“What’s the hardest part about being a leader?” A few years ago, the Washington Post interviewed Peter Thiel, cofounder and former CEO of PayPal, and asked him this question.
This was his response:
“As CEO, you’re somehow both the total insider and the total outsider at the same time. In some ways you’re at the center of the organization. In other contexts, you’re like the last person to know anything.”
Leaders are the last people to know anything.
Of all the things that make it tough to be a leader — the burden of decisions you have to make, the psychological toll of risk you bear, the interpersonal politics you juggle — Peter felt that “being the last to know” was the hardest thing about being a good leader and one of the biggest challenges for a great company culture.
He’s not alone in feeling this way.
After collecting data from almost 300 different companies with 15,000 employees through our employee engagement and feedback software, we’ve been able to discern what situations leaders are “the last to know” in and what their most overlooked blindspots have been…
Blindspot #1: Your employees feel stifled.
When asked through Know Your Company, 76% of employees said, “Yes, there’s an area outside my current role where I feel I could be contributing” (814 employees answered this across 135 companies). This is contrary to a common perception CEOs have: that their employees are slammed and completely at capacity.
In addition, 58% of employees stated that “Yes, something is holding me back from doing my best work right now” (1027 employees answered this across 144 companies). So not only do employees feel like they could be doing more – but they also feel noticeably held back at work.
In other words, your employees hunger to grow, learn, and further their own abilities in ways that we as CEOs might not always be aware of. This might be a management role they’ve always wanted to take on, or perhaps a new skill that they’ve been wanting to develop.
Employees have untapped potential that you could be helping to encourage… if only you knew about it.
Solution: Help your employees develop the skills they want.
Effective leaders nurture their employees’ interests and abilities that help them grow professionally and personally. This can be as straightforward as asking your employees, “What professional skill(s) have you always been wanting to develop?” or “Is there something you’ve always wanted to learn professionally but haven’t had a chance to yet?”
Another way to uncover this information is to consider that employees oftentimes love to learn from their peers. Ask your employees, “Is there anyone at the company you wish you could apprentice under for a few weeks?” This is one of the most popular questions we ask through Know Your Company. When asked across 145 companies to 1,756 employees, 92% of employees said “Yes, there’s someone in the company I’d like to apprentice under.”
You don’t need to go hire expensive consultants or create elaborate training programs to help your employees develop the skills they want. It can be as simple as utilizing the talents of the employees you already have.
Blindspot #2: Employees think your company is behind the curve.
From the responses gathered through Know Your Company, we found that most employees believe their company is behind the curve in a certain area. In fact, when asked directly, “Do you think our company is behind the curve in something in particular?” 65% of employees said “yes” (1,267 employees responded to this across 190 companies).
On top of that, employees frequently notice competitors pushing out ahead and doing things they wish their own company was doing. Seventy-five-percent of employees have said, “Yes, I’ve seen something recently and thought to myself, I wish we’d done that” (1,338 employees answered this across 209 companies). Even further, 65% of employees said “Yes, I’ve seen something a competitor has done recently that’s really impressed me” (632 employees answered this across 124 companies).
Yet, how often do you have employees actively coming up to you, telling you about the latest neat thing a competitor’s done that you should be aware of?
My guess is… not that often. You’re sitting on a wealth of helpful observations and good ideas with the potential to improve your business.And you’re oblivious to them simply because, as leaders, we forget to ask and over time our team loses trust in the leadership team and overall direction, hurting employee engagement.
Solution: Don’t kill an idea too quickly.
We all have a bias against creativity in time of uncertainty. So when an employee brings up an idea or suggestion (especially if we’re feeling overwhelmed or flustered at that moment), our knee-jerk reaction is to cast it aside. “Not now,” we tell ourselves.
To combat this natural bias, ask yourself: “What are the ideas I’ve been hearing right under my nose that I should be listening to?” Force yourself to recognize that you might have a mental model or preconceived notion about what ideas are good and bad, which may be closing you off to ideas that are actually worthwhile.
You can also try spending 15 minutes each week writing down questions that challenge the status quo. This technique, often used to promote innovation in a company, will help you shake loose your predisposition to move things along in your company the way they’ve always moved along.
Lastly, you can simply ask your employees: “Is there anything in particular you think we’re behind the curve on?” From this question through Know Your Company, we’ve had companies make tangible improvements to business development, customer support, software security, and employee recruitment.
Blindspot #3: Your employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.
Perhaps this isn’t a surprise to some. It’s well documented that employees today, more than ever, crave to understand what they could do better at their jobs. In our data collected through Know Your Company, we found the same: 81% of employees want more feedback about their performance (1,747 employees were asked about this across 172 companies).
However, employees don’t see performance reviews as the best way to get this feedback. Sixty-three percent of employees feel that, “Yes, we do performance reviews frequently enough” (699 employees responded to a question about this across 82 different companies).
It’s no secret people that employees hate performance reviews. Have you ever sat in one? They’re awful. We hate giving them. We hate being on the receiving end. Why? They’re a long, stressful, giant dump of information from the past year, often arbitrary with ratings and scores.
What employees want instead is regular, helpful feedback. The more regular this feedback and interaction is with managers, the more engaged employees are. A recent 2015 Gallup study shows that managers who hold regular meetings with them are almost three times as likely to be engaged as employees whose managers do not hold regular meetings with them.
Effective leadership is more than evaluating employees at the end of the year or quarter to just “check a box.” It’s open, frequent conversations that are centered around mentoring and coaching employees.
Solution: Create a company culture of consistent communication
Consistent communication from a manager — be it via in person, over the phone, electronically — is proven by Gallup to be connected to higher engagement. This could be one-on-ones, all company meetings, social opportunities, all-company get togethers.
In particular, Gallup found that managers who are most successful at engaging their employees use a combination of face-to-face, phone and electronic communication. And, the most engaged employees report that their managers returned calls or messages within 24 hours.
The key here is consistency. If you want your corporate culture to be open and transparent, you’ve got to practice open and transparent communication regularly. The more often you do it, the more natural it will feel. Practice makes habit. And those habits will evolve into your company culture. This is how you create a culture of openness.
I understand how difficult this is to do. But your employees want to know you’re listening and are responsive — and your consistent communication shows this.
It’s not a one-off, “do it once and I’m done” sort of thing you do. It’s not transactional. It’s genuinely caring about the relationships you’re building with your employees, and showing that you care.
This means getting to know your employees outside of work as well. Gallup reported that employees who feel as though their manager is invested in them as people are more likely to be engaged. So creating opportunities for people to engage socially, share a bit of their lives outside of work, is a way to increase your employees’ engagement.
In sum, to improve employee satisfaction, you’ll want to keep these blindspots in mind…
- Employees feel like they could be contributing more.
- Employees think your company is behind the curve.
- Employees want more feedback… but they don’t want more performance reviews.
Now granted, these are insights we found across the almost 300 companies who use Know Your Company. For your company, your blindspots could be different. Depending on how big your company is, what interpersonal dynamics you have, how well you communicate across the company, etc.… what you don’t know varies from company to company. And it changes over time, as you grow and hire new folks and other folks leave, as the market changes, and as your business offering evolves.
But by understanding what’s most commonly overlooked, and seeing what’s been surprising to our leaders who use Know Your Company, you can avoid these blindspots and engagement issues that others have failed to see and get better business outcomes.
Curious if you have these leadership blindspots in your own organization? Read on to Chapter 2 to take “The Blindspot Test: How To Identify Your Leadership Weaknesses.”