Category Archives: corporate culture

A Lesson on Politics in the Office

ThinkstockPhotos-153920586Some of the biggest events at this week’s SHRM 2016 Annual Convention and Exposition had little to do with HR. One was a concert Tuesday night by the band Train. The other was a highly entertaining discussion about politics between pundits Paul Begala and Tucker Carlson.

I don’t know about Train — I didn’t go, but it’s hard to imagine that the performance had much instructive value. On reflection, though, I think Begala and Carlson had a lesson for HR practitioners.

They didn’t make their point explicitly, but rather by modeling a healthy way for colleagues to disagree. The takeaway: Political discussions — including those playing out every day in company lunchrooms — don’t have to be divisive.

It’s a natural concern, particularly this year. An unusually heated and dramatic presidential race has passions running high, and employers naturally don’t want workers distracted by conflict in the workplace.

A SHRM study released as the conference began Sunday in Washington, D.C., found 26 percent of HR professionals responding said employees are more vocal about their political opinions this year. The survey found 72 percent of employers discourage political activity in the workplace, but only 24 percent have a written policy.

Companies can ban bullying or active campaigning in the office. But a SHRM news release quotes Edward Yost, an employee-relations expert with the organization, saying they generally “cannot have policies that prohibit all political discussions,” without running into issues with the National Labor Relations Board.

Here’s where your company culture gets tested. If workers are going to disagree on political issues, you want them to do it the way Begala and Carlson do — with empathy, humor and respect for other views.

Begala is a former adviser to President Bill Clinton and longtime Democratic political consultant. Carlson is a commentator on Fox News and founder of the conservative news site The Daily Caller. The two co-hosted CNN’s political talk show “Crossfire” more than a decade ago and often appear together on stage as they did Tuesday morning at the SHRM conference.

In some ways their presentation was a comedy show, with the men gently poking fun at each other — and themselves. But they had serious and substantive disagreements.

Carlson’s main point was that the nation’s elites on both sides of the aisle have missed the rise of middle-class economic anxiety that fueled the rise of presumptive GOP nominee Donald J. Trump. And he freely included people like himself in that blame.

“Where I live, there is literally no downside to mass immigration,” because high-income jobs are not threatened, he said. “Immigration is a no-cost way to feel good in my neighborhood.”

Begala agreed that both parties have “failed a whole lot of people in Youngstown,” using that city as a proxy for white middle-class families whose livelihoods are threatened by a changing economy. But the answer is not to demonize immigrants, as he contends Trump is doing. Instead, “we have got to find a way to lift up the poor and middle class.”

Both men acknowledged each other’s perspective and recognized that neither Democrats nor Republicans had all the answers — basic elements of any healthy political discussion.

The nation’s polarized political environment has led many to feel “a contempt for people who disagree with them,” Carlson said. “There should be a space for sincere, honorable disagreement.”

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The Many, Many Vacation Days Not Taken

Here’s a new buzzword to add to your lexicon: “under-vacationed.” It’s how Project: Time Off, which regularly surveys American workers on how much time they take off from work, describes the 55 percent of U.S. workers who left vacation days unused last year, according to its latest survey. Previous Project: Time Off research showed that 42 percent of Americans were leaving vacation time on the table.

Project: Time Off is sponsored by the U.S. Travel Association, which obviously stands to benefit from more people taking time off to, you know, travel. But the research seems pretty legit, using polling firm GfK to conduct random representative samples of the U.S. population. This year’s survey queried 5,641 American workers working at least 35 hours per week, including 1,184 managers who are company decision-makers.

American workers have lost a full week of vacation, the research finds. Previous research conducted by Project: Time Off found U.S. workers’ vacation usage had fallen to 16.0 days a year—nearly a full week less than the average between 1978 and 2000, when it was 20.3 days per year. In the latest analysis of vacation usage, American workers took 16.2 days of vacation in 2015.

This year’s survey marks the first time that a majority of American workers have left vacation days unused. Previous surveys showed that 42 percent of Americans were leaving vacation time on the table. These “under-vacationed” Americans left a total of 658 million unused vacation days, far exceeding the previous estimate of 429 million unused days, according to Project: Time Off.

