Debunking 5 Traditional Workplace Beliefs

Debunking 5 Traditional Workplace Beliefs
By Jim Haudan and Rich Berens

It often takes years for new insights to take hold and drive new behaviors. Take the research that linked smoking to cancer, or the connection between sugar-filled carbonated drinks and obesity. What might ultimately become obvious, isn’t always clear at first. But, if you take the time to reconcile data with reality, you will embark on a trajectory of profound change.

We have reached that threshold in how we view work. Something just isn’t adding up. A work environment that only engages 30 percent of its human talent is a social challenge of the highest order—not just an organizational inconvenience. Everyone should have a right to do noble work, and the opportunity to do that work in an environment where they can bring the best version of themselves.

The drumbeat of dissatisfaction is constant and getting louder from a millennial generation that wants an integrated work and home life where they’re able to explore opportunities to the fullest extent. They aren’t willing to accept a workplace where they feel they have to be guarded or play it safe. This generation won’t settle for anything other than exceptional workplaces.

The fact that levels of employee engagement haven’t improved in 30 years suggests that something has to change. We should no longer feel that the current state is the best state. We need to admit that work is broken. We need to start with examining what drives our current behaviors and beliefs.

It Starts with our Beliefs

Many of our current beliefs on how organizations should run date back to the industrial age! And, as we all know, old habits die hard. Barry Schwartz, in his book Why We Work, explains that many of our thoughts about work, and the role of employees, have been shaped by none other than Adam Smith himself—famed economist and philosopher and author of The Wealth of Nations. Smith wrote:

“It is in the inherent interest of every man to live as much at his ease as he can; and if his emoluments are to be precisely the same whether he does or does not perform some very laborious duty, to perform it in as careless and slovenly a manner that authority will permit.”

In a nutshell, the core belief is that peoples’ primary, if not sole, motivation for working is … money. And employers aren’t looking to reach the minds, passion or hearts of their employees, but instead simply get usable labor in exchange for a fee. You work to get paid and we pay you to do as told. End of story.

While not the most desirable state of mind from a human perspective, it worked reasonably well in the industrialized age where division of labor from the complex into small parts was the name of the game to gain productivity.

Today we are clearly past the industrial age, and are somewhere between an information age and an experience economy. Our people are motivated by what they feel, what they experience, and what they want to join. Yet, many of the beliefs from the industrial age about how to run companies have stuck with us. They still tend to look like directing, telling, and scripting what our people need to do. 200 plus years of history and habits are hard to break.

To help free leaders from some of their long-held—yet no longer relevant—beliefs regarding human nature in the workplace, we are busy finishing a book on the fact that we believe work is broken. And it is incumbent on all of us to “awaken the sleeping giant” of human potential represented by the 70% of people not engaged in the workplace today.

With our new book, we hope to help leaders realize that many traditional beliefs are destructive forces to engagement, to creating results, and to effectively compete in today’s world. That these beliefs are remnants from an era that has long come and gone. To achieve this goal, we’ve identified five dysfunctional beliefs of leaders that perpetuate disengagement. Yes, leader beliefs are perpetuating massive employee indifference. They are very much out of place with creating thriving innovative workplaces that turn customers into advocates and fans.

Five Outdated Beliefs

To help leaders break free from the obsolete traditions holding our workplaces back, here are five beliefs that are keeping your people on the bench and suggested tactics that will help align work with modern day society.

Outdated Belief #1: Purpose matters but it doesn’t drive our numbers

Today’s Reality: Let’s be honest. We all go to work to get paid. But the historic equation between management and labor was one of pay in return for a specific set of tasks—no questions asked. Leaders need to start thinking like a modern day employee who today wants to be part of something bigger than themselves. The successful modern organization engages the employee purpose and even more importantly, believes “purpose” is both an economic driver and talent differentiator.

Outdated Belief #2: Our story is compelling and that alone is enough to inspire our people to act

Today’s Reality: For decades, most organizations believed that once a strategy was solidified, the hard work was done. The rollout process was as simple as a one-way PowerPoint, roadshow, or town hall meeting trying to get everyone on board. But this hardly ever works, does it? The modern organization creates two-way conversation, engages employees intellectually and emotionally, and creates a clear line of sight from the individual to the strategic intent. The new belief is that our people are actually customers of our strategy and need to be approached with the same listen/learn/collaborate thinking as we do with external customers.

Outdated Belief #3: We can measure human motivation and engagement in a survey

Today’s Reality: The Engagement Survey tool has become the goal in far too many cases when it comes to employee/associate engagement. The engagement score has masked the fact that people – our people – have figured out how to play the “what number do you want?” game. In many cases, we have been silent co-conspirators in the game by teaching to the test, by letting it be known that we want our engagement numbers to go up. The board is watching and leader incentives are connected to it.

It is time to do the right thing versus trying to manufacture the right measures, or perpetuate a game that everyone is being trained for the test. It starts with leaders measuring their actions against:
• How much do we care about our people’s success?
• Are we actively removing constraints?
• Have we created the conditions for true collaboration?
• Are we curious about what our people understand and what they think?

Outdated Belief #4: Human variability needs to be minimized to create scalability and consistency

Today’s Reality: Customers expect consistent service and the best way to deliver that is through processes that emphasize constancy, routine, and scripts. Therefore, we have built a belief that holding our people and their behaviors to a strict policy is the best way to have uniform standards. Unfortunately, there are also elements of human care, discernment, and judgment, which add the human moments that make the difference. Today’s customer also expects consistency and personalization. The only way to deliver that is by giving employees the freedom to be their best authentic selves with a support structure from the leadership team.

Outdated Belief #5: My people are comfortable telling me what they really think and feel

Today’s Reality: The belief that my people tell the truth, are free to speak up and feel safe to disagree is out of touch with reality. Only leaders truly feel this way. The new belief is that a leader must work tirelessly to create a safe environment where honest and candid communication is welcome and wanted. Leaders must work intentionally to lead with vulnerability, to inspire truth telling, and stand in the midst of conflict to make critical decisions.

We live in a time of rapid change. A time of ultimate transparency and information flow. A time where a new generation of workers is asking, demanding, and creating a different relationship with their employers. There will be two types of companies in this world. Those leading the transformation of work and those that trail and follow. Which direction will you choose as we head into 2017?