Estimated reading time: 6 minutes
Today’s reader note is a long one, but it’s one we can empathize with. The story touches on subjects we regularly deal with at work: trust, management, and communication.
Hi, I’ve been a longtime reader of your blog posts since 2013. I remember discovering your blog researching employee engagement strategies to understand what could help boost openness for collaboration in my department. From your blog and many book recommendations, I’ve grown professionally and spiritually, but I still need to learn much more. That is why I am compelled to write to get an opinion on a matter I am conflicted on.
A bit of background: in my current employment, we’re an organization with less than 500 employees. A while ago, I was tasked with a new challenge outside my usual work. In this assignment, I’ve been working to help solve technical and ‘personality’ issues that have inhibited teams from working to their full potential. I’ve been working alongside supervisors across various functions in hopes of building more self-managed teams. Through the enormous emotional labor that has been put into building up teams, we’ve had a notable breakthrough, where employees in one corner of the organization have started to establish norms, work out conflicts on their own, and become more resilient and agile during times of change.
Our organization’s director started to meet 1:1 with all employees as a response to the disengagement and high turnover. I was told the director wanted to “get to know” employees in these short meetings. At first, I felt this was an okay idea, but some parts of my mind felt nervous. What tone does this send, what are the unintended consequences here, and what is the context? So many questions.
Fast forward a few months to the tail-end of all those meetings. I have found out that at the end of each one of these 1:1s, the director tells the employee to pick one activity from a list. The activities are like ‘learn how to make bread’ and ‘learn how to juggle’, etc.. The employees are told there will be an unspecified future check-in to see how they’re doing with the task.
Employees have told me that they are pouring out ideas and feedback in these meetings and that the dialog was great up until the end. I feel guilty because I encouraged employees to go into these meetings and talk honestly and openly, but they ended up feeling unheard and defeated.
I can’t pinpoint what bothers me the most: 1) employees are placed in a position where they can’t say ‘no’ to the request, 2) the employee’s supervisors haven’t raised an issue about it, and/or 3) if they did, the director still went on with this. I don’t want to push this as an issue, but I feel it sets us back somehow. I would feel differently if the director had brought in a professional to teach us how to juggle as a team-building activity, but this is different. Am I overreacting? Thanks.
I want to thank this person for being a regular HR Bartender reader and sharing their story. I wish I had a definitive answer to the question, “Am I overreacting?” but I don’t. There are things we don’t know.
For example, I assume from this note that the organizational culture isn’t one where doing stuff like juggling is the norm. But I don’t know if that’s a fair assumption. Maybe the director is trying to create some culture change. But that raises the question of whether the director has explained why they’re asking employees to pick an activity to work on? Lastly, I understand that the employee’s supervisors haven’t raised an issue but have employee’s expressed concerns? A supervisor might be reluctant to speak on behalf of the team if they haven’t heard from them.
It appears that one thing we do know is that the director’s 1:1 meetings threw up some red flags with employees. And those employees confided their concerns to this reader (let’s call them the HR pro). Now that the employees have done this, is the level of expectation that the HR pro will take their concerns to the director? If it is, then the HR pro needs to think about their next steps.
As a human resources professional, it’s a great thing when employees trust you and are willing to share their unfiltered thoughts, feelings, and opinions. In my experience, employees often came to me with their concerns so I could:
1) Communicate their concerns to management in a way that might resonate better. I’ll admit it – and often employees will admit it too – HR can be a function that can present employee opinions in a “business-speak” that will make a difference. HR departments can be a “third party” and help facilitate solutions. But it takes trust. It doesn’t mean that HR needs to always agree with the employee’s point of view, but they do need to be able to effectively articulate what’s going on.
2) Reframe the scenario so the employee could see management’s point of view. Sometimes, employees will have a negative opinion about something that the company is doing because no one explained why the company is doing it. HR – if they know what’s happening and why – can be that department to help employees see the whole picture. This might also be another moment when #1 (above) comes into play. HR should let the organization know the importance of getting buy-in.
I don’t know if it’s possible for the HR pro to chat with the director about what the employees have confided in them. Maybe the director can let everyone know why they asked employees to select a fun activity at a department meeting. It could be totally well intentioned like “I thought it would help with managing stress.” Or “I thought it would bring us together as a team.” Again, we don’t know why the director is doing this. But it could be possible that, if the director shares their plan, employees won’t find it to be demotivating and might even look forward to it.
But it really comes down to the decision that the HR pro makes. Are they going to encourage employees to express their feedback? Will they try to talk with the director? I do believe if the employees discover that HR didn’t do anything with their feedback it could hurt the trust they’ve spent a lot of time building. And if the director finds out HR knew the employees weren’t happy about the 1:1 meetings, it could hurt their working relationship.
Managing trust is hard. Sometimes when we’re unsure about what to do, we need to ask. “I’m glad you shared that information with me. Would you like for me to share it with INSERT NAME HERE?” And I don’t want to get us off track, but sometimes even when employees say, “I don’t want to formally complain, but INSERT COMPLAINT HERE.” HR pros have to speak up and let employees know they are obligated to investigate. That’s all part of building and maintaining trust.
Image captured by Sharlyn Lauby while exploring the streets of Miami, FL34
Trust is a very important part of the culture within any organization, it is one of the key traits that can make a team successful and have optimal productivity. It can also help bridge knowledge gaps between upper management and regular employees, as the article discusses, the trust people have can encourage them to speak freely and talk about issues or concerns they have which can help improve an organization and let managers know what is working and what isn’t. However, trust can be broken very quickly in all walks of life, including business. As with the issue in the article, if managers treat employees in a way they don’t appreciate once, such as asking them to learn to juggle, it can immediately create an untrusting environment which will prevent improvements in culture. Whilst not everyone in a business has to be best friends, it is important for them to have a good working relationships and having trust for your colleagues and managers is a very important part of that.
Sharlyn Lauby says
Thanks for sharing!