“People are our greatest asset” is one of the most hackneyed phrases expressed by heads of businesses. Every leader says it at least once.
The real world tells a different story. Employers often treat staff as chattel, especially in the financial services industry. Then they complain that they cannot find or keep good people. The four-year retention rate at traditional brokerage and insurance companies remains in the single digits, and many large public companies enact regular layoffs based on hitting earnings targets for the year.
Instead of treating people as an investment on which to get a return, these companies see them as a cost to be managed. Simon Sinek says you can tell a lot about how leaders value their people based on how they describe their order of priorities. “Leaders have ‘tells’ as human beings. They act in order of personal preference.” Sinek says. “If it comes out as ‘growth, market share, profit, shareholder return, then people,’ you can assume that employees are not first on their list of priorities.”
Sinek is a prominent speaker and best-selling author who effectively challenges the traditional mindset in American companies. When I interviewed Mr. Sinek at the 2019 BNY Mellon’s Pershing INSITE conference, he said that too many business leaders do not show employees the loyalty or consideration they deserve. He then asked, “Why are they surprised when those same employees do not give them loyalty back?
“Owners and executives treat human beings as an item on a spreadsheet,” he added. “That’s not to say profits should not be a priority in business, but not 90/10 — maybe more like 51/49.” He noted that companies who take care of people in hard times have greater long-term performance. Sinek went on to say that the best-performing companies have employees who wake up inspired, feel safe at work and return home fulfilled.
Those of us who have worked in other environments grasp this concept. When you reflect on your own management style, think about times when you experienced mismanagement. What did this feel like? What would you have wanted that manager to change? How many of those same ineffective techniques, phrases or behaviors show up in your own approach to leading others?
Motivation vs. Environment
I have long believed that you cannot motivate people, you can only demotivate them. Your job as a leader is to create an environment in which motivated people will flourish. For the most part, this means eliminating distractions from their work. These range from frustrating technology and dark offices to negative or harassing behavior. In addition, the environment has to provide what they need to focus on their jobs.
The psychologist Frederick Herzberg published a study in the late 1950s on Motivation-Hygiene Theory (or Two-Factor Theory) that helps frame choices for top management.
Herzberg said that examples of motivators include challenging work, appropriate recognition, increasing responsibility and personal growth. “Hygiene factors”— those elements that do not lead to higher motivation but can distract from employee satisfaction — include company policies, relationships, work conditions, fair remuneration and job security.
Think about how you or your leaders make decisions. A leader who gets outraged about small or less meaningful things may be more of an agitator than a manager. As an example, Sinek told the audience a story about an inspirational minister who in his sermon declared that few in his congregation “give a shit” about poor people. “In fact,” the minister said, “you are probably more upset that I said the word shit in church than the fact I said you didn’t care about poor people.”
Underperforming firms often mirror how people feel about working there. At some point, we all experience issues with our job or personal challenges we wish we could be more transparent about. Oftentimes employees are reluctant to let bosses know about these things. Do your employees ever say to you, “I made a mistake?” Do they ever reveal that they have problems at home that are making it difficult to stay focused at work? Do they ever admit that they were promoted to a job, but they do not know what to do?