Want Top-Performing Employees? Make Them Feel Understood

Minute Read

To drive performance in employees, we must make them feel understood. We must also take the time to understand them.

We make this mistake at work all the time, to varying degrees: we assume each of the employees working for us wants to be treated the same way.

The guiding principles and rules within an organization should apply to everyone, but how we motivate them, praise them, and engage them should not be based on narrow perspectives.

In fact, narrowness of perspective creates dangerous differences at the group level. We categorize employees into groups by one shared characteristic, like gender, race, religion, disability, and more, usually unconsciously. Then, we try to apply a consistent set of rules to that group that we don’t to others, alienating them and often denying them what they really need.

Those individuals who don’t want to be treated as you want to be treated, and those groups who don’t want to be set apart based on one characteristic, don’t get the tools or support they need to perform.

This is an idea I’ve been grappling with at Ethos. My job is to shape culture as a catalyst for growth and scale at tech companies. Yet, often the biggest obstacle to fostering a healthy culture is how we manage the employee experience, even with the best of intentions and the cleanest frameworks.

It wasn’t until a conversation last week that I finally had the words to express the solution to this problem.

I asked my mentor, who has built one of the healthiest cultures in Chicago from the ground up, what I could do to ensure my clients were happy.

She responded, “Don’t make value judgements. Demonstrate listening. And make them feel understood.”

I wrote each word down carefully in my research journal. This was the answer not just to the customer experience, but the employee experience. This is how we create positive, performance-driving behavioral change.

At the Group Level

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Women and men are not fundamentally unlike one another at work, despite the multitude of articles published on their supposed differences.

Statements like “women are less likely to take risks,” “women are not confident,” or “women don’t negotiate” abound, and are often delivered as evidence that there is some genetic, sex-based difference between how men and women perform their jobs.

This is not the case.

In a recent study on gender differences in negotiation outcomes, researchers found that differences between how men and women negotiate were almost negligible compared to the differences between how men and women are perceived as negotiators.

Similarly, women are not less confident than men at work. A survey of 200 studies found that self-esteem was essentially the same between men and women after women reached the age of 23.

Finally, women are in fact roughly as risk-taking as their male counterparts. When they received the same level of access to information, the numbers of men and women taking risks became almost identical.

So then, where do these group-specific stereotypes come from?

In many ways it’s a self-perpetuating cycle, one that starts with not taking the time understand our employees and make them feel understood.

While women aren’t inherently less risk-taking, less willing to negotiate, or less confident, they behave this way when exposed to certain conditions, just as their male counterparts might.

Catherine Tinsley and Robin Ely illustrate this in a series of examples in their work for the Harvard Business Review, “What Most People Get Wrong About Men and Women.”

At a biotech company, women were less likely to speak up in meetings. However, leadership failed to see that this was happening because these women had previously been shut down, interrupted, or dismissed in those meetings, not because of their personalities or sex-dependent traits.

Similar examples showed that women were punished more severely for making mistakes, which thereafter reduced the amount of risks they took. They also received significantly less feedback than men, which affected their confidence because they had no gauge on their performance.

In the last example, we can clearly see how generalizing about a group as opposed to understanding individual employees damages performance. Namely, a common argument for not providing women feedback at the workplace is, “I don’t want to negatively impact her confidence with critiques.”

When we stereotype groups based on what we perceive as their innate needs, rather than trying to understand them, we create conditions that are unfair and alter behavior. We are making value judgements, not listening, and certainly not making employees feel understood.

At the group level, there are a few solutions we can put in place to mitigate this risk:

  • Provide transparent access to information
  • Make sure employees are appropriately networked and socialized, or at least have access to networks and social groups within an organization
  • Provide regular, informal feedback in addition to performance reviews
  • Put communication rules in place that discourage interruptions and encourage equal idea sharing opportunities

But really, when it comes to getting employees to remain at companies and deliver successfully, we must look at how we treat them as individuals.

