Are Bosses Necessary? – The Atlantic

A radical experiment at Zappos may herald the emergence of a new, more democratic kind of organization

Deeply strange reports have been emerging from the Las Vegas headquarters of Zappos, until recently the world’s happiest shoe store. This spring, by order of the CEO, Tony Hsieh, the company abolished managers, eliminated job titles, denounced its own organizational hierarchy, and vested all authority in a 10,000-word constitution that spells out a radical new system of self-governance. Holacracy, it’s called, and it makes all previous moves toward “employee empowerment” look like the mild concessions of an 18th-century monarch. Freed from direct supervision, employees are expected to join various impermanent democratic assemblies called “circles” (headed, but notrun, by a “lead link”), in which they will essentially propose their own job descriptions, ratify the “roles” of others, and decide what projects the group should undertake.

The constitution was written by Brian Robertson, a Philadelphia entrepreneur unaffiliated with Zappos who’d grown disaffected with standard management practices. Hsieh had heard him speak about holacracy at a 2012 conference, and was captivated. “We adopted it wholesale with zero changes,” says John Bunch, who used to be a technical adviser at Zappos but is now title-less. (He is, nevertheless, heading the implementation of holacracy.)

The media has so far reacted with a mix of understandable skepticism and outright derision. “Mr. Hsieh’s hot hand appears to be at risk of going cold,” The New York Times reported in July. Employees at Zappos, the paper said, have met the development “with everything from cautious embrace to outright revulsion.” The tech site Pando was less measured: “Holacracy of Dunces,” a headline snorted that same month.

Holacracy’s implementation at Zappos, still in process, has undoubtedly caused problems (more on those later). But such reports risk missing the larger picture. However fraught it may be, Zappos’s experiment with holacracy is just the latest sign that information technology is allowing the emergence of a new form of organization.

For years, pockets of the U.S. military have been slowly taking decisions out of the hands of high-ranking commanders and entrusting them to teams of soldiers, who (armed with the concept of “commander’s intent”) are told what problems to solve—but not how to solve them. “The organization as a rigidly reductionist mechanical beast is an endangered species,” General Stanley McChrystal writes in his new book, Team of Teams. “The traditional heroic leader may not be far behind.” At the video-game maker Valve, new employees are told not to expect instructions, because even the managing director “isn’t your manager,” says the employee handbook. “You have the power to green-light projects. You have the power to ship products.” And so they do

What’s enabling this shift, argues Thomas Malone, a professor at MIT’s Sloan School of Management, is simple: falling information costs. In his 2004 book,The Future of Work, Malone broke the history of organizations into three stages. In stage one, information is expensive to convey, so most decisions are made face-to-face in necessarily small firms. As communication costs begin to fall, Malone explained to me, we reach stage two, in which “it becomes economically feasible to send information to a single, central place for decisions to be made.” That is, the large, centralized hierarchy becomes possible. Then comes stage three: “As communication costs continue to fall, there comes a time when it’s economically feasible to bring information to all points, so in some sense, everyone can know everything.” In this third stage, the benefits of bigness can persist, but its traditional handmaiden, hierarchy, doesn’t have to. (Indeed, when the volume of information grows large enough, trying to direct its flow upward for evaluation can slow everything down.)

Malone points to the history of government. We lived most of our existence in small, fairly egalitarian bands of hunter-gatherers, until the advent of written language, which arose in tandem with record-keeping, taxation, and the founding of the first kingdoms, around 3000 B.C. Large-scale democracy did not appear until an equally momentous information technology, the printing press, enabled the “reading revolution” of the 18th century.

In business, the transition from bands to kingdoms came courtesy of the telegraph in the mid-19th century. And what it begat—the large, managerial hierarchy; the salaried manager; the modern definition of a job—has endured, with occasional pushes to prune and flatten management, until now, a good two decades after the Internet radically altered the volume, velocity, and direction of information flows. (Doubters, check your inbox.)

Why the lag? A look back at the mid-19th-century transition suggests an answer. After a new information technology appears, the organizational innovation that it allows doesn’t knock at the front door and present itself. People have to invent it. The ones who did last time around aren’t as celebrated as Morse, or before him Gutenberg. But what they arrived at looks obvious only in retrospect.

In 1854 the Board of the New York and Erie Railroad promoted Daniel McCallum, a Scottish-born bridge builder, to general superintendent, hoping he could address the railroad’s mysterious ills. As the railroad grew larger, it was growing not more efficient per mile, as Adam Smith would have predicted, but less so. Had the company hit some sort of natural size limit? No, McCallum concluded. What was breaking down was its stage-one organizational system.

At a small railroad—and all railroads up to then had been small—the superintendent could give every aspect of its business his personal attention, McCallum wrote. “Each employee is familiarly known to him, and all questions in relation to its business are at once presented and acted upon.” But as The Atlantic marveled in an 1858 article featuring McCallum’s ideas, the New York and Erie had to coordinate the movements of some 200 locomotives, 3,000 cars, and 4,700 employees dispersed over hundreds of miles. What was needed, McCallum wrote, was “a system perfect in its details, properly adapted and vigilantly enforced.”

The system he spelled out—in great detail—delineated who had the authority to decide what, and even what words to use in communicating that decision back to their superiors on the telegraph. (“All subordinates should be accountable to, and be directed by their immediate superiors only.”) In the elaborate diagram that McCallum created—widely considered the first modern organizational chart—17 spokes, each representing a different division, radiate from a central hub that is the office of McCallum himself. Thanks to a system of hourly reports, The Atlantic wrote,

“the General Superintendent at his office can at any moment tell within a mile where each car or engine is, what it is doing, the contents of the car, the consignor and consignee, the time at which it arrives and leaves each station, (the actual time, not the time when it should arrive,) and is thus able to correct all errors almost at the moment of commission … The great regulator … is the electric telegraph, which connects all parts of the road, and enables one person to keep, as it were, his eye on the whole road at once.”

The most striking aspect of McCallum’s system comes near the top of his report. For all the rigidities, he admitted, the system was an improvisation—one man’s attempt to bring his organization into better alignment with a rapidly changing environment. It would “require amendment,” he wrote, “and a reasonable time to prove its worth.”

Which sounds a lot like the commentary of Brian Robertson, the entrepreneur who created holacracy. Like McCallum’s, his decision to put pen to paper was not utopian but pragmatic. The idea was born out of his own frustrations as the CEO of Ternary Software, which he founded in 2001. “When I tried to design organizations purely from my own intellect,” Robertson says, “I always got it wrong. I’d design solutions for problems that didn’t exist. Other parts were overdesigned. We’d end up solving problems that would never come up in practice, and then you’d miss the ones you actually needed to solve. You can’t know enough.”

He didn’t start with any radical notions of overturning hierarchy. He just wanted his company to function better. After exhausting the most-obvious solutions—hiring better managers, attempting to nail the perfect org chart—he finally concluded that the problem was the very concept of a rigid org chart. And so, as McCallum had a century and a half before, he wrote out a new set of rules delineating a new system.

