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© 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.
Excerpt from www.NDMA.COM, © 2024 N. Dean Meyer and Associates Inc.

Analysis: Employer of Choice

what it takes to attract, motivate, and retain great people

by N. Dean Meyer

I don't think I need to convince you of the tremendous importance of the talent in your organization. They're the source of productivity, creativity, and every other aspect of success.

The costs to neglecting employee satisfaction and engagement are tangible and significant: high turnover, poor performance, chronic absenteeism, employee theft, and more.

On the other hand, there are huge rewards for being an "employer of choice."

So what does it take to attract the best talent, retain the most marketable people, and motivate everyone to perform their best?

"An easy job with high pay," you might joke. But what if you were offered your current pay for a job that entails sitting alone in a room and doing nothing all day, every day.... Would you take it?

Most people would not. They want more than just money from the place where they spend a majority of their waking hours.

Compensation and benefits are satisficers, not motivators -- necessary but not sufficient. If they're below market, it's tough to get the best (although it may still be possible if your organization is a really great place to work). But even if you pay at the high end of market, good people will leave (or at least perform poorly) if they're unhappy in their jobs.

Similarly, perquisites such as free food, game rooms, day care, and flexibility in one's time and place of work can attract people. But perquisites are part of the compensation package, not part of the job. They may overcome objections to undesirable jobs, at least for awhile. But they don't make jobs desirable or productive.

Compensation and perquisites must be competitive in the market for talent. But more than that doesn't necessarily lead to job satisfaction or high performance. And it takes a lot of money to overcome objections to an unhappy job.

What People Want

So what is it that makes jobs desirable and productive? Said another way, what do people want?

Here are some of the things people tell me they want in their work environments, the lack of which causes staff to become demotivated and unproductive:

  • Safety

    People need to feel safe at work. This goes beyond physical safety. It includes freedom from harassment of any sort, including related to gender, race, religion, sexual preference, or any other traits that aren't performance related.

    It's not that every job is safe. Consider the military, for example. But risks should be known, a necessary part of the job (not something unnecessarily self-imposed or neglectfully unmitigated), and voluntarily accepted.

  • A chance to succeed, not a "no win" situation

    People want to win. If expectations are a stretch, but feasible, that makes for a challenge. But if expectations are beyond the feasible, it's a "no win" situation.

    For example, if demands far exceed available time and resources, people feel pressured beyond the reasonable. Some staff may give it their best, and then burn out. Others may say, "With no way to win, why even try?" Motivation and performance fall, and turnover rises.

  • A feeling of meaningful contribution, not just a cog in the machine

    People want to feel that their work is worthwhile. They want to see the results of their efforts, and know that those results are of value to others.

    On the other hand, if staff feel that they're just doing tasks along an assembly line and don't identify with end results, they're likely to feel bored and meaningless. They disconnect from their work, and performance suffers.

  • Empowerment, not micromanagement

    Empowerment means that authorities and accountabilities match. People have sufficient authorities to succeed at their accountabilities. That includes resources and decision authorities, and also the freedom to accomplish agreed objectives in their own manner.

    Conversely, disempowerment means that people don't have the power to produce what's expected of them. They feel set up to fail, like victims and scapegoats. It's no wonder they become cynical and stop trying.

  • Community and teamwork, not isolation

    Most people enjoy working with others. At a minimum, they want to feel part of a community, built through social interactions at work. Beyond that, they want to collaborate with peers on teams.

    Conversely, isolation is unpleasant and makes people eager to leave their job, not do the job.

  • An opportunity for creativity, not just repetitive tasks

    Most people like to be creative. Even those people who you think are capable of only simple tasks are creative when they get home, e.g., with their hobbies and social activities.

    Even if the job is to produce routine results, people want to be able to do their own creative thinking about how to produce those results, and what other results they might offer.

  • Fair treatment

    People want to be treated fairly. They want equal pay for equal work, and fair evaluations of their performance.

    People certainly resent being judged more harshly than they feel is fair. But people also need some recognition (and perhaps rewards) for performance that stands out as better than expected. It's demotivational to see peers who do far less work getting the same performance ratings and bonuses. Your best people might say, "Why should I bother to perform?"

