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If happier people means better performance, what’s stopping us?

August 26, 2015   ·  

"Once employees feel challenged, invigorated and productive, their efforts will naturally translate into profit and growth for the organisation." Ricardo Semler

The idea of happier workplaces creating the right conditions for better work isn't a new one but it is one that is far more widely accepted today than probably ever before. The problem seems to be how to make it happen. So what's stopping us?

I know all too well that in many companies there is no natural home for a conversation about improving the performance of the organisation by making it a better place to work - put simply it takes too long, it takes the kind of commitment that not even a CEO can offer, we work to too short cycles that encourage the wrong behaviours but if it doesn't deliver measurable results almost instantly then we can't do it. We all know that too.

Seeking to emphasise this point about it not being in the interests of the CEO, I google'd "what is the role of the CEO in a plc" and the first three responses that contained actual job descriptions had the following (and only these) people related responsibilities:

CEO 1:

CEO 2:

CEO 3:

There is arguably nothing wrong with the responsibilities above but there is plenty missing. They are certainly lacking anything that describes creating a great workplace or getting the very best from the company's employees - the closest is the one reference to "inspiring and supporting employees" in CEO 1's responsibilities. Now, I'm not sure what words you might use to describe what CEOs should be trying to do for their employees but the absence of anything remotely resembling caring for employees, promoting welfare, establishing a productive culture, or anything similar is as good evidence as I might have wanted for how important it is considered. Without CEO endorsement, support and encouragement it is unlikely that any firm will successfully embrace the idea that a healthier, happier workplace will deliver sustainably better results.

Without CEO endorsement, support and encouragement it is unlikely that any firm will successfully embrace the idea that a healthier, happier workplace will deliver sustainably better results.

One of my favourite conversations about this topic of freedom, trust and respect in the workplace was with a divisional CEO of a major outsourcing organisation. Like many big companies he was wrestling with the challenge of being a company that relied heavily on infrastructure (big offices etc) and the associated cost implications compared to other "lighter" competitors. How do we move ourselves to having fewer employees in the office and more people working remotely in more flexible patterns? The various elements of complexity associated with the question flowed easily enough in conversation before having talked ourselves to stand still we moved on to discussing the World Cup and whether they had particular provisions made for employees to watch whilst working… The irony in the response "no, we don't allow any TV, streaming and social media on our sites" made me laugh and highlighted brilliantly the distance between where they are and where they want to be. As I said at the time "If you don't trust people to work at their desks when you can watch them (if you want to) there is little hope for creating the kind of business you're imagining any time soon."

This last point plays to the heart of the issue. We don't give people freedom at work that would likely make the workplace a whole heap better. That can start with allowing people to make decisions for themselves about aspects of their day… whether that is to check their social media accounts or track a major sporting event, as long as the job gets done and gets done well. I pay people to be professional and do their job - how, where or when they do it isn't really that interesting to me, and it hasn't escaped me that if I tell everyone exactly how to do the job, rather than what outcomes I'm looking for I will always be more than a little responsible for the outcome and won't ever get the best from the people I work with nor will I know what they're really capable of. My job is to provide the tools, the environment (where appropriate) and the input where it's required to ensure the best possible job gets done in a way that is consistent with our values.

Throughout my employed career (the bit before Stonepoint), goals were largely set for me by other people - that's pretty normal I suspect. They come from the top and gradually cascade down through the business until they reach every employee and we each have some reference to the overall strategy in our scorecard or objectives. Now this happens in most companies, and to surprisingly senior levels too. They were never my goals, and when I did set them in the annual planning cycle they would come back with “stretch" added. The review that followed was almost always equally pointless - whether I had done a good job or not seemed just about as arbitrary as if I'd had no goals and more about my ability to argue my value.

Instead of cascading the objectives and tasks down the organisation until they reach individual scorecards, we think firms could be making this process much more engaging for employees and a lot less onerous for managers. This is something we're testing with one of our clients.

Having determined where we're going (in this instance a 5 year Ambition, supported by robust alignment to what we stand for, a detailed understanding of and commitment to what needs to change, where we choose to compete and how we will differentiate), we determined the critical priorities that we believe will get us there. From that position we identified some focused metrics - a single leading and lagging measure for each of our four priorities (and yes that was difficult). For each measure we worked out how we would measure it, how frequently we would measure it and what we needed to happen to that measure for us to consider it a success - this created our "dials". Now this is the bit that is different. Rather than try to translate this into individual tasks and measures for each part of the business - we're taking where we are out to teams in the business and inviting them to fill the gaps.

"Here's where we're going, here's how we think we'll get there, here are the dials we need to move, how can you help?"

Allowing teams around the company to play an active role in determining what they can do to help deliver the ambition creates a rare level of involvement that we think is fundamental to achieving sustained engagement. It respects employees as adults with an interest in their own future. It recognises our need to feel that our work is meaningful. It also gives employees ownership of both the problem and the solution and in doing so puts to work the management structure in the business in the way it is intended - to help ensure we achieve our goals.

Will it work? Almost certainly. Will it work quickly? Probably not. It will take time to learn new habits and will require significant confidence and belief from leadership to stay the course.

Many of the bad habits that we've established inside companies have been developed over a long time, we shouldn't expect to fix them overnight.

Since I started with a quote, let me finish with one that plays precisely to the point I've discussed here. So if your organisation is serious about getting the best from its people... what's stopping you?

"Human beings have an innate inner drive to be autonomous, self-determined, and connected to one another. And when that drive is liberated, people achieve more and live richer lives" Daniel Pink

David Bellamy
David Bellamy

Founder and CEO, Connect with David on LinkedIn

LeadershipHealthy companiesCultureInclusionHappiness at work

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