November 5, 2015
Jack Covert Selects: Why Should Anyone Work Here: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization
Why Should Anyone Work Here: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization by Rob Goffee & Gareth Jones, Harvard Business Review Press, 265 pages, $30.00, Hardcover, November 2015, ISBN 9781625275097
Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones have me believing today that the age of the “company man” is all but over. We all still need to work to make a proper living, but the very idea of what constitutes "a proper living" is changing. And while I don’t know that people were ever very content in large, “overly constraining, and depressingly conformist” organizations, I do know that most of the ones I know working in them now are not. “Organizations and Their (Ongoing) Discontents” are taking a larger toll that ever before, and the ground is shifting beneath the organizations themselves.
The old paradigm has flipped. More and more, today’s businesses find that, rather than asking or forcing individuals to step into line with the organization’s needs, they must adapt and transform themselves to attract the right people, keep them, and inspire them to do their best work.
This is party because their most talented employees find it increasingly easy, in vogue, and culturally attractive to jump ship and start something of their own that challenges the status quo, but that may be the least of their problems.
In their new book, Why Should Anyone Work Here, Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones describe four much bigger factors driving this paradigm shift: “Capitalism is reinventing itself” in the wake of the financial crisis. The crisis was not only financial, but also moral, and Goffee and Jones see a trend in organizations toward a renewed interest in their moral purpose and responsible corporate governance. “Global shifts in economic power” and the alternate models of capitalist enterprises emerging elsewhere in the world are both undermining old assumptions about employment and enlarging the organizational communities workers exist in—making them truly global. “Rates of technological and scientific change” are accelerating, and bringing with it both disruption in the labor market, and an information era in which transparency is an expected—and in the end, inevitable—part of communications to consumers and prospective employees. And finally, “mature economies face a demographic time bomb” in which workforces are aging, and mass youth unemployment is rampant, leaving little hope on either end of the spectrum and workers across generations are “disenchanted with corporate spin” and the status quo, and more attracted to organizations whose values they can identify with.
The good news, the authors tell us, is that capitalism has shown itself to be nothing if not flexible, resilient, ever changing, and “adept at reinvention.” And they believe that business organizations are, as well. In fact, it is organizations that do the work of reinvention, because “It can only be organizations” that respond to these challenges and opportunities. And organizations, of course, “are made and remade through the actions of individuals in them.” So, it all comes back to us—to you.
Epicurus said that the proper subject of history is the actions of individuals operating in the real world. To put this in practical terms, organizations may not act, but they do offer opportunities and constraints. The task is to maximize degrees of freedom and eradicate unnecessary restrictions. This is not just a job for leaders but also for individuals throughout the organization.
What the authors are trying to do is lift the debate out of how to engage employees, and imagine “How might organizations be?”
Goffee and Jones’ previous book, Why Should Anyone Be Led By You, championed authentic leadership. It was the answer to the book’s title question. People will follow you, they said, because you are your authentic, best self. It’s about one’s character, not their charisma. Unfortunately, that’s not an easy thing to accomplish in many, if not most, organizations. The authors point out themselves early in this new book just how morally backward much of the corporate world is today, in which you do not get ahead—or even get by—by being honest and sticking to your principles. Since writing that book, they have had leaders coming up to them saying that authentic leadership just wasn’t possible in their organization.
Over the years … we’ve often heard this response to its framing question—“I will be an authentic leader when my organization is authentic.” So the ideal—or authentic—organization should allow and encourage us to be our best selves.
Thus, it becomes the work of an authentic organization, and their answer to the title question of this book. We must build organizations built on—and that stick to—principles that workers can identify with. And those principles include things like moral values and culture, but they also include high-performance, winning, brand reputation, and the ability to contribute and engage in the organization’s success.
The last of these flips the stigma of the “disengaged employee” on its head, telling us it’s not an employee’s responsibility to find a way to engage in a flawed workplace, but the organization’s responsibility to build a better workplace to engage them, and allow them the freedom to contribute their talents and full capacity at work. And, in this work, “the key idea in workplace is ‘place.’”
Arguably, in a knowledge-based or clever economy (to use our term from a recent book) [their own], this is the new task of leadership: less directly to excite others, more to orchestrate or to create environments where others can follow their own authentic obsessions. Modern leadership may be as much about an authenticity of task or place as it is about the person leading and what that individual person thinks or does.
There is an odd congruence here with some of the solutions offered in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s Leadership BS, a book that took the very idea of “authentic leadership” to task. Pfeffer suggests in that book that organizations create less leader-dependent systems, and that a leader’s job is not to inspire people, but to improve outcomes. That sounds a lot like shifting the onus on leaders from inspiring employees through personal motivation to the architecting of an environment and workplace that allows them the freedom to act on their own inspiration and improve their work.
So, rather than focus on the negative statistics around employee engagement and organizational dysfunction, they explore new possibilities and new realities. In more than four years of research, exploring people’s visions and the ways they’re becoming reality on the ground, the authors settled on “six broad imperatives, which just happen to form a handy mnemonic.” DREAMS:
- Difference—“I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I’m different and how I see things differently.”
- Radical honesty—“I want to know what’s really going on.”
- Extra value—“I want to work in an organization that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development.
- Authenticity—“I want to work in an organization I’m proud of, one that truly stand for something.
- Meaning—“I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.”
- Simple rules—“I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others.”
Now, if they were being completely honest and authentic, I’m sure the authors would tell you these imperatives didn’t “just happen” to form that mnemonic—that they worked hard to construct it into one for us—but it is helpful. None of this is easy work, and none of it “just happens.” It is, however, extremely important, and the authors have done the research to convince you, and help you convince those above you, if there are any (and there probably are), of its importance and its efficacy. Most importantly, they give you ways to go about doing it within a large organization. Because although the "company man" may be an endangered species, large organizations are not; they may be more important than ever, but they must become less “overly constraining, and depressingly conformist” to survive and thrive.
If you talk to employees in any organization, you’ll find they not only have ideas about the ideal workplace, they are often aspirational about the possibilities of the organizations they work within. Isn’t it time leaders are, as well? Isn’t it time that, instead of managing the existing paradigm, we go about building a new one? Isn't it time we answer the question Why Should Anyone Work Here with something that involves a purpose instead of just a paycheck.
About Dylan Schleicher
Dylan Schleicher has been a part of the 800-CEO-READ claque since 2003. Even though he's stayed on at the company, he has not stayed put. After beginning in shipping & receiving, he joined customer service and accounting before moving into his current, highly elliptical orbit of duties overseeing the ChangeThis and In the Books websites, the company's annual review of books, and in-house design. He lives with his wife and two children in the Washington Heights neighborhood on Milwaukee's West Side.