Like McCallum’s, it is very, very complicated—too complex to describe fully here, and too complex for the liking of some at Zappos. (The constitution Robertson drafted runs more than twice the length of the Founding Fathers’.) But its basic principles go something like this: Instead of being assigned job descriptions from on high, employees take on mutable roles where they see a need. The hierarchical org chart is replaced by an ever-changing array of circles that can form, merge, or collapse in response to opportunities and threats in the marketplace. Reorganization, in effect, becomes a permanent way of life. The rigid forms invented in the steam age give way to something more organic—a jellyfish, perhaps.

It makes some sense on paper. But in practice? Holacracy’s first laboratory, Ternary, was a tiny company that didn’t survive the Great Recession. And at Zappos, given the choice of embracing holacracy or taking a buyout this past spring, 210 employees, or 14 percent of the company’s workforce, chose the latter. John Bunch notes that holacracy has created a whole set of new problems that have to be addressed. How to evaluate people’s performance is one. (Zappos is working on a system called “badging,” whereby employees earn badges for acquiring new skills.) How to compensate someone who splits her time among three different roles (say, customer care, event planning, and brainstorming a new Zappos product line) is another. The list goes on. How do you stop people from trying to exercise power they no longer have? And how does a system conceived to reduce information overload (“the goal,” says Bunch, “is to find the optimal circle structure where the need for communication between the circles is the least”) not add to it instead, in the form of endless meetings?

But just because solutions don’t yet exist doesn’t mean they won’t be found, says Robertson, who likens holacracy to a computer’s operating system and the solutions to apps. Remember when the App Store first opened? It didn’t have a lot on offer. Bunch told me that it’s too soon for Zappos to begin making amendments to holacracy; the company needs to finish the difficult process of understanding it first. “If someone comes to me super-frustrated, borderline angry,” he says, “that’s actually a really good sign to me, because it means they’re at least trying to understand it.”

The important point is this: To pronounce holacracy unworkable now would be akin to pronouncing democracy unworkable in the midst of the French Revolution. And should holacracy at Zappos fail, which it well may, neither should its principles be pronounced dead. The New York and Erie Railroad was in receivership within a few years of McCallum’s report—but the system he pioneered there became utterly commonplace by century’s end.

With that in mind, it’s not hard to imagine a future in which the only thing strange about what’s going on at Zappos is that it ever seemed strange at all.

Culture: Why It’s The Hottest Topic In Business Today – by Josh Bersin

Last year Merriam Webster’s dictionary stated that ”culture” was the most popular word of the year. Well, it has now become one of the most important words in corporate board rooms, and for good reason.

We have a retention crisis. New Deloitte research shows that culture, engagement, and employee retention are now the top talent challenges facing business leaders. More than half business leaders rate this issue “urgent” – up from only around 20% last year.

What’s going on? It’s very simple: as the economy picks up steam (unemployment now below 5.5%), employees have more bargaining power than ever before. Thanks to social websites likeLinkedIn LNKD +0.07%, Glassdoor, and Indeed, a company’s employment brand is now public information so if you’re not a great place to work, people find out fast. This shifts power into the hands of job-seekers.

And many companies have work to do.  Gallup’s latest research shows that only 31% of employees are engaged at work (51% are disengaged and 17.5% activelydisengaged). Analysis of the Glassdoor database shows that the average employee gives their company a C+ (3.1 out of 5) when asked whether they would recommend their company to a friend (Bersin by Deloitte research with Glassdoor).

We have arrived in a world of “haves” and “have-nots” when it comes to attracting and engaging top talent.

Let me cite some examples:

  • I recently met with one of the world’s biggest industrial manufacturers on the east coast and they lamented losing top aerospace engineers to Google GOOGL +0.73%. They’re scratching their heads to figure out how to prevent more top engineers from leaving.
  • A large well-known Silicon Valley company considering a major facelift of its corporate campus to attract young people. They’re not sure if it will work or not, but they feel they have no choice. Here there is a war to build the “best workplace in the world” – free food, unlimited vacation, yoga classes, beer bashes, and bright open offices are everywhere. (Check out Google’s new space age campus design.)
  • Most financial services companies I meet with tell me they are struggling to hire top people. While the industry is still popular with MBAs, the recession damaged the reputation for this industry and it’s just starting to recover.

Companies that focus on culture are becoming icons for job seekers:

  • Fortune’ Best Companies happen to be many of the same companies listed in Glassdoor’sBest Places to Work and also LinkedIn’s Most In-Demand Employers. This shows that companies with strong positive cultures (Fortune and Glassdoor’s list is based on employee surveys) are now the most in-demand.  So the “culture winners” are winning bigger.
  • Younger companies that focus on culture see a huge payoff. HubSpot, a growing New England tech firm focused on its culture (around 1,000 employees), has Glassdoor ratings of 4.6, far above the industry average. They give their staff free books and education and believe so strongly in transparency that they post their board meeting notes and culture manifesto online.
  • NetFlix’s culture manifesto ”freedom with responsibility” is one of the most popular documents on the internet, 11 million+ viewers. Everyone wants to copy it.
  • Value statements have popped up everywhere. Zappos’ cultural values focus on innovation, Quicken Loans  uses its colorful “ISMS” to guide values (“call back every client the same day” is one of their values), Google has its 10 ”truths” (focus on the user is one), RW Baird has its “ unique culture,” Salesforce focuses on community, and it goes on and on.
  • Culture-driven companies explicitly put their people first. Wegmans, the #7 best place to work in the Fortune list, reset business goals just to create the jobs and career growth they want for their people. “Take care of your people and they will take care of your customers,” as the saying goes.
  • Traditional companies like Aetna are now heavily focused on culture. Recently the New York Times published an article about Aetna’s CEO Mark Bertolini. He has raised wages, improved health benefits, and introduced yoga and mindfulness training to his entire company to improve retention and culture in the call centers. Their $100M + turnover problem is rapidly going away and he claims to have already improved the bottom line by 3-4 %.

google

Look at how office space is now part of building a great culture. Fortune’s new “25 coolest offices of the 100 Best Companies” shows how most of these great places to work are actually great PLACES to work. Flexibility, entertainment, and bright colorful offices and art make these companies a fun place to work.

People now believe that culture has a direct impact on financial performance. I just talked with two industry analysts who read Glassdoor comments before they publish analyst reports.  Both told me they use this data to understand employee sentiment read comments about the CEO as part of their core research. It also helps them compare competitors.

As the saying goes, “Culture eats Strategy for Lunch.”  (And free lunch is now part of the culture.)

Ok it’s a popular topic. What is culture anyway?

Culture is a big and somewhat vague term. Some define it as “what happens when nobody is looking.”

In reality, it’s much more complex. Culture is the set of behaviors, values, artifacts, reward systems, and rituals that make up your organization. You can “feel” culture when you visit a company, because it is often evident in people’s behavior, enthusiasm, and the space itself.

I visit a lot of companies and I can often sense the culture in a few minutes. Are people busy and working with customers? Or are they quietly working alone? Do they get in early and leave late? Or does the parking lot empty at 4:30? Is the office beautiful and inspiring with values and icons around, or is it messy and busy? Is there a sense of order or a sense of family?  All these clues help diagnose culture.