It’s not quite as bad as it sounds: Previous Project: Time Off surveys were conducted mid-year and asked respondents how much vacation time they anticipated using during the year. However, the latest survey was conducted in January and required that respondents know the exact amount of time they’d used during the previous year.

Why are so many Americans leaving their vacation time unused? Fears that employees would return to a mountain of work (37 percent) and that no one else can do the job (30 percent) topped the list. People who ranked higher in the organization also expressed concern that it’s harder to take time off when you hold such positions (28 percent). Twenty-two percent cited the idea that employees want to show “complete dedication” to their company and job.

People with high-ranking positions can have a big impact on changing this trend for the better: Eighty percent of employees said if they felt fully supported and encouraged by their boss, they would be likely to take more time off.

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When Grief Hits Home at Work

From the beginning of the American workplace, there have been workers in various stages of life and life events. All part of the 515860456 -- sad employeehumans-as-resources thing.

I’ve been through my fair share: raising kids while working; having kids while working, for that matter; getting them into college, then becoming an empty nester; surviving the end of their dad’s and my marriage, then getting them used to another …

But not until I lost my spouse — my kids’ zany, crazy, brilliant, life-loving dad and stepdad — did I know just how profound an impact the grief  event could have on work. And that was three short months after seeing my incredible dad through his final wrestling match with cancer.

I have a whole new respect for employers that choose to acknowledge and focus on the power pain can have on employees, and for colleagues and supervisors who’ve mastered the art of listening.

In fact, listening is just one of many helpful suggestions I came across recently in this piece, Helping a Grieving Friend in the Workplace, from Cincinnati-based Hodapp Funeral Homes. Until I went through my own nightmare, I honestly never would have considered the part managers, co-workers and HR can play in working to regenerate engagement and productivity in a shell-shocked, grief-stricken worker.

I’ve had those moments, fingers poised on the keyboard, when the words won’t come. I now know the fear, loneliness and incredible self-doubt, wondering if I can handle the same tasks I aced throughout my career in journalism and publishing, or the same projects around the house I used to enjoy. I know the frustration over how long it all seems to take.

But I also now know how helpful help is. And I also know I can now help others.

Judie Bucholz, a faculty member at Columbia Southern University specializing in human and organizational systems, weighed in on all this with me. As she put it,

“We know dealing with death is difficult, and yet, as an American society, we typically give our employees three days off to ‘deal’ with it and come back to work as if nothing ever happened. The reality is something did happen and three days is hardly enough time to acknowledge the reality of death, let alone deal with it.

“We cannot change corporate America and business, so what can we do to help those we work with [or employ] who are grieving the death of a friend or family member?”

She suggests the following:

  • Offering to take the kids for a day or for a sleepover;
  • Volunteering to do chores, such as cutting the grass, trimming the hedges, cleaning the pool, washing the car, etc.;
  • Sending gift certificates to favorite eateries, spas, beauty salons, etc.;
  • Helping with a project so the employee can leave early one Friday.

Yet, she says:

“Perhaps the best thing we can do is ask our co-worker [or employee] how he or she is doing and then take the time to listen — even if it makes us uncomfortable.”

And if those dealing with loss and grief want to quietly focus on work without talking, or silently space at a computer monitor from time to time, just let them do that, too.

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Job Candidates’ Rising Expectations

If you’ve become accustomed to having job candidates jump through hoops in order to land positions at your organization, then you might want to brace yourself for change: Candidates are simply less willing to put up with lengthy application procedures and cumbersome hiring processes than in years past.

466488753That’s one of the major findings from CareerBuilder’s 2016 Candidate Behavior study, which is based on surveys of more than 4,500 workers and 1,500 hiring managers. The study shows that employers are continuing to struggle: Although 76 percent of full-time, employed workers are either looking for a new position or are open to new opportunities, nearly half of employers (48 percent) say they’re unable to fill job vacancies.

In today’s market, companies need to present their best faces to candidates. “It’s important to remember that the candidate experience starts from the very first click and can impact how effectively a company is able to recruit quality candidates, the popularity of its employer brand, the strength and quality of its referrals, and even the bottom line,” says Rosemary Haefner, CareerBuilder’s VP of HR.

