What employees want

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The CEO’s problem: “I hate to complain at this tragic time, but some of my key employees want to leave. We need them, but there’s been a massive loss in this industry — and now this. They say they’ve had a wake-up call and don’t want to work under these conditions anymore. I’m panicked. What should I do?”

These are bad times for everyone, and there will be even tougher lessons for leaders who don’t “get” what employees want. What happened at many companies is tragic, and although it’s not ideal to learn on the fly, that’s what you need to do … immediately.

In the first two meetings with this company’s top officers (some of whom planned to leave), we agreed to pull out all the stops. Thus, tempers flared because egos prevailed. The first meeting unleashed anger, denial and finally resolve to look at solutions. But anger and resentment reigned on all fronts, with accusatory words such as ungrateful, betrayal, deserter, coward, selfish, greedy, disloyal — and many expletives — being thrown around.

It was ugly. Years of sucking it up and building resentment were bubbling to the surface.

By the third meeting, one thing was clear: The battle and bad feelings clearly reflected the culture — and the culture was why people wanted to leave. No one could be left standing if the CEO had to win.

He didn’t understand their feelings went beyond what he had built and provided and offered. The vision in their minds was their families, and they saw this differently than the CEO.

“But what do they expect?” he asked. He treated them great, he thought. They were paid well, worked in a nice office and had important clients. What more did they want? Well, they’d told him in many ways, but he wasn’t tuning in. He never asked how they liked their jobs or about the way they were treated.

They realize it could have been them on one of those ill-fated planes or in those towers; some of them had lost friends.

Before, they had dreamed about what they’d do differently if they won the lottery. Now, the money didn’t matter as much. The company didn’t matter as much. The work didn’t matter as much. What mattered? They wanted jobs at which they’d be respected.

Why were these managers so angry? They’d been asked to compromise their values for years, and each time they did, they felt they lost a bit of their integrity and a lot of their initiative. Little by little, they felt they were disappearing.

They even looked less energetic and were increasingly lethargic. Their systems — their very beings — were depressed. For them, the tragedy of Sept. 11 was a literal wake up call.

I called this change in employee focus employee-centered management, and the company’s leaders began to understand their situation might be salvageable. The hope is that ongoing discussions will take a different direction, but it will take work on both sides.

Too bad the CEO didn’t listen before this, but business had been going so well. Too bad it took a wake-up call of his own to realize people need to feel valued. The next step will be for employees to assess the possibilities; the solution will take commitment and hard work.

But they’ll be better for it. After all, as they ultimately realized, people are worth it. Bernadette Mihalic, M.Ed., psychology, is an executive and organization coach specializing in emotional intelligence, communications and effective leading with class. Reach her at (412) 828-9501.