The Will to Thrive
When funding resources dwindle or shift all at once, as has happened in the current economic crisis, many academic and administrative leaders alike feel at a loss for how to sustain positive outlooks and behaviors in the workplace. Yet, even in the face of budget woes and personnel-related changes, resourceful leaders don't lose sight of the opportunities that exist to engage employees. This article summarizes lessons gleaned from studying what one administrative unit of a major U.S. university did in the midst of declining morale and imminent budget cuts to find ways to make a difference in its work environment.
For this study, we interviewed half of the employees in the unit across both managerial and line positions, asking about their experiences in the work environment. Our study lasted a full academic year, allowing us to observe changes over time. One surprise was that even during a period of economic hardship, the concerns that surfaced were not centered primarily on salary or monetary compensation. Rather, our findings reveal issues that may commonly occur within management and administration across university campuses, but which may become especially important during times of significant belt-tightening.
Issues Affecting Motivation, Morale
The demanding workloads and multiple priorities of people in university business and administration can lead to a reduced focus on the supervisor-employee relationship. Key to harnessing the full potential of this bond is management involvement in providing quality feedback and helping to alleviate employee stress.
Providing quality feedback. Important as they are, annual reviews do not provide sufficient opportunity for feedback related to learning at work. And yet, employees often don't receive formalized feedback outside of the annual review process, even though most crave more information about their performance and how they can grow in their work. As one person in our study commented: "I receive general comments like 'good job', but nothing constructive that I can take away." A lack of consistent feedback can ultimately impact a unit's bottom line when it causes employees to look outside of their organization for new opportunities to grow.
While giving feedback on a frequent and consistent basis takes sustained focus, it is crucial for building the supervisor-employee relationship. A strong supervisor-employee bond often grows from informal conversations about work and what employees can learn. Our study findings suggest that leaders would benefit from devoting time to learn more about their employees' intrinsic interests and what they can contribute, and then using this information to suggest ways that employees can further develop their skills and abilities. This learning-oriented feedback is a no-cost way to help employees thrive.
Alleviating employee stress. Research suggests that protracted exposure to stressful work environments is linked to declining performance, lowered morale and motivation, and even physical and mental illnesses. For those who want to promote a thriving work environment, involvement in managing stress within the workplace is crucial.
One easy way to do so is to focus on low-level stressors from unexpected sources. In our study, work styles were a source of stress. For example, one employee was uncomfortable receiving e-mail during off-work hours because she felt it necessary to respond quickly. Once the employee and supervisor discussed how their work styles differed, the employee realized that she did not need to respond immediately if the messages arrived during her idea of off-work hours. Recognizing that the work style of her supervisor was different from her own helped lower her level of stress.
To ensure that individuals across a unit have a common understanding about work-style differences, leaders can engage their full unit in some type of work-style assessment and allow employees to talk candidly about expectations and differences in ways that might alleviate common low-level stress.
Issues Affecting Collaboration, Productivity
One main finding in our study related to managerial communication. No matter the job title or position, employees were interested in what was happening around them. Because communication failures are a key contributor to increased absenteeism and decreased work productivity, leaders must not underestimate the importance of communication as part of their duties.
Communication frequency. People want to understand the big picture. Communication that is too infrequent can hinder the ability of employees to see how their work fits into the larger educational and social mission of the institution. Infrequent communication can also foster a perception of a lack of transparency. Because silence is difficult to interpret, it may create unexpected misperceptions about what is happening in the organization.
In our study, the unit's leader often cancelled staff meetings when he could not attend. Over time, employees began to wonder if the leader was hiding information. Once the unit implemented biweekly staff meetings and did not cancel the meeting even if everyone could not be present, employees felt a positive difference. As one person commented: "The meetings, as long as they are not drawn out, are extremely helpful to stay updated-not only on topics that relate directly to my work, but also to hear what concerns my colleagues."
Delegation. Withholding tasks that others are capable of taking on sends the message that a manager is hoarding knowledge or doesn't trust his or her employees to assume greater responsibility. Mastering the art of delegation can be one of the hardest skills for leaders to learn. And yet, relinquishing tasks can strengthen the work environment by fostering employee pride.