The Competing Values Framework, by Kim Cameron and Robert Quinn, is a terrific textbook on organizational culture. After years of research the authors grouped organizational cultures into four types and their research shows that most teams fall into one of these four types. You can diagnose your culture using tools like theirs (and others) and it will help you align your values and hiring to the culture you want to build.  There are three issues to consider:  type (what is your culture), strength (how strong is it), and congruence (how consistent is it).

competing-values-framework

Our research shows that culture and employee engagement are tightly linked (“culture” vs. “climate”), but not the same thing. Culture is slow to build, pervasive, and hard to change. Climate can be changed quickly.

When you communicate and honor culture, people know what to expect and feel comfortable. And the climate must support it. For example, a CEO I interviewed told me that “calling people back the same day” was part of his culture – so he monitors this behavior because to him, customer service is cultural bedrock.

As a company grows or acquires another company, the culture will often shift. IBM has been through many culture changes over the years, and one can trace them to major transitions in the business. When I worked there in the 1980s, IBM was a technology pioneer, but then later slowly but deliberately changed its culture to that of a consulting organization. Now it seems to be headed back.

Sometimes an acquisition will damage a well-honed culture, so watch out here. (When HP acquired Compaq, for example, a culture of engineering quality was mixed with a culture of low-cost production, causing a historic challenge.)

Many HR and management practices will drive or support culture. Do you value employee development? Are people empowered to take charge or do they follow the rules? How are people promoted and why? The Simply Irresistiblemodel describes many of the factors. If you’re focused on culture, we encourage managers and HR teams to think about the “total employee experience”: everything from the coffee in the coffee machine to the quality of management plays a role.

simply irresistble

How Do We Build And Manage Great Culture?

Ultimately culture is driven by leadership. How leaders behave, what they say, and what they value drives culture.

I proved this myself: I analyzed the Glassdoor database and found that the factor most highly correlated with an individual’s recommendation of their company as a place to work was “quality and trust in leadership.”

So the selection of leaders, development of leaders, and the coaching of leaders are all critical to building the right culture. Companies that focus on building great leaders spend almost 3X the average on leadership development, and they get a tremendous return for it.

Once culture is established and communicated, it becomes a tool to screen and assist candidates. The Talent Board (a research group that studies the job candidate experience) found that 41% of all candidates search for information about a company culture before they apply. So your culture is already a screening tool when you recruit people.

Zappos relies on culture to screen all hires, by trying to see if they are “wacky.” (Zappos assesses culture before they even assess job fit.) Southwest Airlines assesses culture fit by asking candidates to tell a joke. When you focus on culture as strategy you find that some people just won’t fit, regardless of their pedigree.

When I asked the SVP of HR at a financial institution how they guard their culture she said “people who don’t work as a team just don’t like it here.  They leave.”  Culture is like a flywheel: it gets stronger the more you reinforce it.

culture

If you want to improve your culture, look carefully at how you coach and evaluate your people. Do you believe in “forced ranking?” or “up or out?” That process in itself creates a type of culture – one most companies are moving away from. Today more than 60% of the companies we surveyed are changing how they evaluate performance because they want to drive empowerment and innovation into their organization. We call performance management the “secret ingredient” to building a highly engaged culture.

The ISMS Culture Book of Quicken Loans

A New Industry Of Culture And Engagement Tools

An industry of new culture diagnostic and feedback tools is emerging. Historically culture assessment has been a niche market of small psychology firms (companies like Human Synergistics, Dennison Consulting, and Senn Delaney have been around for years). Now, driven by the need to engage and attract people, this market is going mainstream. New, mobile and real-time tools to assess culture, collect regular and real-time feedback, and analyze employee sentiment are disrupting the $billion market for employee engagement and culture surveys.

Some of the new vendors include CultureAmp, TinyHRBlackbookHR,Achievers, GloboforceBetterCompany.co, Glint.io, OfficeVibe, Waggl, Canary,RelatedMatters, and dozens of others now offer real-time engagement and employee feedback tools to help you better understand and improve your workplace environment. Deloitte has a new culture assessment tool which is gaining great momentum. (Read Why Companies Fail to Engage Today’s Workforce for more information on this new market.)

Keeping It Simple:  Part Of Building A Great Culture

Remember also that great cultures are easy to understand. So keep it simple.  If you can’t write your values and culture down in a few words, it’s probably too complex to understand.

simplification

We believe simplification is becoming the next big thing in business. More than 60% of the companies we surveyed told us that their employees feel “overwhelmed” by the volume of activity and messages they get at work.  So part of your cultural facelift should also be “decluttering” of the workplace.

GE recently launched a major new strategy to simplify its business: the company is teaching managers how to focus, showing people how to spend more time with customers, and simplifying its back office processes. SAP did the same thing, and saw employee engagement rise by almost 30%.

Simplification can also improve the culture of compliance. New research by Deloitte Australia shows that financial services firms that focus on culture instead of compliance systems have better compliance. The research believes $240 billion is wasted on overly-complex compliance systems which could be replaced by a “culture of compliance.”

Great corporate cultures have always thrived on simplicity. Remember the mantra at IBM in the 1970s and 1980s?  It was very simple: “Think.” The Nordstrom’s rule?  ”Use good judgement.” These are simple statements that help people focus. When the rules and values are simple, we remember them.

One of the 10 ”Isms” in Quicken Loans’ manifesto is “ keep it simple.” Don’t make things complicated and don’t design for the “edge cases.”

Design thinking, agile and distributed management is all a part of simplifying work and improving corporate culture. This is an area where HR has work to do (read The Decluttering of Human Resources for more).

Ok I get it. Culture Matters. What should I do?

The prescription is pretty simple. Do you take culture seriously? Do you understand and monitor your culture? Does leadership use culture as a way to communicate values and strategy?  Are you investing adequately in your people programs?

There are many role models to follow:  Southwest Airlines’ culture of customer service and fun (elegantly described in The Southwest Way); Apple Inc.’s culture of innovation and technology elegance; Google’s culture of focusing on the user; even the US Post Office’s culture of service and reliability. Most of the companies in the Fortune Best Places to Work have a strong focus on culture – usually embodied by the CEO.

Your culture, like your strategy, is unique to your organization. It builds over time and is often hard to change. And when things don’t seem to be going well, turn back the clock. Sometimes the culture is what changed: remember what made your company great in the first place.

Finally, remember that culture lets you focus on your purpose and mission. As Joey Reiman describes in his book The Story of Purpose, people are not intrinsically motivated by profit or market share – it is purpose and values that bring us to work every day.

No matter if you’re a CEO, HR executive, manager, or team leader –  culture really matters. Consider it one of your most powerful tools for business success.

Josh Bersin


Josh Bersin is a leading analyst in HR, talent, leadership, and HR technology. He is also founder and Principal of Bersin by Deloitte, a leading research and advisory firm.

The Right Way to Answer “What’s Your Greatest Weakness?” – by David Reese

Thomas Jefferson once said that “honesty is the first chapter in the book of wisdom”. Though truth-telling abounds in grade school platitudes, it seems scarcer the older we get. But this decline in honesty — let’s call it dishonesty — isn’t necessarily innate. Dishonesty can be taught. In my experience, I’ve noticed that, of all culprits, college career centers are exceptional traffickers of such miseducation. In the process, they’re hurting their brightest students’ chances of making it in the world of startups by convincing them to give dishonest answers to tough interview questions.

