Rear Adm. Daniel Holloway talks with sailors during his weekly Admiral's ‘brown bag lunch’ aboard aircraft carrier USS Enterprise (Source: Wikipedia Commons)
Ideas for Leaders #353

How Seeing Things Employees’ Way Builds Performance

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Key Concept

By adopting an employee-centred attitude to the way you lead, your staff will not only achieve the best for themselves and their own goals, but they will also deliver the best for your business. It requires a move away from the controlling orientation of traditional leadership and towards a more communicative process, in which you try to understand the strengths, fears, and aspirations of employees, and manage them accordingly.

Idea Summary

If you could eavesdrop on your employees’ conversations, what do you think they would be saying about you? Or if you look back over your own career, considering the good and the bad bosses, how would you describe them? ‘Inspirational’, ‘empathic’, ‘open to new ideas’, or ‘controlling’, ‘autocratic’, and ‘micromanaging’?

Whatever the answers, there is no escaping the fact that bad leadership exists, but why? Perhaps it is the system that is to blame – we are so busy doing our jobs, and so results-driven, that we simply don’t have the time to deal with others. Perhaps we are too egocentric, looking inwards to our own desire for control and for ‘getting on’, rather than outwards to the people we lead?

Recent research suggests that by flipping the lens and taking an employee-centred perspective, leaders can reap the rewards of a happy and engaged workforce, a more productive organization, and a less self-centred self.

The research included an interview with Stephen Martin, CEO of construction company Clugston, who took part in the Channel 4 programme, Undercover Boss, in which business leaders go ‘undercover’ to find out how their own companies really tick.

Martin’s experience of his company from the viewpoint of the workforce was both insightful and, at times, disappointing. He realized how poorly he had understood some of his employees’ concerns, and he was surprised at how certain initiatives had gone awry, often because of poor communication. Going undercover prompted him to make some important changes in how he ran the company and how he communicated with employees across the group.

Business Application

If going ‘undercover’ is not a realistic option, here are some alternative ways you can tap into the mindsets of your employees, and find out about the day-to-day realities of your business:

  • ‘Skip-level’ meetings, during which senior executives can talk on a regular basis with employees two levels below in the hierarchy;
  • ‘Brown bag’ lunches, which serve a similar purpose in an informal setting;
  • Web-enabled chat and discussion forums, which are particularly suitable for large companies, where meeting all employees is unrealistic. Whether you are answering questions posed by employees via the  intranet, or using private social networks to exchange ideas, use technology to give your employees a virtual connection to the top;
  • Front-line work, a simple way to cut through the hierarchy. Whether you end up dealing directly with customers, or working alongside employees at shop-floor level, it not only helps you see what day-to-day issues exist, but it also makes you look more human;
  • Reverse mentoring, in which a junior but tech-savvy employee tutors an older manager in the latest technological developments affecting the business.

Whether your employees want more responsibility, a chance to develop certain skills, or recognition for a job well done, leaders need to use techniques like these to try and understand their desires.

Structuring opportunities around the skills and motivations of employees may be more costly and time-consuming initially, but it will be far more fruitful in the long term than fitting employees around the jobs.

Once you have worked out what motivates your employees, and tailored opportunities that combine those motivations with their own skills, you need to manage the experience for them. Essentially, this is about keeping their energy and enthusiasm levels up by maintaining a high-quality work experience, involving them in projects which excite and motivate them, and giving them the chance to let off steam when issues arise.

Managing the employee experience is inextricably linked to understanding the employee mindset – if you don’t know what they want, how can you give them what they want?

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Idea conceived

  • November 2013

Idea posted

  • April 2014

DOI number



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