Embracing employee engagement while avoiding an entitlement culture
This article was published as part of the Denver Business Journal Leadership Trust, an invitation-only network of influential business leaders, experts, executives and entrepreneurs.
When I launched my first startup, I intended to fix everything I thought was wrong with what I termed “scarcity culture.” I had spent my early career in large corporations where rules, processes and hierarchical organizational structures got in the way of getting things done. I wanted my company to be a place team members were proud to tell their friends about; a place they wanted to work, where they were interested in helping the company grow. This is what I call an engaged team.
While we started down this path wonderfully, we ended up with a bunch of entitled employees. After reflecting on this experience, I made changes in my second startup — with much better outcomes.
You see, entitlement and engagement are two sides of the same coin: you can start from the same place and experience two different results. Let’s explore further.
Seven mistakes that led to an entitlement culture
1. Giving before getting
We were a small company but needed to hire strong engineers in order to compete in our market. We paid them a market salary (mistake no. 1) and gave them impressive titles (mistake no. 2). Since they had inflated titles, they eventually brought us information that said they were underpaid.
Retrospective: When you are a new company, you can’t afford to pay market salaries. You need to hire people who are driven by the work — not the salary. Reward them with options or discretionary bonuses but don’t pay it all in cash up front. Also, when you inflate titles early on, you are not providing a growth path for your team as you grow. A ten-person company doesn’t need a Chief Revenue Officer. It needs an Account Executive.
2. Thinking professional development is the company’s responsibility
We were excited to help our team members with their certifications and CEUs, so we handed out training dollars liberally. However, we ended up with a team who wanted more each year. Training wasn’t enough — now they wanted to go to expensive conferences and conventions. It became too much for a small company and ended up creating unhappy people.
Retrospective: Formulate individual development plans with each team member — find out where they want to grow and share in the responsibility for achieving that growth.
3. Allowing underperformers to stay
We hired a project manager who came highly recommended. She was a great performer at first, but then her work became sloppy — she took long lunches, came in late, left early and we couldn’t count on her to keep deadlines. However, because she had a great relationship with her team, we were afraid that if we let her go, others would follow. So we let her stay and spent entirely too much time trying to get her to do good work.
Retrospective: Keeping underperformers does damage in two ways: It sucks time away from your top people, and it results in diminished respect from your peers because they see that you are allowing poor performers on your team.
4. Accepting responsibility for your employees’ personal decisions
I had a team member get in trouble with gambling debt. He came to me to ask for an advance on his salary. That seemed reasonable, so I made it happen. Then two weeks later, he asked for another advance — then another. You get the picture: I was enabling his behavior.
Retrospective: Poor personal decisions are never your responsibility. I don’t recommend ever fronting salary. Unless you are a bank, you’re not in the banking business.
5. Taking the monkey on your back
As a caring founder, I was always available to listen to anyone who needed an ear. Since we were a small team, I was also a player/coach and pitched in wherever needed — and there were lots of needs. That meant picking up lunch, scheduling meetings, proofreading proposals, etc. I quickly became the go-to person for anything one of the team members didn’t want to do — even when it was part of their job description. In the interest of being a team player, I ended up doing everyone’s least favorite tasks with no time to get my own job done.
Retrospective: Set boundaries. Just because a team member doesn’t want to do something doesn’t mean they can’t do it. Don’t load your back with other people’s monkeys!
6. Failing to nurture creative problem solving
One of the hats I wore was client management. When team members had an issue with a client deliverable, they came to me. I thought it was my job to deliver the message and work towards a resolution that kept the client happy.
Retrospective: I should have set the expectation that if a client deadline was in jeopardy, the team needed to come up with options for us to present to the client as a team. It wasn’t my job to solve these problems alone.
7. Letting communication become too casual
In the interest of authenticity and transparency, we encouraged open and honest communication across the company. This worked great for a couple of years. Then we hired someone who took it too far. He would belittle team members and even curse under the guise of “authenticity.” This started a shift in the way team members interfaced with each other, and the collaboration degraded substantially over a period of time. Even team meetings became contentious.
Retrospective: Authenticity and transparency are critical — but not without respect first and foremost. We are a workplace first, a friend place second.
I am a huge fan of creating a safe, collaborative, fun work environment for your small company. But in the process, make sure you are doing your job as a leader to build a strong, resilient team who can help you grow your company — people who will go to bat for you, not exit the moment you don’t bend over backwards to give them what they want.
Read the full article here.