You Think Everything’s Fine. Your Employees Might Not Be so Sure
When I was at Hewlett Packard, leading the global employee experience team within IT, I often taught teams about the perception gap, a gulf between employee experience and leader perception. Leadership looked at metrics that were metaphorically green across the board, but the experiences employees faced underneath all those metrics was lighting up as red as can be — a prime example of the Watermelon Effect.
Now that I’m focused on building thriving people, teams and organizations by developing the skills they need to direct, manage and optimize human energy and capacity, I’m seeing the Watermelon Effect yet again. Recent research from Deloitte found a large perception gap between the reality of employee well-being as compared to what executives believe it to be.
By the Numbers
In a survey, 84% of C-suite executives rated their employees’ mental well-being as good or above average, but only 59% of employees rated themselves that way. The study also found a lack of awareness on several levels: 91% of C-suite leaders believe they care about employee well-being, but only 56% of employees agreed with that statement.
The numbers are even worse around the pandemic: 47% of workers believed their executives understand how difficult the pandemic has been for them, yet 90% of the C-suite said they recognize this. And only 53% of employees felt that their company’s executives made the best decisions for their well-being during the pandemic, compared to the 88% of C-suite respondents who believed their decision-making has been exemplary.
This gap could explain why levels of burnout, stress and disengagement remain at worrying levels even while companies continue to implement well-being initiatives.
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What’s Causing the Gap?
The perception gap is that middle area that can occur when the people creating a strategic plan or solution believe they’ve met the requirements at hand — but after implementing the plan, they find it’s not actually working to address the goal for the people using it. For example, a company may implement an unlimited PTO policy to address burnout, but then find two years later that a high number of their employees are still burned out, and the plan’s not working.
A common cause is what I refer to as "checkboxitis," where leaders check things off a list of what they think they need to do, but don’t necessarily spend the time to piece together how everything will work collectively, look under the surface or ensure they have the right goals in mind to begin with. After viewing several cases of the Watermelon Effect across industries and use cases, the problem often arises from metrics: What are you measuring — and do those measures actually drive the desired experience or outcome?
Leadership is another source of this gap. Leaders often have a different level of access to support and development opportunities compared to the general employee population. This prevents them from viewing experiences from the employee’s point of view.
Jessica Munday, founder of Custom Neon and an HR and recruitment specialist, remembers experiencing this in her own career — especially in more junior positions.“There was a huge disparity in how team members felt and how management perceived the health and well-being of their team and business,” she said.
Leadership can also make the costly assumption that everything is all right simply because it may appear that way from the outside. However, the truth is that many employees will find a way to complete their work even when it pushes them past capacity. This is not a sustainable mode of operation: While results may look good on paper, they come at a compounding energetic cost that will eventually be paid in healthcare, presenteeism or talent attrition costs.
Samm Smeltzer, founder of the HRart Center, said this happens because “individuals at every level are expected to maintain a professional outer shell, limiting how much of our inner selves is exposed.” As a result, she added, “What leaders are observing is an outer shell appearance that doesn’t seem so bad — but in fact underneath, many are suffering.”
Executives, understandably, are focused on running and leading their business to success, but tunnel vision may make them miss the clues that employees are struggling. Taking measures without considering employee well-being may provide short term gains, but isn’t a wise strategy for future prosperity. “As a business leader, you are focused on profit margins, ensuring the success and longevity of the business, which will ultimately keep your employees in work,” Munday cautioned. “You have your own targets to hit, and that can be all-encompassing, but sometimes you need to take a step back and look at the bigger picture.”
“Many leaders may not fully understand the impact that employee wellbeing has on their business,” said Jonathan H Westover, PhD, managing partner and principal at Human Capital Innovations. “They may view wellbeing programs as an optional or unnecessary expense rather than a critical investment in their employees.”
At the end of the day, employees who thrive make a business thrive. Your employees’ capacity is a key driver of your organization's capacity for transformation, change and achieving goals.
