What leaders say is far less important than what they do. That’s one of the clearest conclusions we drew from a study, in collaboration with HBR, of 19,000 employees around the world, focused on how they experience their lives at work. (You can still take the survey to see how your experience compares to other HBR readers’.)
As we reported last week, companies seeking more sustainable high performance from their employees need to meet four of their core needs: renewal (physical); value (emotional), focus (mental) and meaning and purpose (spiritual).
When leaders actively support more sustainable ways of working in these four dimensions, the result is a significant positive impact on employees’ engagement, stress levels, retention, and job satisfaction. When leaders model in their own behavior sustainable ways of working, the effect on those they lead is far bigger.
Unfortunately, only 25% of our survey respondents told us that their leaders model sustainable work practices. Those leaders’ employees are 55% more engaged, 72% higher in health well being, 77% more satisfied at work, and 1.15 times more likely to stay at the company. They also reported more than twice the level of trust in their leaders.
In a classic study, the anthropologist Lionel Tiger found that the average baboon looks at the alpha male once every 20 to 30 seconds, for guidance. Human beings aren’t much different. We look to those with the most power in any given situation for cues about what is acceptable behavior and what is not.
Carla Christofferson, a Managing Partner of the law firm O’Melveny & Myers in Los Angeles is an example of a leader who took this message to heart. Through 360 feedback, she learned that her own long hours were a primary reason associates were putting in so many hours themselves, and feeling burned out. Only when Christofferson intentionally cut back herself, and talked openly about doing so, did her associates feel free to follow suit.
Sure enough, employees in our study were 1.1 times more likely to stay with an organization if they had bosses who actively encouraged them to take breaks during the workday and use their vacation days, and if they modeled these behaviors themselves.
The same phenomenon applies to perks. More and more companies are building fitness facilities and even nap rooms, but when leaders don’t make use of them, employees are understandably reluctant to do so themselves. In our own work with clients, we have seen many terrifically equipped gyms sitting largely unused during work hours. Perks that ought to be generating positive energy and renewal among employees may end up prompting frustration and resentment instead.
We’ve observed a similar phenomenon when it comes to email practices. If leaders regularly send out emails in the evenings and over the weekends, it’s a near guarantee that their direct reports will feel compelled to read and respond to them. Often, leaders will tell us they don’t expect responses on weekends. But once again, their behavior speaks louder than their words. When leaders feel compelled to write emails at all hours, we encourage them to park them in their draft folders and push the send button during working hours.
A similar problem occurs when leaders have the expectation – explicit or unspoken – that employees will respond immediately to emails sent during the workday, ensuring that they forever face distraction from their ongoing work. Sure enough, only 21% of our respondents said they were regularly able to focus on one thing at a time and only 18% said they allocated sacrosanct time to creative and strategic thinking.
At the emotional level, what matters most to employees is feeling recognized and appreciated by their direct supervisors. Our findings strongly confirmed the adage that “people don’t leave organizations, they leave leaders.” When employees in our study felt valued by their leaders, for example, they were 1.3 times more likely to stay with the company.
Finally, at the spiritual level, only 36% of our respondents said they felt a high level of meaning and significance at work. Those who did were more than three times as likely to stay at their companies – the highest single correlation in our study.
Once again, leaders’ attitudes and behaviors in this dimension have a powerful influence on employees. Only 22% reported having a leader who “communicates a vision that is clear, consistent, and inspiring.” Those who did, however, reported 65% higher engagement, 82% higher job satisfaction, and a 1.3 times greater likelihood to stay with the organization.