I've been working with employee surveys for nearly 20 years now. If you've been in the workforce for a while, it might feel like you've spent a similar amount of time filling out employee surveys! Thankfully using a more focused approach and better analysis techniques means employee surveys can be a lot shorter than they used to be. One thing that hasn't changed is that most employee surveys include an open-ended question that goes something like this - "What do you see as the best thing about working here?"
People write about all sorts of things when they are asked to consider that single best thing about working for their organisation. Some say "my manager". Some say "flexibility". It's pretty rare for people to mention "the office layout", "pay" or "meetings". In fact, one of the most frequent answers is "the people". And to be honest that used to frustrate me. After all the effort leaders put in to planning, rewarding, communicating and managing, the best thing you can think of is "the people"?!? I used to think “What can a leader possibly do about that? Is the takeaway for leaders that they just need to hire nice people?"
But over time I've started to appreciate the business lesson for leaders that sits beneath this response. That perhaps the best thing about working at your organisation being "the people" does serve a purpose, and is something that you as a leader can influence.
When you talk to employees about why "the people" matter so much, they often talk about the importance of working with "nice" people. People who are friendly and accepting of others. And people who will go out of their way to help you, even when it's not in their job description. In contrast, people will leave an otherwise great organisation where people aren't "nice" - where bad behaviour is tolerated and an individualistic "win at all costs" attitude prevails.
When you speak to leaders about diversity, everyone knows that the textbook "correct" answer is "the more diversity, the better". Diversity has a lot of benefits for organisations - it helps your organisation to think in new ways, to be able to relate more effectively to a broader range of customers or clients, to be more nimble in responding to change - in short, to produce better results. But, if we're honest, a diverse workforce is much harder to manage than a non-diverse workforce (I'd say "homogeneous" instead of "non-diverse", but it still sounds to me like something you do to milk).
The key to capitalising on diversity is actually "inclusion" - to what extent does your organisation (and you can substitute "your organisation" with "your people") accept others who are different? You can recruit a diverse workforce, but without inclusion it's a recipe for conflict, distraction and reduced performance. If your organisation and it's people aren't inclusive, you'd likely be better off avoiding diversity at all costs. And "inclusion" isn't a policy or document - it IS your people. It's also not how quickly we can force new people to become like us - it's how quickly the organisation can accept difference and build on the new resources a diverse workforce brings.
Why is the response of "the people" so important? Why is it the best thing about working here for so many people? It's because the people are supportive and inclusive. They make you feel like you belong. They make you feel like this is a place where you can contribute and make a difference. The benefit for the organisation is actually collaboration. Inclusion and support breaks down the silos in your organisation. It helps to deliver results that the sum of individuals never could. At our core we are social animals, and the connections we make at work have the potential to motivate us in a way that yet another meeting or presentation never could.
As a leader there are a few things you might consider:
- To what extent do we have an inclusive culture? Do we put up with people who don't "play nicely with others" (as a client once described it)? Or is that kind of bad behaviour something that our culture rejects even when the person in question is hitting all their targets?
- As a leader, what can I do to build a supportive and inclusive culture? What's something practical I can do to model this to my team, and to recognise and reward it in others?
- Do we really appreciate diversity? If not, what might be the preconceptions and biases amongst our otherwise well-meaning people that are getting in the way?
Recognise that many of your employees will see the best thing about working for your organisation as "the people". Sometimes that means overlooking the slightly longer lunch break, or the bit-too-loud conversation in the kitchen. It might mean considering an idea that initially seems to be too “out there” to be practical. It might even mean dragging yourself along to sing happy birthday around a cake when all you want to do is finish off some work. "The people" matter. Support and inclusion matter. They're not just "nice to haves" - they're core business.