Making Every Interaction Meaningful


by Niel Nickolaisen, Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner

Let me start by stipulating that I think that the goal of whoever invented the traditional, formal employee performance review process was to kill motivation and harm relationships. But, it could be that my attitude towards traditional, formal employee performance reviews comes from the terrible experiences I have had with such reviews.

Through the consolidation of two departments, I had inherited a new boss. Jay was a decent person and might have been a great leader. But, because his primary focus was on his legacy department, he did not pay too much attention to my team or my work. That became obvious when it was time for our traditional, formal, annual performance review. Jay called me to his office and asked me to sit down. As I sat down he opened his desk and removed an envelope. He held the envelope in his hand and said, "Niel, I really don't know what you do but I understand that you are really good at it. Here is your annual bonus." He handed me the envelope with the bonus check and ushered me from his office. If brevity were the hallmark of a great performance appraisal process, we had just set the new benchmark. Other than that, had anything happened that created or supported a great workplace culture? Jay had no idea what I did - but whatever I did was bonus-worthy. Was there anything I should do differently or better? Did I now better understand the organization's goal and priorities so that I could have context for why my work mattered? So that I could be inspired as to my higher purpose? After I left Jay's office, I opened the envelope and saw that Jay had given me a larger-than-expected bonus and so I guess I was pretty good at whatever I did - Jay at least had that right.

In my quiet moments - those rare times when I have the time to think about how to become better than I currently am - I sometimes reflect on my 5 seconds with Jay and what I can do to make sure that I, unlike Jay, make every interaction meaningful.

Even if my organization believes in the traditional, formal annual performance review that does not force any of my actions - as long as I at least annually comply. In my case, I meet at least once every two weeks with each person on my staff for a short, targeted meeting. No matter the topics on our agenda, my primary goal is to build a relationship of trust with each person. What builds relationships of trust? Transparency, honesty and, if needed, course correction but course correction designed to build a relationship of trust. These one-on-one meetings are also an opportunity for me to remind each person as to the "why" of their work and mine. "Why" is a powerful motivator. Often, in our daily work we lose sight of the "why" and so a regular reminder works wonders. And, if I am required to do some type of formal annual performance appraisal I bundle together a summary of my frequent, regular interactions and comply.

I also regularly remind myself to express sincere gratitude to every member of my team. It does not take that much time to tell someone "Thank you" for their work. It does not even take much effort. Gratitude helps in at least two ways - First, it builds those doing the work. Second, it reminds me that my success is based on the work of my team and I regularly need this good dose of humility.

Now, to have conversations that build trust and in order to express sincere gratitude, I need to be conscious of what the people on my team are doing. I never want to be in the position of admitting to anyone, "I really don't know what you are doing but I understand you are really good at it." So, I need to be connected enough - without imposing or micro-managing - to make conversations and gratitude meaningful. For years I heard the expression "Management By Walking Around". I spend plenty of time walking around as I move from meeting-to-meeting and event-to-event but I don't do too much relationship building while I am walking around. What does build relationships is my being aware of what people are doing so that I can turn any interaction into a meaningful interaction - one that builds trust and presents an opportunity to express gratitude. Instead of management by walking around, I shoot for management by being conscious.

Turning every interaction into something that builds trust makes everything so much better. Hard conversations are easy when they happen in an environment of trust. Understanding and alignment happen nearly immediately. And great workplace cultures thrive.

Niel Nickolaisen is the Chief Technology Officer at OC Tanner. Niel is the author of "The Agile Culture" and "Stand Back and Deliver." Niel is passionate about helping leaders deliver in three areas: enable strategy, achieve operational excellence and create great workplace cultures - cultures based on trust and ownership.