Don't Make Employees Your Emotional Partners: You'll Regret It
Brant Pinvidic | Forbes
Creating a team environment where your employees feel invested in your business’ overall success is absolutely vital to your company’s long-term prosperity. When done right, this inclusive, connected atmosphere can feel intoxicating. Key staff members report sensing higher levels of self-worth coupled with the intrinsic motivation to go above and beyond to support their work family. But for many entrepreneurs (myself included), the almost desperate desire to compel employees to join you in the trenches has also ended in heartache, missed opportunities, and far too many failed relationships.
The notion of employee ownership and upside participation is especially nuanced and harder to perfect in smaller or private companies. Over my entrepreneurial career, I’ve found that the struggle and responsibility of running a business made me want to pull my team in closer to share in the ups and downs of the journey. Like so many entrepreneurs, my urge to place the team into the proverbial “foxhole” alongside me resulted in falling into the trap of treating them like "emotional partners."
When you turn an employee into an emotional partner, you incentivize them with powerful cognitive and emotional motivators that go well beyond the standard paycheck. In my business, I gravitated to a pattern of praise and unyielding support to cultivate a family-like environment that compelled them to go that extra mile. In the short term, this was often extremely effective and rewarding in the tight-knit bonds we forged.
In the long-term, however, these emotional “family-like” relationships were challenged by the business’ success. Our team’s closeness gave employees a sense of entitlement and an overblown perception of their worth to the company. They felt as if they deserved a greater degree of the shared profits than was realistic. From their perspective, they felt under appreciated and many times taken advantage of. I never made overt promises; rather, the impressions I gave off in my efforts to build a close-knit team ultimately created a monster. Needless to say, this was not an environment ripe for success.
Amidst the current cultural sea of change where businesses are looking for ways to motivate their employees beyond simple monetary targets and bonuses, I’ve seen many of my clients’ companies plagued by this issue. The owners pride themselves on their dedication, personal connection, and undying loyalty to their staffs. In turn, many of their employees sing their praises, but a disproportionate number of failed relationships also trail them in their wake. These owners frequently report being caught off-guard when faced with (in their opinion) yet another ungrateful, entitled employee demanding more than what they’re worth.
Even when my clients offered an ownership-style incentive to their high-level employees, they’ve repeatedly missed the mark. The employees often deem such lofty proposals as too ‘pie in the sky’ to be real or attainable, and summarily dismiss them as disingenuous. The business owners fail to see that their inclusive and energetic efforts to bring everyone ‘into the family’ are creating expectations that can’t be delivered.
So, is making your key employees actual partners the clear-cut solution to this problem? Not so fast. Giving real ownership costs real dollars. In the long-term, I’ve seen many business owners resentful of the valuable stakes they’ve given away to employees that, at the time, they thought were absolutely key to their business.
A record producer friend recounts the story of an artist who promised "points" on his first record to nearly everyone who helped him get started. His laundry list of beneficiaries included his vocal coach, band members, engineers, etc. After years of struggle, he finally made it big and was faced with writing more than two million dollars in checks to numerous people he had zero relationship with beyond a few weeks in the studio together. The emotional state he was in when he made the promises was long gone, and much like an ill-conceived tattoo, the two million dollar payout was a permanent reminder of a temporary feeling.
When I started my new company last year, I decided that if I was going to offer real ownership to my new employees I had to take a different approach. To mentally prepare I focused less on them and what they needed to do, and more on me and what I needed to do. I looked at my projections and upside potential and wrote mock checks to each of my key new hires — big checks.
I held them, studied them, and made them feel real. Once I could emotionally accept these figures under any circumstances, I put them in my desk drawer and gave my key employees ownership from day one.
No dangling carrots. No hoops to jump through. No strings attached.
Within the first six months, I realized how damaging and ineffective my "emotional partner" practices over the years had been. There has been an exceptional level of honesty, camaraderie and commitment from my team, and it’s fundamentally changed the way I manage my company.
It’s not cheap, but as the saying goes, “You get what you pay for.”
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