Category Archives: employee communication

The Meaning Behind the Work

Dave and Wendy Ulrich made a nice coupling on stage Monday at their session, “The Why of Work: How Great Leaders Build Abundant Organizations that Deliver Value to Employees, Customers, Investors and Communities.”

No surprise the joint session at SHRM worked, considering the Ulrichs have been married for many years and share three children and a granddaughter. But it was their joint message and the subject of their new book, The Why of Work, that carried an especially cohesive and cogent argument — that organizations would do well to start looking at themselves as places where people find meaning and purpose. More importantly, that organizations should be looking for ways to cultivate that new realization and approach.

“We’re taking a different cut from human resources,” said Dave Ulrich, professor at the University of Michigan’s Ross School of Business and a prolific and well-published HR expert. Wendy is a professional psychologist and founder of Sixteen Stones Center for Growth in Alpine, Utah. “We’re basically combining HR and psychology,” he said.

They’re also taking their show on the road, if you will, to refute the notion that fostering the relationship between worker and work, and helping employees find meaning and purpose in their jobs is some warm and fuzzy, soft and cuddly notion. “I hear this criticism in some circles,” said Dave Ulrich. “I tell them they’re just wrong. Still, I can’t convince everyone.”

The Ulrichs’ base their premise on the early works of Austrian neurologist and psychiatrist Viktor Frankl, author of Man’s Search for Meaning, which he wrote while imprisoned in a Nazi concentration camp. At the time, Frankl discovered that, even in the harshest and cruelest of settings, some people remained vibrant and vital because of their stories and their strengths, and the strengths they could bring to one another. They found meaning in their identities.

So, too, should “organizational strategies be stories,” said Ulrich. ” Successful leaders should be meaning makers. We want to begin to change the conversation” about what HR’s purpose should be as well.

Calling on another famous thinker from the past, Wendy Ulrich told the story of medical researcher Jonas Salk, best known for his discovery of the polio vaccine. Salk, in one interview, recalled how his mother found lessons to be learned in all his setbacks. She created the learning environment that, in turn, created the famous scientist.

“Do we inculcate a learning environment in our organizations?” she asked. “How do we learn from our setbacks, and help our employees learn from theirs? What are we doing in HR to promote that?”

One clear path to helping people find meaning and happiness in an organization, they said, is to promote the importance of the team and relational strengths. “HR,” said Dave Ulrich, “is the force of the organization that shapes identity.

“One of my greatest fears in HR today,” he said, “is that we’re so worried about talent, we’re forgetting about the organization — its systems and the capacity to work together.” That’s where the meaning and purpose lie, he added — “building on your own strengths to strengthen others.”

Tough Topics

Every one of the 340 seats were filled and so was most of the floor space and entry ways when Paul Faclone, vice president of employee relations for Times Warner Cable, took the podium to talk about tough conversations.

As the poor SHRM volunteer was frantically trying to comply with the fire codes of the San Diego Convention Center and not let the doorways be blocked or the room be more filled than permitted (a losing battle made even worse when Falcone encouraged some of those in the doorway to take over some of the empty floor space up front), Falcone told the audience the one item he would like them to take away from the session:

“Perception management is the most important thing I want you to take away from this session,” he says. “It’s like feelings — they are not right or wrong; they just are.”

Perception, he says, is the reality — until proven otherwise.

Tough conversations, he says, will nearly always take place when someone is feeling vulnerable. It doesn’t take much to move that vulnerability to anger.

Treat people with respect. And remember, “it’s not what you say; it’s how you say it” that may leave the most lasting impression.

Employees Sometimes Do Know Best

Before you stop reading this, thinking it’s some department-store promotional, hear me out.

The other day, I was in a Kohl’s Department Store madly searching for the right print in the right size in the little time I had. Taking my quest to the customer-service desk, thinking I’d probably be directed to another store (if I was lucky), I was directed instead to a telephone on the wall across from the desk. I picked it up and was immediately connected to a very friendly Kohl’s.com representative who quickly checked her “kiosk” of wares, found it and, while we were chatting, shipped it to my home, no shipping charge attached.

“This is our new service,” she told me. “If you don’t find exactly what you’re looking for in any of our stores, we can now direct you to this phone and you get it sent, no charge.” Misson over, headache abated, faith in your fellow humans temporarily restored. How simple.

“I’m impressed!” I told her. “I haven’t heard of this particular type of service before!”

“We came up with it ourselves, employees here at Kohl’s,” she said, sounding immensely proud. Some stores have installed computers in their customer-service departments, “but this just felt more personal; it made common sense,” she said. “We don’t think anyone else out there is doing this but us.”

In my old reporter mode, I immediately tried to track it down, thinking there might be an innovation case study for us in it somewhere. But the best James Barnes, Kohl’s’ manager of public relations, could give me was that the company is “very focused on implementing concepts that improve the customer experience and provide excellent customer service.” So, oh well, I guess I wasn’t going to get names — no what, why, where and when either.

I did come across this release, though, about a new book by the CEO of HCL Technologies, Vineet Nayar, pushing his notion that companies of the future need to shift their mind-sets and start relying on the good ideas of their employees when it comes to customer service, or fail. His book, Employees First, talks about solving much harder, more strategic problems around customer satisfaction by giving up the age-old notion that C-suiters and line leaders are where your solutions lie.

“Nayar argues,” the release says, “that the best way for companies to meet their customers’ needs is to stop making customers their top priority. Instead, companies should shift their focus to empowering employees to solve customer problems — in part by making management accountable to the employees who are the real creators of value.”

In Nayar’s own words: “Perhaps the biggest surprise for readers of my book will be that Western-style companies can achieve even greater success by making their approach to business more democratic. Companies with traditional top-down, pyramid-like hierarchies with rigid reporting structures make it very difficult for critical competitive information, garnered on the front line, to flow uphill to the C-suite, where strategic business decisions have traditionally been made.”

Kohl’s might be onto something here. Its employees certainly seem to be.