The past three years have been a roller-coaster ride for many tree companies. While supply-chain problems and rising costs presented obstacles, the massive demand for tree care and tree-removal services created a growth opportunity. Over time, new trucks arrived, chippers were repaired and backordered chain saws finally shipped. Throughout, companies competed vigorously for workers – with experience or without – offering higher wages and even signing bonuses.
While that boom has moderated slightly, it does not adequately explain the following observations. First, a larger local tree company – known for high wages – having multiple newer trucks and chippers sitting idle in the yard day after day. Second, a number of well-respected smaller businesses scaling back operations, from three or four field staff to the owner and a single employee, sometimes his/her spouse. And third, local arborist-job ads offering previously unimagined pay rates.
Yes, it’s true that many businesses are struggling to find workers at all levels of the economy. And it’s true that interest in the trades and physically demanding jobs has declined in recent decades. But one would think job ads offering astounding pay rates should enable these companies to maintain staffing levels. Apparently not.
The importance of good leadership
There is a bigger issue to address. Business owners are notorious for complaining about the difficulty of hiring and retention, and the cliché, “It’s hard to get good help,” is real. The opposite is also true. Good leadership is hard to find. In a profession with a shrinking workforce and notoriously low pay, it takes more than higher wages and a reasonably safe workplace to attract and retain quality employees.
The relationship between employer and employee has fundamentally changed. Three years of the pandemic stoked the fire of employee distrust in many professions, including arboriculture. The result is a growing number of employees who are disengaged from their work and workplace.
Tree-company leaders must confront the reality that qualified workers are leaving their companies and many are leaving the profession entirely. This trend is unsustainable and cannot be corrected solely through recruiting young people and career changers into arboriculture. We must plug the hole that is draining our profession. Leaders must understand the roots of this problem, acknowledge our responsibility and act to correct it.
The Gallup organization conducts an annual survey of American workers to measure their level of engagement. (www.gallup.com) As of 2022, they found 32% of workers (1 in 3) to be “engaged,” meaning highly involved and enthusiastic about their work and workplace. These are high performers who help drive the company forward. A middle group, 50% of workers, were identified as “disengaged,” psychologically unattached to their work and the company. They are simply putting in the time – willing but unmotivated. At the far end of the spectrum, Gallup found 18% of workers (1 in 5) to be “actively disengaged,” unhappy at work, resentful and acting out on that unhappiness.
Together, this data suggests that two-thirds of American employees are uninterested, disconnected or worse. While this data represents a combination of industries and professions, it is foolish to believe these ratios don’t apply to arboriculture. How many times have you heard or thought:
- Nobody wants to work anymore.
- They’re just milking the clock.
- I need to do the difficult jobs myself.
- We do training, and nothing changes.
- Everybody wants to be a contract climber.
Employee disengagement is a critical factor in retention problems. It also has a major impact on productivity, workplace injuries, absenteeism and overall profitability.
As company leaders, we must recognize our role in creating disengagement. As they say, “Fish stinks from the head.” According to Gallup, 70% of team engagement is determined solely by the manager. In other words, the difference between high-performing, highly engaged teams and the lowest performers is explained primarily by the actions and behaviors of the leader. Seventy percent is a huge number and may be painful to consider. So let’s take a moment to explore how that might be true.
“Stop breaking the #*$%@ rakes, or you’ll buy the next ones.” We’ve all heard that or something like it. In his book, “Drive,” author Daniel Pink discusses the history of motivation. Humans evolved on the African savannahs by successfully identifying threats (e.g., lions) and opportunities (e.g., food and shelter). These are deeply encoded in our DNA. Beginning with the Industrial Revolution, companies have leveraged these psychological realities with “carrot and stick” motivation. For example, they use production bonuses (carrot) or required Saturdays (stick) to effectively cajole and coerce workers. Similar extrinsic (external) motivations are everywhere in modern society.
Few leaders are intentionally coercive, but our actions can inadvertently create that dynamic. We perceive ourselves generous by offering “carrots” to recognize performance. And yet we forget the implicit threat associated with withholding those rewards. Consider the following behaviors and the messages they send.
- Using mockery or sarcasm to address a problem.
- “Punishing” employees by purchasing low-quality tools.
- Requiring work on weekends or holidays.
- Using arbitrary methods to award opportunities.
- Keeping employees “in the dark” on organizational changes.
- Leaning on your power/authority to compel action.
Each of these is rooted in traditional motivation (carrots and sticks). However, they all are examples of authoritative, unpredictable or punitive behaviors that de-motivate employees and cause disengagement. The result is a culture that saps motivation and that many employees will quickly abandon for a new opportunity.
Another approach to leadership is what Pink calls “Motivation 3.0,” the cultivation of intrinsic (internal) motivations to build connections and trust with employees. Put simply, this means uncovering what employees want/need and helping them achieve it. This is a different relationship between company and employee.
