wants to encourage. Unfortunately, most organizations simply aren’t set up to offer many different kinds of prestige.

The book proposes to create many ladders where people can continue to play to their strengths rather than abandon what they love to do for a job they hate. It even proposes (anathema!) to pay novice managers less than senior and skilled individual contributors.

I’m sure the idea is not new (I even wrote a post more than a year ago about the myth of infinite flexibility in the workplace). But it’s interesting that this book arrived to me through my managers. Gallup has enough respect in Corporate America to be able to influence behaviors or at least to be considered.

Another tenet of the performance management approach suggested by Buckingham and Clifton is basing individual evaluations on objective data rather than subjective impressions. Performance management in many large and complex organizations is too subjective and approximate. If objective measures can be put around some corporate job roles (for example customer services representatives can be measures in terms of service level and call quality), little or no measures have been created around knowledge workers.

Too often managers rely perceptions based on insufficient data points or biased information. They reward people they like or resemble them, and put excessive weight on qualities such as personal drive and ego-centeredness that little have to do with delivering good work (and can often be derailers).

In the end, I liked this book, in spite of its arrogant tone, because it says all the right things: understand what your employees are good at and put them in the conditions of getting better in what they do best; do not reward them by forcing them out of what they are good at; find ways to measure their performance objectively; and reward people with what they want—prestige and good salary—rather than with what is available—power over other people.

Think about it: so many people leave good corporate jobs because they don’t like what they do and have no or little control on their present and their future; they quit because their expertise is not respected, their freedom and creative control is taken away. They leave because these jobs are alienating and devour their soul. A successful company with a lot of money and resources should never be a grim place to work in.

I know that is possible to build companies that nurture and free their employees rather than draining any vital and creative energy out of them. Because there is no business sense in betraying and misusing the same resources that companies are spending so much money to hire and retain. And because there is no way to create an outstanding user experience for your customers and if cannot make your employees happy.

If you don’t love them, let them go. And if you love them respect and reward their skills, expertise, and craft.

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