Full disclosure: I work at a startup, and it’s my job to quickly build a team of the right people. Throughout my earlier career in larger companies, honesty and being self-critical have always been obvious qualities to look for in candidates, but it wasn’t until I joined Medallia that I realized their special significance for startups. Brandon Ballinger’s now famous blog post about his experience with Y Combinator’s Paul Graham shows why. To cut a long story short, Graham told Ballinger (to his face) that his startup idea sucked — a tough-love approach Ballinger now extols. Why? Well, in a startup, it’s much more comfortable to be a “team player” than “the bad guy,” as Ballinger describes it. The real hard work in a startup, however, is being able to openly admit that the current strategy is just not working — no matter how uncomfortable it is, or how much has been invested in getting to that point.

In other words: one of the biggest dangers for a young company is that a roomful of smart people who aren’t being honest could easily be steering their rocket ship into the ground.

And yet college career centers continue to operate in a 20th century world in which top talent was funneled into careers in mature, staid organizations and industries. These are cultures where people are much more likely to divulge their net worth than a weakness. While a mature organization might have once been able to get by with a “don’t stick your neck out” culture, that attitude is simply lethal to startups.

Nonetheless, the importance of this simple truth seems to still be elusive for the Office of Career Services at many of the nation’s top colleges and universities. Besides guidance on basic items like resumes, cover letters, how to dress, and how to eat, many of these schools are providing either no advice or bad advice on how to adequately answer important questions. Take a very common question that I always like to ask, for example:

What is your greatest weakness?

Even if you’ve only had just one professional interview in your life, then you’ve probably still been asked some version of this question. Do you remember how you answered? Did you say that you work too hard? That you have perfectionist tendencies? Or that you’re too passionate? Be honest.

The truth of that matter is that a quick search of career center websites indicates that students are being encouraged to apply this type of spin to their answers. Even for those that advocating for honesty, there’s often still the contradiction that one’s answers must always be positive. The result of which? Answers that focus on lesser skills (but still skills) rather than actual problems or challenges. One school goes as far as to call it an “angelic weakness.” And if you’re pressed to give a real answer about a flaw, nearly every career center in the universe has apparently decided that “public speaking” is an appropriate response.

Others are more direct at giving the advice that everyone seems familiar with — to make weaknesses into strengths (and vice versa). Northwestern tells grad students, “Turn a negative into a positive.” Boston College advises students to “Turn your weakness into a positive (for example) ‘Because I tend to procrastinate, I have learned to work well under pressure in order to always get work done on time.’”

This is terrible advice. Responses like these tell me little about how a candidate faces challenges and immediately implies a lack of sincerity. It doesn’t demonstrate to me how they think — beyond their ability to creatively avoid being honest or self-critical. It indicates to me that they’re not willing to stand up and say what’s not working — the opposite of what a startup needs. That’s why my recent interviews with college graduates have all started to follow the same pattern. I start with two sentences: “Forget what your career center has taught you about interviews. I want to have a real conversation with real answers, and I promise to do the same.” The candidates take a minute to evaluate whether I’m somehow tricking them. If they lean into their discomfort and take me at my word, the level of conversation improves dramatically — we have a great time getting to know one another in an authentic way. I’m not really looking to find out whether their organizational skills could use improvement, or that they struggle with presenting to large groups or even leading large teams. I’m trying to find out whether they have self-awareness; whether they are able to be critical; and most importantly, whether they’re able to tell the truth — when it’s difficult.

For those candidates who don’t buy in, however, I spend the majority of the interview trying to pry off their layers of canned responses. I leave the interview wondering:Who are you? And what’s worse — I’ll never know. Because they’ll never get the job.


David Reese leads people and culture at Medallia. He came to Medallia from Caesars Entertainment, where he was Senior Vice President of Human Resources. Prior to that, he was a Senior Manager in HR at Macy’s, a board member of the nonprofit ITN, and an Adjunct Professor at Nevada State College.

One More Time: How Do You Motivate Employees? – by Frederick Herzberg

Ask workers what makes them unhappy at work, and you’ll hear about an annoying boss, a low salary, an uncomfortable work space, or stupid rules. Managed badly, environmental factors make people miserable, and they can certainly be demotivating. But even if managed brilliantly, they don’t motivate anybody to work much harder or smarter. People are motivated, instead, by interesting work, challenge, and increasing responsibility. These intrinsic factors answer people’s deep-seated need for growth and achievement.

Herzberg’s work influenced a generation of scholars and managers—but his conclusions don’t seem to have fully penetrated the American workplace, if the extraordinary attention still paid to compensation and incentive packages is any indication.

How many articles, books, speeches, and workshops have pleaded plaintively, “How do I get an employee to do what I want?”

The psychology of motivation is tremendously complex, and what has been unraveled with any degree of assurance is small indeed. But the dismal ratio of knowledge to speculation has not dampened the enthusiasm for new forms of snake oil that are constantly coming on the market, many of them with academic testimonials. Doubtless this article will have no depressing impact on the market for snake oil, but since the ideas expressed in it have been tested in many corporations and other organizations, it will help—I hope—to redress the imbalance in the aforementioned ratio.

“Motivating” with KITA

In lectures to industry on the problem, I have found that the audiences are usually anxious for quick and practical answers, so I will begin with a straightforward, practical formula for moving people.

What is the simplest, surest, and most direct way of getting someone to do something? Ask? But if the person responds that he or she does not want to do it, then that calls for psychological consultation to determine the reason for such obstinacy. Tell the person? The response shows that he or she does not understand you, and now an expert in communication methods has to be brought in to show you how to get through. Give the person a monetary incentive? I do not need to remind the reader of the complexity and difficulty involved in setting up and administering an incentive system. Show the person? This means a costly training program. We need a simple way.

Every audience contains the “direct action” manager who shouts, “Kick the person!” And this type of manager is right. The surest and least circumlocuted way of getting someone to do something is to administer a kick in the pants—to give what might be called the KITA.

There are various forms of KITA, and here are some of them:

Negative Physical KITA.

This is a literal application of the term and was frequently used in the past. It has, however, three major drawbacks: 1) It is inelegant; 2) it contradicts the precious image of benevolence that most organizations cherish; and 3) since it is a physical attack, it directly stimulates the autonomic nervous system, and this often results in negative feedback—the employee may just kick you in return. These factors give rise to certain taboos against negative physical KITA.

In uncovering infinite sources of psychological vulnerabilities and the appropriate methods to play tunes on them, psychologists have come to the rescue of those who are no longer permitted to use negative physical KITA. “He took my rug away”; “I wonder what she meant by that”; “The boss is always going around me”—these symptomatic expressions of ego sores that have been rubbed raw are the result of application of:

Negative Psychological KITA.

This has several advantages over negative physical KITA. First, the cruelty is not visible; the bleeding is internal and comes much later. Second, since it affects the higher cortical centers of the brain with its inhibitory powers, it reduces the possibility of physical backlash. Third, since the number of psychological pains that a person can feel is almost infinite, the direction and site possibilities of the KITA are increased many times. Fourth, the person administering the kick can manage to be above it all and let the system accomplish the dirty work. Fifth, those who practice it receive some ego satisfaction (one-upmanship), whereas they would find drawing blood abhorrent. Finally, if the employee does complain, he or she can always be accused of being paranoid; there is no tangible evidence of an actual attack.

