Why should anyone work here?

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones seek to provide an answer.

The issue of employee engagement – broadly conceived – has been the focus of attention for many of those whose major concern is management and leadership development.

Indeed, driving up scores for engagement has become a kind of corporate obsession. Our latest research, published in a book ‘Why should anyone work here?’ What it takes to create an authentic organisation (Harvard Business Press 2015), takes a rather different perspective on the issue of engagement.

Some years back we published a book on leadership with a challenging title: Why should anyone be led by you? In it we argued that authenticity is a necessary condition for the exercise of effective leadership – and we urged current and aspiring leaders to “be themselves – more – with skill”.

The message has resonated broadly. But over the years since we published that book, we have often heard this response to its framing question – “I will be an authentic leader when my organisation is authentic.”

So more recently we have been investigating the characteristics of organisations that allow and encourage us to be our best selves. Or put differently: How do you build the best workplace on earth?

Why should anyone work here?

Over the years academics, consultants and practitioners have attempted different answers to this question. They have referred variously to distinctive corporate cultures; to track records of high performance; or – more recently – to distinctive “employer brands” to explain what draws people in and produces their best work.

But depressingly low rates of employee engagement all over the world remind us that there are scarcely grounds for complacency.

However, our new research does not focus exclusively on the sources of disengagement and dysfunction. Rather, we explore people’s positive visions for organisations and how they are attempting to make these a reality. Although individual views vary widely, of course, we found that the responses grouped naturally around six broad imperatives, which just happen to form a handy mnemonic:

  • Difference: “I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I’m different and how I see things differently” • Radical Honesty: “I want to know what’s really going on”
  • Extra Value: “I want to work in an organisation that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development”
  • Authenticity: “I want to work in an organisation I’m proud of; one that truly stands for something” • Meaning: “I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful”
  • Simple Rules: “I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others”

These attributes can often run counter to traditional practices and habits in companies and they are not easy and simple to realise or implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.

Of course, few if any organisations possess all six virtues—and even if they did, it would be quite a feat for them to excel at all six.

On the surface, the DREAMS qualities or imperatives may seem obvious. After all, who would want to work in the opposite kind of place—an organisation where conformity is enforced, where employees are the last to know the truth, where people feel exploited rather than enriched, where values change with the seasons, where work is alienating and stressful, and where a miasma of bureaucratic rules limits human creativity and effectiveness?

And yet we find that very few organisations fully illustrate even half of the qualities of this ideal workplace. Why? Our research indicates that when companies do try to tackle these issues, they often do so superficially. They apply Band-Aids to problems when they arise and seem unprepared to address some fundamental underlying issues, which loom large indeed.

Building the organisation of your dreams

Let’s begin with Difference. We recently worked with an organisation that had produced a 142- page booklet called Managing Diversity. (We wonder how many people will actually read it.) And yet in all those pages the crucial argument that creativity (a key index of performance) increases with diversity and declines with conformity is never really made.

For many organisations, accommodating differences translates into this concern with “diversity,” usually defined according to the traditional categories such as gender, race, age and religion.

These are, of course, of tremendous importance but the executives in our research were after something subtler and harder to achieve – an organisation that can accommodate differences in perspective, habits of mind, core assumptions and worldviews – and go beyond accommodation to create a place where difference is celebrated and even leveraged to add value.

The consulting engineers Arup are a shining example that shows if you get difference right you are rewarded with higher levels of commitment, innovation and creativity.

What about radical honesty?

Organisations are increasingly recognising the importance of communications – both internally and to wider stakeholders. For example, we now find communications professionals at or near the summit of organisations.

This is a step in the right direction. We have learned that reputational capital is becoming more and more important for high performance even as that capital becomes increasingly fragile.

Arthur Andersen was destroyed in a month in the wake of the Enron scandal. More recently, iconic firms such as Apple, Nike and Amazon have come under critical scrutiny for their employment practices.

And yet the growth of the communications profession is actually more evidence that companies are taking a superficial approach to disseminating the critical information that people need to do their jobs.

Why? Because so many communications professionals remain stubbornly connected to an old-world mindset in which information is power and spin is their key skill. Sure information is power; but companies no longer have control of it.

