THE BLOG

Occupy Corporate America?

11/17/2011 12:41 am ET | Updated Jan 16, 2012

There is some serious discontent in America right now. You have to be living under a rock to have not heard about Occupy Wall Street, which has spread to various cities across the country. While this stand is about economic inequality, the spirit of this movement has the potential to change a lot more than Wall Street.

According to the Occupy Wall Street website, "it is time for us to come together and build a new world through the power of the individual and the community." A new world? That's a pretty bold statement. But of course, history shows us that paradigm shifts don't tend to occur with fainthearted missions.

Let's think boldly, wildly, dare I say even... audaciously. What if this movement led to a real cultural shift where corporate profits were second to employee happiness in corporate America? Gasp! I understand that corporations have a legal obligation to reap profits. I'm planning on becoming a small business owner myself, and of course making a profit is important. But at the cost of making people miserable?

I left corporate America last December vowing never to return. I had been "burned" too many times. And just like that relationship that just isn't working anymore, decided to take the leap into no "security." The truth of the matter is that the security was just an illusion anyway. Without going into the gory details, the last two corporate jobs ended with me feeling disempowered and undervalued. I have a suspicion I'm not alone in stating that.

Mercer, a HR consulting firm, recently released a survey stating that employee loyalty is dropping (not even just in America but around the world). And what motivates employees is in fact, not finances. It goes on to say, "Workers worldwide say that being treated with respect is the most important factor, followed by work/life balance, type of work, quality of co-workers and quality of leadership."

Susan Inouye is an executive coach who runs a leadership development business. Her philosophy is to look at how we as individuals live our lives. In short, this means asking executives to look at how they lead their employees in a different way. She noticed that her clients were having trouble with the Generation Y workers coming into the workplace. They weren't going to be managed by fear like their parents. They place high value on flexibility in the workplace, finding fulfillment, and needing to be motivated by something other than money.

While she uses many different strategies, one key tool is called "Sawubona Leadership." Susan was introduced to this concept by her fiancé, Tony LoRe, Founder and President of Youth Mentoring Connection in Los Angeles.

"Sawubona" is a Zulu greeting that means "I see you." As in, I see your whole person. The idea is for executives to start seeing the gifts in their employees. Susan explains, "A gift is what we were born to naturally bring into this world. It's "who we are" so we tend to take it for granted. Unlike a strength which takes energy and effort to be good at, a gift is natural to do and fills us with energy. The essence of Sawubona is not about knowing another's gifts but who we become in the process when we seek to see the gifts in others." So for example, a person may be hired to do design work at an advertising firm because one of their gifts is creativity. But, what if they have other gifts that could contribute to the growth of a company? Perhaps outside of work this person plans & coordinates dinner parties for their friends' special occasions. How can this translate to the workplace? Well, this person clearly has a gift of being an organizer. Maybe even a leader. If the manager doesn't recognize this or isn't open to seeing the employee's other "gifts," then guess what happens? The worker feels stuck, feels unseen, and eventually leaves the job or even worse, stays in it, miserable. This gift-centered approach is key in helping the executives motivate their employees. The key to a motivated workforce is making sure that the employees feel good at work. It's not about catering to individual whims, but really trying to make sure that people are happy.

Susan helps these executives recognize that employees can take different steps to meet a goal. Meaning that a "my way or the highway" approach doesn't always work. She encourages managers to let their employees be more involved in creating the actions to get their work accomplished. The result is that employees feel heard. And because they feel heard, they are more motivated.

Just ask Susan's clients who have experienced off-the-chart successes using her approach. For example, one bank executive's team recently went from flat-line growth to a 50% increase in productivity in just six months because as the executive says, "I stopped judging their faults and started recognizing their gifts." Oddly enough, in the process they became inspired to work on their weaknesses as well. Another senior manager of a retail food chain increased his monthly budgeted goals by 70% in just five months because he changed his "command and control" leadership style to a more gift-centered approach. In recognizing and valuing his people's gifts, they now brought their full self to work. "They worked together as a team looking out for the best interest of the company because for the first time they felt a part of something greater than themselves," he explained.

This isn't about weird team-event-self-esteem meetings where employees are forced to fall into the arms of their co-workers. That won't fly with people anymore. People need to feel valued as an individual because their managers value and treat them with respect. So rather than the bottom line being all about cutting costs and increasing profit, how about we listen to the heart of what Sawubona means and start seeing employees for who they are and what they can contribute? Then the Occupy Wall Street mission statement might actually become realized.