Fueling the Corporate Renaissance: Autonomy and Authenticity

A ladder leading up to an escape hatch. 3D render with HDRI lighting and raytraced textures.

There’s a renaissance going on in business globally. A shift is taking place in our workforce. Management and labor are coming to an awareness that the current culture within our corporations needs to change if we want to continue to be productive.

What’s interesting about this renaissance is that it’s coming from both directions. Leadership and workers, for different reasons, are coming to the conclusion that they both need something more satisfying from their work environment.

Workers are demanding more autonomy. If they’re going to produce in the 21st century they are going to need the freedom to move creatively within their sphere. They’re going to need the freedom to access resources without going through some lengthy protocol that saps them of motivation.

With this change in the workforce, leaders are seeing that they need to lead with more authenticity. Command and control doesn’t cut it. Understanding their true place on the team, the contribution they make, is essential. Making a deeper connection with the whole worker is more productive and healthier.

This renaissance is just beginning. The terms of this new contract are still being hammered out. Many are adjusting, slowly. That’s fine. Change comes best in two-degree increments. Just understanding each other better is a step in the right direction. Discovering the part we play on a team with a clear objective is helpful. Coming to an appreciation of who we are as coworkers, and what we want from this effort that takes the majority of our waking hours is instructive, gratifying, and enlightening.

The Neglected Leadership Art Of Vision Casting

One of the traps that I see many managers fall into is the belief that people don’t change. Often they fall into this when they feel they’ve tried everything to motivate and engage their team without success. A cynical attitude sets in followed by a commensurate reduction in expectation. The next step is a decrease in productivity, and the downward spiral begins.

But people do change. Even if the specific evidence around us says otherwise. Subjectively you may tell yourself that people don’t change but science tells us that they do. As a matter of fact the very definition of life is the ability to change. Anything that isn’t changing is dead (a lesson for business).

The science behind motivation shows that people will change when they’ve been motivated properly. The problem is that we often use extrinsic rather than intrinsic motivators because they’re easier to apply.

We’re at a place in our business history where leadership and management are experiencing diminishing returns on their extrinsic investments. Incremental pay raises and fringe benefits aren’t producing the commensurate increase in productivity that we were looking for. And it’s getting harder and harder to retain great talent. Many employees aren’t that interested in more external rewards if it means just doing more of the same work.

Something or someone needs to tap a nerve in the worker that will generate an internal vibe that motivates them intrinsically. This can be done. This must be done if we’re ever going to turn the tide of waning employee engagement.

The good news is that it’s possible, but only if we commit to giving our teams a greater vision. For too long we’ve had our head down and plowed, only looking up to check the bottom line. It’s time to lift our heads to see the big picture, to inspire our teams with the whole vision.

We’re growing as a nation of workers. We’re seeking new motivations for doing what we spend most of our waking hours doing. We want to use all of our skills and talents. We’re looking deeper into the purpose of our work and trying to find meaning.

This is a challenge for leadership and management because it demands that they dig deeper, too. Seeking intrinsic motivators means we have to find ways to inspire our teams to do great work. It may mean some reorganization within the team. It may mean some fine-tuning of our structure. It probably requires deeper understanding and communication on both ends. It certainly means casting a larger more inspiring vision.

Navigating The Personalities

Multi-ethnic group of university students smiling in a classroom

I’ve been doing a lot of personality profile training these days within my leadership communications workshops. That one component of the workshop seems to add the most value to the leaders I train. Lightbulbs go on all day long as we apply the understanding of the various personality types to the teams we’re leading.

The beauty of this training is that you don’t have to have a doctorate in Psychology to derive benefit. A basic understanding of the four gross classifications of personality are enough to facilitate better team communications and productivity.

The first lightbulb that I often see going on is the understanding that we are all unique individuals but at the same time highly programed by our personality. That’s the dichotomy within the human animal. The second bulb to go on is the revelation that Sally doesn’t often follow our lead because she doesn’t speak our language so we need to learn hers (the very essence of leadership).

When this lightbulb burns within the training group the energy in the room becomes palpable. Leaders see at a much more personal level that they need to work at bringing down communication barriers if their team is going to engage and reach the desired objective.

The era of “command and control” is closing, with most leaders today acknowledging that leading the “whole worker” is much more effective. We aren’t “personal” or “professional.” We’re one whole being: each sphere influencing the other. A proper understanding of our team member’s personality (and our own) will facilitate healthier and more productive work relationships, which will in turn produce a more effective and engaged team.

