How do you know when trouble is on the horizon in your organization? What are the tell-tale signs, the canaries in the coal mine, if you will?
When I was a young management consultant, conventional wisdom said that a leading indicator was something easily measurable like rising inventory or declining customer referenceability or a drop in employee satisfaction. I would call these late-stage leading indicators because, by the time you see these problems in your business, it’s probably a little too late to prevent serious near-term repercussions. So, the sixty-four-thousand-dollar question is, “what is the earliest leading indicator?”
In recent work with clients and in my own business, I’ve come to the conclusion that the first sign of trouble on the horizon is a decrease in joy. Yes, joy. When people who work in an organization lose their sense of enjoyment and enthusiasm, it’s time to start making some changes.
The problem with using joy as an indicator is that it is extremely difficult to measure accurately. In fact, joy can be decreasing even when other indicators are still looking good. Even trending upward!
For instance, many of our clients do annual employee surveys measuring employee satisfaction. One particular client had extremely positive survey results but noticed a subtle drop in one or two areas where scores went from extraordinarily high satisfaction to slightly less than that. Looking at the overall scores and comparing them to other organizations, most leaders would have broadcast the results far and wide as a sign of the company’s health. (And they probably would have applied for the Best Places to Work in Tuscaloosa award).
Overcoming their fear of being accused of paranoia, the management team at this company decided to look deeper into the two areas that had dropped slightly. What they found was that, in spite of extraordinary financial success and market awareness, one group of employees had begun to lose their joy. As demand for the company’s product increased, and the value of the company’s brand grew, these critical employees were feeling frustrated, tired and disenchanted. They weren’t yet to the point of looking for work elsewhere, but it was just a matter of time. And before that happened, customer satisfaction, financial results and brand perception would have decreased.
So, management began taking steps to address the underlying problems that were robbing their employees of joy and preventing them from serving customers and successfully fulfilling the mission of the company. They did this long before any of the more traditional leading indicators became apparent.
So, how does a healthy organization identify a joy problem? While there is no easy metric or measurement, a good place to start is by asking people if they are enjoying their day-to-day work experience, if they look forward to coming to work, and if they are having any fun while they are there. If people say 'no,' or if they hesitate and have to talk themselves into a positive answer, then it may be time to take a hard look at what is depriving them of joy.
Of course, all of this assumes that you have people who have the capacity for joy at work. Some people just don’t want to work hard or have no passion for what the company does. That is a different matter. But for those who do, it is wise for leaders to do everything they can to preserve their joy.