In my ideal company, all employees are ethical hedonists.

Hang on. I’m not advocating a Monday-through-Friday workplace bacchanal. 

Under the classic definition of hedonism, satisfaction and happiness result from maximizing pleasure, minimizing pain, being collaboratively productive and deeply connecting with a purpose and with your community (in a business-appropriate fashion, of course), with the end result of shaping better people — and a better company.

Think of ethical hedonism as a form of self-actualization. In the workplace, self-actualization happens when individuals — in this case, employees — feel professionally fulfilled and personally valued, and part of an inclusive organization where they are personally aligned to the larger company mission.

A company’s path to self-actualization is through its employees. A company that invests in helping its employees recognize the challenges they face in achieving their professional or personal goals will have employees who invest in the company’s ability to achieve its goals.

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Self-Actualization: Both a Goal and a Mindset

A self-actualized corporate culture does not happen by accident. It has to be decided upon, and then strategically guided, from the top

Self-actualization starts with management taking an unflinching view of its own actions and attitudes and then committing to generating a healthy culture. It involves encouraging feedback, internalizing that feedback and sometimes making changes to structures, values, forms of recognition and possibly personnel.

Self-Actualization in a Startup Culture

For startups, culture change is natural — and necessary. Startups consist of a small group of passionate people who do everything. And “everything” is constantly changing.

A startup’s focus is on getting customers, proving concepts and demonstrating continual growth. Doing this is nearly impossible if the early team doesn’t maintain a sense of shared responsibility, purpose and commitment to the larger (and often shifting) goal. In a sense, a startup must be self-actualized in order to get to the next stage — and a lot of times, it happens organically.

Self-Actualization in a High-Growth Company

Once a company moves from the startup phase to the high-growth phase, the team inevitably expands, and that early shared sense of purpose must expand with it. Companies in the high-growth phase are in the unique position of having established themselves and their products and are looking for their next capital infusion. Here, leadership must be proactive in pushing forward changes that will lead to a culture of high-performing employees.

Most often, one of the first changes needed is in top management’s role — especially if the management team has been with the company since the beginning. As companies grow, managers who have been hands-on and all-in need to step back and impart autonomy on their subordinates. As I tell senior executives, “CEOs can’t be soldiers. If they don’t trust their commanders, they have the wrong people in place.”

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Gain Control by Giving It

When senior managers step back, they do more than allow employees to expand their roles and achieve job satisfaction. During a company’s high-growth phase, leadership must focus its attention on strategic thinking and short- and medium-term goals. Managers can then work backward and determine the milestones, resources and training needed to meet those goals.

Learning Opportunities

In the short term, diverting employees from their core duties for growth, education or training purposes and giving them new tools, new challenges and recognition may seem like an expense. Over the longer term, however, it yields tremendous profit in terms of loyalty, willingness to work hard and desire to help the company succeed.

More Change, Fewer Formalized Processes

An agile company is going to experience a lot of change. And change can make managers want to introduce processes that make them feel more in control amid the chaos. I often caution businesses against getting caught up in “process.” Formalized processes lock people and operations into rigid practices and exist to give managers control. In short, overbearing process is the antithesis of agility and empowerment.

Leadership also shouldn’t assume that employees will automatically buy into, or even understand, new structures. Effective change management starts with communication from management: This is what is going to happen, this is what the expected outcomes are, and (most important) this is what we will provide for you, in terms of tools or training or support, to effectively transition to that change.

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Measure Long-Term Company Health in Employee Satisfaction

After deciding on a strategy and establishing milestones, after communicating that strategy, and after providing whatever resources are necessary, managers have yet another task: measurement. Some of this is qualitative: Managers must determine whether behaviors and thinking change and improve along the strategic lines.

What can be confusing is that the health of a company may not reflect the health of its staff. Employees may work in a culture of abuse and disempowerment. But if the company is making money, if its stock price is up and if it is regularly paying dividends, outsiders will consider it “healthy.” But that scenario is unsustainable: Word will get out, top talent won’t even consider the company as a place of employment, and management’s ability to get employee buy-in will diminish.

How Do You Measure Employee Satisfaction?

There are, of course, quantitative measures of employee satisfaction, including attrition and stability. But simple turnover rates only tell part of a picture. The question is whether the best talent wants to remain with the company. Top talent can always find other employment, even in a slack labor market. One of the characteristics of top talent is that it usually wants to work with top talent: Hedonists want to be with like-minded people.

If top talent is leaving, an organization either has a leadership problem, a culture problem or, perhaps, a self-actualization problem.

Because self-actualized companies begin with self-actualized — and highly aware — leaders, chances are high these problems would be identified and stopped in their tracks before the company ever reached that point.

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