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your company is HUMAN: installment 2 – by Duke Maines

Your company may actually suck, for now. But no company is perfect—after all, a company is just a collection of human beings that organize themselves in a certain way to deliver some desired (and often undesired) outcome.  And, just maybe, your company doesn’t really suck.  Instead, it might be that the humans that work there fall prey to unconscious tendencies that inhibit professional success and personal growth.

In the first installment, I wrote about a surprising issue that impacts most organizations—one that is the core reason for most underperformance—lack of clarity and alignment, even within the top team(s).  In short, this is caused by leaders overestimating the effectiveness of their own communication and thereby the level of understanding of their team (about what needs to get done) and ultimately the organization as a whole.  Lastly, we discussed ideas that addressed this in an inclusive fashion, demonstrating appreciation for the natural—and very human differences–in the way things are interpreted, and thereby understood and acted upon by company employees.

Leaders who appreciate these differences recognize also the importance of taking time for mutual discourse, providing a forum to increase understanding and alignment.  Indeed, this ‘sensemaking’ is an iterative process that is fundamental to success in executing against a business strategy and, in particular, any change effort undertaken by the business. Think of it as ‘slowing down to speed up.’  Once you have clarity and alignment, you can now effectively mobilize the troops and make things happen—and fast. 

In this post, I want to address the paradoxical human need to be part of something special (belonging) whilst also standing out in some fashion (different). It’s about “fitting in” AND “standing out.“ These are competing motives, but we often pursue them in tandem by searching for ‘optimal distinctiveness’: a sense that we’re the same and different at the same time.”1 

This phenomenon manifests itself by our ‘in-group’ forming closer bonds with one another—say a smaller department within a functional area or a regional sales team as part of a broader geography.  You are part of a tribe that forms a unique connection that enhances the sense of belonging so vital for us as humans.  You take pride when your tribe does something amazing, that stands out from the rest of the company, and gets recognized accordingly.  It makes perfect sense, the behaviour being both natural and worthwhile.  However, we often unconsciously assign ‘outer-group’ status to the rest of our fellow employees (outside the team).  They are acquaintances with whom we are friendly to some extent, but since they are not part of our ‘in-group’ we “protect” ourselves by not sharing information, becoming less curious about other’s successes, not involving key people from other department’s with our challenges, and worse—blaming others if things go wrong.

This should sound familiar because it literally happens in every organization.  It’s unavoidable.  On a larger scale, there is also the typical home office (HQ) versus the regional office challenge that we see with almost every client with whom we advise.  It’s always the other ‘guys’ who are the issue. The dreaded ‘silo-thinking’ emerges.  As this is a natural tendency, what can a company do to foster energy around total enterprise-wide collaboration and execution?  The key is around understanding the point made earlier:  human’s paradoxical need to BELONG and be DIFFERENT. 

Frances Frei and Anne Morriss note that EXCELLENCE = DESIGN X CULTURE.  If you want to execute well in the achievement of excellence, you must have both.2  Let’s start with DESIGN as part of the solution to silo thinking.  What if you could design things such that ALL people in the company BELONG to one larger TRIBE?  This will satisfy the human need to belong (and you never thought that Hertzberg hierarchy of needs would ever be practical once you left school).  This all starts with getting your purpose right. Purpose is vital to inspiring and mobilizing your entire organization in the service of something bigger than the business itself.  It’s not about being #1, or achieving market share, or becoming the most profitable…it is far nobler than that.  It is your company’s true contribution to society. 

