I have been traveling a lot lately, and I realize that somehow travel brings you face to face with the blunt end of the bureaucratic machine. There are the endless lines (I had to wait over three hours to pick up a car I had reserved in advance), stringent policies (I took one step past security and wasn’t able to return to the gate even though they were calling me over the loudspeakers), and eternal wait times (a friend called an airline’s support after they deleted his ticket purchase and the hold time was 50… hours!).
Travel is inherently complex; there are a lot of moving parts and people. And to deal with all that complexity, we lean on systems and processes to help us create some sense of order in the chaos.
Again and again, however, we go too far and start implementing the policy for the policy’s sake. As a result, the checklist itself becomes more critical than the reason for its implementation in the first place. When this occurs, our smooth system becomes replaced by a nightmare like this one from Meet the Parents.
And it doesn’t stop with customer service.
Internal policies, no matter how well-intentioned, can become crushing, especially for your top performers. Employees are less willing to put up with it than ever before, and as a result, are leaving their organizations in greater numbers than ever before.
And that’s a good thing. No employee should be stuck in a job that asks them to leave their mind at the door only to pick it up when they head home.
But it brings us to the question, how do companies that were once great so often lose their way and succumb to the mindless bureaucracies we all love to hate? They create a question-less culture, and in doing so, they stifle innovation and crush any challenge that would upset the status quo.
That’s when people start to leave. And it’s not the bottom performers who are struggling to get by; it’s the top performers who are now struggling to breathe.
Thus a self-reinforcing cycle begins where those who see and desire the necessary change are driven out, and all that is left is an increasingly “harmonious” but doomed institution that has lost its way. These organizations have gotten stuck in what we call The Big Rut.
How to keep your top performers performing
In previous articles, we’ve talked about how you can break the pattern and turn your organization around by hiring the right people the right way and building a performance assessment program that your top performers love. But here, we will look at how to keep the bureaucracy at bay by focusing on the precedent you set through new hire orientation and how you can build a machine for innovation and growth through a few simple steps that will likely cost you nothing to implement.
And best of all, by implementing these simples steps, you will be well on your way to retaining those great employees you worked so hard to find and hire in the first place rather than seeing them walk out the door at what should be the peak of their time with your organization.
Each of the tactics I’m going to give you falls under one general idea – You must build a new hire orientation program that moves your new employees from “Stuck in a ‘What?'” to “Exploring the ‘Why?'”
Teach the “Why?”
The first step is context. We tend to develop a nasty habit of telling our new hires what they need to know or do but neglecting to tell them why they need to know or do it. I get why.
- It’s a lot simpler. The what is more concrete and definitive.
- It’s a lot speedier. You only have to cover half the content.
- It’s a lot safer. You don’t have to invite anyone to challenge the status quo.
But in reality, it’s a lot scarier. By focusing only on the what, we implicitly teach our new employees not to ask questions. We are sending signals that we’ve already got it all figured out. We communicate to our new employees that they weren’t hired to change or improve things but to execute. In essence, we are inviting them to take an 8-hour brain break.
It’s no wonder less than one-third of employees are engaged, and more than one-third expect to have a new job with a different company within a year.
Now, this doesn’t mean that every employer needs to re-invent every wheel. That would be hopelessly chaotic and inefficient. So instead, the truth I want to share is best communicated in a maxim we often used at my last company – “Don’t tear down a fence until you know why it was built in the first place.”
If you focus your orientation on the “Why?” you will be giving your new employee not only the right to tear down old fences but the context to do so intelligently.
When you do, you will unlock innovation in the company that only comes from fresh eyes. Even the most innovative among us can grow weary from looking at the same problem for too long. You will be shocked at how powerful the insights are from people who “don’t know better.”
Focus on dialog
The second tactic is to encourage two-way communication. Your new hire orientation is doing so much more than bringing new employees in, showing them where the restrooms are, and teaching them how to take time off and sign up for health insurance. You are modeling the behavior you expect from them. In a thousand ways, most of them unspoken, you are teaching them how to act and engage.
If most of your orientation consists of you or your HR team or your manager’s monologuing, you are teaching your employees that their job is to sit down and shut up and do their work. You are quietly but powerfully telling them
- We don’t want your ideas.
- We are more intelligent than you.
- The way we’ve always done it is the best way (interpretation: our glory days are long gone).
You may think that’s what you want. But I promise it will put you on the fast track to bureaucracy when compliance is king and creativity and innovation is nothing more than words printed on inspirational posters around your office.
By creating space for two-way communication in your new hire orientation, the messaging to your new hires changes dramatically (even if you keep saying most of the same things). You are telling them:
- We are willing to learn, and you should be ready to learn with us.
- We think you are smart, and we value your input.
- We haven’t figured it all out, and because we are still improving, our best days are ahead.
Stop for a moment and ask yourself, of these two bullet lists, which describe the kind of company you would want to work for? Now, take it a step further and ask yourself, which one represents the company you’ve built?
Neither of these tactics requires a monumental shift or seismic overhaul of your current orientation program. In fact, I’d be willing to bet with just one conversation with the right people, you could implement both for your next set of new hires.
In my experience, the change has been remarkable. It is admittedly hard to quantify at first (typically because we focus on compliance-based metrics). However, if you look at the engagement of new hires in the process, depth of the dialog, and quality of the questions, you’ll see a night and day difference.
And if you take the time to try out some of their seemingly simplistic recommendations, you might be surprised at how effective they are! So get your new hires unstuck and free to explore how they can help make your organization better!
P.S. Don’t forget this episode from Seinfeld… classic