~ He’s just institutionalized…The man’s been in here fifty years, Heywood, fifty years. This is all he knows. In here, he’s an important man, he’s an educated man. Outside he’s nothin’ – just a used-up con with arthritis in both hands. Probably couldn’t get a library card if he tried…these walls are funny. First you hate ’em, then you get used to ’em. Enough time passes, it gets so you depend on ’em. That’s ‘institutionalized’…They send you here for life and that’s exactly what they take, the part that counts anyway.~ Ellis Boyd “Red” Redding
I was watching the Shawshank Redemption this morning. If you haven’t seen it, it’s well worth your time. It’s one of those stories that has so many poignant lessons about relationships, trust, fear, motivation, and well, life in general. Even though I’ve seen the movie numerous times, one part really hit me this morning. There is an older gentleman, Brooks, who has spent his whole life in the prison. When it comes time for him to be paroled, he breaks down and wants to commit a crime in prison so that they’ll be forced to keep him. His friends prevent him from committing the crime and Brooks is paroled. Brooks tries to fit in out in the real world, but having been in prison so long, he just cannot adjust. He eventually commits suicide.
Institutionalized in the Workplace
The movie made me think about the workplace and employees who have worked their whole career at one organization. As I was growing up, my dad taught me that it was an honorable thing to choose a career and then stay with that employer for the entire time. Think about it, many people born in the 1930’s- 1950’s have been able to accomplish this.
There are certainly employees who fit this description and who stay engaged and are the best representatives of the organizational culture. But, most workplaces have those employees who are just there and going through the motions. They do this year after year. They continue to come to work and just do the minimum to get by. They might as well be carving a hash mark into the desk to represent each passing day.
So, what can a manager do with these employees to turn being “institutionalized” into a positive?
Coaching Strategies for Managers
- Be Direct- Don’t ignore the situation. Even if your organization has a “contribute and stay” mentality, a lesser engaged long-term employee can cause real morale issues in your department. Often, these employees have been there many more years than you have as the manager. The only approach is to be direct. Have that tough discussion and find out why they stay, what would make them more challenged at work, what makes them feel valued, etc. Then, act on what you learn.
- Find their strengths– When you get to know your staff on a more personal level, you may learn that they use skills outside of work that will benefit the organization. For example, if you have someone who is a deacon at church or who is very involved in planning and organizing at functions for their children’s school, capitalize on those skills and use them in that capacity on the job. When you recognize someone’s skills and praise them for is, they will be more engaged at work when they get to use the skills.
- Loan them out– With the economy the state it’s in, we’re all working to do more with less. This includes staff. But, if you can find opportunities to give up a long-term staff even for a couple days a month, you can improve their engagement. Loan them to another department to help expose them to another type of work. This will also spread the good will and demonstrate your willingness as a leader to look out for the organization as a whole. Each time the employee returns, have them tell about the experience at the next staff meeting. Other people on your staff will see the enthusiasm and may learn something as well.
- Job Shadow– I recommend using this strategically. For example, if you have an employee who could use a specific type of coaching, pair them up with someone from another department who does really well in that area. This will be a non-threatening way to coach the employee. I also use this technique when I need to assess how a particular employee is doing in their role.
- Capture their knowledge– One of the things that managers struggle with is losing the long-term employee’s knowledge when they retire or resign. A way to address this is to find ways to capture that knowledge before they leave. Start a private collaborative site online and teach your staff how to use it. Ask them to write about everything from processes to ideas on how to handle issues. Not everyone is a writer, so provide training on how to write and edit. Make sure they feel comfortable sharing their knowledge, then recognize and praise them when they do.
By focusing on ways to improve engagement of long-term employees, you may actually turn them into your greatest asset. What techniques have you used as a manager in order to coach your staff? Share them in the comments.