Now, what does negative KITA accomplish? If I kick you in the rear (physically or psychologically), who is motivated? I am motivated; you move! Negative KITA does not lead to motivation, but to movement. So:

Positive KITA.

Let us consider motivation. If I say to you, “Do this for me or the company, and in return I will give you a reward, an incentive, more status, a promotion, all the quid pro quos that exist in the industrial organization,” am I motivating you? The overwhelming opinion I receive from management people is, “Yes, this is motivation.”

I have a year-old schnauzer. When it was a small puppy and I wanted it to move, I kicked it in the rear and it moved. Now that I have finished its obedience training, I hold up a dog biscuit when I want the schnauzer to move. In this instance, who is motivated—I or the dog? The dog wants the biscuit, but it is I who want it to move. Again, I am the one who is motivated, and the dog is the one who moves. In this instance all I did was apply KITA frontally; I exerted a pull instead of a push. When industry wishes to use such positive KITAs, it has available an incredible number and variety of dog biscuits (jelly beans for humans) to wave in front of employees to get them to jump.

Myths About Motivation

Why is KITA not motivation? If I kick my dog (from the front or the back), he will move. And when I want him to move again, what must I do? I must kick him again. Similarly, I can charge a person’s battery, and then recharge it, and recharge it again. But it is only when one has a generator of one’s own that we can talk about motivation. One then needs no outside stimulation. One wants to do it.

With this in mind, we can review some positive KITA personnel practices that were developed as attempts to instill “motivation”:

1. Reducing Time Spent at Work.

This represents a marvelous way of motivating people to work—getting them off the job! We have reduced (formally and informally) the time spent on the job over the last 50 or 60 years until we are finally on the way to the “6½-day weekend.” An interesting variant of this approach is the development of off-hour recreation programs. The philosophy here seems to be that those who play together, work together. The fact is that motivated people seek more hours of work, not fewer.

2. Spiraling Wages.

Have these motivated people? Yes, to seek the next wage increase. Some medievalists still can be heard to say that a good depression will get employees moving. They feel that if rising wages don’t or won’t do the job, reducing them will.

3. Fringe Benefits.

Industry has outdone the most welfare-minded of welfare states in dispensing cradle-to-the-grave succor. One company I know of had an informal “fringe benefit of the month club” going for a while. The cost of fringe benefits in this country has reached approximately 25% of the wage dollar, and we still cry for motivation.

People spend less time working for more money and more security than ever before, and the trend cannot be reversed. These benefits are no longer rewards; they are rights. A 6-day week is inhuman, a 10-hour day is exploitation, extended medical coverage is a basic decency, and stock options are the salvation of American initiative. Unless the ante is continuously raised, the psychological reaction of employees is that the company is turning back the clock.

When industry began to realize that both the economic nerve and the lazy nerve of their employees had insatiable appetites, it started to listen to the behavioral scientists who, more out of a humanist tradition than from scientific study, criticized management for not knowing how to deal with people. The next KITA easily followed.

4. Human Relations Training.

More than 30 years of teaching and, in many instances, of practicing psychological approaches to handling people have resulted in costly human relations programs and, in the end, the same question: How do you motivate workers? Here, too, escalations have taken place. Thirty years ago it was necessary to request, “Please don’t spit on the floor.” Today the same admonition requires three “pleases” before the employee feels that a superior has demonstrated the psychologically proper attitude.

The failure of human relations training to produce motivation led to the conclusion that supervisors or managers themselves were not psychologically true to themselves in their practice of interpersonal decency. So an advanced form of human relations KITA, sensitivity training, was unfolded.

5. Sensitivity Training.

Do you really, really understand yourself? Do you really, really, really trust other people? Do you really, really, really, really cooperate? The failure of sensitivity training is now being explained, by those who have become opportunistic exploiters of the technique, as a failure to really (five times) conduct proper sensitivity training courses.

With the realization that there are only temporary gains from comfort and economic and interpersonal KITA, personnel managers concluded that the fault lay not in what they were doing, but in the employee’s failure to appreciate what they were doing. This opened up the field of communications, a new area of “scientifically” sanctioned KITA.

6. Communications.

The professor of communications was invited to join the faculty of management training programs and help in making employees understand what management was doing for them. House organs, briefing sessions, supervisory instruction on the importance of communication, and all sorts of propaganda have proliferated until today there is even an International Council of Industrial Editors. But no motivation resulted, and the obvious thought occurred that perhaps management was not hearing what the employees were saying. That led to the next KITA.

7. Two-Way Communication.

Management ordered morale surveys, suggestion plans, and group participation programs. Then both management and employees were communicating and listening to each other more than ever, but without much improvement in motivation.

The behavioral scientists began to take another look at their conceptions and their data, and they took human relations one step further. A glimmer of truth was beginning to show through in the writings of the so-called higher-order-need psychologists. People, so they said, want to actualize themselves. Unfortunately, the “actualizing” psychologists got mixed up with the human relations psychologists, and a new KITA emerged.

8. Job Participation.

Though it may not have been the theoretical intention, job participation often became a “give them the big picture” approach. For example, if a man is tightening 10,000 nuts a day on an assembly line with a torque wrench, tell him he is building a Chevrolet. Another approach had the goal of giving employees a “feeling” that they are determining, in some measure, what they do on the job. The goal was to provide a sense of achievement rather than a substantive achievement in the task. Real achievement, of course, requires a task that makes it possible.

But still there was no motivation. This led to the inevitable conclusion that the employees must be sick, and therefore to the next KITA.

9. Employee Counseling.

The initial use of this form of KITA in a systematic fashion can be credited to the Hawthorne experiment of the Western Electric Company during the early 1930s. At that time, it was found that the employees harbored irrational feelings that were interfering with the rational operation of the factory. Counseling in this instance was a means of letting the employees unburden themselves by talking to someone about their problems. Although the counseling techniques were primitive, the program was large indeed.

The counseling approach suffered as a result of experiences during World War II, when the programs themselves were found to be interfering with the operation of the organizations; the counselors had forgotten their role of benevolent listeners and were attempting to do something about the problems that they heard about. Psychological counseling, however, has managed to survive the negative impact of World War II experiences and today is beginning to flourish with renewed sophistication. But, alas, many of these programs, like all the others, do not seem to have lessened the pressure of demands to find out how to motivate workers.

Since KITA results only in short-term movement, it is safe to predict that the cost of these programs will increase steadily and new varieties will be developed as old positive KITAs reach their satiation points.

Hygiene vs. Motivators

Let me rephrase the perennial question this way: How do you install a generator in an employee? A brief review of my motivation-hygiene theory of job attitudes is required before theoretical and practical suggestions can be offered. The theory was first drawn from an examination of events in the lives of engineers and accountants. At least 16 other investigations, using a wide variety of populations (including some in the Communist countries), have since been completed, making the original research one of the most replicated studies in the field of job attitudes.