Candidates are more quicker to walk away from applications that are too cumbersome, with one in five telling CareerBuilder they are not willing to complete an application that takes them 20 minutes or more, while 76 percent want to know how long it will take them to finish an application before it starts. However, the majority say they’d be willing to endure a lengthy application process if the company is offering a higher base salary.

Candidates are also less willing to wait around: 66 percent said they’re willing to wait less than two weeks to hear back from an employer before considering the opportunity a “lost cause” and moving on to another. HR must also ensure that information on the company is easy to find, with 37 percent of candidates saying they’ll move on to the next opportunity if they can’t find the information they need on the company.

Candidates also want to see more information in the job description: 74 percent want to know the salary, 61 percent want to see the total benefits package, 46 percent want to see employee ratings, 40 percent want contact information for the hiring manager and 39 percent want information on work-from-home options. They also want to see how the company provides work/life balance (35 percent), photos/video of the work environment (31 percent), team structure and hierarchy of the role (27 percent) and how many people applied for the job (25 percent).

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The Cybersecurity and Culture Connection

The cyber risk realm is one that’s generally inhabited by those in the IT department.

New research from Willis Towers Watson, however, looks at the role human resources can play in helping the organization wrestle with cybersecurity-related issues, and what HR can do to help in the event of an actual cyber breach.

The London-based consultancy recently analyzed employee survey results from 12 organizations, examining engagement attitudes and opinions from more than 450,000 workers corresponding to a period in which significant data breaches were identified within the firms.

Employees’ responses were benchmarked against global high-performance companies and global IT staff from Willis Towers Watson’s database of employee opinion survey data. Overall, employee opinions within the organizations experiencing data breaches didn’t stack up favorably, with scores ranking the lowest in three aspects of company culture—training, company image and customer focus.

For example, fewer workers at firms that have recently encountered a data breach feel they have received adequate training for the work they do and have access to training to improve their skills and learn new ones to advance in their roles, while smaller numbers of employees at these companies feel their employers treat corporate social responsibility and customer focus as top priorities.

The lower scores emerging from organizations affected by a data breach were “expected,” according to Willis Towers Watson, but HR leaders “can use a number of tools at [their] disposal to help create a culture conducive to effective cyber risk management,” says Patrick Kulesa, global research director.

For example, he recommends stressing in training programs “the importance of customer information and the role that every employee plays in safeguarding details about customers—especially when training new hires generally and all hires in IT,” and suggests considering making such training programs an annual requirement for all employees, “to keep skills fresh.”

Kulesa also urges HR leaders to advocate providing or sponsoring continuing education programs on new developments in technology that impact the business.

With respect to consumer focus, “provide employees an opportunity to raise concerns about poor customer service, through employee surveys or other appropriate avenues,” he says, adding that leaders and managers should be evaluated on “how well they reinforce the value of customer service and reflect the image of the company through their actions.”

Ideally, such actions will help mitigate the organization’s risk of experiencing a cyber breach. But HR can also be integral in the recovery effort should one occur, says Kulesa.

“Help the businesses impacted to get out in front of the event through clear communications to employees, or through assisting leaders in crafting and delivering such messages,” he says.

In addition, “describe the steps already in place to encourage an effective culture—competencies for leaders, training for staff, avenues to raise concerns,” says Kalesa, adding that HR must also “be clear about steps being taken to improve risk management and the role each employee can play in that process.”

And, most importantly, “focus on continuing improvement,” he says, “not assigning blame.”

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Harnessing the Power of Vulnerability

Many HR leaders — along with leaders of every stripe — tend to view vulnerability as a weakness, and strive to “engineer it out” of their organizations. This is a mistake, according to author, consultant and University of Houston research professor Brené Brown, who delivered a keynote address at the Indeed Interactive conference in Austin, Tex. today on “Vulnerability and Workplace Transformation.”

Far from being a weakness, vulnerability can be a source of strength, power and innovation if people understand how to use it properly, said Brown, who’s spent the past 13 years of her career studying vulnerability, shame, courage and worthiness. Leaders who have an honest understanding of their own vulnerability, and who are comfortable displaying it during critical moments, are better equipped to lead and inspire other employees, she said.

