[September 29, 2022] by Kathy Scott, PhD, and Bridget Sarikas
Do you ever feel like you just can’t keep up with the pace and changing expectations of life and work in spite of your valiant efforts? Do you sense an inner anxiety or angst, feeling ill equipped for the needs of the day?
This reminds us of a scene with Lucille Ball and her friend Ethel working on the conveyor belt in the chocolate factory. Their job is to wrap each piece of chocolate candy in a paper wrapper as it goes by. The conveyer belt starts slowly and builds up speed over time. The faster it goes, the “behinder” they get, although their efforts are mighty, not to mention hilarious!! And yes, they both get fired.
This scene is such a great depiction of living on the edge, going faster and faster and getting farther behind. We’re sure we can all relate – both personally and professionally! We have long been working in this productivity model with the directive of doing more faster and better, often with less. This leaves little to no slack in the system or personal reserve for adapting to the unexpected, coming up with creative solutions, and or making necessary improvements. It is, in fact, a great recipe for burnout.
In many workplaces today, employees and managers are treated as if they are a commodity, or a basic good that is interchangeable with other commodities of the same type. People are moved around and worked hard without much consideration of their unique experiences, perspectives, and network of relationships. In this model, humans and costs are managed tightly without much regard for potential or the longer-term impact. Many workplaces, in fact, expect that there will be more churn in the organization, so they invest little -- keeping orientation short, working people to the maximum, minimizing the frills, and always pushing. And when their employees leave, they simply rinse and repeat. This is one cycle we can do without!
This work model has resulted in a very disenfranchised workforce. Many feel that their value has been reduced to a strong back, a quick fix, a peg in a hole, whether it’s a good fit or not. “Managing on the Edge” is managing with the realization that people are expendable. “Working on the Edge” involves the realization that people are a resource that can be bought, moved, and discarded without much consideration. The value equation is “get them in and work them hard for short-term gains.” Does this sound familiar? If you answered yes, don’t be discouraged just yet.
The Impact of Living on the Edge
What gets missed in this equation of the edge is the significant unhealthiness that brews below the surface – the loss of team, knowledge, talent, and spirit. Employees and managers feel that they are not able to give or receive enough value, stifling their desire to actively engage. This significant loss of benefit in the short term continues to snowball and impact the longer term.
A recent Gallup survey of the workplace of U.S. adult employees demonstrates that the employee engagement trend is going in the wrong direction. In a random survey of 15,091 full- and part-time employees, they found that the ratio of engaged employees to overtly disengaged is now the lowest in almost a decade with 1.8 engaged employees for every 1 overtly disengaged. And even more disturbing is the group in the middle, making up over 50 percent of the workforce. This group is also disengaged, but less overt about it. This half of the workforce is psychologically detached, biding their time, and putting in just enough effort to stay below the radar. In simple terms – this is “not good.”
A New Value Equation is Needed for the Workplace
A depressed workforce is of particular concern because so much of our work today requires some level of extra effort – effort to collaborate, team up, and partner with -- to manage the complexity and meet the dynamic needs and expectations of today’s customers. This type of work requires energy, positive thinking, and a willingness to come together. We won’t do this well when the negative takes over.
So how do we change these unhealthy scenarios to something better, something healthier in these dynamic times? How do we get the talent to the table and keep it there?
Well let’s get personal for a moment. Most of us want to be appreciated and seen as people who have value that goes beyond a singular task or role. And most of us desire the freedom to do our own thing, performing in ways that allow us to do our best, to include freedom from nonsensical pressure, constraints, and so many layers of bureaucracy.
As our world grows in complexity, however, we find ourselves becoming more and more interdependent. Our success is dependent on not just our own contributions, but also on the contributions of others. We find that we can no longer go it alone. This is our new reality.
This interdependence requires different ways of thinking and working. It requires more collaboration, teamwork, and value-added activities to produce the best outcomes -- outcomes that would not be possible without the contributions of the team members.
When interdependence works well, engagement is enhanced. Great synergies occur. Time flies and we have more fun. When working together becomes burdensome it can quickly lead to dysfunction and discontent.
Interdependence, therefore, is a new value to embrace if we are to be successful. It requires an investment in people and some slack in the system.
It’s a different way of thinking and behaving, regardless of our role in the workplace. To be our most effective selves, we must work from our strengths and learn to work more collaboratively with each other, thoughtfully considering diverse viewpoints, hearing each other out as we manage our way through the discomfort in order to bring out the best talents of the team. This is where being comfortable with the uncomfortable begins.
