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Why is it that some organizations are full of employees who are engaged in their work, while others can barely get their teams to perform the basics?
At DecisionWise, we are fascinated by each organization we work with. When our research team members dig into these unique cultures, they find interesting differences between the organizations in terms of their "employee experience," or what we call "EX."
Related: 5 Companies Tell Us How They Retain Their Best Talent
On one hand, we see some employees who work 75-plus hours per week for years. Some, in nonprofit organizations, might work with difficult prisoners, for instance; others might work in locations where poverty, disease and poor living conditions are part of the job. Others spend months at a time on oil rigs out at sea, where they work 12-hour shifts in extreme temperatures for months at a time.
Yet, despite these challenges, many of these employees are highly engaged in their work.
Alternately, we have also seen organizations whose typical employee works 40 hours each week, receives generous amounts of paid time off and works in a low-stress environment. Yet somehow, many of these workers complain continually about their poor working conditions or gripe about "the latte machine being down" and other minor issues.
These latter-category employees have an extremely negative view of their EX, in spite of all their perks.
The expectations issue
Some of the differences between these groups can be attributed to the employee demographic (insert your favorite millennials dig here). However, as we've studied our database of survey responses, one main factor has stood out — a profound gap in expectations.
Employees who were disengaged complained about unmet expectations (even though some of these expectations were unreasonable). They expected something that wasn't there and they disengaged from their jobs. Those who were engaged by their work, however, seemed to be getting exactly what they expected from their jobs and, consequently, said they felt fulfilled. These employees said they'd gotten what they signed up for and were pleased about it.
A case study in low "EX."
We recently worked with a large company that contacted us because its attrition rate was nearly 50 percent, and it realized that it needed help. Statistically speaking, this company stood to lose about half of its workforce of 10,000 employees every year. That's a scary and costly figure.
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Company leaders asked us to help them gain a better understanding of their employee experience. What was it about their EX that was setting the stage for such a high turnover rate?
So, we responded by conducting interviews and surveys with those who had left. We looked at 4,544 employees and found some glaring concerns. First, typical turnover during employees' first six months of employment was fairly minimal — less than 10 percent. Overall, employees said they were happy with their jobs and engaged in their roles. Their EX was solid.
But, then, at about the nine-month mark, employees were leaving in droves. Why nine months? What was going on? As we analyzed the results, the answer became clear. During the first six months in their new jobs, employees' expectations were met. They were assigned a mentor, received training on how to perform their jobs and felt that their employer had laid out a clear set of expectations.
However, at about the seven-month mark, something happened that caused them to re-think their career decision. They began to see that the job they thought they had signed up for was not the job they would actually be doing.
About half of the employees who left during the six-to-nine-month time frame indicated that the reason they left was because the job wasn't meeting their expectations. They didn't see a future. They realized they wouldn't receive additional training once their new-hire phase ended. Further, they saw that the hours they had thought they would be working were different from those they were actually expected to work.
Worst of all, the employees realized that what they were expected to do every day didn't align with what they had been told they'd be doing when they accepted the job.
As we dug further, we found that 60 percent of those who left felt that the training they received did not meet their expectations. That's a big gap in expectations. It's no surprise that, given the different EX from what employees had thought it would be, the company wasn't retaining talent. We call this difference between what the employee expects and what the employee experiences the "expectation gap."
Such gaps don't just exist in businesses. Researchers at Ohio State University studied 82 couples who were within their first few months of marriage. Researchers videotaped these couples as they discussed problems in their relationships. The researchers also conducted eight tests at six-month intervals over several years, including examining these couples' relationship skills.
One area in which they hoped to gain additional insight was whether expectations for marital happiness, as well as pre-conceived expectations as to how spouses should behave, played a role in the success and happiness of the marriage.
Of the 65 couples who were still together at the end of the study, results showed that those who had had high expectations for happiness when they first married, but poor relationship skills, experienced sharp declines in marital satisfaction over the first four years of marriage. That makes sense. But, surprisingly, couples with low expectations and poor relationship skills didn't show an equivalent decline.
In other words, couples who began the relationship with a) high expectations, and b) a limited ability to fix bad relationships, were in for a marital disaster. But those with lower expectations (for the relationship and for their partner's behavior) and poor relationship skills didn't experience much of a decline in satisfaction at all.
The importance of expectations
According to the researchers, one's level of satisfaction depends less on the external conditions of the marriage than it does on whether expectations are met. As James K. McNulty, in Positive Expectations in the Early Years of Marriage: Should Couples Expect the Best or Brace for the Worst, wrote: "Satisfaction goes down when a spouse's expectations don't fit with reality."
In short, the same principles that apply in a marriage apply in an organization, as well. If you want to create a stellar employee experience, you must promote expectations that are clear and aligned. When an employee's expectations match those of his or her experience, that employee is far more likely to engage than when an expectation gap exists.
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Engagement, satisfaction and happiness often depend less on the conditions in which one works and more on whether expectations are aligned and met. If you want to create a superlative employee experience, start by ensuring that expectations on both sides are clearly spelled out.