  • Some control over one's own destiny, not at the mercy of others

    People want to have some control over the path their careers take. They want to understand their options, and have the power to make decisions based on what they want to accomplish in their lives.

    By contrast, if people are ordered into a new job without any discussion or consent, they'll feel disenfranchised. If they want to regain control of their lives, they have to leave the organization.

  • Hope for a better future

    Without hope for something better in the future, people stop caring about succeeding. Consider the song lyric, "If that's all there is my friends, then let's keep dancing." [Is That All There Is by Jerry Leiber and Mike Stoller]

    People without hope fall into doldrums, and don't make an effort to perform well.

  • Purpose

    People need to feel their work is worthwhile. Purpose means doing something hard, that engages your unique talents, and has value for other.

    Without purpose, people are demotivated and unfulfilled.

Do you want these things in your own work? And, what did I miss?

How About Millennials?

Older leaders often ask, "What do Millennials want?"

As far as I can tell, they want exactly the same things!

The only difference is that Millennials are not willing to put up with less. Most would rather do without the job than tolerate a job that pays the bills but makes them unhappy.

This says that being a great place to work is becoming all the more essential over time. It's not just a matter of compassion and kindness. It even goes beyond near-term performance. It's an existential issue.

The Organizational "Ecosystem"

Becoming an employer of choice is not simply a matter of being a good boss and compensating people fairly. And the factors that people want (indeed, demand) in their work go well beyond traditional job design.

People are affected by the "organizational ecosystem" in which they work -- not just the physical workplace, but also the design of the organization itself.

This ecosystem is the result of five fundamental organizational systems:

  • Organizational structure: job design and cross-boundary processes

    Organization charts and cross-boundary teamwork processes are both part of the design of organizational structure.

    Your organization chart tells people what they're supposed to be good at. These specialties are combined on teams to deliver projects and services.

  • Internal economy: budgeting, priority setting, accounting and other resource-governance processes

    This system manages supply (resources) and demand (needs and requests). It includes budgeting, priority setting, and financial processes.

  • Culture: the commonly accepted behaviors

    Culture is comprised of both values and behaviors. Values drive behaviors. But the converse is equally true: Behaviors drive values, in a self-reinforcing cycle.

    The most effective way to define a organization's culture is to prescribe the acceptable behaviors. If you start with values, people may guess the intended behaviors (though not consistently). But all that counts is how people behave.

  • Methods and tools: things that augment job performance

    This is the "teach a man to fish" aspect of the ecosystem. It ensures that people have the skills and tools to perform well.

  • Metrics and rewards: measurements and benchmarks for dashboards and performance evaluations, and the consequences associated with them

    This system tells people how they're doing to guide their work (dashboards and benchmarks). It also measures people's results, e.g., for purposes of performance evaluations and bonuses.

The good news is, leaders can deliberately design all five of these organizational systems. There are extensive discussions of how to do so throughout NDMA.COM.

Root Causes

Let's go back over the list of "wants" and see which organizational systems commonly generate staff's concerns:

  • Safety

    The most common root cause of safety concerns is culture.

    Here are two examples of behaviors that should be written into an organization's culture, both under the theme of Ethics:

    We do not sexually harass anyone or link career success to personal favors or to relationships of any kind (favoritism). (Sexual harassment means unwelcome sexual advances, or language that creates an uncomfortable or hostile work environment.)

    We do not jeopardize others' health, safety, property, employment, or reputation without their fully informed consent.

    Of course, in your environment, there may be other things that people find threatening. Ask yourself not just how to eliminate them, but how they got there in the first place (the root cause).

  • A chance to succeed, not a "no win" situation

    There are multipe root causes of "no win" situations.

    The most common is a workload that doesn't fit into your day (or your group's available time). This indicates that demand far exceeds supply. Look to your internal economy for the causes.

    Another common root cause is culture, which includes behavioral principles of Empowerment. People may be given accountabilities, but not the authorities they need to get the job done.

    Another root cause might be performance benchmarks (metrics) which are impossible to attain.

  • A feeling of meaningful contribution, not just a cog in the machine

    This concern generally traces its root cause to structure.

    When jobs are defined by roles people play, responsibilities for doing tasks, or competencies, people lack a sense of the results they deliver. They play their roles and do assigned tasks; but they don't identify with products and services that are of meaningful value to their customers (internal and external).