Enhance Your Value Proposition
Getting clear about your own value proposition is a great starting point. A value proposition is a statement about what differentiates you from others, describing the value, the strengths, you bring to the table. This can be about how you function, outcomes you produce, relationships you enhance, and/or roles that you excel in, such as advisor, teacher, creator, subject-matter expert, or supporter behind the scenes. And when we work out of our strengths, we not only honor ourselves, but also add value to others. This all sounds great, but how do we get there?
Here are four strategies to help us differentiate and contribute our value-added strengths in the work world:
1) Get clear about expectations. A great dissatisfier and common problem is not knowing what is expected of you. Recent studies of young workers working fully or partially remote, showed that 40 percent of the individuals did not have clarity about what was expected of them at work. This is quite disturbing. This guessing game results in work-related stress and a decline in engagement. And unfortunately, this doesn’t just apply to off-site workers. The same can occur when working in the office or at the worksite. Managers need to check in. Employees, ask questions. Everyone – put the questions on the table and have the conversation. Talk about what quality looks like in this new environment. We can’t stress this enough – it’s not just asking questions. It’s also taking the time to thoughtfully consider and respond -- really hearing and investing time in each other.
2) Focus on the quality of your relationships. The social capital of an organization is the total value of all the personal relationships within the organization plus the value of the relationships between the organization and the environment. This network is both horizontal and vertical, involving humans regardless of role, gender, color, or skill set. Too often, however, these relationships are minimized – as when there is a reduction in force (RIF), or when people are moved around without much thought or planning from one area or role to another. A relationship focus considers and nurtures the quality of the relationships. We have so little of each other these days making it all the more important to make our times of exchange worthwhile. These relationships create the glue that keep people coming back. Don’t underestimate the power of relationships for relationships matter!
3) Strengthen your interactions and connections. The interdependent work required to manage today’s more complex problems is strengthened through our many interactions and connections. The focus here is on the number, variety, and frequency of our interactions with others, regardless of the work model. Interestingly, a recent study of employees working in a hybrid work model (those working approximately equal time at work and at home), found that hybrid workers had a broader network than those who spent the majority of their time in the office or at home. They also had better work-life balance, and lower isolation compared to the other two groups. This dynamic also led to greater productivity and creativity. So, regardless of your work model, engage with others to share your value – your knowledge, expertise, and experience – with others through connection. Make it fun. Get creative. This is time not wasted but time well spent!
4) Connect to the values of your customers and stakeholders. It’s so important to keep a focused eye on the needs of those who need and desire your products and services, be they internal or external customers. Resist the urge to project your personal values and expectations on them and make it a priority to understand their needs and preferences. Then focus your efforts there. Not only does this makes good business sense, but it presents the opportunity for each of us to connect our value proposition to the greater purpose of our work. This is one of those connecting the dots moments!
And here are some strategies for Managers:
1) Nothing about me without me. This statement comes from the healthcare world as a reminder to healthcare providers of the importance of partnering with patients to understand their values and needs when planning their care, rather than making those determinations without them. This is applicable, as well, to the workplace in general. It’s important to involve the team in the rethinking, redesign, and redistribution of their work. Afterall, they live it every day and just may have some insights to share. How often have you wondered why they didn’t involve you? Take the opportunity.
2) Communicate clear expectations and stay flexible. Interdependent and collaborative work requires both direction and flexibility. Practice the skills of communicating clear messages while giving people the latitude to contribute their talents and strengths in their preferred way. Make sure there is some slack in the system for people to interact, collaborate, and get creative. Take the time to give and receive feedback in ways that help people move forward. And if you are not comfortable with this – start practicing. You’ll get there.
3) Check in with your team. The strongest predicter of employee engagement is the workplace climate, which managers strongly influence. And the good news is this climate can change more readily than the environmental kind. Start with basics – acknowledge people and their contributions through your words and behaviors such as a nod, smile, eye contact. People want to be seen, noticed, understood, appreciated. Ask them how they are doing and if they are taking care of themselves. Find out what matters to them and connect with their values. Address their challenges when you can and let them know when you can’t. Be an ally.
Enhancing our personal value in the workplace goes well beyond achieving the desired outcomes of the day, although outcomes are important. It is also about the journey with others, playing off the strengths and contributions of each other, finding joy, and delivering the value needed for these dynamic times. Do it for your own health and the health of the team!
“My boss told me to have a good day...so I went home.” ~ Author unknown