The findings of these studies, along with corroboration from many other investigations using different procedures, suggest that the factors involved in producing job satisfaction (and motivation) are separate and distinct from the factors that lead to job dissatisfaction. (See Exhibit 1, which is further explained below.) Since separate factors need to be considered, depending on whether job satisfaction or job dissatisfaction is being examined, it follows that these two feelings are not opposites of each other. The opposite of job satisfaction is not job dissatisfaction but, rather, no job satisfaction; and similarly, the opposite of job dissatisfaction is not job satisfaction, but no job dissatisfaction.

Stating the concept presents a problem in semantics, for we normally think of satisfaction and dissatisfaction as opposites; i.e., what is not satisfying must be dissatisfying, and vice versa. But when it comes to understanding the behavior of people in their jobs, more than a play on words is involved.

Two different needs of human beings are involved here. One set of needs can be thought of as stemming from humankind’s animal nature—the built-in drive to avoid pain from the environment, plus all the learned drives that become conditioned to the basic biological needs. For example, hunger, a basic biological drive, makes it necessary to earn money, and then money becomes a specific drive. The other set of needs relates to that unique human characteristic, the ability to achieve and, through achievement, to experience psychological growth. The stimuli for the growth needs are tasks that induce growth; in the industrial setting, they are the job content. Contrariwise, the stimuli inducing pain-avoidance behavior are found in the job environment.

The growth or motivator factors that are intrinsic to the job are: achievement, recognition for achievement, the work itself, responsibility, and growth or advancement. The dissatisfaction-avoidance or hygiene (KITA) factors that are extrinsic to the job include: company policy and administration, supervision, interpersonal relationships, working conditions, salary, status, and security.

A composite of the factors that are involved in causing job satisfaction and job dissatisfaction, drawn from samples of 1,685 employees, is shown in Exhibit 1. The results indicate that motivators were the primary cause of satisfaction, and hygiene factors the primary cause of unhappiness on the job. The employees, studied in 12 different investigations, included lower level supervisors, professional women, agricultural administrators, men about to retire from management positions, hospital maintenance personnel, manufacturing supervisors, nurses, food handlers, military officers, engineers, scientists, housekeepers, teachers, technicians, female assemblers, accountants, Finnish foremen, and Hungarian engineers.

They were asked what job events had occurred in their work that had led to extreme satisfaction or extreme dissatisfaction on their part. Their responses are broken down in the exhibit into percentages of total “positive” job events and of total “negative” job events. (The figures total more than 100% on both the “hygiene” and “motivators” sides because often at least two factors can be attributed to a single event; advancement, for instance, often accompanies assumption of responsibility.)

To illustrate, a typical response involving achievement that had a negative effect for the employee was, “I was unhappy because I didn’t do the job successfully.” A typical response in the small number of positive job events in the company policy and administration grouping was, “I was happy because the company reorganized the section so that I didn’t report any longer to the guy I didn’t get along with.”

As the lower right-hand part of the exhibit shows, of all the factors contributing to job satisfaction, 81% were motivators. And of all the factors contributing to the employees’ dissatisfaction over their work, 69% involved hygiene elements.

Eternal Triangle.

There are three general philosophies of personnel management. The first is based on organizational theory, the second on industrial engineering, and the third on behavioral science.

Organizational theorists believe that human needs are either so irrational or so varied and adjustable to specific situations that the major function of personnel management is to be as pragmatic as the occasion demands. If jobs are organized in a proper manner, they reason, the result will be the most efficient job structure, and the most favorable job attitudes will follow as a matter of course.

Industrial engineers hold that humankind is mechanistically oriented and economically motivated and that human needs are best met by attuning the individual to the most efficient work process. The goal of personnel management therefore should be to concoct the most appropriate incentive system and to design the specific working conditions in a way that facilitates the most efficient use of the human machine. By structuring jobs in a manner that leads to the most efficient operation, engineers believe that they can obtain the optimal organization of work and the proper work attitudes.

Behavioral scientists focus on group sentiments, attitudes of individual employees, and the organization’s social and psychological climate. This persuasion emphasizes one or more of the various hygiene and motivator needs. Its approach to personnel management is generally to emphasize some form of human relations education, in the hope of instilling healthy employee attitudes and an organizational climate that is considered to be felicitous to human values. The belief is that proper attitudes will lead to efficient job and organizational structure.

There is always a lively debate concerning the overall effectiveness of the approaches of organizational theorists and industrial engineers. Manifestly, both have achieved much. But the nagging question for behavioral scientists has been: What is the cost in human problems that eventually cause more expense to the organization—for instance, turnover, absenteeism, errors, violation of safety rules, strikes, restriction of output, higher wages, and greater fringe benefits? On the other hand, behavioral scientists are hard put to document much manifest improvement in personnel management, using their approach.

The motivation-hygiene theory suggests that work be enriched to bring about effective utilization of personnel. Such a systematic attempt to motivate employees by manipulating the motivator factors is just beginning. The term job enrichment describes this embryonic movement. An older term, job enlargement, should be avoided because it is associated with past failures stemming from a misunderstanding of the problem. Job enrichment provides the opportunity for the employee’s psychological growth, while job enlargement merely makes a job structurally bigger. Since scientific job enrichment is very new, this article only suggests the principles and practical steps that have recently emerged from several successful experiments in industry.

Job Loading.

In attempting to enrich certain jobs, management often reduces the personal contribution of employees rather than giving them opportunities for growth in their accustomed jobs. Such endeavors, which I shall call horizontal job loading (as opposed to vertical loading, or providing motivator factors), have been the problem of earlier job enlargement programs. Job loading merely enlarges the meaninglessness of the job. Some examples of this approach, and their effect, are:

  • Challenging the employee by increasing the amount of production expected. If each tightens 10,000 bolts a day, see if each can tighten 20,000 bolts a day. The arithmetic involved shows that multiplying zero by zero still equals zero.
  • Adding another meaningless task to the existing one, usually some routine clerical activity. The arithmetic here is adding zero to zero.
  • Rotating the assignments of a number of jobs that need to be enriched. This means washing dishes for a while, then washing silverware. The arithmetic is substituting one zero for another zero.
  • Removing the most difficult parts of the assignment in order to free the worker to accomplish more of the less challenging assignments. This traditional industrial engineering approach amounts to subtraction in the hope of accomplishing addition.

These are common forms of horizontal loading that frequently come up in preliminary brainstorming sessions of job enrichment. The principles of vertical loading have not all been worked out as yet, and they remain rather general, but I have furnished seven useful starting points for consideration in Exhibit 2.

A Successful Application.

An example from a highly successful job enrichment experiment can illustrate the distinction between horizontal and vertical loading of a job. The subjects of this study were the stockholder correspondents employed by a very large corporation. Seemingly, the task required of these carefully selected and highly trained correspondents was quite complex and challenging. But almost all indexes of performance and job attitudes were low, and exit interviewing confirmed that the challenge of the job existed merely as words.

