Great leadership can help foster a positive environment by providing direction, communication and support in the workplace. So, what can SME leaders do to improve the company’s employee experience strategy?

Employee experience

The impact of leadership on the employee experience is essential for small to medium-sized enterprises (SMEs), as employees typically have more direct interactions with leaders in a smaller work environment. Leadership behaviour can have a pronounced impression on employees’ daily experiences. Their actions and decisions can impact morale, workplace productivity and the company's reputation.

An employee experience strategy can help optimise the employment lifecycle of workers, from onboarding to exit. Actions—such as opportunities for continuous learning, flexible working, and ongoing performance feedback to aid in achieving KPIs— are some key elements in creating employee job satisfaction. Business executives can also lead by example and invest in leadership development, ensuring all leaders are equipped to inspire, motivate and engage their teams. 

How do different leaders impact the overall employee experience within an organisation? What strategies can business leaders follow to cultivate a positive and engaging work environment? Capterra addresses these questions and more with leadership and culture expert, and Co-Director of Human Leaders, Alexis Zahner.

What is employee experience and why does it matter?

From the moment an employee enters your talent pool, the employee experience journey begins. This journey encompasses their experiences from recruitment through the duration of their tenure and is impacted by several touch points. Arguably, most consequentially are their interactions with leadership.

The employee experience is fundamental to company success for a multitude of reasons. Most importantly, though, is because your employees are often the first and most crucial touch point for your customers. How your employees experience your company will flow directly into how your customers do. If they’re unhappy, unmotivated or disengaged, it is possible that these will filter into the customer experience of your company.

What’s more, the employee experience directly impacts your bottom line. When people experience a sense of purpose, connection and meaningfulness at work, they are perhaps likely to be more intrinsically motivated, more capable of grit when faced with challenges, and less likely to disengage or ultimately leave your organisation – all of which cost money.

Creating a positive employee experience is also just the right thing to do. That’s right, there’s a moral imperative attached to employee experience, too. Fostering a collaborative and engaging work environment can help contribute to the comfort of everyone within the team and create a culture of open communication.

How leadership makes (or breaks) the employee experience 

Leadership plays a central role in how employees experience work. Research shows the relationship an employee has with their direct leader is highly influential on their engagement and motivation towards work. 

Leadership is also a highly cited reason for employee disengagement, or ‘quiet quitting’ in some instances, and attrition. Who and how your leaders show up directly impacts how your employees experience work. That’s why it’s critical that leaders understand how they influence the employee experience and how to create an environment where employees feel genuinely seen, heard, and cared for.

The influence of leadership on organisational culture

Leadership behaviour has a direct impact on the culture of an organisation. In smaller teams where contact is even more direct, this impact can be more greatly and directly felt at all levels. 

Organisational culture, put very simply, is the accumulation of the behaviours we repeat. And so, how leaders think, speak, and behave repeatedly is the organisational culture they can expect to build. Gartner research found that organisational culture is in the top five priorities for HR leaders for 2024, it showed that for an organisation to succeed employees had to feel aligned and connected to the culture.

One of the simplest, and yet most overlooked, ways leaders can impact their workplace culture is to close their intention-impact gap by modelling the behaviours they want to see imbued in their organisation. 

Intention-impact gap is the space between who we say and think we are, and what we actually do. In the work environment, this occurs when the intentions behind our words or actions aren't aligned with the impact we’re having on employees. Leaders may have positive intentions, but if their actions are perceived differently by team members, it may lead to misunderstandings.

As we have seen employee engagement on the rise in recent years, it’s never been more important for leaders to understand how their behaviour impacts the company culture, and take ownership for changing this.

Strategies for leaders to improve the employee experience

Improving the employee experience takes a two-pronged solution: one that involves behavioural change, and one that improves the systems in which employees work.

Behaviour change without systems change is likely to result in good intentions being met with process barriers. Systems change without behavioural change can reduce the factors that contribute to employee dissatisfaction, but won’t promote the people factors that boost satisfaction and drive intrinsic motivation. 

Adhering to the following can aid leaders with an effective employee experience strategy: 

Close your intention-impact gap

A healthy team environment is one where people can trust the reliability and intentions of their leader. To do this, they need a leader who is self-aware and understands how they impact those around them. This level of self-awareness is a critical precursor to environments of high psychological safety and performance – that is, where employees feel it’s safe to raise issues, challenge the status quo, be themselves and bring big ideas to the table. 

Closing the intention-impact gap requires intentional work on the leader’s behalf; it’s about shifting perspective to understand how you’re impacting the team. Developing ‘external self-awareness’ is the foundational step in closing the gap. Getting clear on how you’re being received by others, so you can shift what you’re doing to align with the impact you intended.

To do this, gathering direct feedback, carefully observing reactions, and asking open questions from those around you are key. Asking questions like ‘When I say this, how does this impact you?’, and developing contextual awareness with questions like ‘When I made this decision, I noticed you seemed frustrated, could you tell me what that was like for you?’ and staying open-minded and present for the response is key.

When we do this, we can better understand our employees' experience of us, and more consciously start behaving and thinking in alignment with the organizational culture we’re trying to create.

Develop a culture of mindful communication

In today’s distributed workforce, the employee experience contains several virtual touch points that, when not managed appropriately, can drive disconnection and unproductivity.  

Mindful communication in a distributed workforce requires careful consideration of what communication channels are most conducive for connection. This means using communication channels, like email, telephone, videocall and other productivity tools, appropriately. Sensitive information or messages that could be misconstrued negatively should always involve direct one-to-one contact. 

In hybrid teams, ensuring that remote workers feel included and aren’t disadvantaged by not being physically present is critical too. This should include regular touch points like channel messages and intentional team catch-ups where connection and problem-solving are prioritised, together. 

Although a challenge in distributed teams, in-person connection as a full team is encouraged at intervals throughout the year to focus on big-picture thinking and priority tasks. These are key opportunities for leaders to drive creativity, connection and belonging in the team – key contributors to positive employee experience.

Reduce friction in workload wherever possible

Workload friction is the irritating and redundant tasks that employees endure in their work. These tasks often hinder productivity and contribute negatively to the overall employee experience.

Leaders should be on the lookout for tasks that undermine workplace productivity, like excessive admin or convoluted project approval processes, and look to streamline these to reduce barriers to progress as efficiently as possible. A leader's most critical role is empowering employees to do their best work by removing the barriers that prohibit this from happening – like friction.

Leverage the use of technologies 

Tools such as performance management and project management software have come a long way in the past 10 years. By using these tools correctly, there are opportunities to leverage technology across different areas of an employee experience strategy. The following is where software can and should be used:

1. Task assignment and clarity: Some tools, like task management software, can help team leaders assign tasks, set deadlines and clarify responsibilities. This clarity can help employees understand their roles within a project, reducing confusion and perhaps enhancing overall job satisfaction.

2. Clear communication:Project management and communication tools provide a centralised system for collaboration, ensuring all team members have access to important information. Leaders can use features to share updates and progress, providing transparency and reducing miscommunication.

3. Feedback and performance management: These tools enable the tracking of individual and team performances. Leaders can provide timely feedback, assess performance against goals and use the data for more effective performance reviews.

Business leaders can create a more streamlined, collaborative and supportive work environment for employees through the use of such tools. 

In summary

Leadership is the beginning, middle and end point when it comes to driving a positive employee experience through great company culture and meaningful work. Leaders who take radical responsibility to positively influence the employee experience by closing their intention-impact gap, developing a culture of mindful communication, reducing friction for their employees and leveraging technology, will retain great employees. This can also help to improve their bottom line, too.

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