The Manager's Guide to Reclaiming and Retaining Disengaged Employees
by Joseph Grenny

Has work lost its luster in your organization? Do your employees avoid your office, reply tersely to your emails, or speak to you with a hint of sarcasm and annoyance? Have your top performers developed the tendency to take off early, show up late, or even call in sick? If it seems that people in your organization are getting the corporate life sucked out of them it is very possible that your employees are working for a jerk. Yes…that could mean you.

Popular opinion cites unacceptable hours, low pay, and bad work assignments as leading causes of career blues. Naturally, these grievances are enough to cause any employee to grumble. However, according to a recent survey by VitalSmarts, a corporate training company, these grievances are actually the least common concerns among employees. More than 50 percent of survey respondents listed a disagreeable boss as their number one reason to want to pack up and leave.

These disgruntled employees aren't just daydreaming about leaving - two out of every three people who are bugged by their boss are actively seeking alternative career options. As a manager, the thought of a mass exodus in your organization can be a bit frightening-especially when you are the one to blame. But are you really the problem?

Even though employees may feel stifled by your leadership style, the solution is not necessarily a personality transplant. The survey showed that employees with concerns about their bosses are perfectly happy and productive -- as long as they can effectively discuss these concerns with their boss and develop mutually acceptable solutions. In other words, the problem is not their grievance with you. The problem is that they aren't speaking up about it. The survey revealed that only one in five people have even attempted to fully lay out their concerns with their boss. This insight does not let you off the hook. It does mean however, that up until this point, qualms about your leadership style may have remained unspoken.

It's no wonder employees aren't enjoying their careers as much as they could be. When they can't approach their supervisors, work suddenly feels less enjoyable and productive, and more like detention.

After twenty-five years of research in the field of organizational effectiveness, the VitalSmarts team of researchers has determined that most people don't know how to hold what we call crucial confrontations. We consider sensitive and risky conversations "crucial" because repeated research shows that employee engagement, turnover and productivity - among a host of other measures of effectiveness - are profoundly related to how well people talk about politically and emotionally risky topics. Most people shy away from crucial confrontations, especially with a person of higher power or authority. Disturbingly, almost two-thirds of survey respondents admitted they will quit before ever really speaking their minds.

With the proper set of skills, you can turn a disenchanted workforce into one characterized by high levels of engagement. This can be accomplished by improving your employees' ability to hold crucial confrontations with their less-than-perfect boss.

So, when your employees begin demonstrating signs of career suicide, open your door and allow them to approach you with crucial confrontations. If you demonstrate a commitment to being approachable, your employees will find more satisfaction with their current jobs, and you will experience improvements in your working relationships. Use the following skills to banish the jerk within and restore the natural leader people respond to.

  • Make it safe. Recognize that it can be tough for an employee to express a concern with a boss. As a manager, it is your responsibility to create safety and approachability. People feel psychologically safe when they know you care about their interests and respect them. Start with: "One of my most important priorities is helping you succeed. I'm aware that at times I may fall short of that goal. I want to learn ways that I can do a better job. Would you be willing to give me some feedback about how I can be more effective in supporting you?"

  • Look for the truth. When hearing negative feedback, you're likely to feel hurt or defensive. Avoid the temptation to defend yourself and instead look for what's true in what they're saying. Ask them questions to show your interest in their point. Help them move past vague feedback like "you're controlling" to specific examples of where you've hindered them. Try to understand why they think what they think about your leadership style.

  • Listen for hesitance. Take special care to watch for subtle cues when emotions start to run high. These cues let you know your employee has something to say but isn't saying it. A minor pause or faint reply should sound an alarm that the employee has a concern but isn't speaking his or her mind. Pay close heed to the spaces between responses. Look for awkward glances and listen to tone of voice, pacing, and volume - all give clues that aren't contained in the words themselves.

  • Bite your tongue - for a while. To make it safe for others to honestly express their opposing views, it is okay to explain your actions. But only after you've completely heard theirs. Do not shut off the dialogue to defend yourself. Once they feel completely understood, it's okay to share additional background or data they may lack. But you may want to wait for a later time to do so just to be sure you're doing it out of a desire to share rather than a need to defend.

Joseph Grenny is author of the New York Times bestselling book Crucial Confrontations: Tools for Resolving Broken Promises, Violated Expectations, and Bad Behavior. Grenny is also an acclaimed keynote speaker, consultant, and president of VitalSmarts - an innovator in best practice training products and services that deliver significant improvements to the results companies care about most. Grenny has designed and implemented major corporate change initiatives for the past 20 years. Visit for additional information.

Many more articles in Motivation & Retention in The CEO Refresher Archives


Copyright 2006 by Joseph Grenny. All rights reserved.

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