Brown, whose TED Talk on The Power of Vulnerability in 2010 became the fifth most-viewed TED Talk ever, cited her own experience in the wake of the talk’s popularity as instructive. Although it garnered more than 25 million views, the video also attracted some nasty comments from online viewers denigrating Brown’s appearance.  The anonymous comments included suggestions that Brown get Botox injections for her wrinkles and “If I looked like that, I’d feel vulnerable, too.”

Feeling traumatized, Brown compensated by “binge-watching Downton Abbey and eating lots of peanut butter.” But while watching the iconic British drama, she researched who was U.S. president at the time, and came across a speech excerpt by Teddy Roosevelt that inspired her:

It is not the critic who counts; not the man who points out how the strong man stumbles, or where the doer of deeds could have done them better. The credit belongs to the man who is actually in the arena, whose face is marred by dust and sweat and blood; who strives valiantly;  …  who at the best knows in the end the triumph of high achievement, and who at the worst, if he fails, at least fails while daring greatly, so that his place shall never be with those cold and timid souls who neither know victory nor defeat. 

Roosevelt’s words not only helped Brown put the comments in perspective, but inspired the title of her 2012 book, Daring Greatly: How the Courage to Be Vulnerable Transforms the Way We Live, Love, Parent and Lead.

“If you’re not in the arena, being brave and getting your ass kicked, then I have no interest in your feedback,” she said. “The world is filled with cheap seats, with people who hide behind anonymous comments and never get in the arena.”

Feeling vulnerable often leads people to try and compensate in ways that aren’t always helpful and, in some cases, damaging. She cited a brief disagreement with her husband that could’ve turned ugly had she not applied her own lessons in being aware of and mastering one’s vulnerability.

“Emotions drive our responses to tough things,” said Brown. “We tell ourselves stories about things that are happening and we get a reward from our brain that makes us feel better, even if the story isn’t accurate.”

However, vulnerability is not only the source of shame, fear and anxiety but also of love, belonging and joy, she said. It’s also the source of courage, empathy, trust, innovation, creativity, accountability and adoptability.

“If you foster a culture in your organization that doesn’t allow for vulnerability, then do not expect people to take risks and innovate,” said Brown. “If you don’t understand vulnerability, you cannot manage and lead people.”

Of course, leaders can’t display vulnerability in every situation, she said, citing the CEO of a start-up who told her he’d decided to share his vulnerability by going public with his feelings of being in over his head and having no idea what he was doing. “People who invested money in your company obviously aren’t going to want to hear that,” said Brown. “But if people sense that you’ll reach out for help when you need it, rather than not saying anything and continuing to plug along, that’s OK.”

The ability to be honest about what you don’t know or are uncertain of is a strength, not a weakness, said Brown.

“To be alive is to be vulnerable,” she said. “To be a leader is to be vulnerable every moment of every day.”

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A ‘Love Letter to [all the Bad-Rapped] Managers’

Who hasn’t heard and read the reports in the last few years on the real reason employees leave their employers? Bad managers, right? 522472388 -- managerNo doubt anyone visiting this site has seen and heard them.

We’ve certainly written our fair share, from criticizing managers’ reluctance or inability to truly promote career development to pinpointing the need for managers to grow their big-data skills to lamenting the unhappiness and decimation of the middle-management ranks in general, which of course supports the theory that unhappy managers make for bad bosses.

Which might be precisely why this recent post by Maren Hogan on the HR Examiner site, My Love Letter to Managerscaught my eye, an eye that’s always on the lookout for something counterintuitive (warning, she doesn’t hold back on some of her descriptors). That or the fact that I am a manager, so a love letter to me … well … what’s not to like?

Counterintuitive does seem to be the operative word here, when you consider all that’s been said about retention and turnover, and the especially egregious part managers play. As Hogan puts it,

“Retention issues? It’s the manager’s fault.
Productivity problems? Blame the manager.
Engagement dipping? Someone get management in here!

