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The Human Enterprise: Progress or Perish

Perhaps the most welcome business innovation in the 21st century is the realization that the 1990’s CEO pablum, “People are our greatest asset” is actually true. 

This means that business must rebalance its structures and processes to support and enable people rather than to control and contain them while they service the processes and infrastructure. A flipped business if you will. A humanized rather than mechanized ideal of the perfectly efficient organization.

It has finally been proved — what everyone already knew was true — employees who give a darn [sic] do better work, which makes their lucky employers more successful.

So we are thrilled that work will finally evolve away from what has often been a negative experience, and start becoming place where people thrive —  along with the economy and society at large.

It all sounds great. But it is an earth-shifting change that leaves many management teams uncertain and uncomfortable and many employees frustrated. A human-centric business questions some of the fundamental tenets of traditional enterprise design and operation, and it will take some time to sort it out. Being human is complex and being a business is complicated and so growing together is sure to be a precarious but altogether magnificent undertaking.

As yet however, many of us are still in a hard place.

Drivers of Disengagement

There are three ways that work becomes a soul-crushing, disengaging job that leads to “it's fine like that," what-kind-of-shortcuts-can-i-take, and the-least-I-can-get-away-with effort.

1. Work that asks people to do stupid stuff

This can be menial work, in which the person doing the work has no stake or impact on the outcome. Think fast food, factory work, mail delivery or other work that is heavily routinized and automated. A craft is different, because it involves mastery — these jobs do not. This also happens when the policies or processes of work are flawed in ways that are obvious to employees, but aren’t likely to change as a result.

2. Work that prevents people from doing good stuff

Many knowledge workers suffer in this camp, though often craftsmen (builders, etc.) and service providers (nurses, consultants) do too. [My housekeeper quit her company for this reason and started her own, so my house is cleaner.] They have ideas, aspirations, curiosity, commitment to quality, but their management is so focused on maintaining the status quo that it is nearly impossible for these people to do any of the good work that they want to do. [This status-quo fetish is a frequent and sometimes unintended consequence of command and control hierarchies. The antidote is leadership.]

3. Work that takes undeveloped souls and keeps them in the dark

Hire people to do something, and never invite or enable them to develop their skills or to do more than they were hired for, and what you will get is glassy eyed mushrooms. These people disengage because they don’t know anything better. There can be many causes of stagnation, but simply accepting it is a losing strategy.

So how do we go from unintentionally soul-crushing to the labor’s Valhalla we seek? (Intentional soul-crushing is another matter altogether.)

Dan Pink showed us that intrinsic motivation is vastly superior to external motivation (do this, get that) to drive effort and outcomes for all but the most mechanical of tasks. Pink’s model shows that people are engaged (intrinsically motivated) when their work has three elements:

  • Mastery - the ability to demonstrate and constantly improve one’s craft
  • Autonomy - the ability to solve problems and make decisions on their own
  • Purpose - the idea that their work matters as part of a greater whole. (Click here If you haven’t seen his classic TED talk).

Pink focuses on the individual, however, and what we need to understand here is how to make that work for organizations. There are those that claim the drivers of employee engagement are “Relationship with immediate supervisor, Belief in senior leadership, Pride in working for the company.” But normal people will recognize those as markers (KPIs), rather than drivers of engagement.

Drivers of Engagement (The human enterprise)

1. Purpose

If I don’t believe that my company is valuable, then my work is not valuable, and therefore I don’t value it, so I don’t invest in it — I am not engaged. Duh.

Purpose, however, is not limited to green and eleemosynary causes (thanks for tolerating my nerdy words, it means charitable). A corporate purpose is an understanding of the change you want to make in the world — whether it is to make people happier, richer, more entertained, more constructive in their work, etc.

Purpose must be deeply authentic, and not just a carefully crafted-by-committee Mission Statement. I talked more about why it matters here. In order to scale beyond small business size, purpose must be accompanied by narrative — that expresses that purpose to your customers, your market and your employees. This gives everyone the ability to connect with, tell and build his or her own part of the story.

2. Transparency and Impact

You may find yourself with a purpose, and you may mean it, and you may find yourself with a marketing plan that expresses it and a roadmap that builds it (congrats to you) (if you’re saying to yourself, this is not my beautiful purpose, this is not my beautiful roadmap, then read on). But to make it work, to make it great, you need a team of people who have full, mutual awareness of what they are doing and what the leadership is worried about.

If people can’t see the drivers of their work (why) , and the impact of their work (how’d I do?), they can’t be engaged. If R&D doesn’t know what marketing is pushing and marketing doesn’t know about the latest innovation, and the plan to re-architect the customer support program, and the team in Europe’s new experiment and the recent customer loss or win and the six major decisions that the executive team is working through, then they are probably not very engaged.

When people don’t know what is going on, they can not consciously affect its outcome. They are not engaged. Transparency is not just about soaking in each other's intellectual and emotional effluence (though that has its advantages too), it's about knowing what’s going on around you so that you can constantly align, connect, consider and matter.

The flip side of transparency is “impact.” With the right kind of transparency, i can see what is going on, and understand the impact that my best work makes. I can see who and how I help. That matters.

3. Mutual Dependence

When we work together as a team, we help unpack each other’s intellectual boxes, we refine one another’s ideas and discover new ones. We improve each other. We build a continually improving, communal memory, experience and insight (to riff on a William Gibson quote). Members of such a team take ownership of their responsibilities seriously, but invite and relish in the fact that they can rely on their colleagues to help them work through sticking points and make their best work better.

A collaborative environment helps sustain energy, focus, and purpose. But to get here, you must be aligned, you must have a mutual respect that leads to mutual compassion and curiosity that makes it fun to air challenges, problems and failure and a joy to bash and hash it out together.

If you do not have a “culture” of mutual dependence at work, technology will not change that fact. Generally this is about aligning around common goals, and offering one another respect as a conduit to trust, which enables you to do what teams do best — amplify strengths and minimize weaknesses. If you've ever been a part of that team, you know.

4. Leadership

Some social media-ites believe that in the future, organizations will be purely emergent and collaborative, with no leadership required. I am not of that school — though certainly the nature of leadership will change.

Leadership matters, and there are two things that great leaders do 1) communicate without ceasing (leading to that transparency and inclusion thing) and 2) listen without ceasing by asking lots of questions. Dear leader, if you aren’t both sharing your vision and listening to your workforce, then there is at least an organization’s worth of people who think you are a fool. This perpetual telling and listening looks like a subtle and dynamic balance between confidence and humility.

There is a third thing, and that is that you must be authentic. The human nose can detect the scent of patronizing palaver in micro-parts per million.

 

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