Something Was Wrong–We Just Couldn't Put our Finger On it
Early on in my career, I had a boss who made a lasting impression on me. I considered her a mentor. She was twice my age and had an advanced degree. She had experience with many companies as a successful executive. She gave of her time generously to me as she shared sage wisdom about how to manage workflows and projects. I have held on to her wisdom and consider it a gift. But, there was another side to her, from which I also learned lessons about how not to manage, particularly where people are concerned.
I spent several years in this organization with my then-mentor and boss. There was dismal morale on the team where I worked and I don’t think I knew one person who wasn’t actively looking for a job elsewhere. Everyone I spoke with attributed the low morale to our boss. Nevertheless, no one could quite place a finger on what it was that she did or didn’t do that was resulting in such low morale. Everyone just seemed to have a strong sense that our boss was the epicenter of the problem, even if they couldn’t articulate why.
As the years have passed and as I have grown in my experience, I only recently started to put together the puzzle of why my then-boss and mentor was such a source of distress for my colleagues. Most of my colleagues at the time were in their late 20s or early 30s. Most had advanced degrees. And all of them had many years of work experience. While it may not have been apparent to my boss at the time, the paradigm from which she was operating was one in which employees’ paychecks were considered their reward, employees should be grateful to have their employment, and where fear was used as a motivator. More than once she uttered the phrase “If you’re not happy here, there’s a line of people waiting to take your job.”
Fear and Homo Economicus
Fear. Fear is perhaps the most powerful and potent motivator. Fear is primal. Fear manifests emotionally, mentally, and physically. And fear is very easy to ply from a position of authority. There was a time when fear was the primary means of motivating employees (and still is in many places). The economic theory of homo economicus (the “economic man”) holds that human economic behavior is motivated primarily by self-interest. I believe this is accurate, to the extent that human behavior is driven by the base needs on Maslow’s hierarchy. Maslow’s theory of human motivation states that our first need is related to physiology (i.e. food, water, shelter). The second need, per Maslow’s hierarchy, is safety. When people’s physiological and safety needs are unmet, I submit that they do behave in ways that are indeed based in self-interest. Furthermore, as people attempt to satisfy their basic physiological and safety needs, fear can be a powerful and effective long-term motivator, so long as physiological and safety needs remain uncertain.
For the majority of people in the majority of Western countries, their basic physiological and safety needs are met. As labor unions toiled to protect workers’ rights and as governments put in place regulations and social safety nets over the past 100 years, physiological and safety needs have become less motivating for employees. These needs don't go away, but as they are met, previously latent needs emerge:
Shifting Grounds: From Fear to Meaning
For highly educated and skilled people, their physiological and safety needs are even further assured by the likelihood that their education and experience will secure them another job if they are to lose one. In the 19th and early 20th century, it may have been effective, if cruel, for an employer to use fear as a long-term motivating factor using the paradigm of homo economicus. This fear was like a storm cloud over people's heads that could rain down the loss of employment or punishment at a moment's notice with no safety net to catch them or those whom they supported.
Nowadays, fear—while usually an effective short-term motivator—does almost no good in the mid- and long-term and causes severe damage to organizations that employ educated and skilled knowledge-workers. Essentially, the significant increase in education people have acquired over the past 50 years, combined with 100 plus years of putting in place social safety nets and laws to protect workers' rights, has flipped the paradigm of homo economicus on its head. Fear is no longer an effective tool for most organizations in developed countries. In other words, “Jessica, you better have that proposal on my desk by tomorrow morning or else!” or “Michael, I want that report, and I want it now or there will be hell to pay!” are phrases better left on the trash heap of clichés from the 1980s and are unsuitable communication for the 21st century workplace.
So, if the homo-economicus paradigm of motivation–in which fear was used as a long-term, albeit inhumane, means of ensuring effective and efficient production–is no longer viable in the developed world, what does the new paradigm look like? For starters, It does not look like people in positions of authority supplicating their employees to work or baiting them with rewards, as is sometimes the dismissive retort to the argument that employers need to change the motivational paradigm from which they operate. The guiding principle behind the new paradigm is to develop organizational cultures based on four core values: trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy. This new paradigm is homo self-actualizicus–i.e. the motive to realize one's full potential based on a whole-person construct (i.e. not a bifurcated personality of a "work self" and a "home self") and toward the highest need on Maslow's hierarchy-self-actualization.
The Core Values for a Homo Self-Actualizicus Culture
Trust: There are many definitions of trust. The trust I speak of is what the late Dr. Stephen Covey described as a combination of competency and character. In other words, when you observe someone has the skills to perform a task and you believe s/he has the character to execute the task ethically, you trust that person. Trust isn’t built overnight. But as superiors see patterns of behavior in their employees that suggest competency and character, trust should be given quickly, which manifests as a release of control from superiors.