Can this really be true? After all, many of these problems have roots in giant, macro issues. The economy, changing workforce dynamics, an always-on mentality spurred on by technology advances. It’s sort of simplistic to blame the manager, isn’t it?”

I especially like what she says about this mega-trend, if you will, of citing management as the reason people leave work, hate work, aren’t engaged and aren’t productive. She thinks this trend “could be part of a blame culture that has slowly seeped into our workforce over the past couple of decades.” In her words,

“Whether we’re blaming millennials for the faster pace and fancy [results-only-work-environment] perks, or blaming executives for the glaring inequality between them and us, or blaming managers for every issue in the workforce, very few seem to be stepping up to take personal accountability.”

She’s got some helpful suggestions for employees who might be prone to disparaging their managers, such as considering how they, themselves, might change the situation before blaming their direct supervisor; doing better and faster work if they don’t like what’s been assigned to them so they can prove they’re capable of taking on something more interesting; taking self-assessments of their most-productive times during the workday and building their reputations as team players; and even getting better at confronting difficult and destructive employees themselves, so managers aren’t blamed for failing to take action.

So why am I sharing this with you? Well, first, I kind of agree with Hogan that managers have taken a bad rap for far too long for the ills of corporate culture.  More importantly, though, I believe employers and their HR leaders could go a long way toward curing some of those ills by paying more attention to the workloads and expectations placed on their managers.

They might also consider committing serious capital to training all employees in personal accountability, starting with Hogan’s list above.

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‘I’m Not Your Mother!’ In Defense of Happiness

Figured the day after Mother’s Day was a perfect time to run with a post I’ve been hanging on to for a while from China Gorman, then CEO of the Great Place to Work Institute, now board chair of Las 520179370 -- happy workerVegas-based management consultancy Universum North America.

Her title? “I’m Not Your Mother!”

Now before you start imagining a tough stance on the softer side of workplace culture, I’m here to tell you this is all about the importance of breeding out-and-out happiness at work. But, as Gorman writes, it took some ups and downs and ins and outs to get her to this point:

“Early in my career as a business leader, I always believed that people were my critical competitive edge and that creating a strong, caring culture was my job. But happiness? Come on. I wasn’t my employees’ mother.

“The nature of the employer/employee relationship, I believed, was a commercial relationship. Employees come to work, do a good job and I pay them. The more I could remove obstacles from their ability to do good work, the more I could offer development and thanks for a job well done, the better they performed. Its wasn’t rocket science. Treat people well and they’ll treat your employees well. I got that. But trying to make them happy? I didn’t think that was part of the deal. And I was a pretty effective business leader.”

Then she matured. She spent some time at Zappos — “a culture whose leader is all about making his workforce happy,” she says. And while the Zappos culture wouldn’t be a fit for her, “it worked for them,” she adds. “And they were happy. Really happy. And their business results were such that they could sell the business to Amazon for over $1 billion.”

Sitting atop the Great Place to Work Institute, says Gorman, she was deluged in data proving there was “a direct line from employee well-being to financial performance.” As she puts it, that’s where she took a turn:

“And so, while early in my career, the notion of employee happiness didn’t register as a leadership imperative, I now believe that creating a culture that … delivers happiness to employees is quite clearly a practical and effective way to achieve top-line growth, profitability, customer loyalty and, most importantly, employee loyalty.”

As the chair of the WorkHuman Advisory Board at Dublin, Ireland-based reward and recognition company Globoforce, Gorman also came across that company’s recent white paper, The Science of Happiness. It cites some pretty compelling research posted by the Wall Street Journal and the iOpener Institute that finds happy employees:

  • Stay twice as long in their jobs as their least-happy colleagues,
  • Believe they are achieving their potential twice as much,
  • Spend 65 percent more time feeling energized,
  • Are 58 percent more likely to go out of the way to help their colleagues,
  • Identify 98 percent more strongly with the values of their organization, and
  • Are 186 percent more likely to recommend their organization to a friend.

I love how Globoforce puts it in the paper:

“It is tempting for many to think of company culture in terms of fringe benefits — like funky offices, on-site massages and free soda. These outward trappings of companies with great culture are often what we think of when we think of Great Places to Work.

