Which Wolf Are You Feeding? The Power of a Positive Employee Relations Narrative
I have always enjoyed the parable about the grandfather who tells his grandson, “My son, there is a battle between two wolves inside us all. One is evil. It is anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego. The other is good. It is joy, peace, love, hope, humility, kindness, empathy, and truth.” The boy then thinks about his grandfather’s words and asks, “Grandfather, which wolf wins?” and the grandfather ominously replies, “The one you feed.”1
So, here’s my question: Which employee relations narrative are you feeding in your workplace?
To put it another way, is the presumably positive employment story you tell through your marketing channels and in interviews and offer letters the same story that your existing employees are telling? I have found that this is rarely the case.
Let’s face it, all employees are somewhat pre-programmed to at least pretend that they don’t like their jobs. That narrative is everywhere (Watch an episode of The Office or Superstore, check out the movies Office Space and Horrible Bosses (1 and 2), or just Google “I hate my job” and review the 921,000,000 results (as of 4/23/19). It has become a social convention to complain about work almost as much as we awkwardly comment on the weather when we have nothing else to talk about (fellow introverts, I know you understand). However, water cooler whining aside, what really matters is how your employees genuinely feel about you as an employer. Why? Because employees who feel heard and appreciated will form your organization’s good wolf pack, while employees who feel under-appreciated and ignored will band together into a toxic force of evil wolves. Guess who spends more time recruiting new pack members?
Don’t feed the evil wolf.
As the legend states, the evil wolf is made up of anger, jealousy, greed, resentment, inferiority, lies, and ego. As you already know, some of your employees are always going to feel these things without any help from you. With those guys, it’s a matter of spotting toxic employees and removing them. That’s a subject for another blog. In this blog, we are going to proceed under the assumption that our wolves all want to be good (because, believe it or not, the majority of employees are honest humans who want to do a great job and be successful). So, what are we feeding our good wolves that is turning them evil (other than that sad little break room birthday cake for “March Birthdays”- how special!)? Based upon the employee complaints I have heard over the years (and a few of my own experiences), the following are serious fodder for evil wolves:
When you talk down to your employees, your employees talk. Think back on the last time one of your employees disappointed you. Were your communications a study in fake diplomacy, laced with ‘buzz words’ like “I observed that you may not currently have the bandwidth to be effective on the Widget release.” UGH! I can actually hear the employee mocking you at the next happy hour. This type of passive aggressive nonsense is WAY worse than directly communicating, “You missed another Widget meeting, so unless there is a good reason for your absence, I am removing you from that project.” I promise that is not the kind of communication an employee will be proud to share with anyone. Also, don’t ask loaded questions. “Hey there Charlie Chainsmoker, did you by any chance notice that you took an extra hour per day of paid breaks last week? Hmmm?” NO, seriously, please stop! “Charlie, taking paid breaks beyond those allowed by policy is time clock fraud. If it happens again, you will receive disciplinary action and could lose your job.” YES! Talk to your employees like they are adults…because, assuming you are running your business legally, they are.
If you micromanage your employees, they hate you, period. Micromanagement makes people feel like they are not trustworthy even though they know they are. When it’s your way or the highway, it’s only a matter of time before they loudly choose the highway.
No, not the kind where you give well-deserved praise to a stellar employee. This is the kind where you give undeserved praise to the ass-kisser who plays on your adult basketball team. The narrative goes something like this, “Hard work doesn’t matter around here; I guess I have to practice my layup in order avoid getting laid off.”
This one is easy. Don’t be a hypocritical cheapskate. I once worked with a senior level manager who frequently acknowledged that the employees in his department were underpaid, yet prior to getting them raises he advocated for ‘#1’, convincing the owner to purchase him a luxury sportscar. That ugly narrative is still making the rounds.
It is common to hear that the narcissistic boss saved the day again (groan). The narcissist has all of the great ideas (who cares if they were the employees’ ideas first?!). What the narcissist doesn’t understand is that your employees despise you more every time they have to pretend to like you. Also, they have probably figured out how to “manage” you. They help you quickly reach the conclusion that what they want was your great idea because it’s just easier to get things done that way. Oh, and they talk about it all the time.
Pessimism is a self-fulfilling prophecy in the workplace. Assume the worst of someone for long enough and they are sure to deliver.
You’re right, I am sure that all of these employees conspired to get a job here in order to undermine your leadership and sabotage your company. Sure! Seems more plausible than the fact that a group of people who needed a job in order to buy food and shelter responded to an ad for a job, then started working at the job in order to get paid and in turn pay for the aforementioned food and shelter. They are just normal employees…or are they? Your paranoia gets on everyone else and soon everyone is assuming the worst in everyone else. The negative Glassdoor reviews just write themselves!
How to feed the good wolf
In addition to refraining from feeding the evil wolf, you want to keep the good wolf fat and happy. Your employee relations narrative is bound to improve with the following:
If you can genuinely say something nice and empowering, do it. If it is going to sound forced, don’t. Compliments only improve the narrative if they are real (and don’t make everyone uncomfortable). For example, if you can confidently state that Allie Admin is doing an amazing job at keeping the whole team informed and on track, then say it! However, if you are going to fumble through it like a misogynistic dinosaur and creepily say something like “Allie is a real special lady who sure kept her figure after having them kids!” then save it.
The only thing more powerful than a manager’s fear of giving negative feedback is the desire of his or her employee to receive it. Everyone wants to know how they can improve, particularly when the alternative is mounting resentment and ultimate dismissal. Give your people the opportunity to improve and never blindside anyone with a termination meeting. That type of Whiskey-Tango-Foxtrot moment disconcerts your entire team.
Clear expectations and direction are OH SO comforting, and not just for executives and salespeople. One of my past administrative employees recently told me that I was the only manager who had ever given her goals and that it meant so much to her to have that roadmap to success. Everyone deserves that.
Training & Development
I’ve mentioned this before. Investing in your employees’ professional growth is not only good for business, it is also excellent for workplace P.R. Knowing that their employer sees their current value as well as their future potential makes your people feel valued (and more likely to stand up for you when the evil wolves try to undermine you).
When you encourage an entrepreneurial mindset in your team, it feels like you have doubled your employees’ investment in your organization’s success. In order to achieve this “ownership” interest, your people need to have all of the relevant facts. Do they need your bank account information? No, probably not. But they do need to know about revenue and expenses as well as future goals and past missteps. Hiding the ugly parts or keeping money matters too close to the vest cause you to not only miss out on some great ideas that could improve your business, but they also make your people feel like you don’t trust them. Nobody wants the “What are they hiding?” rumors to start circulating.
No, I am not advocating for sexual harassment in the workplace. The true definition of intimacy is “close familiarity or friendship; closeness.” Know your people. Know what matters to them. Buy them a personal birthday dessert for crying out loud (“You get a tiramisu because we love you!”), learn their kids’ names, and help them look forward to coming to work. They will undoubtedly tell their friends.
The bottom line: In order to grow your good wolf pack (and be a word-of-mouth desired employer), your good wolves need to be louder and stronger than the evil ones. Good humans want to work for good humans and exceptional workplaces attract exceptional applicants.
Human Resources Experience helps employers build exceptional workplaces through culture driven human resources (feeding the good wolves) and proactive legal initiatives (starving the evil ones). We are here to help!
1This is a popular legend of unknown origin. I originally saw it on Pinterest, but you can learn more about it here.