One might be tempted to dismiss this as New-Age, hippie juju. Before you do, let’s switch perspective and ask, what do you want from your own work experience? Do the basics of money, food and shelter meet your needs? Are you motivated by implicit threats? Are you satisfied to put in eight hours and get paid? Or is there something more?
Hierarchy of needs
In the 1950s, the psychologist Abraham Maslow identified a hierarchy of needs. These are typically illustrated in a five-level pyramid, beginning with physiological needs (food, shelter, sleep, etc.) and safety needs (personal security, health, money, etc.) at the bottom. Beyond these basics, Maslow identified three higher levels of need: love and belonging, esteem and self-actualization. His research found fulfillment of these higher needs had the greatest impact on a person’s sense of well-being and life satisfaction.
Because you are reading this article, it’s likely your immediate physiological and safety needs have been met. Now you are pursuing those higher levels: building meaningful and lasting relationships, earning recognition and achieving personal and professional goals. And if those are important to you, it’s reasonable that your employees are searching for the same things.
It is tempting to believe a company’s responsibility is to meet employees’ physiological and safety needs. This falsely suggests that extrinsic motivators (carrots and sticks) are the best motivators. By recognizing that we are all driven to satisfy upper-level needs, the best leaders prioritize engagement with employees to activate intrinsic motivations.
In our post-pandemic world, companies will succeed by prioritizing the success of their employees. So how does that happen? How can we change our approach to build stronger relationships? Here are four steps to help you get started.
Step 1 – Reflect
The most effective communication begins with empathy and understanding. Prior to reaching out to employees, refocus on your own purpose and motivations. If you’re the owner, what is the mission of your company? What is most important to you? If you’re not an owner, why do you work there? What inspires you to give 100% effort each day?
Next, consider this question: How well do you know each team member? What are their goals and dreams? What have they achieved (personally and professionally) while working at your company? Do they have personal challenges that might be holding them back?
Then ask yourself, “How can I help each person to grow and succeed?” Your success as a leader depends on the success of your team. Without a team, a leader is nothing.
Step 2 – Connect
Powerful connections between people are built on trust. We earn the trust of our team by demonstrating our trust in them – even if that trust has been damaged by past actions. Start with small things. Ask your team, what would make the workday better? Maybe they need new rakes, another rigging line or chain saws repaired? By demonstrating your commitment to make their day better and easier, you will earn trust and create a foundation for progress.
Next, have a meaningful conversation with each team member. Find time before or after the workday to sit down together. Express your appreciation for something specific they each contribute. Then, ask broad questions and listen to what they share. Why do you work here? What are your goals and aspirations? What is holding you back? And most important, how can I better support you? This is your opportunity to know them as people.
Remember to be patient. This may be the first “non-work” conversation you’ve had with someone. It may feel uncomfortable at first, which is normal. Your confidence will grow as you have more of these meaningful conversations with your team.
Step 3 – Plan
Create a development plan with each team member. Keep it simple and put it in writing. Begin with the employee’s own goals (what they want), and then discuss things you hope for them to achieve. Include both professional and personal goals. Professional goals might include learning to operate the aerial lift, obtaining the Certified Arborist credential or passing the pesticide-licensing exam. Personal goals might be buying a new car, saving for a wedding or resolving a difficult personal situation.
Identify a timeframe in which to achieve the goal and the steps to get there. While you may not map out the entire path, make a list of actions to get started. Reinforce your desire to help them succeed, and confirm each person’s commitment to the goal.
Step 4 – Execute
Then, put the plan into action. Have regular check-in conversations with each person. What progress has been made? What help do they need? Be observant for personal challenges that hinder their progress, and gently offer your support. And when a goal is achieved, recognize and celebrate the accomplishment. Everyone wins when your team members succeed.
The world has changed. Hiring and retaining quality employees is a challenge for every company. To succeed, we must rethink the roles and responsibilities of leadership. We must engage deeply and build a strong relationship with each team member. By adopting the principles of “Motivation 3.0” and activating each person’s intrinsic motivations, you will significantly increase engagement. This will help you develop a culture that attracts and retains quality employees.
And, as Gallup found, higher engagement will have positive benefits throughout the company, with greater productivity, fewer workplace injuries, less absenteeism and better overall profitability.
Craig Bachmann is a Certified Treecare Safety Professional (CTSP) and Certified Arborist, is Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ) credentialed and is an experienced safety/skills trainer. He is the lead arborist and manager of Tree133, a tree-preservation company and a three-year TCIA member company based in Seattle, Washington. Craig previously worked as a contract climber and has hired contractors to support his own company. He also is a member of the TCI Magazine Editorial Advisory Committee.
This article was based on his presentation on the same subject during TCI EXPO ’22 in Charlotte, North Carolina. To listen to an audio recording created for that presentation, go to TCI Magazine online at tcimag.tcia.org and, under the Resources tab, click Audio. Or, under the Current Issue tab, click View Digimag, then go to this page and click here.