"Your people are not your greatest asset. They’re not yours, and they’re not assets. Assets are property. You don’t own your people. Many of them don’t trust you. Some don’t like you. Too many won’t stick it out with you. And the ones you need most have the credentials to walk out fastest if you treat them poorly."

- Widgets, page 1

Rodd Wagner, in his new book Widgets: The 12 New Rules for Managing Your Employees As If They’re Real People, argues that employees are not things—resources, capital, FTEs, or inventory (all terms used to refer to staff)—but human beings. If employers want to get the most engagement and productivity out of these human beings, instead of rolling out widget-like “engagement initiatives,” they need to apply the new rules Rodd sets forth and has the research and data to back up.

The Big Idea

The Big Idea: The biggest takeaway from the book

Treat your employees as you would have them treat you

"The choice of what kind of attitudes your employees bring to work is yours. Because people so strongly reciprocate what they receive, a company gets the engagement it deserves. Because engagement is so closely tied to results, a company also gets the performance it deserves."
- Widgets, page 24

If someone treats you with disrespect or ignores your needs, how does that make you feel? And are you likely to go out of your way for them? Of course not. But for some reason employers think that because they pay your salary, they are exempt from this innate human instinct: do onto others as they do onto you.

As Rodd explains, the reciprocal employee is at the heart of the 12 new rules. If you treat your staff right and show that you care about them as individuals, not as replaceable widgets, they will be your biggest advocate and do more than you ask for. And since they are often the ones interacting with your customers or on the frontlines of your business, this true engagement and loyalty will translate to higher profitability too.

Insight #1

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Work needs to have meaning

"Whether someone finds purpose in his or her work is largely a consequence of how that employee is treated, how he or she is made to feel important, how genuinely the enterprise’s leadership talks about the mission of the company, and whether leaders do anything to cheapen that meaning."
- Widgets, page 116

The first six rules deal with everything from truly understanding your employees (Rule 1: Get Inside Their Heads), to paying them fairly (Rule 3: Make Money a Non-Issue), to being a “cool” place to work (Rule 5: Be Cool) and being transparent in all your communications (Rule 6: Be Boldly Transparent).

Rule 7 is Don’t Kill the Meaning. Having our work have meaning matters. We all want to know that we are adding value beyond someone’s bottom line, and this is not limited to nonprofits or people with a “noble” calling. If an employee is treated right and made to feel they are contributing to the company’s mission, then it won’t matter what function they play. It also won’t matter whether the company’s mission is to provide a service or product since their employees will care about making that meaningful to themselves and to their customers. Think of the Starbucks barista or the salesperson greeting you when you walk into The Container Store. Both of them understand the meaning behind their jobs and it shows, both in their attitudes towards their work and employers, and in their attitudes towards their customers.

Insight #2

An actionable way to implement the Big Idea into your life

Allow them to lead and have a voice

"Employees are more motivated in jobs where their opinions matter. People are more committed to doing things that are at least partly their own idea, rather than having their goals and the way they do their work dictated to them by the higher-ups."
- Widgets, page 165

The remaining rules touch on giving employees a future (Rule 8: See Their Future) and recognition (Rule 9: Magnify Their Success) as well as letting them collaborate (Rule 10: Unite Them).

Rule 11 is to Let Them Lead. Everyone want to have a voice and an opportunity to influence how they do their work since we all have our own preferred work rhythms and styles. A good manager is not afraid to allow their staff this autonomy: by assigning them tasks but allowing them to decide how these will be completed, he/she recognizes their staff’s individuality and will therefore ensure they are at their most happy and productive when completing these tasks. And these employees will be happy to come back to work and to keep producing for that manager instead of wishing to be elsewhere.

For the employees who want to step-up and take on more, encourage this as well. This will allow you, their manager, to spend more time coaching staff instead of doing the work yourself. By being seen as someone who develops staff and has set his department up for a successful succession, you are more likely to be viewed as promotable yourself.

“Happy employees create happy customers. It’s been said enough that it seems trite. To watch it happen is actually quite profound. People are emotional creatures. Emotions are contagious. Happiness is an exceptional powerful force. The executive who understands it, and genuinely wants to create it in his or her business, is substantially more effective than those who worry about spoiling their employees.”

It’s hard to believe that there are still some employers who believe that employees are out to get as much as they can for as little work as possible, and therefore should be treated as spoiled children or assembly-line widgets. Today’s employees are starting to get fed-up with this treatment and for the millennials coming into the workforce, this is not something they will even consider tolerating.

The truth is that we all want to work hard and contribute—and we want to matter. If we are lucky enough to find an employer who understands this and allows us this opportunity, there isn’t much we wouldn’t do for them.

Personally, I have been struggling to find such an employer and this book is one of the best I have read on true employee engagement. It makes me hope that there will be a better future, if not for me immediately than at least for my son, and makes me wish this were required reading for everyone and anyone who has staff.

Have you been fortunate enough to work for an employer who treated you right? What in particular did they do to make you feel this way?

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Karina Mikhli

ABOUT Karina Mikhli

Although I've spent most of my career on the operations side of publishing, an industry I'm still fortunate to be working in, I've also been a teacher and personal trainer in what feels like previous lives...
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