In our study, multiple employees aspired to take on new assignments, and they discussed feeling eager to make autonomous decisions related to some aspects of their work. When a leader understands that employees are ready for more responsibility and autonomy, delegating becomes a form of empowerment. As employees take on more assignments, they see their roles taking on more importance, which increases their productivity over the long term. Our findings suggest that leaders and managers should come to think of delegation as an up-front investment in employee growth that will pay dividends down the line.
How to Cultivate a Thriving Work Environment
The good news from our study is that leaders who want to create a thriving work environment for their employees can do so even when financial means are limited. Most of the common issues that we identified as affecting motivation, morale, collaboration, and productivity can be resolved without large sums of money. Required instead are a little time and effort, presence, and creativity.
Feedback. As noted, employees want frequent and quality feedback from their supervisors. Here are some specific ideas for providing better feedback:
- Complete annual reviews on time. In our study, postponed and late annual review feedback was a frequent source of complaint from employees. Commit to conducting these reviews on time.
- Schedule one-on-one meetings with employees, and keep them on your calendar. In these meetings, leaders and supervisors can build a habit of communicating at least one thing done well and one thing that offers the employee a chance to grow or improve. In our study, these frequent
one-on-one meetings with timely feedback were a source of inspiration. Collect specific examples to discuss with an employee, and make it a rule never to cancel a one-on-one meeting without rescheduling immediately. After the department in our study implemented this tactic, employees discovered a stronger connection to their supervisors, felt more motivated in their work, and expressed appreciation for the time and attention they received.
- Set quarterly goals as a group. While goals are what enable people to direct their energy appropriately, some leaders overlook the power of setting both individual and collective goals. Leaders can meet with their groups and set collective goals for the year, using quarterly group meetings to review and refine these goals. These collective goals for the department can also be useful in setting goals specific to individual employees and can be used as guides throughout the year to assess development and provide structure for feedback.
- Hold informal gatherings more regularly. In addition to gatherings with the full department or unit, small group meetings are an ideal way for leaders to foster open communication with their staff members and cultivate relationships among the group. These meetings can occur in a less formal setting than the office, such as a breakfast meeting at the local coffee shop or lunch on campus at the dining hall. Meeting outside the office makes it more social and more motivational. In our study these informal gatherings were one of the most powerful motivational tools that leaders used because they promoted strong social and work connections and fostered information sharing, helping reduce uncertainty.
- Take an office-wide assessment of work styles and strengths, and discuss the results. Encourage employees to learn about each other. Using some type of assessment tool is a valuable resource to help people understand and respect one another. Employees in the administrative unit in our study took the Myers-Briggs test and found it to be a worthwhile resource for feedback about one another. As one employee said: "The results of the test allowed me to better understand the tendencies and perceptions of my colleagues, which enabled us to have a more cooperative and supportive working dynamic." Another employee remarked: "I learned that my supervisor can be indecisive at times and tends to change his mind, while I prefer to be more decisive. Now that I understand our differences, I can figure out how to carry out my responsibilities better." Among the many assessments of employee work styles and strengths available are these:
- Myers-Briggs (http://www.myersbriggs.org)
- The Reflected Best Self (http://www.bus.umich.edu/Positive/POS-Teaching-and-Learning/ReflectedBestSelfExercise.htm)
- The VIA strengths assessment (http://www.viacharacter.org/VIASurvey/tabid/55/Default.aspx)
Fun. Wouldn't it be great if your employees jumped out of bed every morning because they couldn't wait to get to work? Playfulness is a proven way to bolster motivation, reduce stress in the work environment, foster positive emotion, and enhance a sense of belonging to a group. Here are a few low-cost ideas for building fun into a work environment:
- Get out and move. Regardless of the frequency (once per week or more) and the timing (before, during, or after lunchtime and for 10, 30, or 45 minutes), encourage people to get out and move. Something as simple as arranging a walking group signals flexibility and that you care about the well-being of employees. Furthermore, by getting your employees out of the office you will help them relieve stress and expose them to some natural vitamin D, both of which can result in happier, healthier, and more productive employees.
