Those that have followed this blog know that we are proponents of moving the management of work to the work, aka “self-managed” teams or systems where managers exist to provide resources and support, and to fully authorize employees/teams who are closest to the work so they, not the manager, can make decisions about and manage the work. Such systems have core to their mission the creation of work environments that support and develop people first with flexible policies and processes, including extended paternity/maternity, vacation as you need, external learning support, technology, food, extended healthcare, wellness, fitness, and the list goes on.
“People first”, simply defined as focusing on employees as the most important asset in a company, has become increasingly popular in the array of companies with whom we work. This is typically best represented by company values that support a people-focused culture in which development is key. We believe that “values” are among the most important drivers of culture and performance. As Collis and Rukstad wrote in 2008 (Can you say what your strategy is?, HBR April 2008), “Many companies do have—and all firms should have—statements of their ultimate purpose and the ethical values under which they will operate… it is good and proper that firms be clear with employees about ethical values… They govern how employees should behave.”
We always advise clients to develop values that are clear and about how they think about people and the beliefs that it wants to represent to the world. In our research on organizational resilience, the first and foremost contribution to a sustainable enterprise is the organization’s “moral purpose”—an organization’s shared resolve that contributes to a greater ethical and moral good. Most successful organizations give back to society through what they do, how they do it and/or what they support (think Ben&Jerry’s Ice Cream).
Yet, there is an inherent transaction that should occur in organizations between employees and employer that is often overlooked or misunderstood. We think of this as an equation of “value”, where value is defined as both the behaviors and beliefs one holds and the “worth or usefulness of something”. In return for valuing people and investing in its most important asset, an organization should expect “value” in return—exceptional performance. In other words, if I am valued and cared for by my organization than I have to provide value in return by performing in my role to meet and exceed what the organization requires. Simply put, VP = vp, Value(People) = value(performance). The values an organization upholds in a people first culture should be returned through exceptional performance.
Organizations where people are valued and people excel, giving their all, are highly motivating. Most studies on motivation show that employees are most invigorated by what they do, their role, and where they do it, their organization (Quinn, 1983, Kalliath, 1999). Motivation comes from within, my internal drive, my interest in what I do and my desire to achieve, and from the supportive environment created by those for whom I work. For us, this reinforces the need for a balance between what I get and what I give, and the degree to which there is a match in my drive and beliefs and those for whom I work.
Interestingly, we find considerable confusion amongst client employees regarding this transaction. Employees sometimes forget that they have a part in this equation—their performance. Frequently in people first systems we find employees who:
- get upset when someone is let go due to performance—letting go of poor-performers is seen as against a people first policy as if poor performers should be given a home until they chose otherwise, or
- demand relaxed hours or “more fun” in a struggling start-up that needs to maximize output given its limited resources and market opportunity, or
- take initiative to create their own role under “people first” (which is a good thing!) and then do not understand when the role is eliminated because it does not fit, align or offer any return to the organization.
There are many more examples but the point is that “people first”—valuing and treating people in the best possible way in order to produce an organization that can do nearly anything—is part of a transaction between employer and employee. It is a transaction that is simple in its basics—I’ll care for you, protect you, develop you and, if we are successful, offer you a career, if you work hard, perform at your best and care for our organization. This transaction produces amazing results when balanced.