Every company has a vision. A mission to change the world in some way, through the technology, services, or products that it puts out there. When you found a company and start looking to add people to your team, chances are, you’ll find and hire people who believe in what the company’s striving to accomplish. It helps if you’re also offering fair compensation, equity, great coworkers, benefits, and a fully stocked fridge with free drinks and snacks, but every company can compete with perks. If your company’s mission can inspire passion in the right person, that’s what sets the company apart from the rest. That’s what gets top talent in the door.
Fast forward to a year or two into a given employee’s tenure in the company. They have settled in, taken ownership over their domain, become a part of the team, and still believe in the mission. However, by this point, the dynamics of the company culture have started to become clear to that employee. Do they have autonomy? Do they have room to innovate, and mentorship to hone their skills? Are they learning? Are they recognized for their contributions? Are they set up for success? In a healthy environment, the answer to most of those questions should be a resounding yes. Even when the amount of work to be done is endless, pressing deadlines are around the corner, and everyone needs to be 200% on board to get the job done, the answers to those questions can, and should, still be yes.
However, even under the most well-intentioned leadership team, this is not always the case. It’s easy to brush aside an employee’s morale issue, and hope they’ll get over it, particularly if you’re a busy exec with 500 other things on your plate. It’s easy to assume that because the person has been loyal, they will still stick around despite their complaint du jour. They joined because they believed in the mission, right? And they’ve stayed this long, so what’s the real risk that they’ll leave anytime soon?
The reality is that with every ignored complaint, the employee takes a tiny step back emotionally. Over time, this gap can grow wide, until one day, they finally leave. It turns out that believing in the vision of the company wasn’t enough to solve for morale issues, and it’s so often the case that no one asks what could have been done differently until it’s too late.
Grim, I know. So what do you do?
Engineer Your Decision Making Process
First off, try to prevent it. Having the intention of building a happy, healthy team is all well and good, but unless you put in place mechanisms that are specifically engineered with morale and retention in mind, you’ll learn the hard way just how far wishful thinking can get you (hint: not far). Figure out what is most important to your employees. What drives them? Set up systems and processes to make sure those needs are met. This could be as minimal as creating a decision-making process that includes everyone’s input, or going as drastic as holocracy
Ask Your Employees
Secondly, listen to your employees. Set the tone for honest communication, make time for employees, and listen with an open mind. Don’t mentally write off anything negative that an employee has to say, while making empty promises that you’ll try to do something about it; employees will quickly get the message that you don’t actually care. And don’t retaliate against or reproach employees for their honesty, even if it’s not what you want to hear. If employees don’t feel that they may safely give feedback, they’ll stop giving it – at least to you. They’ll say it to each other behind closed doors, via company chat, or at the bar after work, and a culture of toxicity will be brewing right under your nose.
Engineer Ongoing Feedback
And finally, beyond just listening on an individual basis, create processes for feedback. Open office hours with the leadership, a means of receiving anonymous feedback, a regularly scheduled open forum for employees to ask questions, and so on. Take action on the feedback you get, even when it means fessing up to a mistake, or answering a sensitive question about the business in front of the whole team. Employees notice when you dodge the tough stuff, and lose confidence in your willingness to be honest as well as your motivation to take action in response.
Designing a healthy organization is harder than it seems, but the first mistake many founders make is that they don’t design it at all. It’s easy to instead rely on creating a cult of personality, favoring loyalty and enthusiasm while turning a blind eye to internal criticism. This mistake can come at a cost of lost productivity, lost talent, and lost revenue. Don’t stop at good intentions – execute against those intentions systematically, tangibly, and relentlessly, to reach your highest potential as a company: a thriving, productive, healthy, successful organization.