- Designate office coordinators to plan fun programs and events. Ask for volunteers to help organize low- or no-cost events and activities for the office. These authorized roles provide great leadership opportunities for non-managers and send a reminder to everyone that not all changes need to be implemented by management. A college or university campus offers many places to explore that some employees otherwise might not experience. For instance, a picnic day could allow employees to bring their lunch outside or spend an hour or two exploring the campus museum, library, or green space. (You can find other great ideas in books such as 365 Ways to Motivate and Reward Your Employees Every Day: With Little or No Money (Atlantic Publishing, 2005) by Dianna Podmoroff.)
- Sponsor brown-bag brainstorms. Host regular sessions at which employees gather at lunch and spend time suggesting ways to reduce office stress levels, improve office processes, and build fun into the work environment. These brainstorming sessions allow opportunities for people to be creative without feeling they will be penalized for suggesting new ideas. Moreover, these sessions provide another way to socialize and work communally with colleagues.
- Reward employees with small tokens of appreciation. Appreciation can be expressed through inexpensive means and still provide a powerful motivational force. In our study, small expressions of gratitude were the means mentioned most often for improving workplace morale. These can be as simple as a "get out of work free" pass for breaks to attend campus lectures, tickets to a university museum or performing arts event, lunch with the department head, or gift certificates for coffee or ice cream at campus locations.
Inclusion. As leaders, it is easy to get caught up in a busy schedule. Your lack of presence may create distance between you and those who work with you. While a thriving work environment can't hinge on the actions of the unit's leader only, he or she is a key resource for setting a tone of inclusion and participation throughout the unit.
- Be present. To foster inclusion, managers must show up and employees must feel like the manager is serious about including them. When you attend staff meetings, be present. In our study, we observed a departmental manager who began to hold regular staff meetings as a way to communicate with employees. However, after asking an employee a question during a staff meeting, he looked down at his BlackBerry and failed to listen to the conversation. When the manager didn't respond, you can imagine that the employee did not feel genuinely included.
- Listen. Listening is an often-overlooked skill that is a hallmark of inclusive management and that offers an invaluable payoff for leaders. Employees who are in the thick of operations can provide important details and data. Create an "office hour," a staple of the university environment, at least every other week to hold informal conversations with employees. Block the time off on your calendar and split it up into three 20-minute segments, allowing employees to sign up to talk with you about whatever is on their minds. Listening, which becomes symbolic as well as practical, develops trust and cultivates quality relationships. By listening, you become a more attentive leader. Since the information is free, the benefit is priceless.
- Involve everyone in sharing information with each other. The quality of the work environment is a shared responsibility. Providing a venue for each department member to showcase his or her particular area of expertise not only provides the staff with the opportunity to develop presentation skills, but also results in knowledge sharing throughout the office. In our study, short presentations at staff meetings helped employees feel like their expertise was recognized and better utilized throughout the unit. You can also ask employees to invite guest presenters to staff meetings to enhance employee understanding of what is taking place outside their unit. For example, the university development officer may present on a current campaign, or a faculty member may address a fascinating research topic. Bringing in presenters from other departments allows staff to feel like an involved member of the larger university community.
Engaging Employees in Lean Times
While to some degree counterintuitive, the current economic downturn presents opportunities for skillful managers and leaders to nurture employee creativity and help employees grow and thrive. Tapping into the no-cost, often-overlooked practices of feedback, communication, delegation, inclusion, and fun may catapult your workplace to a higher level of resourcefulness despite these trying times.
Hillary K. Harding is administrator of finance and operations in the department of surgery at Emory University School of Medicine, Atlanta. E-mail: firstname.lastname@example.org. Monica C. Worline is a visiting assistant professor of organization and management at the Merage School of Business and the School of Social Ecology, University of California, Irvine. E-mail: email@example.com.