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Picture this: you've built an employee experience that checks all the boxes—your work culture is great, your engagement and retention levels are steady, you offer great learning and development opportunities, and elicit feedback from employees regularly. Everything seems fine on the surface.
But who’s to say this isn’t a veneer?
Reality is often muffled by surface-level indicators of job satisfaction. Behind the scenes, managers who value task performance over personal and professional development often use harsh tactics to achieve their goals, leaving their team feeling drained and discouraged. This can range from favoritism, micromanagement, and unreasonable targets to even public humiliation during team meetings.
The result? Employees leave their jobs carrying emotional baggage that can weigh them down for years to come.
The good news is that employees are no longer willing to put up with insensitive bosses and toxic work environments, and the power dynamic is shifting in their favor. Are you ready to join the movement for a more accountable and equitable workplace culture?
Raising kids and building a thriving workforce may have a lot in common
Conditioning can be a powerful tool for shaping behavior. When a behavior is consistently reinforced or punished, it becomes ingrained in an individual's psyche. Over time, the behavior becomes automatic, and the individual may not even be aware of why they are behaving a certain way.
When a tired and frustrated parent raises their voice at the child for a seemingly tiny mistake, it teaches the child to associate raised voices as a response to making mistakes. The parent may even go ahead and start using scolding as a technique to keep the child from making mistakes.
Sadly, the child will accept this behavior and think of mistakes as something that deserves punishment. Over time, this unconditioned stimulus will start generating a conditioned response—risk aversion due to the fear of making mistakes, negative self-image, and demotivation. Just like a parent may inadvertently condition a child to associate raised voices with punishment, managers may also condition employees to associate mistakes with negative consequences.
How do rewards and punishments work?
The 18th-century polymath Jeremy Bentham once wrote, “Pain and pleasure govern us in all we do, in all we say, in all we think.”
This notion is well-backed by the neuroscience of pain and pleasure. The brain is wired to seek pleasure and avoid pain, and this basic drive governs much of our behavior, thoughts, and emotions.
When we experience something pleasurable, such as eating delicious food or receiving a compliment, the brain's reward system is activated, releasing dopamine and other feel-good chemicals that reinforce the behavior and encourage us to seek more of the same.
Conversely, when we experience something unpleasant or painful, such as touching a hot stove or getting criticized, the brain's threat system is activated, triggering a stress response and prompting us to avoid or escape the situation. This is better illustrated by what is popularly known as Skinner’s ‘Operant Conditioning’:
No, being bullied and traumatized is not necessary for character-building
When it comes to motivating employees, many employers resort to the age-old technique of rewards and punishments. It's a simple concept: perform well, and you get a reward, underperform, and you face punishment.
But does this technique work in the long run?
While this may work for a day or two, research shows that it is not a sustainable strategy for long-term success. The use of fear and negative reinforcement creates a toxic work environment. In such a work environment, employees feel demotivated, undervalued, burned out, and resentful towards their employer, leading to high turnover rates and decreased productivity.
In most cases, by the time measures are taken to deal with or terminate toxic managers (if ever reports against them are taken seriously), the damage to the organization’s culture may turn semi-irreversible, with word of mouth traveling faster than wildfire.
“Customers do not come first. Employees come first. If you take care of your employees, they’ll take care of your customers.”
– Richard Branson, British billionaire, entrepreneur, commercial astronaut, and business magnate
Your knowledge workers are movable assets
Employees are now more empowered than ever before. As a result, good work culture is no longer a differentiator—it is table stakes. Companies that fail to prioritize the well-being and satisfaction of their employees will ultimately lose out on top talent. Employees are not only willing to leave a workplace if they aren't treated well, but they are also willing to leave a good workplace for a great one.
Interestingly, research by Flexjobs found that 62% of employees leave their jobs due to a toxic company culture, and 49% of employees leave due to a lack of healthy work-life boundaries. The cost of replacing employees at this scale is immense, not only in terms of recruitment and training expenses but also in lost productivity and reduced morale.
The desire for freedom and power in the workplace is a natural and universal human aspiration. Employees want the ability to control their own work and lives, to have autonomy and agency in how they spend their time and effort. They want the power to shape their own destiny, to have a say in the direction and purpose of their work, and to feel a sense of ownership and responsibility for their contributions.
At the same time, employees also want to deliver outstanding results for their organization. They want to feel a sense of accomplishment and satisfaction from their work, to know that they are making a meaningful contribution, and to be recognized and rewarded for their efforts, small wins included.
Balancing these two desires is a key challenge for organizations and leaders.
How to offer more than just a paycheck
“When people are financially invested, they want a return. When people are emotionally invested, they want to contribute.”
– Simon Sinek, leadership expert, and author
Organizations can no longer get away with toxic work environments and harsh management tactics. In today's job market, “good” work conditions just don’t cut it—exceptional working conditions are the norm. So how can HR leaders set the stage for such a work environment?
- Develop well-defined policies. Outline expected behaviors from managers when it comes to interacting with team members and providing feedback, as well as the consequences for violating them. This can include policies on respectful communication, anti-harassment, and non-discrimination.
- Establish a continuous, productive feedback system. Managers need to provide regular, positive feedback to team members to help them understand where they stand in relation to their goals. Feedback should be constructive, specific, and focused on how employees can improve rather than just pointing out mistakes.
- Elicit feedback from employees: This can be achieved through one-on-one meetings, employee surveys, or employee suggestion boxes. Focus groups (small, facilitated discussions with a select group of employees) are also a great way to elicit feedback.
- Encourage managers to set achievable goals. Setting unrealistic targets that create unnecessary pressure and stress can derail employees, setting them up for poor performance. Goals that are attainable and adequately timed ensure that team members are well set up to reach their goals, if not exceed them.
- Create a culture of celebrating successes. Positive feedback, praise, and recognition have been shown to be powerful motivators in the workplace. More than 40% of employed Americans feel that if they were recognized more often, they would put more energy into their work.
- Ensure managers provide employees with the necessary resources and support. This may include training and development, mentorship, and access to necessary tools, software, and equipment for easy facilitation of work. Managers can even help team members with time management and provide emotional support when required.
What leaders need today is visionary expansiveness
Traditional hierarchies and top-down decision-making are no longer reliable forms of leadership. Leaders must embrace a more collaborative and inclusive approach that values the input and perspectives of all employees.
One example of this can be seen in the German system of "co-determination," where workers are granted representation on the board of directors. This system has been in place since the end of World War II and has since been adopted by other European countries like Austria, Denmark, Norway, and Sweden. By giving workers a seat at the table, these countries have increased their power to weigh in on strategic decisions that impact their jobs and the overall direction of their organizations.
Organizational culture will continue to be placed under scrutiny by employees in the years to come. By embracing change and empowering employees, organizations can ensure that employees experience a progressive workplace with managers who respect their contributions and offer them the guidance and support they need to excel in their careers.