At the Individual Level

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Each one of your employees has different beliefs, skills, motivations, and lived experiences. To make them feel understood, you must communicate with them on a truly individual level.

Every single one of the tools that matter at the group level apply at the individual level. But to make an employee feel seen and heard so meaningfully that they level up requires a few different modes of thinking.

Active Listening and Asking Questions

Who is the best listener you know? What do they do to make you feel as if they’re listening?

Most likely, they watch you attentively, give you the space and time to finish your thoughts, and move the conversation forward with poignant questions.

As leaders, listening intently — sans devices or distractions — is part of making employees feel understood. But so is drawing them out and facilitating a conversation.

At Google, former SVP of People Laszlo Block asked his direct reports three questions during regular one-on-one meetings.

  1. What is one thing that I currently do that you’d like me to continue to do?
  2. What is one thing I don’t currently do frequently enough that you think I should do more often?
  3. What can I do to make you more effective?

These questions not only provide insights into how the employee perceives the environment, but also core motivators, while also incorporating the added layer of making the employee feeling heard.

These are not the only questions to ask employees. To develop them and understand them more deeply, I use a specific set of questions during key transitional moments, whether the start, end, or inflection point of a major work experience. These questions include:

  • What are the three things you need in work to achieve purpose?
  • What can I do to help you get them?
  • Who do you aspire to be as a person?
  • What do you aspire to do as a person?
  • What is holding you back?
  • What is pushing you forward?
  • How do you celebrate your victories?
  • What does leadership mean to you?
  • What are you doing that’s difficult?

These are big questions with a capital “B,” so I don’t often use them all together. Instead, I focus on seeing if I actually know the answers from engaging deeply in previous conversations. Then, I ask employees periodically as the relationship moves forward.

I also note when responses change. This helps me understand the goals, needs, strengths, and weaknesses of employees while also demonstrating that I care about them.

Delivering Feedback

I have written extensively about the benefits of the Radical Candor approach to delivering feedback, but regardless of which framework you decide to use, here are three rules to follow:

  1. Deliver informal feedback daily, whether good, bad, or neutral.
  2. Make sure all feedback delivered is specific. Critiques are not effective if employees don’t know how to improve and compliments are damaging if they’re so unspecific they don’t feel true to the employees.
  3. Feedback should be calibrated to the receiver. For employees who need a lot of praise, be generous with praise when its earned. However, for those who instead latch onto opportunities for improvement, invest more time in breaking down how to make that improvement than praising them for good work.

Understanding Motivational Styles

At some point, I’ll share my long-winded philosophy on the psychology of personality and personality assessments overall. Until that time, I will leave it at this — personality tests are not the key to unlocking the secret of your employees. They are tools to help you understand how to better communicate and collaborate, and some work significantly better than others.

I prefer personality-centered frameworks that focus on just one variable because they tend to be less reductive overall and more plastic as people change and evolve over time.

I find Gretchen Rubin’s The Four Tendencies useful. This is simply a measure of how different people meet outer and inner expectations.

According to her model, upholders meet outer and inner expectations. Questioners resist outer expectations and meet inner expectations. Obligers meet outer expectations and resist inner expectations. Rebels resist outer and inner expectations.

In other words, upholders will virtually always meet work-imposed deadlines and self-imposed New Year’s resolutions. Questioners will only meet deadlines if they agree with them, but will meet self-imposed resolutions. Obligers will almost always meet work deadlines, but not personal resolutions. Rebels will meet neither unless they feel good or jibe nicely with their self-identities.

To successfully motivate each of these types of people, understand what they need.

  • Upholders need to know what should be done.
  • Questioners need information, justifications, and processing time.
  • Obligers need accountability and consequences.
  • Rebels need freedom to do something their own way.

It’s also important to communicate to them based on their values related to expectations. For example:

  • Upholders value self-command and performance.
  • Questioners value justification and purpose.
  • Obligers value teamwork and duty.
  • Rebels value freedom and self-identity.

