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Employee Satisfaction Expert Tom Terez

Your employees may show up every day, but are they just going through the motions? Tom Terez explains how you can engage both the hearts and minds of your employees with a meaningful workplace.


Trying to figure out what your employees really want from your company may seem like a Herculean task of mind reading. The easiest maxim to fall back on is that they want more money and less work. But is that really the truth?

Not according to Tom Terez. After conducting focus groups and one-on-one interviews for two years with workers from all walks of life, Terez has identified the 22 Keys to a Meaningful Workplace (Adams Media, $24.95). And guess what? Money and less work aren't among those keys. Instead, employees want to feel challenged, respected and supported so they can be innovative and make decisions that will leave them feeling fulfilled. They want to be listened to and be seen as people who have outside lives that require balance. They want to understand your mission and be involved in its implementation.

How can you create an atmosphere where things like relevance, respect, challenge, informality, worth and equality are key? We've asked Terez to explain his concept of the meaningful workplace ( What is your definition of a meaningful workplace?

Tom Terez: It's a workplace that really brings out the best in people. And what's so critically important about that is that the degree to which we bring out the best in people shapes the degree to which we deliver quality to our customers. A person comes to work with incredible potential: massive brainpower, a lot of potential commitment, and a deep-down willingness and desire to do good work. If you have systems and a culture in place to tap into that, your customers will benefit tremendously. So this isn't just about creating a warm and fuzzy workplace; it's about delivering the best to your customers and strengthening your bottom line as a result.

"A person comes to work with incredible potential: massive brainpower, a lot of potential commitment, and a deep down willingness and desire to do good work. If you can have systems and a culture in place to tap into that, your customers will benefit tremendously." You have 22 keys in your book. Every employee in an organization might have different keys that are a priority to them. How do you figure out what you should focus on in your company?

Terez: The essential thing to do is to engage in conversation. We know that in a lot of workplaces, communication is a one-way proposition where information is given selectively to employees. I'm not talking about that at all. We're talking here about having rich, open-eared, open-minded conversations where folks are sharing what's truly most important to them and what would bring out the best in them. There's no substitute for open and honest dialogue where you can talk about these things.

And out of that dialogue you can do a couple of things. One is to lift out priority areas: What is most important to my employees? And then the second thing-and this is so critically important and often missing-is ask, What are we [as a company] going to do based on these insights? The idea is to come up with a few significant things to do to enrich the workplace based on the discoveries you've made in those conversations.

In a workplace, you often have certain work areas or project teams. Maybe there's even some cohesion geographically where you have this office here and that office there. So you can have these conversations in that locality or in this functional area or among this project team. You don't have to have the conversation with the whole organization at one time. It can be a very localized effort. On the other hand, you can have rich conversations with big groups. But it all boils down to [initiating] a dialogue, making some discoveries, lifting up some priorities, and identifying a handful of action steps to take. How can you help empower your employees and management team so they can facilitate these changes?

Terez: One thing to do is to have a conversation where employees identify for themselves, "Here are some things we can do, actions we can take." So they're taking ownership at the genesis of these ideas by developing the ideas themselves. There's a tendency [to have] a sharp division between managers and front-line employees, and for employees [to think], "Well, here's how we want managers to change. Here's what we want them to do." But in the [meaningful] workplaces I've visited and gathered information from, the key distinction is employees and managers who work together and decide together what they can do to enrich the workplace. So it becomes a very collective proposition. Is there any one mistake you see companies making that stunts the creation of a meaningful and cooperative workplace?

Terez: Yes, and that's pursuing this in a flash-in-the-pan kind of way. There's a big one-time surge of interest and activity. They'll all get together and have a big retreat and there's this great excitement, but then it's back to business as usual and it's forgotten. You really need to see this as a long-term proposition, and that conversation I referred to needs to be ongoing. It needs to be a constant process and a part of the way of doing business.

What's interesting about this mistake is it comes from good intentions. Unfortunately, it has a negative outcome. So organizations that have done that shouldn't feel like [badly]. They just need to rewind the tape and figure out what good things came out of the experience, how they can build on that, what they can do next, what they learned from that, and how they can make this an ongoing conversation. What is your advice for creating a company mission that your employees can get excited about and take to heart?

Terez: To me, that's an easy one. Get folks together to talk about their mission, develop it together and revisit it together [every now and then]. Does it still make sense? What do we need to do to update it because our customer base is changing?

Traditionally, a very select group of senior people have gone off to a meeting or a retreat to craft the mission statement and have it put on laminated cards. And it's no surprise that that doesn't have much meaning for folks. Contrast that with a group of people who get together and have their hands on the clay themselves. It's just so much more personal. It engages people's hearts and minds so much more when they're the ones who are involved in doing this.

Now you think, practically speaking, can we get 100 employees around the hearth talking about the mission statement? Yes, there are ways to do that. But if that's a daunting task for some organizations or culturally too big a leap, you can get a representative [group] of people from different levels of the organization to come together and be ambassadors for their work area. This group would come up with an organizational mission statement, and then take that back and have their individual work teams, if they wanted to, develop their own mission statements to bring it closer to their work at hand.

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