The Synergos Outcome

We were designed to work in groups. We’re social creatures wired for teamwork and interaction. Collaboration is intrinsic to our DNA. Even if you work alone you rely on others. How many times have you checked a fact out on the web today? How often have you called another subject matter expert to get their opinion of your project? How many vendors are feeding you resources?

Few, if any, create ex nihilo; out of nothing. We co-operate, join forces, team up and work together to produce something greater than we could have if left alone. The process is energizing, inspiring, and fun. It’s how we’re wired.

When operating effectively in teams we produce a result much greater than each worker could if toiling at the same task alone. But that’s not its only benefit. It’s not just the product that we’re looking for. It’s the experience, the journey, the feeling that comes from a high-functioning team working at peak performance. It’s that handoff to the slam dunk, the perfect swing, the flawless pass to the waiting receiver that feels and looks so good while it’s happening.

Teams working in that state of flow are rare. But when they happen synergos results. Synergos is the Greek term from which we derive our English word, synergy. It means, working together. As we move deeper and deeper into project-based work and the teams that result, it becomes increasingly important that we attain that flow state. It doesn’t happen magically. It takes effort. Skill. Cooperation.

Leadership Essential For The Road Ahead

There’s no doubt that things in the business world are changing. Relative to leadership, the age of command and control is waning, and a new age of authentic leadership is rising. The skillset for this new age is different from the old one. Many leaders are sensing it and making adjustments to their leadership style.

Why is this happening? The age of command and control was born out of the industrial and information ages. People (read: workers) were largely seen as machines (human capital) to be moved around and manipulated. But people aren’t cattle and we’re learning that if we want to increase productivity with our teams, we are going to need to lead the whole worker (#wholeworker), taking into consideration their thoughts, feelings, and contributions.

This transition has caught many leaders off guard. Many are learning the hard way that the old leadership skillset is not as effective on the new 21st century worker.

Chief among the resources needed in this new skillset is the practice of empathy. Empathic leadership is required if we are going to engage workers and increase productivity. But many leaders, especially those entrenched in command and control, are in need of some training in order to inculcate and employ this skill.

There are actually three types of empathy that a leader needs to employ in the guidance of their team’s activities: cognitive, emotional, and empathic concern.

Cognitive empathy is the skill of understanding how another thinks. It’s the understanding of their mental model. Awareness of their personality type is one way we train for cognitive empathy. Cognitive empathy helps us relate to teammates in ways they understand, typically using their vocabulary.

Emotional empathy is the immediate felt sense of what’s going on in the teammate. It’s the human connection. It’s feeling what they feel. It’s relating to our teammate on an emotional level. This is a severe departure from command and control, which was not concerned with the concept of the whole worker. The hitch is that we’re people, not machines, and we need to lead the whole worker if we’re looking for better outcomes.

Empathic concern is the result of the leader taking into consideration the data gathered from the first two forms of empathy, and then taking action. It’s making the leadership move. It’s saying to yourself and your teammate, what can I do to help? What resources can I make available to you to release the stress, relieve the bottleneck, and remove the chokepoint?

If we’re going to make advances in team productivity through 2018 it’s going to be by moving toward a more authentic and empathic model of leadership. Employing these three forms of empathy is one of the ways to get there. Bringing our teams into greater engagement, professional satisfaction, and productivity is the goal of authentic leadership and the outcome of better leadership practices.

*I’m indebted to Daniel Goleman (Emotional Intelligence) for the delineation of the three forms of empathy.

Engaging Leadership Leads The Whole Worker

Over the past two decades we’ve become very good at compartmentalizing our lives. This is work. This is family. This is play. This is serious. As a result of this practice, we compartmentalize our personalities, talents, and skills as well. We bring certain skills to work and leave other skills at home.

Many of us are unfulfilled at work because the work doesn’t engage us completely. It usually engages us physically; from time to time intellectually; now and then emotionally; and rarely spiritually. However, current studies in worker productivity are showing that if the whole worker (#wholeworker) is engaged, we not only become more productive but more satisfied as well. And that satisfaction goes deep, beyond the pocket, into the psyche and spirit.

The dilemma for business leaders is that they haven’t been equipped to engage the whole worker. Why would they need to know anything outside of the worker’s professional skill set? Focusing on the bottom line was all that most managers were taught. Increasing shareholder value was the goal. But at what cost to the worker? At what cost to the organization?