In a world of WikiLeaks, whistleblowing and freedom of information, their imperative should be to tell the truth before someone else does. When you do you will begin to build long-standing organisational trust – both inside and outside your organisation. The pharma company Novo Nordisk is a shining example of how to proactively share information with all stakeholders.

How can organisations create extra value?

Elite organisations and professions –the McKinseys, Johns Hopkins Hospitals, and PwCs of this world –have been in the business of making great people even better for a long time now. Part of their pact with employees is: “Join us and we will develop you”.

Unfortunately, they deal with only a tiny proportion of the workforce. What about the rest of us? Our research shows that high performance arises when individuals all over the organisation feel they can grow through their work—adding value as the organisation adds value to them. That means the administrative assistants and cashiers, as well as the executives and the shift managers.

This is not impossible. If a company like McDonald’s UK finds it profitable to train the equivalent of six full classes of students every week to attain formal qualifications in maths and English, surely other companies can do more.

What does it mean for an organisation to be authentic?

This is a big question. We have developed three markers of authenticity.

  • First, a company’s identity is consistently rooted in its history.
  • Second, employees demonstrate the values the company espouses.
  • Third, company leaders are themselves authentic.

Where this happens – as at the US-based mutual New York Life – employees enjoy a sense of purpose, pride in what they do and higher levels of trust.

This is clearly not simple to achieve. Sadly, rather than rise to the challenge, in many organisations the task of building authenticity has collapsed into the industry of mission-statement writing. Some of the people we interviewed despaired that their company’s mission statement had been rewritten for the fourth time in three years! Not surprisingly, this produces not high performance but deep-rooted cynicism.

The search for Meaning in work is not new. There are libraries full of research on how jobs may produce a sense of meaning – and how they can be redesigned in ways that produce “engagement.”

How to derive meaning from work?

But meaning in work is derived from a wider set of issues than those narrowly related to individual occupations. It also emerges from what we have called the three C’s – connections, community and cause.

Employees need to know how their work connects to others’ work (and here, too often, silos get in the way). They need a workplace that promotes a sense of belonging (which is increasingly difficult in a mobile world). And they need to know how their work contributes to a longer-term goal (problematic, when shareholders demand quarterly reporting).

If these deeper issues are not addressed, faddish efforts at increasing engagement will have only fleeting effects. The BMW engineer knows why he or she is going to work – to build the ultimate driving machine. Do you have similar motivational clarity?

Rules: how to keep them simple?

Finally, the truly authentic organisation has Simple Rules that are widely agreed-upon in the company.

Many organisations display a form of rule accretion, where one set of bureaucratic instructions begets another, which seeks to address the problems created by the first set.

In response to this, organisations have attempted a kind of radical delayering. This at least attempts to address the problem of losing good ideas and initiatives in a byzantine hierarchical structure. But that, too, is only a superficial fix. The ideal company is not a company without rules. It is a company with clear rules that make sense to the people who follow them, and remains ever vigilant about maintaining that clarity and simplicity. This is a much larger challenge with a far greater pay-off.

Netflix, for example, is rightly applauded for its discipline in keeping its human resource practices as simple as possible.

Good rules maximise discretion, which, in turn, facilitates problem solving. They unleash initiative rather than suppress it.

The way forward

So, we are optimistic but not starry eyed. The challenges are huge.

There will always be reasons not to act; to push the pursuit of “dreams” down the list of priorities. The logic of capitalism is inevitable – so expect everything from disruptive new entrants and game-changing technologies to cheaper alternatives and pressures on costs.

But, crucially, this is not a matter of either/or. Building better workplaces is not an alternative to, rather a means for, responding to the new challenges of capitalism; for building productivity, unleashing creativity and winning.

It is rather even more than this.

Work is a defining human characteristic – creating great work places increases human happiness and helps build great societies.

None of the organisations we cite above and in our new book are completely there – but they are alert to the challenge and doing well on one or two dimensions of the dreams organisation. None of them have it all sorted but they are constantly striving for and trying to live the ideal.

Whichever organisation you are part of – and wherever you are within it – our aim is to inspire you to create a positive answer to a difficult question: Why should anyone work here?

You can view the PDF or listen to the podcast.

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See more articles from Vol.10 Issue 01 – ’16: An engaging place to work.

Latest posts by Rob Goffee (see all)
Latest posts by Gareth Jones (see all)

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