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Why Leaders Who Can Emotionally Connect Work to Employees are the Future

Over the last decades, marketers have gradually learnt that selling products by promoting rational features doesn’t work.  People buy based on their emotions.  Research has found that rational features only account for 15% of the decisions we make.  Subconsciously, the majority of the decision process is dominated by our emotions.  In the words of Brian Carroll, an experienced marketer, “People often buy on emotion and backfill with logic.”

When making a purchase, customers seek to fulfill both their functional needs (what it does for me) and emotional benefits (how it makes me feel).

Companies like Google, Facebook, Apple and Mercedes-Benz have all done a stellar job at getting into the minds of their customers and designing products, right from the start with a maniacal focus on emotional benefits.  The result is captivating products that excite customers and make them feel great when they use them.   According to authors, Peter Boatwright and Jonathan Cagan in the book Built to Love, emotional content drives product awareness, word-of-mouth referrals and motivates repurchase.

A lot of companies create products and then add the emotional component through marketing.  This means creating ads that tell beer drinkers they will attract more girls or even scaring people to believe that if they don’t buy a product their family or livelihood is at risk.  These products and services fail to become products that customers fervently fall in love with.

While marketers may have wised up to promoting the emotional benefits of products and product engineers are learning to create products their customers want, there is one area that business leaders fail to connect emotionally, on a more strategic level.  And that’s with their own employees.  

Few business leaders truly appreciate that getting their employees to buy into the company means improving the emotional connection of the benefits of work in staff communication.   This means focusing on the impact the company makes to the world and how each person contributes to that.  It’s the relentless repetition of the company mission and why the company matters.  It also means promoting how achieving the goal or vision will make employees feel – emotional benefits such as trust, job security, achievement and empowerment.  

Instead, most companies focus on what the company can do for people  – functional benefits such as salary, extra annual leave, drinks on Friday and foos ball tables.  Even worse, some don’t even tell their employees any benefits or focus on company achievements (ie: shareholder return).  Meeting functional needs is a requirement to prevent negative emotion, but success goes far beyond these.  It can’t just be added on, like marketers falsely claiming a product is sexy, when it’s clearly not.  Likewise, inauthentically adding emotion to appeal to employees, results in cynicism and a lack of trust.  Emotion has to be baked into the workplace environment.

So where did it all go wrong?

How the World of Work Has Changed

Over hundred years ago, in the industrial age, factory owners wanted compliant workers who were low paid, content with being injured at work and easily replaceable. Humans were considered just mere cogs in a machine.  More recently, we moved to the knowledge based economy, where a demand for University educated employees were required who followed instructions, worked hard and undertook heavily controlled and planned work. The functional benefits of the job (eg: pay, annual leave) were mostly on offer.

Now, we are transitioning into the connection based economy.  Jobs of today require more emotionally intelligent skills – such as empathising, collaborating and creating.  According to Geoff Colvin, the author of Humans are Underrated, people want to work with other people in solving problems, share stories with them and create new ideas.  It also means that people weigh up the emotional benefits they can receive from their work, with the functional.

Since millennials entered the workplace, there has been a fundamental shift in their expectations of what work is about.  They don’t want to just work for a pay cheque (unless their planning on travel overseas), like their parents before them. Instead, they want to know how their work makes an impact to the company and the world.   According to a 2014 survey by Nielsen, 67% of respondents prefer to work for a socially responsible company, and, according to a recent survey by Deloitte, 50% of millennials want to work for a company with ethical practices.

Emotionally connective workplaces are more powerful than ever before.  We live in a global networked society, where employees can quickly learn through websites such as Glassdoor or Best Places to Work lists, just how well employers treat their employees.  According to a Fortune study this year, 56% of employees will evaluate whether they want to work at a company on their reputation as being a great place to work, followed by 20% has great products or services.

Emotion is core to any business relationship.

Putting it All Together

It doesn’t matter how much positive impact your organisation does for the world, if you don’t communicate this to your employees.   World class organisations understand the importance of actively involving employees to achieve business goals.  While at the same time communicating how each individual’s contribution relates to the outcome. This means aligning employee’s self-interest to a more meaningful and bigger purpose set by the organisation.   However, standard formal communication isn’t enough on its alone.

Companies that focus on everyday functional tasks such as sales targets and KPIs subtly tell their employees that’s what is important.  Over time people’s headspace revolves around making targets, but forget the reason why they are really employed.   Essentially, creating efficient, scalable business processes engineers the meaning out of work.  While a company can survive for some time on this path, over time they forget about the customer and become complacent.  It increases the degree of executional difficulty and leaves it more vulnerable to competitive threats.

As Suzy Welch says, leaders need to become Chief Meaning Officers.  They must be able show employees how their work connects to the organisation’s mission and what’s in it for them.  A study found that when call centre leaders illuminate how the organisation’s products and services make a difference, employee productivity spikes by 28 percent per shift.

Yet, only a small amount of employees actually understand their role in their company.  According to a Harvard Business Review study, 95% of employees do not understand how their day-to-day activities contribute to the strategic plan set by the executive team.

Essentially, there are four areas where leaders can provide personal meaning and a sense of true purpose to their team members:

  1. Why we’re doing what we’re doing/needing to change (how their product or service improves people’s lives)
  2. Where we’re going (how the world will look and feel like)
  3. How we’re going to get there (what needs to be done)
  4. What’s in it for me (provide employees with autonomy combined with a sense of achievement).  

It’s also imperative that leaders continuously frame the context around all outcomes including the setbacks and successes.  They understand that success breeds success in the same way that failure breeds failure.

Furthermore, great leaders take the time to really define their organisation and to continually communicate that and keep it fresh.  They use stories, metaphors and visual cues to help employees feel, hear and see their future.  Emotion matters in every type of business and the more sensory interaction in the employee experience, the better.

Building an Emotionally Connective Company

If a great product can be designed to emotionally connect to customers, a great workplace environment can also be created that emotionally connects to employees. Incidentally, organisations that build products with an emotional connection to customers, also tend to create great workplace environments.  Examples are Southwest Airlines, Google, Facebook and Hubspot.  All of these organisations have potential employees clamouring for jobs.  Southwest flight attendants even receive less pay compared to their peers in the industry, as they put more value on the quality of their working environment.  

If you think that providing more of an emotional context to work is not cost effective or just a fad.  Think again.  

Employees who are purpose-oriented are more likely to perform at a higher level and contribute more to the organisation.  According to research by Imperative, purpose-oriented employees are 54 percent more likely to stay at a company for 5-plus years and 30 percent more likely to be high performers.

To emotionally connect your workforce you need executives who can communicate the meaning behind work, so they can leverage people’s inherent need for directive action. After all, humans need external goals, stimulation and feedback to feel good about themselves.  People want to know the leaders visions of the future and see that reflected in their own aspirations.   Otherwise, they feel frustrated confused and insecure about their role, which negatively impacts productivity and engagement.

Emotion is fundamental to being a human.  Although, most people understand that humans are emotional, what has been poorly understood is how to use emotionally based communication on a daily basis to lead others.  Leaders who can communicate the why behind every message have the emotionally intelligent skills necessary for the connection economy.

What’s your long term strategy to connect your workforce to your company?