Tracy Maylett is co-author of The Employee Experience: How to Attract Talent, Retain Top Performers and Drive Results. The book makes a powerful, data-driven case that the best way to ensure a great experience for your customers is to offer your employees a great experience first. Tracy Maylett is a well-known global expert on employee engagement, and is also CEO of DecisionWise, an advisory firm that helps global organizations improve employee engagement, navigate organizational change, and strengthen leadership teams. 

Below is an edited transcript of our conversation. For the full conversation, click on the podcast embedded below.

Conventional wisdom says “put customers first.” Why does “The Employee Experience” suggest that middle market companies should put employees first?

Maylett: It’s the “law of congruent experience,” which basically says that employees will deliver a customer experience that matches their own experience with their organization. Many organizations will start with the concept of “let's take care of the customer first,” but they’re actually digging in the wrong place for value. When you look at any organization, the people who are working with the customer are those at the entry levels of the organization. These are the people who are making the customer interface and experience take place. If their employee experiences are negative, that's going to come across to the customer as well. So let's start digging in the right place, putting the employee experience first.

How do you define the “employee experience”?

Maylett: The employee experience is the sum of all the perceptions that employees have about the interactions they have with their organization. So the idea here is perceptions. For example, two employees may have exactly the same experience in terms of the employee lifecycle. They both come onboard at the same time, work for the same manager, get paid the exact same amount of money, etc. But their perceptions of what happens are going to be different. The idea of the employee experience is that every employee is going to have a different experience.

How might middle market companies go about analyzing their employee experience?

Maylett: We use this term “expectation gaps.” Employees walk into any organization with certain expectations of the job, of the company. These expectations are formed in lots of different ways. We call these ways “the 3 contracts.” The first contract is what's called “the brand contract.” When employees work for any organization, they expect, based on the brand or the organization’s messaging, that this is what my job is going to look like. If the expectations of the brand contract aren’t honored, employees have an expectation gap. 

There’s also a “transactional contract”: those expectations are very clearly spelled out, written down policies, procedures etc. If those aren't honored, then employees become uncommitted to what they’re doing. The biggest contract is what we refer to as “the psychological contract”: this covers an employee’s desires and wishes, which they may not have expressed openly. For example, an employee may expect to grow, to have an impact, to make a difference, etc. When those expectations are not met, employees leave or disengage. 

How can middle market companies close these expectations gaps?

Maylett: First of all, define what employee expectations are, from brand perspective, transactional perspective and then psychological perspective. Then have regular check-ins with employees to see if those expectations are being met on both sides.              

We highly recommend that every organization conduct ongoing feedback with employees. Employee engagement surveys can help too. But informal procedures are probably even more important. Have managers sit down with employees on a regular basis and ask, “tell me how it's going for you? Tell me about a good day at work? What does that look like? Why are expectations not being met?” 

How are middle market companies positioned compared to smaller companies and larger companies to deliver great employee experiences?

Maylett: Middle market companies are positioned uniquely versus Fortune 10 companies, for example, in that big companies have so many layers. They have all these strata that exist, even if they claim to be flat organizations. In big firms, the people making the decisions are often so far removed from the actual employee experience, so they're making decisions in a vacuum. Middle market companies have the unique advantage of being able to be much more compressed or de-layered, which enables them to better understand the employee experience. 

Amazon has gotten so much attention for its workplace culture being hyper-competitive, often cut-throat. Your book says Amazon actually has aligned expectation with their employees. Can you explain that?

Maylett: We’ve all seen media stories about how Amazon is a brutal organization. What's unique about Amazon, and the reason people are lining up to work for Amazon, is because they're very open and honest about expectations. They set those [tough] expectations with employees, and so they have complete expectation alignment.

Amazon employees know exactly what they’re getting into: they know they’re walking into an organization that's expecting 60, 65 hours a week from them. That’s what they signed up for.

Can you tell us more about “the psychological contract” and how it’s connected to the overall employee experience?

Maylett: Sure. The psychological contract is the unwritten or implicit set of expectations and obligations that really define the terms of any relationship. We use this acronym, M-A-G-I-C, which is what employees expect out of their job psychologically: that’s Meaning, Autonomy, Growth, Impact, and Connection. Those are five elements employees expect in order to be engaged, although it's never written down. When that psychological contract is not honored, employees disengage and they’re not going to be giving their all to their organization.

What final thoughts do you have for middle market leaders about creating great employee experiences?

Maylett: There are two things. The first one is: understand the law of congruent experience that I explained earlier. This really does have financial impact on any organization. It's not about making employees feel good, but about making sure that the experience the employees have is going to create that ideal experience for your customers as well. 

Second, find out what's going on in the organization with your employee experience and have these ongoing conversations around expectations, make sure that happens. Middle market organizations really are uniquely positioned to be able to get feedback and to make appropriate changes. 

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