A job enrichment project was initiated in the form of an experiment with one group, designated as an achieving unit, having its job enriched by the principles described in Exhibit 2. A control group continued to do its job in the traditional way. (There were also two “uncommitted” groups of correspondents formed to measure the so-called Hawthorne effect—that is, to gauge whether productivity and attitudes toward the job changed artificially merely because employees sensed that the company was paying more attention to them in doing something different or novel. The results for these groups were substantially the same as for the control group, and for the sake of simplicity I do not deal with them in this summary.) No changes in hygiene were introduced for either group other than those that would have been made anyway, such as normal pay increases.

The changes for the achieving unit were introduced in the first two months, averaging one per week of the seven motivators listed in Exhibit 2. At the end of six months the members of the achieving unit were found to be outperforming their counterparts in the control group and, in addition, indicated a marked increase in their liking for their jobs. Other results showed that the achieving group had lower absenteeism and, subsequently, a much higher rate of promotion.

Exhibit 3 illustrates the changes in performance, measured in February and March, before the study period began, and at the end of each month of the study period. The shareholder service index represents quality of letters, including accuracy of information, and speed of response to stockholders’ letters of inquiry. The index of a current month was averaged into the average of the two prior months, which means that improvement was harder to obtain if the indexes of the previous months were low. The “achievers” were performing less well before the six-month period started, and their performance service index continued to decline after the introduction of the motivators, evidently because of uncertainty after their newly granted responsibilities. In the third month, however, performance improved, and soon the members of this group had reached a high level of accomplishment.

Exhibit 4 shows the two groups’ attitudes toward their job, measured at the end of March, just before the first motivator was introduced, and again at the end of September. The correspondents were asked 16 questions, all involving motivation. A typical one was, “As you see it, how many opportunities do you feel that you have in your job for making worthwhile contributions?” The answers were scaled from 1 to 5, with 80 as the maximum possible score. The achievers became much more positive about their job, while the attitude of the control unit remained about the same (the drop is not statistically significant).

How was the job of these correspondents restructured? Exhibit 5 lists the suggestions made that were deemed to be horizontal loading, and the actual vertical loading changes that were incorporated in the job of the achieving unit. The capital letters under “Principle” after “Vertical Loading” refer to the corresponding letters in Exhibit 2. The reader will note that the rejected forms of horizontal loading correspond closely to the list of common manifestations I mentioned earlier.

Steps for Job Enrichment

Now that the motivator idea has been described in practice, here are the steps that managers should take in instituting the principle with their employees:

1. Select those jobs in which a) the investment in industrial engineering does not make changes too costly, b) attitudes are poor, c) hygiene is becoming very costly, and d) motivation will make a difference in performance.

2. Approach these jobs with the conviction that they can be changed. Years of tradition have led managers to believe that job content is sacrosanct and the only scope of action that they have is in ways of stimulating people.

3. Brainstorm a list of changes that may enrich the jobs, without concern for their practicality.

4. Screen the list to eliminate suggestions that involve hygiene, rather than actual motivation.

5. Screen the list for generalities, such as “give them more responsibility,” that are rarely followed in practice. This might seem obvious, but the motivator words have never left industry; the substance has just been rationalized and organized out. Words like “responsibility,” “growth,” “achievement,” and “challenge,” for example, have been elevated to the lyrics of the patriotic anthem for all organizations. It is the old problem typified by the pledge of allegiance to the flag being more important than contributions to the country—of following the form, rather than the substance.

6. Screen the list to eliminate any horizontal loading suggestions.

7. Avoid direct participation by the employees whose jobs are to be enriched. Ideas they have expressed previously certainly constitute a valuable source for recommended changes, but their direct involvement contaminates the process with human relations hygiene and, more specifically, gives them only a sense of making a contribution. The job is to be changed, and it is the content that will produce the motivation, not attitudes about being involved or the challenge inherent in setting up a job. That process will be over shortly, and it is what the employees will be doing from then on that will determine their motivation. A sense of participation will result only in short-term movement.

8. In the initial attempts at job enrichment, set up a controlled experiment. At least two equivalent groups should be chosen, one an experimental unit in which the motivators are systematically introduced over a period of time, and the other one a control group in which no changes are made. For both groups, hygiene should be allowed to follow its natural course for the duration of the experiment. Pre- and post-installation tests of performance and job attitudes are necessary to evaluate the effectiveness of the job enrichment program. The attitude test must be limited to motivator items in order to divorce employees’ views of the jobs they are given from all the surrounding hygiene feelings that they might have.

9. Be prepared for a drop in performance in the experimental group the first few weeks. The changeover to a new job may lead to a temporary reduction in efficiency.

10. Expect your first-line supervisors to experience some anxiety and hostility over the changes you are making. The anxiety comes from their fear that the changes will result in poorer performance for their unit. Hostility will arise when the employees start assuming what the supervisors regard as their own responsibility for performance. The supervisor without checking duties to perform may then be left with little to do.

After successful experiment, however, the supervisors usually discover the supervisory and managerial functions they have neglected, or which were never theirs because all their time was given over to checking the work of their subordinates. For example, in the R&D division of one large chemical company I know of, the supervisors of the laboratory assistants were theoretically responsible for their training and evaluation. These functions, however, had come to be performed in a routine, unsubstantial fashion. After the job enrichment program, during which the supervisors were not merely passive observers of the assistants’ performance, the supervisors actually were devoting their time to reviewing performance and administering thorough training.

What has been called an employee-centered style of supervision will come about not through education of supervisors, but by changing the jobs that they do.

• • •Job enrichment will not be a one-time proposition, but a continuous management function. The initial changes should last for a very long period of time. There are a number of reasons for this:

  • The changes should bring the job up to the level of challenge commensurate with the skill that was hired.
  • Those who have still more ability eventually will be able to demonstrate it better and win promotion to higher level jobs.
  • The very nature of motivators, as opposed to hygiene factors, is that they have a much longer-term effect on employees’ attitudes. It is possible that the job will have to be enriched again, but this will not occur as frequently as the need for hygiene.

Not all jobs can be enriched, nor do all jobs need to be enriched. If only a small percentage of the time and money that is now devoted to hygiene, however, were given to job enrichment efforts, the return in human satisfaction and economic gain would be one of the largest dividends that industry and society have ever reaped through their efforts at better personnel management.

The argument for job enrichment can be summed up quite simply: If you have employees on a job, use them. If you can’t use them on the job, get rid of them, either via automation or by selecting someone with lesser ability. If you can’t use them and you can’t get rid of them, you will have a motivation problem.

Frederick Herzberg, Distinguished Professor of Management at the University of Utah in Salt Lake City, was head of the department of psychology at Case Western Reserve University in Cleveland when he wrote this article. His writings include the book Work and the Nature of Man (World, 1966).

The Best Leaders “Talk the Walk” – by Bill Taylor

One of the most ubiquitous aphorisms in business is that the best leaders understand the need to “walk the talk” — that is, their behavior and day-to-day actions have to match the aspirations they have for their colleagues and organization. But the more time I spend with game-changing innovators and high-performing companies, the more I appreciate the need for leaders to “talk the walk” — that is, to be able to explain, in language that is unique to their field and compelling to their colleagues and customers, why what they do matters and how they expect to win. The only sustainable form of business leadership is thought leadership. And leaders that think differently about their business invariably talk about it differently as well.

