The Cynic’s Viewpoint: Is it Possible to Construct an Organization of Caring?

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In the last two weeks I’ve become engaged conversation with colleagues who have experienced recent layoffs. Each situation was different. (Note: the names and situations have been modified) 

In the first situation, Ben had been a successful banker for an established global  financial services company for over 20 years. He had progressed through the ranks, and overtime held a tenured role within the organization. He was indispensable… or so he thought. Getting the news that the company was “streamlining” and his position would no longer be required was devastating, to say the least. For Ben, the rug had been pulled out from underneath him. His expectation of working for this company for another next 10 years before retiring, was interrupted… without his say. He was afraid.

In the second situation, Emily had always worked in the digital world. She had an impeccable work career, having been fortunate to work in large online publishing companies. She was one of the few that advocated Search marketing in its nascency and moved that experience to agency. Emily, unlike Ben, never stayed in one place too long. Each opportunity created net new opportunities as companies slowly began incorporating more digital strategies within their operations. Emily was seen as somewhat of a change agent. Many of her ideas took time to implement as management struggled to understand the impact of these changes operationally as well as fiscally. Some of those opportunities led to dead ends as management eventually reverted to their safe comfort zone: staying status quo. Finally when an opportunity came to work for a global organization that was declaring real change: more collaboration, nurturing innovation, the dismantling of departmental silos… a move into the real 21st century –> Emily was sold. Less than 8 months into the job, Emily received the news that the organization would revisit some of her initiatives but, for now, they had other priorities that needed tending. Emily found herself looking… again.

I have written about the importance of collaboration, and colleagues like Vlad Bodi have contributed posts on happiness impact on employee productivity and retention. Many other peers like Shawn Murphy, Maddie Grant, Meghan Biro, Mark Babbitt, Pam Ross, Jamie Notter and Natalie Currie have to be commended for their hard work in educating corporations on the reasons they need to change.

We have also witnessed from our Think Tanks and through posts like Hung Pham’s The Lifecycle of the Disengaged Employee, and Jason Theodore’s The Working Dead: The Plague of Undead Institutions that people, in general are mistrusting of corporations. When I talk to people who are currently employed, this idea of happiness does not exist. Ben would never characterized his tenure at his company as happy. He used words like “expected, routine, lifeless, do my job”. The fear of being downsized was rampant throughout his department and organization. It happens more often these days. This feeds the greater fear of being unable to secure another job especially when the rest of the world is facing the same demise.

For Emily, her cynicism has taken a different toll. The promise of change was mere window dressing. Companies want to be perceived as driving significant changes in innovation, employee engagement and attracting the best talent. From Ellen’s viewpoint, those incessant promises eventually fall on deaf ears. Companies who say this are, in reality, unwilling to move any mountains until the Tsunami forces them to do so. Ellen will continue to pursue opportunities but grows skeptical of corporate intent.

There are far more people like Ben today, who fear for their future. If they’re fortunate to secure another position elsewhere, never again will they put their fate in any one company.

It’s just business

Let’s face it: the relationship between employer and employee has largely been based on money. The rise of industrialization created the need for the worker. The focus was on producing products on a mass scale at a low cost to create increasing markets of demand. Scaling market demand worked for a time…

factory

However, when markets became saturated with increased competition, companies needed to differentiate in order to effectively sell their material goods. They required specialization in job skills that came with increasing costs to the corporation. Overtime this has challenged companies to create demand for their products in an environment that has been met with more fragmentation in media and ultimately, consumer demand. No longer do corporations expect to sustain their wealth with practices that don’t fit with the market.

Predictable demand just doesn’t exist anymore. Coupled with a highly volatile economy, creating efficiencies while attempting to scale demand becomes much harder today.

The problem, for the most part, is that companies continue to fit a square peg into a round hole, blind in the belief that tried and true practices will prevail. The sadder part of this story is that this mentality persists, not only in corporations, but in government, education and the employee mindset.

John Graham, a smart Millennial from our Think Tanks, has said this and it’s worth repeating,

Within the current corporate culture there is this unstated norm that impresses upon its employees to remain silent when spoken to, and to do your job. But when a company says they want progressive, and out of the box thinking and increased collaboration, we call Bullshit every time…

The education system was designed to support the factory model. The entire structure is a feeder for work based on productivity without creativity.