“But perks grow from culture, not the other way around. Perks are just the manifestation of what makes a particular group of people [your employees] happy. Likewise, leaders tend to see culture in terms of things they can do — like setting goals and core values. Their participation is an important part of the picture, and trust in leaders is one of the key drivers of engagement, but execs cannot dictate a great culture. They can only lay the groundwork for a great culture to take hold.

“It is your employees who control your culture. When they are happy, it thrives. If they are stomping around complaining … well, your culture probably stinks — no matter how great your mission statement is or how free your dry cleaning.”

A few things to think about as you contemplate “mothering” your workforce into an entire family of engaged, productive and happy people who support your bottom line.

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SHRM Speaker: Culture Must ‘Rock’

Many people think their company’s culture is about its heritage, about “the way we’ve always done things.” Jim Knight thinks those people are wrong.

“At its core, a company’s culture is about the present — it’s really a collection of individuals and, as they join or leave the organization, it changes,” said Knight, the opening keynote at the Society for Human Resource Management’s Talent Management Conference and Expo in Orlando, titled “Culture that Rocks: How to Amp Up or Revolutionize Your Company’s Culture.” “People say ‘My culture’s not the same as it used to be.’ No duh, sister! People come and go all the time!”

Because culture is shaped by the present, it’s malleable, and HR has an opportunity to shape it through constant communication, said Knight, former senior director of training and development at Hard Rock International and author of the book Culture That Rocks. “You have to let people know what you’re trying to do, otherwise people will make it up on their own.”

A shared mindset is the key to success, Knight said. “Individual agendas produce random results, but a shared mind-set produces aligned actions.”

He cited fast-food chain Chik-fil-A as a prime example of a successful company culture that drives performance. Despite the company’s policy of having all stores closed on Sunday in observance of the Sabbath, the average Chik-fil-A restaurant generates $1 million more in a typical year than an average McDonald’s restaurant, said Knight. The company builds its culture starting with the entry-level employees at its restaurants, who receive two days of onboarding.

As part of their onboarding, the new employees watch a company video titled “Every Life Has a Story.” In the video, set to a violin score, a camera pans over a scene of customers at a Chik-fil-A restaurant, pausing over each one briefly as a bit of text appears over each person summarizing their story:  “Just lost his job and is wondering how he’ll support his family,” “Only son recently deployed to a war zone,” “Parents divorced when he was 7 ,” etc.

The video, which closes with the message “Every person has a story … if we bother to read it,” left a number of people in the audience visibly moved.

“As a training guy, I so wish I’d been the one to make that video,” said Knight. The take-away, he said, is that customers crave differentiation and that employees should want to give customers “a little more than what they were expecting.”

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Why You Shouldn’t Link Culture and Retention

Here are some vexing questions on culture: Why do people leave Google, Virgin and Zappos and take jobs elsewhere? Why, if 516216924 -- worker leavingthose companies are so focused on building exceptionally strong and compelling cultures, don’t people stay forever? Doesn’t it entirely contradict all the rhetoric about the power of culture if even the bellwethers of the corporate-culture surge can’t convince people to stay?

So poses Colin J. Browne — head of a Gauteng, South Africa-based culture, engagement and leadership think-tank firm called How to Build a Happy Sandpit — in a recent post on his company’s website. In his words,

“One of the greatest misunderstandings about culture is that it has some mystical power to lock people in to your organization for the long term. If you’re building it for that, you could be wasting your efforts … .”

On the contrary, he writes,

“[t]he answer lies in what I consider one of the most fundamental hallmarks of human nature: Familiarity breeds contempt. In a work sense, Happy Sandpit research [of 308 executives and business leaders over the past three years] shows that, within about 18 months, all employees slightly resent you for ever hiring them in the first place.

“It’s not that they don’t like their work, or their workplace, their colleagues or their bosses, it’s just that when we become used to things, we’re less inclined to see them as fresh and exciting and more inclined to overstate the irritations that surround us. And any workplace is full of irritations.”

In Browne’s estimation, given enough time and enough repetition of the tasks that make up [employees’ roles], the artifacts, strong values and general way of feeling while they are there begin to take a back seat to the day-to-day of their work. In that context, a new job offer bears the promise of reinvigoration, reinvention and a release from the things they’re bored with.