I saw the power of language come to life earlier this summer when I made an eye-opening visit to a day-long orientation held every six weeks or so for new employees of Quicken Loans, the online mortgage lender based in Detroit and owned by high-profile billionaire Dan Gilbert. Quicken Loans is known for lots of things, from torrid growth (the company closed a record $80 billion worth of home loans last year, up from $70 billion in 2012), to much-praised customer service (it is a perennial JD Power customer-satisfaction winner), to its intense and outgoing corporate culture. But behind it all, at the heart of the company’s approach to strategy, service, and culture, is a language system that defines life inside the organization and reminds everyone what really drives success.

Founder Dan Gilbert and CEO Bill Emerson call this language the company’s “Isms” — which is why the rollicking, fast-paced, eight-hour orientation session is called “Isms in Action.” Gilbert and Emerson, who present separately and together over the entire eight hours — an executive teaching marathon unlike anything I have seen before — march employees through the company’s 18 Isms, with a combination of slide shows, stand-up humor, war stories from the trenches, and unabashed appeals to the heart. A few of the Isms get covered in 10 or 15 minutes, some take an hour. But the end result is a full-day immersion in a whole new language — a “vocabulary of competition” that sets the company apart in the marketplace and holds people together in the workplace.

On the day I attended, more than a thousand participants crowded into a ballroom in the Marriott Renaissance Center on the banks of the Detroit River. Gilbert and Emerson urged their new colleagues to embrace the idea that, “The inches we need are everywhere around us” — in other words, there are countless small opportunities for people to tweak a product, or improve a process, that lead to big wins in the marketplace. They insisted, no excuses allowed, that everyone agree with the Ism, “Responding with a sense of urgency is the ante to play.” Gilbert personally emphasized again and again, sometimes with jokes, sometimes with withering disdain, the absolute requirement that Quicken employees return every phone call and every email on the same business day they were received. “We are zealots about this,” he thundered, “we are on the lunatic fringe. And if you’re ‘too busy’ to do it, I’ll do it for you” — at which point he gave out his direct-dial extension and promised to return phone calls for any overwhelmed colleagues.

On and on it went — funny stories, sure, sage pieces of advice, a quick history of the company. But mainly an urgent iteration ands reiteration of the company’s Isms:

“Numbers and money follow, they do not lead.”

“Innovation is rewarded, execution is worshipped.”

“Simplicity is genius.”

In business leadership, as in all forms of leadership, words matter. Indeed, several of the attendees with whom I spoke weren’t new employees at all. They’d come back for a refresher, a reminder, an opportunity to spend a day reacquainting themselves with the language that defines life at Quicken Loans, a chance to spend a day watching the founder and the CEO “talk the walk.”

So ask yourself, as you try to lead an organization, or a business unit, or a department: Have you developed a vocabulary of competition that helps everyone understand what makes your company or team special and what it takes for them to be at their best? Can you explain, in a language all your own, what separates you from the pack and why you expect to win? Even as you make sure to walk the talk, do you know how to talk the walk?

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William C. Taylor is cofounder of Fast Company magazine and author of Practically Radical: Not-So-Crazy Ways to Transform Your Company, Shake Up Your Industry, and Challenge Yourself. Follow him on Twitter at @practicallyrad.

Encourage Your Employees to Talk About Other Job Offers – by Reid Hoffman, Ben Casnocha and Chris Yeh

Why can’t employees speak honestly about their career goals with their managers? It’s because of the reasonable belief that doing so is risky and career-limiting if the employee’s aspirations do not perfectly match up with the manager’s existing views and time horizons. It seems safer to wait until another job offer is in hand, so that if one’s manager reacts badly to one’s ideas, there’s no danger of being passed over for on-going professional development, or worse, left unemployed. It’s a self-fulfilling prophecy: once an employee has gone far down the road with another potential employer, it’s hard for her to maintain a positive relationship with her current company.

Neither manager nor employee necessarily wants the current employment relationship to end, but because of the lack of trust and honesty, that’s precisely what becomes likely to happen with talented employees.

If you want to forge a high-trust alliance with your workforce, take a page from a popular clause in founder employment agreements — the “Right Of First Refusal” (ROFR). When a founder wants to sell stock in the company and has an offer to purchase some or all of the shares, the company has the right to exercise its ROFR and buy the stock at the offered price. This compromise reassures the founder (or employee) that the company can’t block the sale of stock while allowing the company to make sure it isn’t saddled with investors it doesn’t want.

We believe that an equivalent compromise can help improve the employer-employee relationship: the “Right of First Conversation” (ROFC). If an employee decides she wants to explore other career options, she commits to talking with her current manager first, so that the company, if it so desires, has the opportunity to define a more appealing job or role. This doesn’t mean that the employee informs her manager every time she receives a call from a headhunter—this kind of disclosure would be onerous for both employee and manager. Rather, the employee should initiate a conversation when she is seriously considering alternate job offers or career paths. Similarly, the employee should also approach the manager if she felt strongly that her current tour of duty no longer fits, and that without a change, she would feel obligated to start looking for another employer.

As with other aspects of the employer-employee alliance, the ROFC isn’t a binding legal contract. It’s an understanding between manager and employee that carries moral weight if violated.

Because the employer typically holds the power in the relationship, it’s up to the company to take the first step towards building the necessary trust. Managers need to say, “We don’t fire people for talking honestly about their career goals,” and truly mean it. Once employees believe that the company will live up to those words, managers can point out the benefits to the employee of granting them the Right of First Conversation.

First, an employee can benefit from frank career advice from a manager on specific industry opportunities. In a high trust relationship, a manager will not reactively denigrate competitors or “say anything” to keep an employee.

Second, perhaps the current company can upgrade the quality of the employee’s existing tour of duty. An employee who provides advance notice allows the company the time necessary to explore and develop more possible options and offers. If the company has weeks to match or exceed an offer from a rival, it has a much better chance of pulling together a counter than if it only had twenty-four hours to respond.

Finally, even if the company can’t present a compelling counter or the employee chooses to switch firms, the ROFC helps preserve the long-term relationship. The split can be made amicably, and on a timetable that works for both parties, honoring the mutual obligations and investment they have made in each other.

As a manager, would you rather manage a planned separation from an employee who has completed her final tour of duty? Or would you rather scramble to perform damage control on a sudden departure?

As an employee, would you rather depart amicably and become a valued member of the company’s alumni network? Or would you prefer to depart under a cloud of acrimony?

The Right of First Conversation represents a major departure from business as usual, but that’s precisely the point. The lack of trust between employer and employee is costing both parties. Adopting the ROFC helps both parties build trust and a longer, more fruitful relationship.

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Reid Hoffman is cofounder and Executive Chairman of LinkedIn, the world’s largest professional network, and partner at the Silicon Valley venture capital firm Greylock. He is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

 

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Ben Casnocha is an award-winning entrepreneur and bestselling co-author, with Reid Hoffman, of The Start-up of You. He is a frequent speaker on talent management, and is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.

 

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Chris Yeh is an entrepreneur, writer, and mentor. He helps interesting people do interesting things as VP of Marketing at PBworks and general partner at Wasabi Ventures. He is a co-author of The Alliance: Managing Talent in the Networked Age.