Ellen understands this and is constantly frustrated with companies who don’t walk the talk. The unfortunate casualties of today’s world are people like Ben, who have suddenly become disillusioned, and left to fend for themselves.

The employee expectation is and always will be work in exchange for reasonable compensation. Organizations will implement new practices if they will facilitate a positive change in the bottom line.

The economics do not favor the worker. They’re damned if they do…. and damned if they don’t. The worker will always be at the behest of the corporation.

It’s counterintuitive for organizations to care

Companies have always operated on the principle of shareholder value not employee happiness. All guidelines that dictated the practices on the probationary period, employee performance reviews, vacation, and the chain of command have perpetuated an environment of performance. It’s understandable.

But when times are changing and organizations realize things need to evolve, attempting to change mindsets gets in the way… every single time. This recent article from Harvard Business encapsulated the same cynicism:

Studying one organization’s transformation from a traditional hierarchy to self-managing teams, Professor James Barker, an award-winning 1993 ethnographer of Marquette University, was surprised to find that the change produced even tighter control than what existed under the old-fashioned hierarchy.

Ronald, one of the technical employees Barker interviewed for the study, told him that he felt more closely watched under the new egalitarian system. While his former boss might have overlooked him coming in a little late occasionally, for example, his team had a “no tolerance” policy on tardiness. They monitored members’ behaviors closely and imposed sanctions for non-compliance.

Where rules have traditionally governed and set the benchmarks for acceptable behavior, any attempts to shake up the system with new rules will fall back on mindsets that have evaluated people’s behavior based on norms that have been previously adopted. Barker pointed out,

…the flatter, more egalitarian systems sometimes tighten the cage more powerfully, thanks to peer pressure and what psychologists call “internalized control,” our zealous adherence to norms of our own creation.

The Fallacy of  Unlimited Vacation

LinkedIn recently announced its new policy to its employees and the rest of the world that would allow employees “no minimum or maximum vacation days”.  As a female, who has experienced firsthand the limiting career impacts of a 6-month maternity leave, the announcement leaves a lot to be desired.

The illusion of freedom of time when you need it and want it is an amazing concept that proponents argue can be correlated with increased employee motivation, improved productivity and more sustainable outcomes. However, the other side of the coin is highly subject to the perception of peers and managers. As Barker points out,

…it can be hard to tell what’s fair, what won’t let the team down, or what won’t hurt one’s career. So we work more instead of less.

Caring is possible… in small doses

I still don’t believe that large organizations can fully embrace this all at once. It does not make economic sense in large scale. I’ve seen successes, however, among smaller companies, who have loosened the reigns on things like vacation, flexibility for on-site or remote work. The employees do have increased accountability but feel empowered, and trusted by management to have more control over their own lives.

For companies employing people like Ellen, they will benefit from the passion and forward-thinking approaches that will enable the company to make some headway. But as I mentioned earlier, there are more Bens in the workforce. Cultivating a caring culture that understands this mindset is critical.

It starts at the top. And it has to permeate among leadership throughout the organization. Bridgepan offered this:

Changing culture isn’t as simple as identifying the new behaviors you want to see and articulating a new set of beliefs and values associated with these.

Most people won’t change their behaviors until they observe the role models in their organization acting differently, and when they see this new behavior positively recognized and rewarded—a clear promotion, a plum assignment, a change in authority or responsibility, or simply praise from the top of the organization.

Change is not going to happen overnight. Insights from our Think Tanks observe the importance of manager-to-peer relationships.Those are the dynamics that matter. People trust other people, and not the corporation. While the market instability will feed into the reality of the gig economy, people will come to value what they’ve learned and how they’ve been nurtured and mentored to move from one opportunity to the next.

Image source: Media Cache

CEO at ArCompany, and a seasoned digital strategist having held management positions for top Ad Agencies including Ogilvy, Rapp Collins, ONE and Isobar Digital. She also has extensive start-up experience with launch successes like Yahoo! Answers. Hessie is the co-author of EVOLVE: Marketing (as we know it) is Doomed! She is also an active writer for Huffington Post, and Steamfeed.

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