Don’t worry, learn how to make your workforce happy

Since the pandemic, organisations everywhere have had to reckon with a newly emboldened workforce, whose values have changed and who can easily vote with their feet if those values aren’t met. To celebrate Happiness at Work Week, which runs from 25-29 September, Dominic Ashley-Timms offers his take on all the things they never taught you at business school

Declining retention rates have caused much hand wringing recently, as HR departments have desperately realigned salary bandings, introduced all manner of new benefits and inducements and caved into a software industry that believes that the employee experience can be improved by the installation of their shiny new platform.

Management craft isn’t usually taught at business school. Yet any of us who might aspire to be a future leader will recognise good management when we see it. Those who seem to effortlessly engage the willing contribution of their team members and positively inspire them to do great work are shining beacons; any of us would be lucky to have such a supportive boss. But is this just nature, or is there a nurture aspect we’ve been overlooking? Just how do you become an effective engager of other people’s talents?

The human condition

At our core, each of us wants to be seen, to feel vital, to be a part of something that we’re helping to build, to be part of a communal effort where our contribution is recognised and acknowledged by others. We want to grow and develop and to be appreciated for our efforts to do so. These communing and validation aspects of our human experience are critical contributors to our psychological wellbeing, yet organisations everywhere are still struggling with inclusion.

So, if we know this, and also what good management looks like, why don’t business schools – the cauldron in which all of those elements are supposedly married together – make it a point to always include learning about the most important fundamentals of how to engage with one other?

Part of the answer is not knowing exactly what makes up that secret sauce; if it could have been bottled, it would already be in wide circulation. While advancements in research in both neuroscience and psychology have grown exponentially over the last 50 years, insights from both disciplines have been slow to influence more established training and education programmes. Most of us still labour under a mental model (perhaps reinforced through the case-study-based approach), that as managers and leaders we need to be the fixers and solvers, the keepers of the show on the road, the firefighters and directors of the workload. We feel obligated to solve problems when they’re presented to us, believing that we’re helping others when we do and that the measurement of our worth is the size of the problems we dive in to solve.

What don’t they teach us?

But here’s the truth of our conditioning. When we engage with others, most of the time we are seeking to gather the information we need to solve the problem for them. Each and every time we begin this diagnostic approach to asking questions, we step into the problem itself; it’s us doing the heavy lifting, we’re accepting the accountability for the resolution.

At the same time, we have snuffed out any opportunity for the other person to demonstrate their own thinking, for them to have learned by being challenged, for them to have done the thinking and to have been bettered by that experience, that new insight. They’re not now able to shine. This is something they don’t teach you at business school. And moribund global employee engagement levels and the lack of meaningful succession planning might testify to the fact that our management approach of yesteryear needs a radical overhaul.

It turns out that the least utilised power that any of us has is the use of purposeful enquiry, ie designing and asking questions entirely for the benefit of the other person’s thinking. Think about that for a second. Experience the mental shift it would take to divorce yourself from the need to know, to let go and instead to ask honest and intentional questions purely to stimulate the most helpful thought processes of someone else. What opportunities might that open up as an intentional people manager? What might be the benefits? If that’s making you uncomfortable, what insight might you derive from that?

Where can managers go from here?

While traditional management theories provide a valuable foundation, evolving workplace dynamics call for a deeper understanding of human interactions. Being a successful manager today goes beyond what you learn in business school. The art of engaging others is often simply to engage them.

Asking questions intended to stimulate the thinking of others is a powerful and authentic way to do this, moving our overall mental model away from ‘direct and tell’ towards the altogether more inclusive ‘engage and ask’. Adopting a mental model of succeeding through the advancement of others can be a dynamic driver and may well be the power source of those beacons we so admire.

Dominic Ashley-Timms studied at IMD and is the CEO of performance consultancy Notion. He is the co-creator of the multi-award-winning STAR® Manager online development programme being adopted by managers in 40 countries and is also the co-author of The Answer is a Question

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