There is plenty of evidence to suggest that putting your people first, or creating a positive employee experience (EX), is good for business. But have you ever thought about how? And more precisely, what kind of EX will do most for your business?
A great deal of the language around EX is couched in terms of the smoothness, if you like, of the experience at different touchpoints as they progress from pre-hires through to retirees or leavers. That’s no bad thing, right? Processes, policies, systems and human interactions shouldn’t get in the way of a good experience. And it makes sense that an accumulation of good experience is better than bad ones. Obviously.
However, if you only think of EX as a single dimension, ranging from awful to brilliant, you may be missing out on genuine opportunities to maximise the performance of the business. So not only should you understand whether the EX is positive or negative, but how exactly it feels.
For that you need to consider emotions.
Putting emotions into EX
Understanding what kind of emotional experience you want to create (or stop) will make your EX better and more focused. When do you want to create excitement, a sense of fulfilment, pride, humility and other emotional experiences? You want people to be excited about joining, right? And then when they’ve joined you probably want them to feel calm, in a positive way, because they’ve got a clear sense of what they’re here to do and they’ve made a good choice. Let’s face it, most of us have had the, “what have I done?” moment. You also probably want new joiners to feel like they belong and feel cared for. How do you want them to feel about a performance review? Dread? Or curious about the opportunity that it will present for self-improvement?
Hopefully, you get the idea.
What if I was to tell you that you can map the emotional experience to specific motivations, and that those motivations each have a distinct contribution to make in the workplace?
In other words, you can link EX more closely to your business strategy.
If you understand the experiences that your employees are having at work, not only can you make them more positive, but you can design them in a way that aims to tie in more directly with what you are trying to achieve;
If you start with the strategy in mind, you can deliberately design experiences that engage people in a particular way.
If people are stressed and anxious because they are overly loaded with short-term targets, in addition to being a wellness risk, their attentions will narrow, leaving them less open to change and less likely to generate new ideas.
If your strategy requires a great deal of change and innovation – which is pretty normal these days, you need to engage people in ways that frees them up to explore and express new ideas and be curious about and open to change.
So we have two perspectives, two ways into the EX. How people feel now and what that means for performance; and how our business strategy suggests they should be engaged. They should, ideally, tie up!
Mapping emotions to motivations
The framework that I use to help me is called Reversal Theory (e.g. Apter, 2001). It has a 40+ year research history and it has demonstrated validity for explaining all kinds of human phenomena. I’ve used it to develop individual and team performance, to coach leaders, and to understand organisations. Most recently, it had some media attention because the Sport Psychologist who is credited with turning around the culture of the England Football Team, Pippa Grange, uses it.
Reversal Theory suggests that human experience is structured around eight motivational states (pictured), each is linked to both a positive and a negative potential emotion. These eight states are organised into four ‘bistable’ pairs (or domains). This means that they operate like switches, and over time we move from one to another (i.e. a Reversal).
It is not really practical to attempt a full explanation of the structure of the theory in this article. However, we can consider some of the more interesting links between experience and business strategy.
Examples of motivational states and their contribution at work
We already talked about Creativity, which is rooted in the combination of the Playful and Rebellious states, and associated with fun or even mischievousness. We can all, I expect, think of situations where great ideas have come out of “messing around”.
Change tends to start with Rebelliousness. It might be more goal directed (Serious, e.g. continuous improvement), or it might be born out more out of being bored or dissatisfied with the status quo (Playful) and wanting to enjoy work more.
Disciplined execution and accountability tends to come from Mastery, customer service from an Other orientation, planning from serious, a focus on well-being from Sympathy, and so on..
The advantage of having an experiential ‘map’
All of these link to specific emotional experiences. But the beauty of having this ‘map’ is that you don’t actually have to have people describe their emotions, which most of us are pretty poor at. Most people at work just aren’t that emotionally literate. They can, however, tell us whether they are having a good time or not, and what they want or don’t want. So we can ask them about emotions (and I’ve used cue cards and other techniques to help elicit a response) or we can ask them about motivations and infer the emotional experience.
Designing interventions end experiences
Once you understand either the current experience or the strategic need, you can set about designing interventions.
Even though you’ve identified some strategic needs to let people experience more enjoyment in order to help with change, if you’re looking at specific points in the EX, each will have constraints. For example, doing your expenses will never be exciting, but it can be relatively painless.
Therefore, taking the more strategic perspective is about thinking “how can we make the experience more (or less) like this, more (or less) of the time”.
Tackling the experience point-by-point becomes, “what is our opportunity here, to align the experience to more of our strategic needs?”.
The other aspect to this is that you’re dealing with an array of human needs. If you can’t change something to fulfil a particular need, you can create another experience that will help. Ultimately, that’s the role that “ritualised playfulness”, such as festivals, plays in society – or the Christmas party plays at work. We use them to break up the relative mundanity of normal life!
I’m not suggesting that you should stop fixing stuff and start having more parties.
Instead, recognise that a range of experiences is important and try to make sure that your people are able to access them in lots of small ways, on a daily basis, and those bigger gestures will be met with greater positivity.
Reference: Apter, M.J. (Ed.) (2001). Motivational Styles in Everyday Life: A Guide to Reversal Theory. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association.
Rob Robson is a WEEI Partner, and the Founder of 8Connect Consulting based in Leamington Spa, UK.
Rob supports companies to improve their employee experience as part of being a more effective, agile organisation with people that are able to create and embrace change.