This article offers a few suggestions for leaders who would prefer to replace “terminal employment relationships” with ones characterized by high performance, accountability, and engagement.

The Problem

For 25 years, I litigated workplace disputes. I began as a plaintiff’s attorney, suing employers. Later, I saw the light . . . or was drawn to the dark side—depending on your point of view. Same disputes—other side of the table.

Although my business card read “Attorney at Law,” I often felt more like a “coroner” conducting “autopsies” of “terminal employment relationships.” These relationships typically started out healthy, filled with high hopes and long-term expectations. But they got sick. Treatment protocols were ignored, and later wrongly administered. Past the point of recovery, the relationships ended in humiliation, bitterness, and a desire for revenge—thereby propelling them into the U.S. legal system.

Over time, I noticed recurring behavior patterns—how relationships intended to be win-win became lose-lose for no sensible, objective reason. I compared my “autopsy” observations with what I learned from my father, a university professor who taught organizational leadership and development, He taught me how to build trust, teamwork, collaboration, and a shared sense of mission throughout organizations. Somehow those best practices had been lost in corporate culture.

The Solution—Creating Engagement Employment

In my view, there’s a spectrum of employment relationships. At one end is “transactional,” in which the parties exchange time for money. At the other end is “engagement,” in which the employee and the employer pursue a shared endeavor to create a whole greater than the sum of its parts.

In a transactional relationship, the employee says, “I put in my time; you pay me.” The boss says, “You do what I tell you; I pay you.” Transactional employment is “I-centric”—What do I have to do to get what I want? It can function well so long as each party feels he or she is getting a fair deal.

The problem with this model lies in the gap between how we perceive ourselves and how we are perceived. It’s all too easy to think that you’re not getting a fair deal and the other side is to blame. Negative perceptions reinforce each other and the downward spiral begins.

As you might suppose, employment litigation is rooted in I-centric transactional thinking.

In an engagement relationship, the focus is other-centric. The employee asks, “What needs to be accomplished, and how can I best help?” The boss asks, “What can I do to help you succeed?”

When asked, managers and executives say they prefer engagement to transactional employees. Yet, I have observed many of them unwittingly behave in ways that promote transactional relationships. Invariably, they run afoul of one or more of three key ingredients necessary to accomplish employee engagement: (1) having a sense of purpose; (2) making a difference; and (3) feeling you matter as a human being.

If you want to avoid this trap, take these steps:

Focus on Why

Unfortunately, the “Command & Control” style of management still persists. The boss gives the employee the “what” and the “how” and expects obedience. Ugh!

You can ask, “Are they obeying my orders?” Or you can ask a much better question: “What is my ‘What:Why’ ratio?” Every time you tell an employee what to do, how often do you explain why? How often do you connect your employee’s task or responsibility to a big picture purpose?

Why-centered communications tend to: (1) create a shared sense of mission; (2) engage the employee’s full talent, ability, and energy—thereby producing better “whats” and “hows” to accomplish the “why”; and (3) replace the still prevalent command style of management with collaboration. Employees become liberated to grow, develop, and relate to their jobs in much deeper ways than as a means to a paycheck.

Therefore, to create a fully engaged workforce, strive to make your “What:Why” ratio 1:1.

Give Front Windshield Feedback

If you’re on a highway going 70 miles per hour, do you use your rearview mirror? Assuming you say “yes,” do you keep your focus there or on the front windshield? (I’m hoping for all of our sakes that you say the latter.)

Do the same thing with performance feedback. Glance in the mirror and describe what you see. Then quickly shift your attention to the front windshield: “Here’s what happened and why it matters. Now let’s focus on what we can learn, build on, and improve.”

Use this approach with both positive and negative feedback. Instead of obsessing over the past, connect with your employee in the present to create a better future. Keep your eyes forward.

Get to Know Your Employees

Perhaps it’s lawyers’ risk aversion, but I came late to the understanding that if you truly want to maximize employee contributions, you should listen to them and get to know them
as human beings. What do you know about your employees? What do you know about their workplace needs, challenges, and desires for growth? What do you know about their families, outside interests, and core values? Tapping into that relationship gold mine simply requires asking a few questions that show you’re genuinely curious about and interested in the answers.

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Employment Law

Ogletree Deakins’ employment lawyers are experienced in all aspects of employment law, from day-to-day advice to complex employment litigation.

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