    A healthy structure defines jobs by lines of business -- what people "sell," not what they "do."

  • Community and teamwork, not isolation

    A sense of community comes not only from social interactions in the workplace, but also from seeing the "big picture" of the organization and understanding where you fit. A structure designed on understandable principles, with clear domains for each group (not just a few words in a box) is the foundation.

    Once domains are clear, cross-boundary processes combine just the right skills from across the organization on each team, and clearly define individual accountabilities within the team. These teamwork processes are also part of structure.

  • Empowerment, not micromanagement

    Empowerment starts with organizational structure. To manage people by results and not tell them how to get there (the essence of empowerment), people have to know what results are expected of them. Jobs defined by lines of business, not roles and responsibilities, clearly define the products and services that are expected of each group.

    Second, once accountabilities for results are clear, the authorities that must go along with accountabilities have to be negotiated in context. Your culture should provide for that, with behaviors like these:

    When we ask things of others (whether new commitments or changes to existing commitments):

    We ask for and measure (results), not tasks, processes, and effort.

    We provide the resources, authorities, and information needed to deliver the agreed results before expecting others to accept accountability.

    We offer support and coaching (mentoring) without dictating tasks or overriding decisions (which would imply reassuming accountability). When we do so, we make it absolutely clear that our advice is not a command.

    Of course, the culture should also define the converse, what we do when others ask things of us.

    Third, metrics which are used for evaluating performance should consider only results, not the processes people use to deliver them.

  • An opportunity for creativity, not just repetitive tasks

    This has two root causes which go hand-in-hand.

    Structure must define jobs in a way that's broader than today's workload. When jobs are defined by their lines of business, staff not only deliver today's work. They think about the future, and creatively keep their small businesses competitive.

    In parallel, your internal economy must balance supply and demand. If people are working to their limits in the futile attempt to keep up with unmitigated demands, they'll have no time or energy for new ideas.

  • Fair treatment

    One root cause of inequities is methods, specifically job evaluation (grading), compensation design, and performance management.

    Another is culture which includes behavioral principles such as:

    We do not discriminate against people on the basis of race, national origin, religion, gender, physical abilities, age, sexual orientation, marital status, political beliefs, or any other factor not related to job performance.

  • Some control over one's own destiny, not at the mercy of others

    The way managers treat subordinates may be described in culture.

    Additionally, career planning methods may help people understand their options, and the competencies and experiences they'll need to acquire to achieve their career goals.

  • Hope for a better future

    A "better" tomorrow might take the form of more compensation, recognition, or promotions. It might also promise more of the above wants. People are motivated to work hard for rewards like these.

    What will they work at? Sadly, it's often the politics of the organization.

    To focus this hope-driven energy into productive channels, rewards have to be associated with results. This depends on at least three systems.

    Structure should define clearly what results are expected of each group.

    Methods of performance evaluation should measure those results.

    And metrics and rewards should be aligned with results.

While these are the most common systemic reasons for employee dissatisfaction, there are other root causes that may be relevant in your organization. I hope the above discussion helps you trace your unique concerns to their systemic causes.

How to Make Your Organization a Great Place to Work

So, if you want to improve employee satisfaction and engagement, what should you do?

The first point to note is that you should focus on systemic root causes, not symptoms. That's the only way to ensure a comprehensive and lasting effect. It's also the way to avoid "pushing on a balloon" -- fixing one problem and creating other problems.

The second point is that organizational systems should be approached with a strategy. It's costly and ineffective to address a few symptoms at a time, bouncing from system to system with small changes here and there (the "scattershot" approach).

Instead, it's best to treat one organizational system at a time (and all the symptoms that go with it), and to design each system in a comprehensive and cohesive manner.

Thus, the first step is an organizational strategy that defines the sequence in which you'll address the five organizational systems.


The phrase "employer of choice" means that people choose to work for you, stay with you, and dedicate themselves to your success.

Becoming an employer of choice depends on designing all five organizational systems such that they're productive, effective, and supportive.

By the way, this is exactly what it takes to be a highly productive, competitive, and entrepreneurial organization. It's a great investment for lots of reasons.


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