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Better Ways of Working

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PUBLISHED NOVEMBER 2015

by Shawn Murphy, Co-Founder & CEO, Switch & Shift


Shawn Murphy

In today’s fragmented marketplaces and hypercompetitive business environments, organizations act with a sense of urgency. Get things done quickly. Deliver results efficiently. Hurry. Hurry. Hurry. Employees are overwhelmed, stressed, burned out, and disillusioned with their ability to positively make a difference through their work.

Fortunately, trends are emerging that support a shift away from a sacrifice-your-needs-to-the-organization mentality to an arrangement that benefits both the company and its employees. By responding to them proactively, you can leverage their influence to help employees believe that where they are—on your team—is exactly where they want to be.

This starts with focusing on micro-changes that are often within a leader’s control or influence.

What follows is not advice for managers, at least as we’ve come to understand the term. Management and managers are loaded words that come with baggage and conclusions that no longer benefit a business or its people. What I offer is advice for stewards, bearing in mind the definition of stewardship by Mark Fernandes, chief leadership officer at Luck Companies: Stewardship is caring for people and things that don’t belong to you.


Working with Workforce Expectations

Employees see organizations as a way to achieve their goals and dreams. Work is a source of fulfillment when the steward provides opportunities that help people advance in their careers. These are the areas employees view as critical to their work life:

Advancement. It’s common to hear remarks about millennials’ unrealistic expectations for advancement in the organization without doing the time. After all, previous generations had to put in the time. So that’s the way it ought to be, right? No.

Concluding that the way things were for you is how they need to be for others is a mental trap. We must account for the forces of change. It is no longer best practice to assume experience is the major factor for career advancement. What matters now are drive, character, values, and potential.

One need look only at government to see that length of time in a position is not a good measure for promotion. Government is notorious for promoting people who have done the time but lack the drive, character, values, or potential. This sets people up for frustration and failure that can lead to adverse health effects. Furthermore, team performance takes a hit. People at all ages must have the opportunity to advance because they demonstrate that they are ready or show great potential.

LinkedIn uses a tour-of-duty concept to intentionally develop employees’ skills that help them achieve their career aspirations. The tours are rooted in a concept that Reid Hoffman and his coauthors outline in The Alliance, the alliance being a relational perspective with a focus on ensuring that the business and the employee get to desired outcomes important to both. Employees might embark on a rotational, transformational, or foundational tour of duty that could yield valuable benefits such as an expanded professional network or a newly learned skill.

Coaching and/or mentoring relationships. Support for growth is important to both junior- and senior-level employees. You can show this support by making coaching or mentoring available to help your people grow in their work, and even in their personal lives.

A quick note about the difference between coaching and mentoring. Coaches use questioning to help those they are coaching discover answers that meet their needs. Mentoring is a bit more directive. Instead of using the art of questioning, a mentor may direct a mentee to do something and then review the action later.

Work flexibility. Ninety-one percent of the employees on Fortune’s 2014 list of best companies to work for said they believe they can manage their own work schedules to get work done and tend to personal needs as they arise.

Work flexibility also includes letting people work where they want to. One of my government clients rolled out a program that allows employees to work remotely once a week. Other organizations let employees work remotely all the time. This type of flexibility lets your people match their energy levels optimally.

Of course, this doesn’t mean doing away with deadlines and milestones. Work flexibility is successful only when rigor around execution is part of the conversation.

Social responsibility. Businesses have a responsibility to improve the communities where they operate and the resources and influence to make positive changes at local and even global levels. Employees play a significant part, with millennials pushing this conversation. One study focusing on them found that job satisfaction was linked to volunteering and working on a project that helps society or the environment. In the same study, 65 percent of those responding said contributing to society was an important job attribute.

Other trends that are important to employees and influence their work include meaningful and purposeful work and a sense of community.


What You Can Do

Creating a positive work experience is a central goal for stewards. With the trends mentioned above in mind, you can use the levers on the right in the table below to foster positive experiences.

As you can see, each of those levers represents a fundamental shift away from a traditional approach.

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To illuminate the approach schematized on the right, I recall a TEDx Talk by Bob Chapman, chairman and CEO of Barry-Wehmiller Companies, Inc., a $1.7 billion global manufacturer of capital equipment and provider of engineering consulting.

Chapman had an epiphany at a friend’s wedding when he realized that people aren’t functions. This struck him as he watched the bride’s father give his daughter to his future son-in-law and realized that the tradition of the father giving his daughter away in marriage was about changing lives. Suddenly he understood that it wasn’t about the ceremony, but about the people. Chapman concluded his talk with: “When we allow somebody to walk in to our organization we have an obligation as stewards of that life to continue to allow that life to be everything [it was] meant to be.”

Chapman’s sudden insight reveals a powerful lesson for all stewards: Learning people’s stories helps you transcend the viewpoint that employees fulfill functional roles in which they perform perfunctory tasks in exchange for pay. When we fail to do this, work outcomes are safe and predictable, holding teams and ultimately the organization back.

Instead, we need to look at work through a relational lens, seek mutually beneficial outcomes for the team, organization, and individual, and focus on each team member’s development as a whole person, making growth a focus both personally and professionally.

Your role with regard to the purpose and meaning leader lever is to ensure that the team’s purpose is known along with how it aligns with the company’s goals. Let people choose assignments that align with their strengths—what energizes them—and their development goals.

Building community and belonging involves intentionally creating meaningful relationships with your team and connecting its members to one another and to their collaborators across the organization. Rotating people weekly from project to project or otherwise cross-pollinating knowledge on all projects the team is assigned helps keep enthusiasm for the work high by leading people to value constant learning and promotes hope by taking work and connecting it to purpose.

Allowing your team members to explore new ways to approach their work evokes curiosity. Take a page from Google’s playbook and set aside time for your team to develop side projects that could someday add value to the organization.

These are the kinds of shifts that help you connect purpose and meaningful work successfully.


Shawn Murphy, a consultant with 20 years of experience in working with organizations to create workplace optimism, is the cofounder and CEO of Switch & Shift, an advocacy and consultancy focused on the human side of business. This article is derived from his book The Optimistic Workplace: Creating an Environment That Energizes Everyone, published by AMACOM Books, a Division of the American Management Association; © 2016 Shawn Murphy. All rights reserved. To learn more: amacombooks.org.

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