Trust will still sometimes be violated, and this road goes both ways (i.e. sometimes superiors violate trust, and sometimes their employees violate trust). We are human beings and make mistakes. I cannot speak to each possible scenario in which trust is violated. However, I can offer that generosity, forgiveness, and the opportunity for redemption are practices that will develop deep bonds of mutual commitment and yield better results than draconian and punitive actions. Again, this generosity, forgiveness, and redemption should go both ways. Will there be times when trust has been so violated that there is no room for redemption? Absolutely. But I suspect these instances will be rare, as obtaining and maintaining trust speaks directly to the needs of love, belonging, and esteem.
Dialogue: Dialogue is neither a conversation nor is it a debate. Dialogue occurs when two or more people express ideas that build on each other in pursuit of wise knowledge. Conversation is an exchange of information. Debate is conflict-oriented communication with the goal of defeating one’s opponent. Dialogue sits right in the middle of conversation and debate on the continuum of communication. Dialogue, conversation, and debate all have their place in work life. But dialogue requires the most self-awareness and emotional intelligence to navigate and should predominate. The reason why dialogue requires self-awareness and emotional intelligence is because dialogue demands that people be willing to let go of their egos and acknowledge better ideas, accept others' acquiescence with grace, and ultimately allow for all participants to equally contribute without the risk of castigation so as to realize ideas that are greater than the sum of the collective wisdom of the participants.
Accountability: Accountability is the space where it can be easy to revert to authoritarian behaviors (i.e. the homo-economicus work paradigm). But holding others accountable to their commitments is an act that can be carried out with respect and care. There are three essential elements to holding others accountable. First, assume the best of others. When someone has failed to meet a commitment, resist the urge to attribute it to laziness, thoughtlessness, indifference, etc. Most people are not lazy, inconsiderate, or indifferent. Second, be honest and caring. I don’t mean to suggest people need to be treated like they've just lost a loved one and coddled. The simple use of kind language that is based on facts is sufficient. Third, when people have made commitments and are not meeting those commitments, seek first to understand. There are sometimes variables outside of people’s control that prevent them from meeting their commitments, such as illness, other more pressing demands, lack of necessary support, technical difficulties, etc. And even when someone has failed to meet a commitment for reasons such as indifference, inadequate effort, or even passive aggressiveness, seeking to understand the reasons behind his/her behavior can often reveal the motives for resistance, opening up the opportunity for dialogue and finding a potential solution to the resistance leading to personal growth of emotional self-awareness.
Autonomy: One of the most frequent complaints I hear from people is that they feel like they’re being micromanaged. The first thing I would say about micromanagement and management is that for all intents and purposes, they are the same. The very definition of management is the process of controlling something. Whether a person is being controlled a lot or a little, it's still probably going to feel like micromanagement. So the problem isn’t micromanagement per se; it’s the fact that management is a control-based paradigm.
As industry became more mechanized during the 20th century, there was a place for the management of people. Low-skilled laborers working on an assembly line or operating heavy machinery required the careful supervision of people with more experience. For the sake of safety and efficiency, this supervision often manifests as control, giving precise directions on what to do and how to do it. The use of the word management lingers in today’s workplace lexicon and is often confused with leadership. Leadership and management are different disciplines. However, in organizations where skilled knowledge-workers predominate, management of people is a moot practice for the most part. And in fact, many employees know more about how to use their skills than their so-called managers. I've lost count of the number of times I've heard managers say they don't know how to do the jobs of their subordinates. There is no requirement that people in positions of authority be omniscient. But if the role of a manager is to control, that implies mastery of the skills over which they have dominion. There may be some place for people-management early on in a person’s tenure, but it should be short-lived. The practice of management is still relevant, but mostly where inanimate things are concerned (e.g. processes, machinery, systems, etc.).
It is essential for skilled knowledge-workers to have a sense of autonomy—a feeling that they have been given the time and space they need to do their jobs without the harassment and meddling of overseers who themselves may not even have an understanding of the skills required to perform the tasks at hand. This does not mean there cannot be deadlines, standards of quality, etc. It simply means that people be left to manage themselves to meet those deadlines and standards of quality. People who are given autonomy tend to exceed expectations of deadlines and standards of quality, because when they do exceed these milestones, it’s a personal victory, and not because they were poked and prodded into it. Personal victories always feel better than forced ones, because they satisfy the need for self-esteem.
While the motivational paradigm of homo economicus remains in use in undeveloped countries and workplaces with low-skilled labor, it is not a useful paradigm for this century in developed countries where people are more skilled and educated than ever. The paradigm of homo self-actualizicus is the most effective model on which to base an organization’s guiding values: trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy. Values are underpinned by beliefs, and values manifest in behavior. The collective behavior of an organization, which is based upon its values-in-use and the beliefs upon which those values are based, make up an organization’s culture. The culture of successful organizations in the 21st century will be based on the theory of self-actualizicus.
