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February 18, 2014

Guest Blogger Jon Picoult: What Employees Want: It Might Not Be What You Think

Picoult, Jon Photo Original

Things can look very different from the corner office.

That’s one important takeaway from a new Towers Watson study -- the latest piece of research to highlight the chasm of perception that often exists between management and front-line employees.

Companies in this study cited job stress as their number one workforce risk. No surprise there; it’s widely acknowledged that workers are frazzled these days after years of being asked to do more with less.

More noteworthy, however, was the study’s finding that employers and employees have vastly different views on what’s fueling that stress. 

When asked to identify the top three sources of worker stress, employers and employees agreed on just one driver: “inadequate staffing” (ranked #2 by employers and #1 by employees).

Further underscoring the difference in opinion, employees’ second-highest ranked source of stress was “low pay or low pay increases” -- something that employers deemed far less important, placing it at #9 on their list.

Knowing What Employees Want
The results illustrate a common cognitive bias that afflicts all of us (yes, even business leaders): We tend to be overconfident in our judgments and beliefs. We might think we know exactly what employees want, but sometimes we’re wrong, and our cognitive biases make it difficult for us to admit that -- or to at least seek out disconfirming evidence.

To help make better decisions about how to improve your workplace, tap into the opinions and insights of the very people you’re trying to engage. Here are four ways to clarify what employees and job applicants really want from your company:

1.  Ask your staff.
The simplest way to better understand your employees -- from what frustrates them to what motivates them -- is to ask.

The next time you have one-on-one meetings with your staff, set aside the routine agenda of operational updates and project statuses.  Instead, use the time to invite feedback on the work environment. Ask your employees probing questions, such as:

  • What do you like most about working here?  What do you like least?
  • What are you concerned about?
  • Would you recommend working here to a friend -- why or why not?

Take note of the themes you hear across your team, and make sure that problem areas find a place in your management agenda.

2.  Survey your staff.
We’d all like to think that our employees are comfortable sharing feedback with us, live and in-person. The reality, however, is that it can be difficult for the staff to do so, especially if they fear their feedback might put their manager on the defensive.

For this reason, it’s wise to complement live conversations about what employees want with more anonymous feedback instruments, such as employee surveys.

Soliciting input from employees once or twice a year in this fashion can be an effective way to highlight issues and ideas that might not otherwise come to light. Online, mobile-friendly survey tools make it easy and economical to conduct such surveys.

Keep the survey short, to help maximize response rates, and be sure to include at least one open-ended question so employees are encouraged to not just numerically rate your workplace, but to also explain why they feel the way they do.

3.  Shadow your staff.
Sometimes the most interesting insights about what employees want are revealed not by asking them, but by observing them.

There may be aspects of a person’s job that, while they wouldn’t think to mention it in a survey, could still be a significant source of aggravation or stress for them.

By spending time alongside your staff and watching the hurdles employees must clear to do their job, you can identify meaningful workplace improvements that employees might never have thought to ask for.

4.  Learn from hires and departures.
With every new hire and every voluntary departure, employers have an opportunity to learn more about what employees want.

As part of your new hire onboarding process, take some time to ask or survey employees about what drew them to your company.  Why did they take the job, perhaps even choosing it over other alternatives? Was it the salary, benefits, advancement opportunities, company culture, or something else? 

By asking this question, you can begin to spot the most common reasons why people join your company, providing yet another data point on what current and prospective employees want.

Note that it’s also valuable to ask these probing questions at the other end of the employee lifecycle, when someone voluntarily leaves your organization, in an exit interview. What was missing for them at your company?  What attracted them to their new employer?

Successful business leaders recognize how important it is to truly understand what customers want and how to deliver on that.

The same holds true with employees. As you try to discern what employees want and how you can better engage them, don’t just rely on what the management gurus say, or even what your own intuition tells you. Instead, go right to the source and let your employees be your guide.


About Jon Picoult:

Jon is Founder of Watermark Consulting, a firm that helps businesses impress their customers, candidates and employees.  A sought-after speaker and business advisor, Jon previously held senior executive roles in service, technology, sales and marketing at Fortune 100 companies.  Learn more at; read Jon's blog and follow him on Twitter (@JonPicoult).


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