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The Human Enterprise: Progress or Perish

This is a CMSWire cross-post.

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

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

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

So we are thrilled that work willfinally evolve away from what has often been a negative experience, andstart becoming place where people thrive — along with the economy andsociety at large.

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

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

Drivers of Disengagement
Thereare three ways that work becomes a soul-crushing, disengaging job thatleads to “it’s fine like that,” what-kind-of-shortcuts-can-i-take, andthe-least-I-can-get-away-with effort.

1. Work that asks people to do stupid stuff
Thiscan be menial work, in which the person doing the work has no stake orimpact on the outcome. Think fast food, factory work, mail delivery orother work that is heavily routinized and automated. A craft isdifferent, because it involves mastery — these jobs do not. This alsohappens when the policies or processes of work are flawed in ways thatare obvious to employees, but aren’t likely to change as a result.

2. Work that prevents people from doing good stuff
Manyknowledge workers suffer in this camp, though often craftsmen(builders, etc.) and service providers (nurses, consultants) do too. [Myhousekeeper quit her company for this reason and started her own, so myhouse is cleaner.] They have ideas, aspirations, curiosity, commitmentto quality, but their management is so focused on maintaining the statusquo that it is nearly impossible for these people to do any of the goodwork that they want to do. [This status-quo fetish is a frequent andsometimes unintended consequence of command and control hierarchies. Theantidote is leadership.]

3. Work that takes undeveloped souls and keeps them in the dark
Hirepeople to do something, and never invite or enable them to developtheir skills or to do more than they were hired for, and what you willget is glassy eyed mushrooms. These people disengage because they don’tknow anything better. There can be many causes of stagnation, but simplyaccepting it is a losing strategy.

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

Dan Pinkshowed us that intrinsic motivation is vastly superior to externalmotivation (do this, get that) to drive effort and outcomes for all butthe 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).

    Pinkfocuses on the individual, however, and what we need to understand hereis how to make that work for organizations. There are those that claimthe drivers of employee engagementare “Relationship with immediate supervisor, Belief in seniorleadership, Pride in working for the company.” But normal people willrecognize those as markers (KPIs), rather than drivers of engagement.

    Drivers of Engagement (The human enterprise)

    1. Purpose
    IfI don’t believe that my company is valuable, then my work is notvaluable, and therefore I don’t value it, so I don’t invest in it — I amnot engaged. Duh.

    Purpose, however, is not limited to green andeleemosynary causes (thanks for tolerating my nerdy words, it meanscharitable). A corporate purpose is an understanding of the change youwant 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 youremployees. This gives everyone the ability to connect with, tell andbuild his or her own part of the story.

    2. Transparency and Impact
    Youmay find yourself with a purpose, and you may mean it, and you may findyourself with a marketing plan that expresses it and a roadmap thatbuilds it (congrats to you) (if you’re saying to yourself, this is notmy 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 whohave full, mutual awareness of what they are doing and what theleadership is worried about.

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

    When people don’t know what is goingon, they can not consciously affect its outcome. They are not engaged.Transparency is not just about soaking in each other’s intellectual andemotional effluence (though that has its advantages too), it’s aboutknowing 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 goingon, and understand the impact that my best work makes. I can see who andhow I help. That matters.

    3. Mutual Dependence
    Whenwe work together as a team, we help unpack each other’s intellectualboxes, we refine one another’s ideas and discover new ones. We improveeach other. We build a continually improving, communal memory,experience and insight (to riff on a William Gibson quote). Members ofsuch a team take ownership of their responsibilities seriously, butinvite and relish in the fact that they can rely on their colleagues tohelp them work through sticking points and make their best work better.

    Acollaborative environment helps sustain energy, focus, and purpose. Butto get here, you must be aligned, you must have a mutual respect thatleads to mutual compassion and curiosity that makes it fun to airchallenges, problems and failure and a joy to bash and hash it outtogether.

    If you do not have a “culture” of mutual dependence atwork, technology will not change that fact. Generally this is aboutaligning around common goals, and offering one another respect as aconduit to trust, which enables you to do what teams do best — amplifystrengths and minimize weaknesses. If you’ve ever been a part of thatteam, you know.

    4. Leadership
    Some socialmedia-ites believe that in the future, organizations will be purelyemergent and collaborative, with no leadership required. I am not ofthat school — though certainly the nature of leadership will change.

    Leadershipmatters, and there are two things that great leaders do 1) communicatewithout ceasing (leading to that transparency and inclusion thing) and2) listen without ceasing by asking lots of questions. Dear leader, ifyou aren’t both sharing your vision and listening to your workforce,then there is at least an organization’s worth of people who think youare a fool. This perpetual telling and listening looks like a subtle anddynamic balance between confidence and humility.

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

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