Changing mental models about employment

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By Dino Signore

According to a recent Pew Research Center study: 19% of nonretired U.S. adults quit their jobs in 2021, marking a 20-year high known as “The Great Resignation.” Among top reasons for leaving, the study cites: low pay, lack of opportunity for advancement and feeling disrespected at work. Other hot buttons included childcare issues and not being able to choose or flex their work hours.

Not only are people switching jobs with greater frequency, they’re also changing careers. Factor in the “gig economy,” where more people are opting for short-term contracts or freelance work as opposed to full-time positions with a single organization, and it’s clear that the employment landscape is making a major shift. To attract and retain talent, we need to change our mental models about employment, which is especially true for businesses that rely on knowledge workers.

In my opinion, the first step for business owners is to challenge their assumptions about human capital. As a facilitator, I frequently hear business owners talk about their employees from a negative perspective — seeing them as liabilities instead of assets, as perennial problems instead of problem-solvers. Even if such attitudes are subconscious, you may be creating a toxic work environment or one that does not fully unlock the individual’s potential.

Instead, look at your employees as stakeholders (whether the employment relationship is a traditional W-2, a W-9 or a 1099). Better still, identify what kind of problems employees may be having that constrain their performance. Solving customers’ problems generates value and loyalty. And although I’m not sure how much loyalty business owners can expect from employees, solving their problems should, at least, generate greater stickiness. Some quick ideas:

Be creative about the benefits you offer. You might employ a single mom who doesn’t care about a 401(k) plan, but she does care about childcare. For employees with elderly parents, the hot button may be adult care. I know the executive director of a nonprofit whose budget includes being able to pay off school loans — not tuition reimbursement, but loans that employees incurred prior to joining the organization. Bottom line, instead of a one-size-fits-all package, can you offer employees a designated sum and allow them to pick benefits from an à la carte menu?

Give employees more autonomy about when and where they work. Autonomy is especially critical for workers who are tasked with innovation; their creative juices may not always flow between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. The pandemic has shown us that telecommuting can actually increase productivity. Granted, not all positions are suited for telecommuting, however, you can increase autonomy in other ways:

  • Give employees flexibility regarding whom they work with. For example, when it comes to team projects, you could allow them to request the team of their choosing.
  • Measure their performance on outcomes rather than by how many hours they work.
  • Decentralize decision-making. For example, empower staff members to make customer-service decisions on the spot instead of having to defer to someone higher up on your organization’s food chain.

Business owners may have a tough time encouraging autonomy because they think employees will underperform. Yet autonomy is probably one of the reasons you launched your company in the first place. Figure out what works for your company. Second-stage companies should be especially good at this because they haven’t grown large enough to be shackled by bureaucracy.

Encourage the entrepreneurial spirit within your company. There may be a few folks who are born entrepreneurs; however, I think the majority of entrepreneurs are nurtured. Business owners can encourage employees to come up with new ideas for everything from products and services to processes and procedures. This could not only reinvigorate their commitment to your company but might also lead to valuable innovations.

Going a step further, suppose an employee wants to develop an innovation that’s outside your wheelhouse — or even start their own company. Perhaps you could serve as a coach or even an angel investor. After all, they could become a buyer or supplier to your company. And, at the very least, they’re probably going to be grateful — and less likely to become a competitor.

I think there are four phases of leadership growth for entrepreneurs: Learning to manage yourself, managing frontline employees, managing key executives, and being able to develop and lead other entrepreneurs, which is the highest level of evolvement.

The Great Resignation is a crisis moment… an inflection point between a threat and an opportunity. We need to change how we view, treat and manage employees. This is not your grandfather’s workplace. Business owners who challenge assumptions about the concept of employment will be better positioned to attract talent and scale their companies.

Published on August 3, 2022

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Dino Signore, PhD
Manager of Entrepreneurial Education
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Second stage is an important inflection point for entrepreneurs, says Dino Signore, the foundation's manager of entrepreneurial education. On the plus side, second-stagers have a proven product or service under their belts and have attracted initial customers, so survival is no longer a daily concern. Yet as they strive to gain a stronger foothold in the market and win more customers, second-stagers now face more strategic issues, such as building infrastructure to scale, honing their competitive edge and expanding into new markets.