Everything I learned about creating an employee-focused corporate culture I learned while working for a large New York bank in the late eighties. When I became a CEO in the nineties, I recalled my experience working for the bank. I took note of its training, leadership and HR strategies . . . and did the exact opposite.
Hierarchical design and numbers-driven principles have built elegant, scalable organizations that have served as solid training grounds for leaders. Modern organizations are productive and sophisticated machines and yet we all know the negative, unintended consequences of its architecture and priorities.
As with many companies, on the outside my bank appeared to be doing okay. Its share price kept rising, managers made nice livings, and its customers kept buying. But on the inside the bank was decaying. The bank eventually was merged and remerged into other banks. Less than ten years after I left there was no evidence it had ever existed.
Like many entrepreneurs, my early large-organization experience awakened me to a desire to offer something different to the companies I led. I wanted to avoid the unnecessary inhumanity, talent drain and inefficiency. I wanted to be part of something that was bigger than my ego.
The “Check Engine” Light is On
In spite of more enlightened entrepreneurs, the proliferation of the Internet and globalization not much has changed in the structure and function of most companies (or schools and governments) in the past 100 years. The executive dining rooms are gone (I miss those!) as is blatant discrimination, but the boss-subordinate relationship (most of which resemble a parent-child relationship), central command and control decision-making, carrot and stick employee control, and a pyramid organization design remain. We are seeing some warning signs that it may be time to try something new.
The worker engagement indicator light is flashing. Today, more employees than ever are unhappy at work. Gallup’s most recent worldwide poll of 180 million employees showed that only 13 percent of employees were engaged in their work in 2013 and that 24 percent (18 percent in the US) were “actively disengaged.” These statistics have become so prevalent and consistent most people have grown numb to them. Employees at all levels are uninspired if not fatigued by the variations of a mantra calling for growth for growth’s sake. What will reverse these trends?
It’s unproductive to blame our current bind on investors or CEOs. We’re all partly responsible because we’re all caught up in the inherently flawed story. We are part of a lineage of intelligent, highly-educated people who have been programmed to pursue money, success and growth with the hope these things will lead to happiness. We also know that the welfare of shareholders is not independent of or unrelated to the welfare of employees, suppliers, and the environment.
A Cultural Blind Spot
Why, in spite of systemic breakdowns, loads of research and extensive leadership training, is the quality of organization life so low? I think beneath many symptoms, the answer to this question lies in the perennial pattern of ignoring what makes people happy. Somewhere in our psyche lies a core and inaccurate assumption about what makes for a fulfilling life.
In spite of lots of evidence, human beings remain lousy at predicting what will make us happy. We know better, yet we continue building entire systems based on thinking that will not lead to human happiness. We are stuck in an old story that elevates money, success and growth at the expense of what really matters. This blind spot is a reflection of a major transition our world is navigating. Given our current stage of evolution and resistance to let go of an old myth, it should be no surprise that so many institutions that used to serve us are no longer sustainable.
Be the Change You Want to See
You and I know happiness comes from within. We also know we are all fundamentally interconnected—we just keep forgetting and resisting these deeper truths. It is in our forgetting that we create suffering. If you want to be part of a new story that contains more joy and more sustainable organizations and maybe even more peaceful, inspired communities, ask yourself one question. “What really matters to me?”
This question requires digging below the complexity and programming in our lives. It is a place to start inventorying the strategies you use to realize fulfillment. If you can identify the deeper hungers that image, money, consumption, success, and growth are trying to feed, you can make adjustments and stop pursuing the strategies-to-meet-deeper-hungers that aren’t working for you.
The organizations of the future will be led by fulfilled leaders. These inspiring and effective leaders lead from fullness, not for fullness. They give themselves permission to be human and aspire to start their day having already met their needs for things like validation, being seen and heard, having enough, being enough, belonging, having a spiritual connection, having purpose, and serving others.
Make one commitment today toward setting your life up so you get five percent more of what really matters to you. If you do, it won’t be long until you return to your native state as a present, loving and serving being who is in relationship with those around you. Your engagement will be contagious and you will create the organization your heart knows is possible.