Brian is what a lot of people would call “salt of the earth.” He’s one of those old-school Australians with a broad Aussie accent, a love for helping his “mates” and cracking jokes.
In his late sixties, Brian has been running his own business for forty years employing lots of electricians. Forever humble, he has always downplayed his success, but now success seems like a distant memory.
Five years ago, business was booming and he expanded by hiring more than 20 electricians. Back then, there were lots of manufacturers who needed Brian’s help in keeping their factories running. The union saw a profitable opportunity and forced Brian to provide lots of perks and benefits in Enterprise Bargaining Agreements (EBAs) to his employees. Brian being the good bloke that he is, did what he was told, knowing it was important to do the right thing by his employees.
And then those manufacturers started closing down. The company started losing work because Brian couldn’t operate competitively. Manufacturers were now stating the hourly rate he could charge. But he couldn’t survive at the standard rate. After all, his staff had to be paid just to drive his vehicles to work, have a regular rostered day off and generous overtime benefits.
So Brian did what any reasonable business owner would do. He tried to re-negotiate with his employees on the terms in the expired EBA by explaining the good times had gone and he could no longer charge high rates. They wouldn’t have any of it. They didn’t believe his business was in trouble. After all, he owned a big house. They complained to the union. The union took him to court. Brian didn’t have the funds to hire a lawyer, so he represented himself. Even contesting against one employee who wanted one day off a fortnight to pick his daughter up from boarding school. Geelong Grammar, no less, one of the most prestigious, elite and expensive in the country. The union demanded to see Brian’s finances. His accountant was present to vouch for his perilous business state.
Pulling all the strings they could, the union banned overtime, so Brian lost a $200,000 contract. He’s had to let go of 15 staff and only he is allowed to do overtime. He jokes about how that’s the only way he makes money these days.
Over coffee, he looked up from his beverage, trying to hide the bandage on his chin from his recent skin cancer operation and said to me “I thought they were my mates. But I realise now that none of them were. They all hated me and I didn’t even know it.”
The Need for A New Operating System
Just like societies, workplaces all have operating systems. Policies, customs and economic arrangements that describe how the company works.
Unfortunately, many operating systems are out of date and based on a world that barely exists. Most operating systems stem from the industrial age which believes that work is not enjoyable and that we need to coax people to work through rewards and threaten with punishments.
While punishments may have fallen out of favour, the deep-seated notion that work is boring and that people need external motivators is still the bedrock assumption in most organisations. So embedded is it that few people are even aware that it exists or dispute the need to change. Recently, I was speaking to an HR manager of a large company who argued with me that all of their staff (some 23,000) all worked for money and didn’t like their jobs. The work was boring and they couldn’t do anything to change that.
So endemic is this belief that many managers believe that they can improve productivity by throwing expensive engagement activities at employees to make work more enjoyable (and therefore, encourage people to work harder). Yet, the more perks employees receive the more it backfires and the more they want. The result is a culture of entitlement. When employees hate their jobs, perks won’t keep them. In fact, those perks create even more problems, as it’s seen as another attempt to force people to enjoy their work, without addressing the core issues at play. If leadership is distrusted, rewards are even viewed as a cynical exercise that only creates more distrust. The result being workers putting out their hands for more.
In Brian’s case, he kept giving his employees more because he wanted his staff to like him. Unfortunately, rather than trust him more, or even like him, it created distrust. In the end, he, the union and his employees were just following an old operating system that no longer works.
A New Motivation System
For too long there has been a mismatch between what science knows and what business does. In the book, Drive, by Daniel Pink he lays out the case that humans are intrinsically motivated and not extrinsically. We have an inherent tendency to seek out novelty, challenges, extend our capabilities, explore and learn. It’s an old paradigm that work is boring and we need to be coerced into doing it.
Today work is a lot more interesting than it was twenty years, even ten years ago. Thanks to technology and outsourcing, mundane routine tasks are the exception, not the rule.
What science has been showing us for over forty years is that people are more likely to report “optimal experiences” on the job than during leisure. The truth is people are the happiest when they’re doing work they enjoy, making an impact and receiving appreciation. Ironically, when you reward creative and non-routine jobs, performance drops.
Moving Forward with Purpose
Motivating a workforce is a tough and important job. But the reality is many leaders are doing it wrong. At the core of being human, is our need to be part of a group that likes us and what we do. We’re even wired to love working. Yet, few leaders look at how to make the work more meaningful to employees.
What leading companies have started to realise is that having a compelling sense of purpose makes it easier to motivate employees According to Deloitte’s Millennial Survey 2015, 60% of Millennial respondents reported that they chose to join their current employer in part because of the organisation’s “sense of purpose”. In addition, 57% of respondents who perceived their organisation to have a “strong sense of purpose” reported a “high level of employee satisfaction” at their company versus only 23% of those who worked at an organisation without a strong sense of purpose.
As the world changes and more right-brain, creative jobs are the norm, leaders need to improve how they view and talk about work. Today, business leaders are starting to appreciate that getting their employees to buy into the company means improving the emotional connection of the benefits of work in staff communication. This means focusing on the impact the company makes to the world and how each person contributes to that. It’s the relentless repetition of the company mission and why the company matters. It also means promoting how achieving the goal or vision will make employees feel – emotional benefits such as trust, job security, achievement and empowerment.
Instead, most companies focus on what the company can do for people – functional benefits such as salary, extra annual leave, drinks on Friday and foos ball tables. Meeting functional needs (eg:providing decent pay and benefits) is a requirement to prevent negative emotion, but success goes far beyond these.
As for Brian, his company was founded back in the 1970s at a time when blue-collar work was seen as being a dirty, low-paid job. Over time, his company has evolved and his workers now receive advanced on-the-job training, in order to devise unique solutions that differ for every client. In fact, so well trained are his staff that big industrial companies can rely on Brian’s company to be the only one to solve their problems. The trouble is Brian doesn’t realise the important impact of the work he does and so he can’t connect the dots to his employees.
Thankfully for Brian, he can now start afresh with his few remaining employees and employ new people who are aligned with his company purpose and who are keen to make a difference. Maybe then, he can create a workforce that are his “mates.”