Seven ways to make sure your workforce investment is paying big dividends

Now that the economy is dragging and business is tight, it's more important than ever to get maximum return from your employees. Change management expert Morrie Shechtman tells you how.

It's no secret that the economy is barely limping along. And whether or not your company is feeling the pinch, the downturn is making you scrutinize your employees with a skeptical eye. Is Anthony really working or is he goofing off? Why does Stacey hole up in her office and never speak to anyone? And as for Edward, he seems even more hostile than usual these days. Yes, the flaws and foibles you were able to overlook in the past are starting to feel like serious liabilities—and with a host of hungry job seekers knocking on your door, you're starting to wonder if these less-than-perfect people are right for your company after all.

Don't get out the pink slips just yet, advises Morrie Shechtman, change management expert and author of the book Fifth Wave Leadership: The Internal Frontier (Facts on Demand Press, 2003, ISBN: 1-889150-38-X, $19.95). Just because the current state of the economy means that more people are looking for work doesn't mean that they are the right people for your company. Instead of viewing employees as expendable, Shechtman insists that you should focus on getting the best return possible on the workforce you already have.

"Employee retention is still a very big issue," says Shechtman. "It always will be, regardless of the state of the economy. After all, the key to long-term growth and productivity is a workforce that's familiar with your company and in sync with your business goals. Your workplace should excite and motivate your employees, so they'll want to stay around. And that means creating an environment that challenges people and helps them grow not just as employees, but as people."

This theme—fostering what Shechtman refers to as "self-information"—is thoroughly explored in Fifth Wave Leadership. It essentially means that your employees want their jobs to teach them about themselves, to provide valuable information that not only makes them more marketable in today's marketplace, but that also helps them become better spouses, better friends, better people.

So how do you foster a growth-oriented workplace, the kind that will survive and thrive even in a downturned economy? Shechtman offers the following insights and tips:

  1. Forget monetary incentives: focus on relationships. Even if you could muster them up right now, fat salaries and bonuses, more vacation time, and other such perks will not increase employee loyalty. All they do is create a bigger sense of entitlement. They tend to tie people to your company in the same manner that one trains a dog to stay in the yard—until, that is, the company across the street offers a bigger, juicier bone. But creating a culture in which better relationships are valued gives employees a more profound and rewarding reason to come to work every day. Only through relationships can people change and grow...and personal growth is a requirement for survival in our increasingly complex world.
  2. Help your employees find their familiars. What is a familiar? Simply put, it's a feeling state we return to again and again. It is an emotional pattern that holds tremendous power over our choices, our relationships, and our careers. Rooted in our families and our upbringing, the familiar is a feeling that we unconsciously reproduce, sometimes to our benefit, but often to our detriment.

    For instance, the eldest child of a large family might have grown up having to subrogate her needs for the needs of the younger children. Perhaps she was told she was selfish for asking for things for herself. It is no mystery that as an adult she is frustrated at work and has trouble communicating her needs to her boss. Her familiar—the feeling that she doesn't really deserve to ask for anything—is reproduced in her work environment, where she is unable to assert herself.

    You can help your employees tremendously by learning about familiars and encouraging your employees to identify—and subsequently diminish—their own.

  3. Question employees relentlessly. A big part of creating a growth-oriented workplace is to constantly question your employees. "Did you notice what you did there?" "Why do you think you said that?" "I noticed that when your position was challenged in the meeting, you didn't defend it—why do you think you backed down?" Creating a "question culture" will help employees ferret out their familiars. It will raise performance expectations throughout the company. It will train employees to think carefully about how they do their jobs and ensure that they have sound reasons for every decision they make.
  4. Encourage conflict and confrontation. Yes, you read that right. The purpose of the workplace is not to make everyone happy—it is to grow people to their maximum potential. As Shechtman writes: "The enormous popularity of consensus decision making/negotiation, participatory management, and self-directed work teams is a sign of the times that is validating our unhealthy quest for comfort above all."
  5. Conflict and confrontation are rarely pleasant, but they are the very definition of teamwork. They are also necessary to growth relationships.

  6. Provide honest, caring feedback. You should constantly tell your employees how they are coming across, or how they are doing. It goes without saying that sometimes this feedback will be negative in nature. Honest feedback can be painful for both parties, but it is the backbone of a growth organization. A relationship without honest feedback is what Shechtman calls a "mutual toleration society." He maintains that unconditional acceptance—in both personal and professional relationships—is a form of abandonment, robbing the other party of the most important catalysts for growth and change. (Hence the reason the feedback is labeled "caring.")
  7. Practice the art of self-disclosure. Of course, feedback cuts both ways. You want your employees to provide it to you as well. One way to do so is through self-disclosure. If you want to turn a stagnant employee relationship into a growth-oriented one—or start a new relationship out on the right foot—share your feelings first. This is a big risk because you don't know how the other person will respond; you must be prepared to deal with any type of reaction you receive. But it's a risk worth taking because you can learn a lot from your employees. Self-disclose often and you teach by example the kind of relationships you expect to flourish in your company.
  8. Form an accountability group. Many people fear receiving or giving feedback; they don't want to show others a weakness or make someone else uncomfortable. Put them in the right setting, however, and they may be willing to provide others with clear and compelling feedback. Accountability groups are one way to foster such feedback. In these groups, people give and receive feedback, create action plans based on that feedback, and hold group members accountable for implementing their plans.

    "I have found accountability groups to be amazingly effective in helping clients overcome their debilitating work and personal problems," says Shechtman, who writes at length about these groups in his book. "Done correctly, they really can lead individuals and organizations to transform themselves from the inside out."

It's worth adding that the actions detailed above are almost certain to increase your company's productivity. After all, people who are personally and professionally fulfilled are better employees. This alone is reason enough to foster a growth-oriented workplace, especially given our current economy. But the big reason has more to do with tomorrow than today.

"Creating a work environment rich with opportunities for self-discovery is an investment in the future of your company," Shechtman concludes. "It's seldom an easy journey, but it's one you must undertake if you want to attract and retain talented employees. Begin it now, and when the economy finally rebounds, your employees won't leave you for greener pastures. Why would they? Your company will be meeting needs far more important and compelling than a biweekly paycheck."

About the Author:

Morrie Shechtman is an international change management consultant who has taught at distinguished universities throughout the United States, has worked as a therapist and counselor, and now runs a successful management consulting company, Fifth Wave Leadership. He has consulted with top executives in Fortune 500 companies and has lectured internationally on personal transformation and productivity.

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