Like staccato bursts of data from the interstellar spacecraft Voyager, the workplaces of the future are sending new messages to the people that will be soon be joining them (and in many cases, already are). The new messages are replacing the outdated memos crafted for the dawn of the industrial age, when information traveled at the speed of Morse code.
Message 1: We Trust You. This message replaces the standard subliminal workplace meme that “we don’t trust you.” Examples of bad practices abound: absurdly restrictive limits on purchasing authority, elaborate inventory controls on disposable work supplies, ubiquitous surveillance and tracking.
How about giving people the freedom to implement solutions to problems and seize opportunities in the workplace if they are equipped to do so? Brian Carney and Isaac Getz, quoting former Chaparral Steel CEO Gordon Forward in their book Freedom, Inc., describe the current reality as managing for the 3 percent. In other words, creating rules to control the small number of nonconforming employees who might misuse their autonomy, while suppressing the innovation and creativity of the 97 percent who just want to do a good job. Carney and Getz relate the story of the small company CEO who saw a secretary dipping into the office supplies for back-to-school needs, so he banned anyone from ordering office supplies during the summer. That’s a recipe for an engaging workplace!
Bureaucratic rules generate serious aerodynamic drag on an organization, preventing lofty performance. People live up or down to expectations, including expectations for trust. The classic HBR article by J. Sterling Livingston, “Pygmalion in Management” (January 2003), explains that leaders’ expectations for better or worse have a huge impact on the performance of individuals. Trust should be the first app any organization installs in its organizational operating system.
Message 2: We Appreciate You For Who You Are. This message replaces the toxic notion that “you’re not good enough the way you are.” One symptom of the current anxiety-producing message is that people need to be constantly trained, prodded, pushed and measured to learn how to express certain behaviors—presumably, those of the “ideal employee” (does such a person even exist?). Matthew Crawford writes in Shop Class as Soulcraft: An Inquiry into the Value of Work, that the beauty of the trades is instant feedback: if one fabricates a part, it either works or it doesn’t. But with the transformation of the economy from producing goods to projecting brands, the cubicle-centered workplace has become therapeutic, centered on subjective concepts (like being “team-oriented”) and less focused on specific competencies that can be objectively measured.
A marker of this old message is the mandatory training session. Mandatory training tells people that they’re not good enough the way they are, and they are too dense to research and seek out development opportunities they need on their own.
Here’s an idea: create a menu of relevant educational offerings, and let people voluntarily choose for themselves what best fulfills their self-identified development needs. The new message: we value you for who you are, and believe that you will address your own development wisely. The root word for education is “educere”, which means to bring forth. How about simply letting people bring forth their best selves to work?
Appreciating people as they are also has profound implications for the performance appraisal process. The underlying logic of most appraisal systems is to show employees how they can make themselves successful in a particular environment, along with a discussion of what rewards await the employee for his or her compliance. The general flow is to discuss strengths and weaknesses, and offer helpful suggestions for “correcting” deficiencies. Peter Koestenbaum and Peter Block, writing in Freedom and Accountability at Work: Applying Philosophic Insight to the Real World, note that asking a person “What do you want to become, and how can we adapt to help you do that?” is a rare question. It shouldn’t be.
Companies are taking note. David Brennan, general manager of Achievers, a firm that helps businesses reward and recognize their staffs, recently told Fast Company: "There’s a growing understanding within the HR industry that the annual performance review just isn’t a good way to manage people or boost performance.” Around 10% of Fortune 500 companies have ditched the practice, recognizing that they’re often inefficient, and that the dread that fills employees prior to a review actually restricts their creativity, according to neuroscience.
How about the trusty 360-degree evaluation? According to Marcus Buckingham, writing in Harvard Business Review (October 17, 2011), “…all but a very few 360 degree surveys are, at best, a waste of everyone’s time, and at worst actively damaging to both the individual and the organization. We could stop using all of them, right now, and our organizations would be the stronger for it.” He goes on to say that “…my beef with 360 surveys is more basic, more fundamental. It’s the data itself. The data generated from a 360 survey is bad. It’s always bad.” Why is the data bad? Because it’s as much about the rater as the ratee.
All of these counterproductive processes continue to beg the fundamental question: What do you want to become, and how can we adapt to help you do that?
Message 3: You Can Manage Yourself. The third message is that everyone is capable of self-management at work, contra the message sent by most workplaces built on command-and-control. Koestenbaum and Block note that human motivation is an individual choice, not an environmental consequence. The common belief that managers are responsible for “their” employees’ motivation is a perfect defense, because each side can blame the other when things go wrong.
Employee engagement surveys typically describe most employees as disengaged, while blaming managers. What if organizations took the road less traveled, let everyone be fully accountable for managing him or herself, and then got out of the way? Goodbye, conspiracy of blame. When there are no bosses, there is no one else to blame. When there is only work and people that do work, people are transparently accountable for their own individual decisions and actions.
Would such an environment not demonstrate respect for the way people already manage their own personal lives? No manager tells people where to go to college, what color socks to wear, who to date, where to live or what kind of car to drive. Yet somehow, (almost) everyone seems to have a boss at work—crushing accountability.
Self-managed enterprises are already springing up and demonstrating their resilience, adaptability, and viability in a time of great social and economic churn. In these organizations, innovation and leadership are everywhere.
When we finally acknowledge that individual human beings are already walking, talking freedoms fully accountable for their own choices, there are truly no limits to what they can accomplish.