The Perception Gap Sets You, Your Employees and Your Business Up to Fail
This lack of awareness can be highly detrimental, and it’s a large reason leaders may not be getting the outcomes and ROI they plan for. Many leaders are likely creating strategic plans, goals and objectives based on employees having 100% capacity — but this is far from reality and creates a situation where either employees are very unlikely to achieve objectives or else they achieve them at a significant cost. Reaching these goals means they employees have to push past their capacity limits for a sustained period of time, which can lead them into negative states such as burnout.
According to Smeltzer, when employees burn out, “They would be experiencing low performance and capacity as well as high negative thought patterns about life or work”. In contrast, someone who is highly energetic, engaged, rested and supported, “will have large amounts of energy and capacity, with low negative thought patterns. This is an individual that has the ability to be productive, innovative and overall a consistent high performer.”
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You wouldn't take a 100-mile road trip on a 75-mile tank without stopping to fill up along the way. And you wouldn't load up your network with 25% more than it can handle. We naturally plan for capacity in these scenarios, yet human capacity — a key driver of business performance — is easily ignored. Westover pointed out that this overburdening creates “increased stress, burnout and turnover among employees,” which in turn “can have a negative impact on business productivity and profitability, as well as employee morale and engagement.”
How to Avoid Employee Burnout
So what are three concrete actions you can take to better understand and reduce this gap and make sure you aren’t burning out employees by asking them continually to act outside their capacity?
Understand Your Own Well-Being
Smeltzer has found that in most cases, organizational leaders are disconnected from the impact life and work circumstances are having on them personally. Leaders can often run from one task to another, assuming their own levels of stress and burnout are the norm.
Once leaders understand their own wellbeing, they can then “model healthy behaviors and work-life balance to their employees, setting an example for the rest of the organization,” Westover added.
Leaders: Take a moment to reflect on where your energy is drained and where your capacity is suffering. It will help you connect with employees and foster a more supportive, vulnerable and caring culture.
Use Employee Capacity as a Data Point When Making Plans and Setting Goals
First, you need to get an accurate reading of employee capacity. You can do this both by talking to employees to get a feel for their day and what they are going through and also by using a research-based diagnostic tool.
Gain clarity on where precious employee energy is being wasted — sometimes, this may not be as obvious or intuitive as you may think. “Taking the time to understand the roles and day-to-day tasks of your team can be eye-opening,” Munday said. For example, she added, you may be dealing with specific tools that just don’t work. Situations such as using “outdated software or CRM systems that are arduous or not user-friendly, impeding output,” or dealing with, “a lack of adequate training means that a junior employee is staying late to get tasks completed,” can both be harmful.
Once you have a clear understanding of your employee capacity, then you can consider how this influences your strategic plans, since you want to design with human capacity in mind. You have two main strategies to take if you find your human capacity is low. You can either keep the same goals, but boost employee capacity — so your workforce has the energy needed to achieve them — or you can shift the goals. But one thing is for sure: Having an accurate measure of employee capacity is a critical data point as you create your strategic plans, goals and objectives.
Continue to Track Capacity
As you continue on your path, remember to keep measuring and tracking. Munday advises leaders to keep their ear to the ground: “Regularly assess the organization's wellbeing initiatives and adjust them as needed to ensure their effectiveness”. At her company, team members of higher seniority are integrated with junior teams to encourage conversation and rapport, which further encourages an open dialogue.
Many organizations have a handle on temporary solutions to create human capacity, such as days off and access to gyms or massages. However, those that will win also take what is truly causing depletion into account. They know how to build long term, sustainable human capacity so that employees actually have the mental, emotional and physical energy needed not only to win, but also to feel great doing it.
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About the Author
Sarah Deane is the CEO and founder of MEvolution. As an expert in human energy and capacity, and an innovator working at the intersection of behavioral and cognitive science and AI, Sarah is focused on helping people and organizations relinquish their blockers, restore their energy, reclaim their mental capacity, and redefine their potential. Connect with Sarah Deane: