It’s All About Relationships: ‘Ignore This Human Reality At Your Own Peril,’ Culture Expert Says

Don Rheem

Amid a labor shortage that is only expected to worsen, keeping employees happy and engaged is a must, but there’s usually one obstacle blocking the way. “Most managers have no clue how to create that environment,” asserts culture expert Don Rheem.

Rheem, who spoke in 2022 at INSIDE Public Accounting’s PRIME Symposium in Plano, Texas, says hard-wired emotional responses, not logical reasoning, drive behavior in the workplace (and everywhere else for that matter). A basic understanding of neuroscience can help supervisors make work an experience employees look forward to, not one that sparks the dread and anxiety known as the Sunday scaries.

Rheem, CEO of employee engagement firm E3 Solutions, now called CultureID, coaches business leaders to use scientific research to improve culture and boost retention. He believes there’s only one differentiator that matters to employees when comparing workplaces – how it feels – and employees who feel they are within a safe community of colleagues can thrive.

It all comes down to the limbic system, which is the subconscious, emotional operating system of the brain. Humans have survived for tens of thousands of years through the safety, security, connection and support of living in groups. “We are, at our core, herd animals,” Rheem said, “and work is the new tribe for the 21st century homo sapien.”

By contrast, top-down, punitive supervisors create fear, triggering the limbic system in the same way a physical threat would. The overwhelming reason people quit is a bad boss, Rheem said. About 70% of the variance in employee engagement scores is directly attributable to managers, and 84% of workers say poorly trained managers cause unnecessary work and stress, according to the Society for Human Resource Management.

“Relationships are the emotional Velcro that keeps us accountable, productive and loyal,” Rheem said. This is not about coddling employees, however. Accountability is still important, but workers can be more productive, innovative and helpful if they work with trusted colleagues. “When you feel good, you’re smarter.”

Rheem believes a retention strategy is far more important than a recruitment strategy, but compensation is only one piece of the puzzle. “The part of the brain that determines how you behave on a daily basis has no relationship to currency,” he noted. It takes a raise of more than 20% to lure employees away from a manager who engages them, but almost nothing to hire away employees who are disengaged, which is 74% of them, according to a national Gallup poll.

Since the pandemic drove a dramatic increase in working from home, engagement concerns have grown. Rheem is of the opinion that remote work will become less popular over time. He believes the pendulum has swung too far in one direction and workers will want to return to the office in greater numbers than today. In the meantime, it’s critically important for supervisors to ensure remote workers don’t feel detached and distant from company culture. Keeping the Zoom camera on can help in that regard.

Rheem offered several other ideas to improve retention, most of which cost nothing.

  • Make sure supervisors are trained in relational skills. Only 1 in 10 are naturally good at it.
  • Create a predictable, and therefore safe, work environment. Monday morning huddles outline what’s coming up for the week, which answers one of the main questions the limbic system wants to know: “What’s next?”
  • Give employees a reason to come to the office. Managers may resent this, but team meetings on in-office days will eliminate the frustration of workers doing the same things onsite that they could do at home.
  • Improve relationships by asking personal, but not too invasive, questions. It could be as simple as, “How was your weekend?”
  • Think before talking. It takes five positive experiences to neutralize a negative one because the brain has a predilection to hang on to negative experiences. Memories recorded while fearful can last a lifetime.

This article originally appeared in the November 2022 edition of INSIDE Public Accounting. To subscribe to INSIDE Public Accounting Monthly click here.


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