With our new understanding of worker productivity, team dynamics, and corporate culture, we have the ability to move out of the old command-and-control modalities and into a more holistic and healthy approach to business. In fact, our current economic climate has actually helped us to get there. We’ve learned, the hard way, that profit at any cost can’t be the goal. We’re capitalists, for sure, but we can be healthy capitalists.

Turning this ship around is going to take looking for ways to engage the whole worker—body, mind, and spirit. The good news is that the answer is right in front of us, staring us in the face. Having a guided discussion around our differences is a simple way to start.

Discovering what skills, talents, passions, and preferences my teammates have helps me to understand my value to the team.

Discovering how our skills, talents, passions, and preferences complement each other brings us the synergies we yearn for and talk about, but rarely experience.

Discovering more about our skills, talents, passions, and preferences creates a human connection, builds team, and paves the way for future engagement.

Business leadership is experiencing a renewal for sure, and it’s coming by way of ideas that always were desired ideals, they were just rarely applied. Bottom line myopia got in the way. Those leading the way in this renewal are experiencing a paradigm shift in their thinking, productivity, and relationships.

Engaging Workers With Meaningful Work

For decades we have been asking technology to take care of the more mundane aspects of our work so that we can be free to apply our talents to more creative endeavors. In large measure this is what technology has done. As we work deeper into this new economy we find a new culture of work taking hold. That culture places a huge value on productivity and creativity.

The shocking worker engagement numbers we’re seeing (Gallop shows that globally only 13% of our workforce is actively engaged in their work) has a positive purpose in that it reveals the collective yearning to do work that has meaning.

The average worker on our project teams isn’t content with performing the same function project after project, year after year. They’re looking for work that stretches them intellectually, emotionally, creatively, and even spiritually. As I train workers in emotional intelligence, they’re actually acquiring the skills they need to find that meaning and therefore that satisfaction in their work.

So the question becomes, what is work that has meaning? Primarily, it’s work that aligns with our values. It’s work that serves a purpose larger than just advancing us financially. It’s work that cultivates us intellectually, emotionally, and even spiritually.

Workers are seeking that kind of experience on the job (#wholeworker). I hear it from project leaders and managers everywhere in the trainings I conduct. It’s not just a particular project they’re looking for; it’s a particular team as well. It’s the experience they’ll gain from working with particular people. It’s a network of connected relationships they’re looking to build.

Look at what software applications are thriving today; they’re mostly communications oriented. Notice how “social” the Internet has become. We crave that connection. This is a pendulum swing from decades of disconnected, cold, analytical, machine-like business thinking (think: cubicle farms). This is the product of seeking work that has meaning.

As we advance in this new economy, business culture, and digital age, meaningful work will be the chief characteristic today’s workers seek. Helping them find and engage in that is our job as managers and leaders.

How Much Is Enough?

As a sort of disclaimer I want to state that I am a believer, a huge believer. I have been an Apple fan from day one. As a matter of fact, I have never owned a Windows-operated machine. And I regularly preach the gospel of Apple to any that need digital counsel, bringing many into the fold.

But with Apple sitting on cash reserves of over $170 billion, I’ve got to ask, how much is enough?

It’s not that I don’t think they should be allowed to reap the rewards of their excellent design and production. It’s not that I think they shouldn’t be allowed to save for a rainy day (should the Apple Watch go belly up). It’s a much larger issue, a fundamental issue, I think. The issue is one of purpose—ultimate purpose.

We all know that the purpose of any corporation is to create a profit for its shareholders. Sure; this is part of the grand capitalist design. But along the way there are other, smaller, more life-affirming and significant purposes that can and should be pursued.

We’re living in a time were worker satisfaction is at an all-time low (Gallup reports about 13% of the global workforce is actively engaged in their work). I’ve never worked for Apple and so have only the anecdotal reports of people who have. But if I were someone being asked to pour my heart, soul, and labor into the next product, I would be asking myself Why? So that we can push this cash reserve over $200 billion?

There has to be a larger purpose to our professional efforts than just a financial return. Workers are crying out for this in the 21st century. A sense of growth in the human experience—not just financial but emotional and spiritual as well, a sense of balance to the professional and personal dimensions, a sense of helping others to achieve what we’ve achieved.

A quiet revolution is sweeping across our corporate world, one that’s slowly humanizing our work. Part of that revolution involves the analysis of why we do what we do, corporately. And the revolution is coming to some new conclusions, conclusions that go beyond the pursuit of profit, conclusions that lead to a healthier work environment, conclusions that consider the whole worker.

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