In 2003, the film “The Corporation” was launched posing the very provocative question “if corporations are considered by law to be legal persons, what type of person would they be?” The conclusion was that they would be classified as psychopaths because they impose economic, social and environmental costs on society in the pursuit of commercial profits, and the rules of the game allow it.
A key characteristic of a psychopath is that they are extremely egocentric, and their world revolves around them. They engage with people who will further their cause, manipulate them when there’s a spark of dissent, milk them for all they’ve got, and then dispose of them when they’re deemed to have no further use.
Whether or not corporations are psychopaths is not for me to say, and quite frankly, I have had some amazing years working for various corporations where I have made some amazing friends, stretched myself way beyond my comfort zone, and had a lot of fun. But they weren’t all so good and often the ones that tried the hardest to portray an external image of being a “great place to work” were in fact the worst place to work.
I recently wrote an article about “lifetime employment” where I discussed “Next Jump”, a company that offers their employees lifetime employment based on the premise that you should treat employees as your family. Charlie Kim, the company founder, believes that parents would never dismiss their kids if they misbehaved or under-performed and would move the world to give them every opportunity to be the best they can be. He says “despite how much we may fight, we can’t get rid of family. We have to make it work”.
The article hit a chord with many readers, which I found rather intriguing. It’s not that they want lifetime employment but rather the security that it brings. In the current business climate where employees are treated as disposable commodities, and discarded when their deemed usefulness comes to an end, I can understand why the article piqued interest. If corporations are in fact psychopaths, it makes even more sense.
Gallup International releases an annual employee engagement survey which has been highlighting for years that 75% of employees are disengaged at work and that many of these are actively disengaged. Quite scary statistics.
So can this be fixed?
Yes, but corporations need to be stop focusing on self-interest and start focusing on human growth. They need to stop caring about themselves and start caring about others.
They need to shift from being psychopaths to empaths.
This means that instead of telling people what to do, they need to define the playing field and allow everyone to use the power of their creativity to figure solutions out themselves. Instead of forcing employees to be pattern followers, they need to foster a culture of being pattern generators. A workforce that is made up of people who can see what needs to be done, and can creatively make it happen, is far more powerful than a workforce that depends on one-way delegation to tell them what to do.
The very structure of corporations is setup to foster an environment of control over ownership, from goal setting to performance reviews, feedback systems and reward and recognition programs. It’s a system that breeds uniformity and inhibits diversity, creativity and innovation, all of which are necessary to enhance employee engagement and step change company performance.
I turned to Carol Sanford, author of “The Regenerative Business”, to get some alternative ideas on how corporations could foster a culture of motivated and engaged employees. She suggests that if corporations truly want to unleash human potential, they must commit themselves to developing it, not just utilising it, and that the highest source of motivation comes from longing to live a meaningful life to make a significant contribution to something important. To this end, she says that most people practises within corporations are solely for the self-interest of the corporation and not motivating to employees, making them inherently toxic. With this in mind, I thought I would delve into some of these practices and discuss how they might contribute to a lack of employee engagement.
Job Descriptions: Job descriptions are based on a pre-conceived idea on what a company thinks they need and are corrosive to initiative and personal motivation. They don’t take into account what an employee can bring to a company, or the human ability to adapt to a changing world.
Goal setting: Goal setting is rooted in a self-centred view of what a company thinks it needs to accomplish and dictates what each person needs to do to get there. It seldom follows an empathic approach of understanding what motivates and excites employees, or their inherent creativity and initiative, and how this can be of benefit to the corporation.
Feedback: Feedback is often personal projection of the person giving the feedback, encouraging conformity and a single minded perspective on what the right way of doing things is. It also makes people increasingly dependent on others to determine how well they are doing and undermines self-belief, self-motivation, self-management, and an individual’s potential to grow.
Performance reviews: Performance reviews are the pinnacle of the people evaluation process, and often the most destructive to employee engagement. They start with the assumption that employees can only get accurate perspectives on how they are doing from others, which takes the locus of control away from themselves. They are mechanical, static and one sided and steer workers closer to standardised ideals, behaviours and results. They force people into a box which inhibits their ability to creatively and innovatively respond to changing conditions. And they often focus on an employee’s weaknesses, rather than celebrating their strengths, which has the ability to shut people down by being demoralising, diminishing and disengaging.
A while back I was involved with a company where most of the people discussions at board level centred around whether or not people were a good “cultural-fit”. The leader of the organisation had a very clear view of what type of people he felt were a good cultural-fit and your future in the company was largely determined by whether or not he felt you were congruent with this culture. Skills and competency played far less of a role in determining future success, which was always of concern to me because top talent is hard to find, and they aren’t always the easiest people. I am of the opinion that if you celebrate the good that people bring, and make them feel welcome, they will naturally become a cultural fit. We have all had experiences in our lives where we have not felt welcome, which hasn’t brought out the best in us. And experiences where we haven’t felt welcome and someone has taken us under their wing and unlocked our magic.
This evaluation process posed a number of challenges, the most problematic being that many people didn’t really understand how they needed to behave to “fit-in”, other than being really nice to the CEO. In addition, the culture was defined at the top of the organisation and filtered down which didn’t take other perspectives into account, inhibiting the celebration of diversity and alternative views and opinions. And finally, because the culture wasn’t rooted in empathy but rather psychopathy it was always viewed through a one-sided mirror. The CEO couldn’t see that he had a duty to motivate and energise people, as much as they had to impress him. For him to do this meant that he had to be able to stand in their shoes and understand the world from their perspective, so that there could be a meeting of minds, creating unified and diverse perspectives, that could change the world.