THE BLOG

Our Employer-Employee Marriages Need Counseling

03/06/2015 12:07 pm ET | Updated May 06, 2015

This article was originally published in Forbes.

The monthly jobs report from the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics (BLS) reads like a national marriage scorecard. There are tallies of courtships ("job openings"), marital unions ("hires") and a variety of divorces ("total separations," "quits," "layoffs" and "discharges"). Our recent scorecards contain some positive how-much news: Employment marriages have outpaced employment divorces for more than a year, and the national unemployment rate is now south of 6 percent.

That said, I'm concerned that business leaders, like the BLS report, focus far too much on quantity while ignoring the quality of employment marriages.

This is crucial because the nature of employment relationships is changing quickly and dramatically -- and too few organizations are keeping pace. In his book The Start-Up of You, LinkedIn Co-founder and Chairman Reid Hoffman urges job-holders to apply an entrepreneurial mindset and tactics to furthering their careers. "Age-old assumptions about work have come undone," Reid and his co-author Ben Casnocha point out. "There are new rules, and you need to know them -- or else you may be on track to irrelevance."

I have similar advice for executives and managers who hire people: The quality of our employer-employee relationships is downright dysfunctional. The primary reason for this is that we're doing too much shifting and not enough elevating. If leaders fail to recognize and correct this mindset and the habits it fosters, organizations are headed for more, and nastier, breakups.


'Death of a Salesman' Culture Lives

Here's some guidance for leaders, hiring and human resources managers, and all of the individuals responsible for bringing new people into the organization: You should elevate more.

By that, I mean you should inspire employee behavior rather than trying to iteratively improve it through traditional forms of motivation and coercion. Dangling carrots and wielding sticks in response to how well an employee measures up against a discrete list of goals and expectations no longer suffices. We've entered an era of elevated behavior where success hinges upon whether or not our people fulfill the outsized, creative and character-based requests -- the Big Asks -- we're putting to them.

Our Big Asks of employees have become so pervasive that they're transforming into competencies. A report by Palo Alto-based non-profit research firm Institute for the Future identifies 10 increasingly important work skills. These include talents like: The ability to critically assess and develop content that uses new media forms, and to leverage these media for persuasive communication; cross-cultural competency; proficiency at thinking and coming up with solutions and responses beyond that which is rote or rules-based; and the ability to translate vast amounts of data into abstract concepts and to understand data-based reasoning. These are deeply ingrained, cultivated attributes, not the type of skills that can be acquired through a workbook or a single training course.

As I wrote two years ago, leaders are confronting a growing need to inspire elevated behaviors in their employees because companies now stand out from competitors based on behavior. Most notably, how their employees behave and relate to others. Rather than shifting behavior to wring out a few more basis points of productivity, leaders should inspire employee behaviors that lead to greater innovation, and more meaningful connections with all business stakeholders.

In the past, leaders hoped employees might promote the company during dinner conversations with friends and neighbors. Today, leaders need people who, on their own initiative, will passionately defend and/or promote the company on their burgeoning social networks. We need people who can excel at collaborating with colleagues from different cultures. We want employees to build deep and resilient supply-chain partnerships that are more evolved than traditional vendor-supplier contracts. Getting these elevated behaviors from employees requires a new leadership mindset.

Not only are companies competing on the basis of behavior, but the companies that are winning in this era inspire employee behaviors that forge more meaningful connections with all business stakeholders. Too many companies remain on the losing side, according to a new Academy of Management paper. The research examined a series of workplace studies and concludes that Arthur Miller's grim portrayal of mid-20th-century organizational culture in Death of a Salesman still resonates today. Specifically, the report states, many organizational cultures reduce employees' "obligation to follow the moral imperative of the norm of reciprocity."

The Academy of Management isn't alone. Other research confirms the need for elevated behaviors. A report on emerging job skills identifies "novel and adaptive thinking" as a key 2020 workforce competency. New indices extend beyond the traditional measure of compensation to track the meaningfulness of a profession. The Conference Board has studied how companies foster strong emotional investment among employees. IBM's report on global CEO trends indicates that the majority of executives want to "open up their organizations to empower individuals."
Unless we all apply novel and adaptive thinking to the way we conduct our employment courtships and marriages, we're not going to successfully inspire our people, as global chief executives desire.

