There has been a lot of chatter about culture lately. We hear about corporate icons treating people terribly (or maybe they’re not being treated terribly after all…not sure where we’re at with this) and debate whether this is unethical or simply the result of performance-driving cultures turned up to maximum efficiency mode. I’ve spent my career studying performance, efficiency, and organizational behavior and I have learned that I just don’t know what I know any more.
Maybe I’m having an off day, and this is pure opinion, nothing more, but it seems like at the end of the day, there is a very clear cut distinction between what is good business sense and what is basic human decency. If we take what we learn in the ‘real world’ about how to treat people and especially how we like to be treated, and then look at what ‘successful’ business practices demand, there is often a glaring discrepancy. Many of the folks in my generation have been brought up believing ‘work is work and personal is personal’ or ‘no offense, it’s just business’ when people behave badly in the workplace, particularly if they behave badly in the interest of preserving the organization to behave badly another day.
Consider a case study of an organization that when initially was founded, wanted to distinguish itself as a company that was different by rewarding loyalty, paying people well, and hiring technically brilliant people and trusting them to do their job. This organization did not run conventionally and made some decisions based on emotion rather than conventional sense. People loved this company, it was highly profitable and turnover was non-existent. Until business ‘experts’ enter the scene and pointed out how badly run the company was. More attention needed to be paid to the bottom line, long term management was culled because they were paid too much and one by one, benefits shrank. Finally, the organization cut every last legacy executive, cheated them of their severance, citing financial constraints and six months later handed out bonuses to the remaining staff due to their high performance and profitability.
By all worldly standards, the organization underwent a stunning transformation from badly to brilliantly run.
But…loyalty and work satisfaction have all but disappeared, not to mention trust and respect for leadership.
We have so completely bought into the idea that companies need to be cold and ruthless to get ahead, that we think it’s truth. But when was the last time this truth was challenged? Sure, we can all point to examples of companies that spend money foolishly, or overextend themselves and go out of business but what about companies that don’t put the bottom line above employee happiness? What about companies that believe in honoring commitments and maybe taking a little less executive take home and give a little more back? I’m not talking about communism, or even socialism. I’m talking about not being greedy and selfish at the expense of people who work for you.
When we hear about companies that do this, give back, it makes big news. We wonder if they will survive and puzzle over it. Then we go back to our news and TV and decide that maybe what the country really needs is MORE ruthless and coldblooded executives. Maybe we should start populating the government with ruthless and coldblooded executives who know how to keep the money they make?
Only what if we’re wrong? What if part of why we are devolving as a culture is because our concept of successful business is wrong? What if we were rewarded for our compassion and ability to find purpose and calling for each person instead of our ability to take the soul out of the job and ensure employees are as interchangeable as possible so that it’s more convenient to replace them when we want to ‘downsize’, ‘rightsize’ or replace them with a cheaper model? It seems our societal model is conforming to the business one where individuality is cheap unless (ironically) it can be commoditized.
I am fully aware that what I’m saying can/will be dismissed as foolish, naive, or worse in business circles. I have operated at the executive levels of companies and consult on organizational behavior so I know what the ‘right’ answers are and what is considered good business. It’s just weird, because my kids are at an age where I am trying to teach them morals, and how to behave and treat others and what it means to be successful is NOT what they will need to do to be successful in MOST organizations – even the ones that say their people ‘are their highest priority’. And no, not every company is like that. I have some clients right now who really do put their people first and it’s awesome. And rare.
It will be interesting to see where it leads. Meantime, we come up with more and more evidence and rules of how to remove the humanity from the employment arrangement. There’s only one problem, thank goodness, and that’s that it seems like there are some folks in the upcoming generations who are calling a naked emperor out and refusing to play. I’m a little pessimistic about my generation’s ability to break out of the construct, but am very encouraged to hear how many millennials are wanting new rules. Go, Millennials, go!