Stepping Up to the New Paradigm
In order for organizations that employ skilled knowledge-workers to remain productive, profitable, collaborative, and innovative, it is imperative that they start to move their cultures away from homo-economicus based motivation and towards self-actualizicus. It is important to remember that employees are volunteering themselves, and are increasingly feeling less loyal to their employers. If your organization employs skilled knowledge-workers and is either operating on a paradigm of homo economicus or regressing towards homo economicus, chances are that many people are silently plotting their exit strategy. Gone are the days when people were willing to tolerate a draconian work environment so that they could remain with an employer for five, fifteen, or even thirty years; that employee-employer compact is gone. It’s now commonplace for individuals to work as few as two to three years for an organization before they move on. I believe some of this is because people born after 1980 (i.e. the “m” word) have a higher level of comfort with being transient in where they live and work. These same individuals do not suffer fools lightly, and employers who attempt to maintain a control-based management culture with these people are fools indeed. While these people may only work a few years for your organization, you can maximize the value they add by having a culture of homo self-actualizicus and increase the chances that they'll remain longer.
To develop and sustain a culture consistent with self-actualizicus, employers must bring into positions of leadership those who value trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy, and who behave consistently with those values. Be very careful who you let into the henhouse of authority; the megalomaniac manager that is a holdover from the homo-economicus paradigm—a cliché of the 1980s corporate culture—is the gateway to creating a toxic workplace. Often, tendencies of megalomania are latent in people who have unmet esteem needs. The megalomania is awakened by the bestowal of authority. The antidote to this is developing self-awareness and EQ in people before they are given access to the levers of power. Toxic workplaces have a high rate of turnover that will quickly undermine an organization’s ability to remain productive, profitable, collaborative, and especially innovative, leaving C-suite executives reeling from skyrocketing overhead costs associated with a hiring and onboarding process that is akin to a sieve.
Of Middle Management and the Movie Rental Industry: The Role of Innovation
The age of “middle-management” is over. Middle management is an artifact of the homo-economicus paradigm of motivation and labor that presupposed people needed to be controlled for an organization to be successful. Organizations are going to constantly have to reinvent themselves through innovation to remain competitive. This will take the form of creative self-destruction. Take the case of the movie rental industry. Blockbuster ruled the industry for over 20 years. Then disruption began, first with mail-order movies from Netflix starting in 1997, then Redbox in 2002, and now online video rental via iTunes and Amazon (i.e. creative destruction). However, Blockbuster could have self-destructed its business model and remained a viable company by introducing the same innovations as Netflix and Redbox before Netflix and Redbox emerged. But they were too late.
Innovation is not new. But the rate of innovation is accelerating. It could be said that if you're not innovating, you're decaying. There's not much middle ground. The single biggest threat to innovation is the construct of middle management. The more layers of management, the slower the gears of innovation turn. The slower innovation occurs, the less likely it is to drive market capitalization and for organizations to remain ahead of their competitors until a state of stagnation and eventually entropy is reached. Then you're Sears. Then you're Kmart. Then you're Circuit City. Then you're Blockbuster. The moral of the story is that if you want to remain competitively innovative, live by the values of trust, dialogue, accountability, and autonomy, all of which allow an organization to remain flat and unleash the most powerful force an organization can hope for–creativity, the mother of innovation. Flat organizations are organizations that can rapidly and nimbly innovate by allowing for serendipitous and spontaneous communication to occur and for creativity to flourish. Some organizations will resist this model. Some don’t know how to proceed. The remaining organizations are going to eat their competitors' lunch as they adopt values and behaviors consistent with the paradigm of self-actualizicus.
While it was difficult at the time for people to put their finger on why the morale was so low in the organization I referenced at the beginning of this article, it’s now clear: the organization employed skilled knowledge-workers who were led by an individual operating from a moot motivational paradigm of fear. This left people feeling like they were not trusted, unable to have dialogue, unequipped to navigate issues of accountability, and working under the thumb of an individual who sought to control them. In sum, the culture of the organization where I was working was inconsistent with the needs of the employees, leading to low morale, cynicism, disagreement, and attrition.
So if you're in a position of authority in your organization, the answers to the following questions will help you to diagnose where your culture is and whether you need to take corrective actions:
- Do you trust your employees?
- Do you allow dissent from subordinates and opportunities for dialogue, regardless of status?
- What is the tone of your communication when discussing accountability, such as deliverables?
- Do you feel feared or want to feel feared?
- When stakes are high, how do people communicate?
- Do you consider yourself a manager of people?
- If there is a cadre of middle managers, what value do they add?