The HOWs of Elevating

We can start elevating our employer-employee relationships by reexamining our traditional "shift-bound" hiring and selection playbooks. Hiring managers attempt to enhance the future of their organizations based on a candidate's past behaviors. While professional social media platforms have digitized resumes, they haven't modernized them. Job seekers still identify themselves with a list of skills developed from past experiences saying next to nothing about values, passion or missions. Hiring managers ought to interview for the future good of their organizations by finding out what candidates value today.

Next, we should take another look at our training and development (T&D) playbooks, the vast majority of which are devoted to helping rising employees notch iterative skills -- improvements designed to help our companies gain a bit more efficiency here or a bit more productivity there. Few of these endeavors are designed to enrich the workforce with novel and adaptive thinking. If they did, corporate finance wouldn't be so quick to slash training budgets whenever market conditions deteriorate. In fact, our current approach to T&D is all shift and almost no elevation.

Three Ways to Move Beyond Shifting

Forging the new form of employer-employee relationship requires a sustained and multidimensional transformation from shifting to elevating behaviors throughout the employer-employee lifecycle. The following steps are (only) a good start:

Hire for character: Expand recruiting and selection criteria and filters beyond traditional skills and experiences so that they describe the specific values and behaviors a candidate needs to thrive in the organization. These personal values should align with organizational values: Are a promising candidate's personal aspirations deeply aligned with what the company is all about? Behaviors should represent the specific required activities to perform Big Asks: collaboration with global partners, creativity, sense of humor, the ability to forge a rich customer experience, etc.

Manage meaning: Compensation research firm PayScale understands that there's far more behind employee satisfaction, engagement and loyalty than pay grade. That's why the firm also tracks job meaning. PayScale's list of The Most and Least Meaningful Jobs shows that a sizeable cluster of occupations that rank low on national median pay (e.g., firefighters) reports the highest levels of meaning, even more than some much higher-paying positions (e.g., CEOs). Hoffman urges employees to personally "prioritize learning over profitability" because learning will generate far greater long-term value for their careers. To what extent does your company A) recognize and reward the values and behaviors it requires to thrive; and B) offer meaningful learning experiences and other beyond-compensation rewards? PayScale's survey findings and similar research show that compensation is necessary but not sufficient in and of itself. Organizations and leaders also should provide purpose, mission and meaning that align with an employee's personal purpose, mission and meaning.

Rethink training and development: To what extent are your company's training and development efforts targeting the values, behaviors and character-building needed to move beyond rules-based thinking? To what degree do current training offerings groom these capabilities? To what degree do leadership development activities commit to imparting genuine 21st-century leadership competencies (i.e., leaders who inspire their people, who engage in two-way conversations with stakeholders, who understand humility and resiliency, and who strive to take the organization on a journey of significance)?

If you and your organization remain committed to shifting behaviors, your future likely will include a lot more marital strife and separations. But if you and your company commit to elevating behaviors, your future looks happy, meaningful and sustainable.

QUESTIONNAIRE

HOW Elevated Are You?

The following questions can help you get a read on whether your company is primarily shifting behavior rather than elevating it:

  1. Is information: (A) Hoarded or (B) Shared on a need-to-know basis?
  2. Is organizational responsibility exercised through: (A) Central policing authority or (B) By individual organizational units?
  3. Is authority exercised: (A) Without recourse or (B) Through top-down decision-making?
  4. Does your organizational structure consist of: (A) Silos and fiefdoms or (B) Divisions of expertise and functions?
  5. Finally, how long is your marriage's -- and your organization's -- time horizon: Are you (A) Looking to merely survive or (B) Achieve short-term success?

Each of the above questions targets a facet of organizational governance, culture and leadership. More specifically, they deal with how a company approaches important aspects of organizational life along a spectrum from less evolved (A) to more evolved (B). All of the A or B answers represent different points along this spectrum of shifting: a dimension where coercion and motivation applied against policies and expectations and enabled by organizational structures are utilized to elicit desired behaviors. While these approaches to employee-employer relationships can be more or less functional and productive, they fall short of the depth today's world demands. If for any of these questions A or B, or Both, describe your organization, your employment marriage might well need a heavy dose of elevated behavior. Given the Big Asks placed upon today's employees, you may need counseling to take your relationships to a healthier place. When your working relationships are tested, the answer isn't A or B. To bring your behavior to a whole new spectrum of elevation, the answer is always "C":

  • Information should be shared in a transparent fashion.
  • Responsibility should be sustained through universal vigilance by everyone in the organization.
  • Authority should be based on individual accountability.
  • An organizational structure should be integrated and supported by high levels of trust.
  • And marriages and organizations should set their sights not just on short-term wins, but on long-term significance.