Since many more companies are awakening to the understanding that focusing on culture strengthens their employee-value proposition, the things you offer your employees may begin to lose their edginess, he says, adding that “you can get caught up in a vicious cycle if you react to that.” As he puts it,

“A far better goal for your culture efforts is to increase productivity, the voluntary sharing of talent, good will and skills, to iron out the rough spots that create barriers to team work and to develop a clear set of profiles for the people [who] you’ll have to hire to replace the ones [who] have left.

“Culture isn’t about retention. It’s about performance. Let that inform your decisions and you could save yourself from a world of pain.”

Not that we haven’t presented this premise in previous features and news analyses, but his way of articulating it caught a fresh eye so I gave it a fresh look.

I also contacted Browne to ask him specifically what HR practitioners and leaders should be doing to achieve that “far better goal.” His response:

“The one challenge shared by anyone who leads people in a discretionary environment [differentiated from a non-discretionary one, such as the military, where you are expected to follow orders fairly rigidly] is to convince people to volunteer their best efforts, loyalty and enthusiasm for the long term. You can’t lift them up by their feet and shake that stuff into their brains, so they have to choose to give it to you.

“Every culture conversation seems to be about how we make that happen, but I think we’re overlooking a couple of obvious things which keep hindering progress pretty much across the board:

  1. We don’t build jobs that support best efforts, loyalty and enthusiasm in the long term. You can come out of a design college and get a job at your dream digital-design company, be given the latest Mac computer and software to work on, in a great office, with exciting people and still feel like your job is boring within six months, because the projects you are working on and the clients you’re working with are, in fact, boring. Unless we’re building perfect jobs, therefore, which in an imperfect world with imperfect clients is impossible, people will find that they’ve had enough one day and go and find something else to do.

  2.  People are more loyal to their friends than they will ever be to a boss or a company. Ironically, the best reference for this is the behavior of soldiers in combat. While it’s often supposed that soldiers commit acts of great bravery for the grand notion of country, or unit or even God, the evidence suggests that, instead, they do it for the person next to them. When the order to retreat is given, they will blatantly ignore that order in order to rescue one of their colleagues. At the moments that matter, their loyalty is clear, and it’s not to ‘management’ or any sort of system. It’s to each other.”

I asked him to send me a specific, itemized list of the things HR should be doing or thinking about in light of his research. Here is that list:

  • You increase productivity when employees feel that they will let their colleagues down by slacking and care enough not to want to do that either because they’re emotionally invested or feel emotionally handcuffed. Either way, it works. This doesn’t happen overnight of course, but, by increasing the autonomy of individual teams — you can be as granular about this as you like, and I would encourage you to not be too broad — [so they can] make decisions on their own behalf [and] you make them more accountable for their results and actions, which then makes each individual member accountable to the others. You can’t be the one person who never pulls [his or her] weight in such an environment and expect to get anywhere. And to counter an obvious objection, if you find you have an entire team of slackers who merely cover each others’ backs instead of a productive team that cheers one another along, you change the challenge that they must meet and leave them to sort out the how. Raised expectations can have a very big impact.

  • They share talent, good will and skills voluntarily, because they’re sharing them with people they care about and whose success they link to their own. It doesn’t have to be altruistic; it just makes good sense as long as it is reciprocated and constant.

  • You iron out the barriers to teamwork by allowing them to decide how to work together. This goes to point one. Managers should care about the results and have a view about the way in which those results are achieved, but you’re unlikely to get the best out of people when you force them to stick to a rigid process that prevents them from developing their own flow. This may seem like voodoo to many organizations, which depend on processes to iron out the risk of defect, but those things are not mutually exclusive. You can have processes that must be adhered to, being followed by two teams with wildly different personalities, and get identical quality.

  • You create a clear set of profiles to replace those people by giving employees some say, or perhaps even all the say, about the people who join their team. They’re the ones who have to work with that new person and, unless you long to deal with employee friction, the manager’s view should be given less importance.

His list, he says, is a worthy goal of culture because it achieves the things you need it to: people giving their best efforts while they are with you.

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