Understand the me-to-we continuum.
By Anne Bahr Thompson as printed in HBR.org
There are some companies we look at, admire, and say, “Wow, I really want to work for them.” These companies understand that employees are as important as the paying customers who consume the products and services they sell. And they know that the transparency of social media means the company’s reputation is highly dependent on what its employees say.
It’s never been more important for companies to treat employees well and fairly—but it has also never been more complicated to do so. With so many different generations in the workforce, each expecting different things from their employers, exactly what kind of relationships should companies be fostering with employees—and how should they go about doing so?
My research (quantitative and qualitative studies of Millennials, Gen Xers, and Baby Boomers as part of my company’s Culture Q project) into how cultural sentiments impact people’s relationships with brands has shown that nurturing faithful employee relationships today is no different than cultivating loyal customers. Both begin with a “me-first” orientation—that is, companies must “satisfy my wants and needs first”—and then stretch across a continuum, culminating in a “we” orientation—“address the issues that are important to my community and the broader world” (see the “me-to-we continuum” below). Just as consumers now look to do business with companies that advocate for causes they care about, employees are looking for employers who advocate for them and on their behalf for causes that matter to them. Companies are no longer “just” companies. As technology has removed the boundaries that historically divided our work and personal lives, we are now imbuing employers with the characteristics of friends, family and even enemies—looking for them to focus on the things we care about and, if they don’t, then joining forces with someone else who does.
The acid test of a satisfying employee-employer relationship is rooted in a set of specific behaviors along the “me-to-we continuum.” The best employers help us each achieve our personal “me” goals and dreams on the one hand, while simultaneously collaborating with us to solve more generalized “we” worries about the economy, the environment, the world on the other hand. And, in between the “me” and “we” extremes, there are a variety of ways that employers can enrich the lives of employees and communities alike.
Few companies occupy all five points on the continuum, but the best companies are moving along the spectrum. It’s no longer enough to simply satisfy employees’ own individual needs and wants—companies must also act more broadly, advocating and working on problems in the world that employees care about. Here’s what companies can do, and how their actions along this “me-to-we continuum” can be geared toward what the different generations—Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials—are looking for from their employer:
1. Trust—Don’t let me down. Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials first and foremost want to work for a company they trust, one that lives up to its promises and delivers value to them individually (the “me” proposition). For participants in CultureQ research, fair salary and benefits are the basis of trust in the workplace, and the starting point for any company looking to create a better employer-employee relationship. Policies that ensure people get regular acknowledgement and praise for a job well done are also critical to promoting a more trusting, positive, healthy, relaxed and less-stressed work environment—for all generations.
2. Enrichment—Enhance daily life. Work-life balance (increasingly recognized as simply “life balance” in our 24/7 technology driven environment) rated high across all employee groups, but different cohorts want different things (the “mine” proposition on the continuum above). Baby Boomers look for recognition of their individual strengths and skills, and accountability that fosters pride in a job well done. Gen Xers seek friendly employers that help them to achieve their goals by simplifying their personal chores and making routine tasks easier to accomplish. Millennials yearn for employers that focus on their personal development and well-being: supportive managers, not faceless bosses; rewards for good ideas; egalitarian organizational structures; fully funded professional and personal development programs; and project assignments that vary their work experience.
3. Responsibility—Behave fairly. All people expect their employers to treat others fairly, behave ethically and be proactive in their business practices—toward their employees, suppliers, business partners and other stakeholders (the “our” proposition). This doesn’t mean you have to have a perfect brand reputation. Indeed, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials all respect and become fans of businesses that exhibit human traits and are honest about their shortcomings, providing you have not been duplicitous and are making a concerted effort to improve.
4. Community—Connect me. The company we work for is a badge of sorts, signifying who we are and what we’re about to our family, friends and people we meet in general. A sense of “belonging” and working in a culture that mirrors our values has always strengthened employee engagement (the “us” proposition). While Baby Boomers seek to work alongside teammates and Gen Xers look to form friendships with coworkers, Millennials aspire to spend time—physically and virtually—in a cohesive, supportive and enriching environment. They endeavor to connect with friends who share their values and interests, not just career stages, job functions or organizational departments.
5. Contribution—Make me bigger than I am. People want to work for companies that contribute to the communities they care about and help to fix society’s worries, provided that they do not do so with overtly political intentions. They yearn for their employers to advocate on their behalf and focus on the issues that matter most to them. In the absence of trusting government to solve their personal problems and society’s challenges, Baby Boomers, Gen Xers and Millennials all look to the companies they work for in same way they look to the brands they buy—to help them achieve their ideals.
Instead of developing one-off social responsibility initiatives or even cause marketing campaigns for employees, consider how you can support a sense of shared responsibility (the “we” proposition) across the business and thereby engage employees in more meaning.
Treating employees as customers is not a new idea. However, the difference between human resources and human relationships is significant. Supporting employees across the me-to-we continuum encourages more holistic relationships between employees and employers. It enables employees to achieve their full potential based on mutual understanding, mutual respect, mutual reliance and mutual benefit thereby cultivating more loyal connections.
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