Consider some of my personal favorites:

  • Tesla:  To accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy
  • Nike: To inspire the athlete within
  • Apple: To change the world
  • Crime Stoppers International:  Empowering individuals to help make our communities safer
  • Phillips: To make everyday life more simple
  • Sweetgreen: To inspire healthier communities by connecting people to real food

We know that in times of crisis, people of all types—different cultures, backgrounds, incomes, political views—bond together for the common good. It is sad that all too often something bad has to happen for all of us to come together.  The intent of any organization, beyond making money, is to get people to WANT TO be part of something bigger than themselves and often it takes a business crisis to do that—the burning platform.  But more and more companies are leveraging purpose to cultivate a culture represented by the same sort of collaboration seen in these times of crisis, but ideally without the crisis itself.  Netflix is a prime example of a company that has thrown out many of the traditional ideas about how an organization should operate (rules, policies, traditional performance management, etc.) and kept people focused on the bigger ideal: “We want to entertain the world. If we succeed, there is more laughter, more empathy, and more joy.”3 Certainly, this purpose will be put to the test as they grapple with strong emerging competition for streaming services.

Purpose brings people together for a common cause to which they all can passionately believe.  Too often, companies have a decent statement but don’t do anything to leverage it in the harnessing of energy throughout the employee base.  It starts with being authentic, actually believing in the cause and knowing that doing ‘good’ here will make a difference for the business.  Refer to it often. Show how it underpins strategic decisions.  Use it as a guide rail to empower autonomy and action amongst all employees. 

For those organizations that do not have an articulated purpose, it’s time to get one.  Consider that the two newest generations in the workforce ascribe purpose, autonomy, and self-mastery as the things that matter most in inspiring discretionary effort.4  Humans spend more than 1/3 of their life working and despite what some people say—”I work to live”—the reality is that, deep down, we all require meaning in the work we do.  Purpose is the place to start and, as such, we spend a lot of time with companies helping them tap into their purpose or ‘founders mentality’ and advising on how they can leverage this to inspire others, maximize both employee and customer experience, and deliver the desired business outcomes.

Same challenge with values; these serve as the foundation to CULTURE.  Values should translate into behaviors that are lived across the organization, starting with the top team.   These are core to how individuals and teams operate within the business.  As such, they must have meaning.  Too often, generic values such as ‘excellence,’ ‘quality,’ and ‘teamwork’ appear as values—they sound fine, but they have no meaning unless they are brought to live in a very explicit way. 

What are your options in doing so?  Keep them simple and make them memorable.  I prefer thoughtful, non-obvious titles that invite curiosity.  Here are my company (Perpetual) values as an example:

  • Happy Days
  • Never Settle
  • Look Up
  • 20/20
  • Dare & Share

One of our clients has these:

  • Be Brave
  • Decide & Do
  • Hunt as a Pack
  • Take it Personally

Love those values.  And there are regular conversations as to what they mean as well as recognition programs and storytelling that engender their repetition by others. 

Rituals are another way to ensure values remain very visible to others. These are systematic (DESIGN) and repeated means to leverage a value to do good—and they are particularly helpful in adopting a value that is aspirational part of a company’s future.  For example, one of our clients who values more creativity and ideas amongst their employees has installed two mechanisms to get the juices flowing:  Firstly, they have their version of ‘shark tank’ every year where employees nominate ideas falling within the framework of the strategic pillars and the finalists present these at an annual meeting. Secondly, 20% of their performance appraisal is defined by two words: “Surprise Us.”  They then rank ideas by effectiveness and payout the very best.  So many great ideas to share on bringing values to life in a company, a true joy of our work at Perpetual.

We are really just getting the conversation started here…but this post is already too long.  In the next one, I plan to share great ideas on how to harness the collective energy of all employees even more.  And, while we do that, why not tackle the HQ versus regional office challenge with more practical solutions?

1Snow, Shane (2018).  Dream Teams.  New York, NY.  Penguin.
2Morriss, A. and Frei, Frances (March, 28 2012). Culture at 30,000 feet above ground. Big Think. https://bigthink.com/culture-at-30000-feet-above-ground
3Netflix. (n.d.). Retrieved from https://jobs.netflix.com/culture
4Pink, Daniel (209).  Drive. New York, NY. Penguin.