Managing Objections

In virtually every discussion I have with company leaders, I emphasize the importance of balancing between making employees feel they belong and feel seen.

And more often than not, I am met with skepticism, objections, and even confusion.

I understand. This is not how we often think of management or leadership, and it’s certainly not how we thought of it in previous generations.

Many of the objections are valid enough to give me pause. But at this point, I’ve spent enough time embedding in companies to know the most common objections and still hold to my beliefs on the employee experience.

The four most common objections to changing organizational behavior to make employees feel understood are:

  1. “I don’t have the time.”
  2. “My employees are here to serve the company, not themselves.”
  3. “I’ll hire employees wired like me instead of managing the differences.”
  4. ‘No one did this for me, and I succeeded.”

Let’s unpack these one-by-one.

Limited Time

Unemployment is at 3.9% and significantly lower in industries like tech, where it’s estimated at less than 2%. Workers hold approximately 11.7 jobs within a career spanning between the ages of 18 and 48.

Workers leave for really simple reasons. They don’t see opportunities for growth, their peers are accelerating faster than they are and they don’t understand why, and they don’t feel connected to their managers.

Making them feel understood with informal behavioral signals like holding one-on-one meetings, actively listening and asking questions mitigates this risk significantly. Which, of course, saves time.

In the immediate present, you may feel you don’t have time for that 30-minute weekly one-on-one. But in the future, will you have the time to take over major projects, recruit a new hire in some of the most punishingly difficult market conditions we’ve seen in the U.S., and deal with the peer fallout that inevitably ensues when someone leaves?

The Company Takes Priority

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Employees serve companies more effectively and efficiently when they feel recognized and like they have opportunities for meaningful work.

Leaders shape top-performers in four core ways. By being curious and inquisitive, reinforcing values and cultural standards, building trust, and giving employees challenging projects that are both interesting and push them to the edges of their abilities, leaders provide employees with the individual attention necessary to foster very real company outcomes.

Employees who take care of themselves and feel taken care of stay at companies longer, work harder, and deliver better results.

Avoiding Conflicting Personality Styles or Types

Innovation stems from constructive conflict. Companies like Pentagram, Pixar, and Zappos, which are storied innovation hubs, emphasize difference of thought as the key to their success.

The collective genius model demonstrates the necessity of having different personalities in the room to simply generate enough ideas to be successful.

As Susan Cain has shown in Quiet, the more similar you are to those around you, the more likely you are to hide misgivings or hold onto ideas that go against the status quo out of a desire to be agreeable.

It’s not necessarily that the more different you are, the more you will disagree. It’s that the more different you are, the more likely you are to show that disagreement and discuss it.

Blindspots can break companies. If you are extremely action-oriented and motivated to get work done right away, having an equally conscientious person prone to asking questions may be the best way to slow down or stop bad ideas from coming into being.

Individuals Determine Their Own Success

I will reserve a larger discussion around luck, privilege, and how much of our success we take for granted for another time.

Instead, I will make just two points.

First, the “sink or swim” approach not only alienates top talent and sends those employees to other companies, it also may promote bad behavior, like not reporting problems, sabotaging colleagues, detrimentally competing with team members, and violating important boundaries. Remember, in biological Darwinian systems, parasites are some of the most successful organisms.

Second, you are an individual. What worked for you will likely not work for someone else, who may become an excellent contributor nevertheless.

Parting Words

“I think that every human being requires a certain type of soil, temperature, and altitude, very narrowly defined for some, almost universal for others — in order to feel free and happy.” –Isak Dineson

Isak Dineson was right. On the broadest level, people often need the same forms of social acceptance and belonging; but as individuals, we need a specific set of circumstances to thrive.

In other words, the Golden Rule doesn’t work.

Don’t treat me as you want to be treated. Treat me as I want to be treated.

The same applies to your employees.

Don’t just make them feel understood, understand them. Only then will you be able to fully unlock their potential, engender their loyalty, and create a bond that accelerates the performance of the greater team.

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