There has been a lot of buzz lately about the alarmingly high percentage of actively disengaged employees in the workforce.
There are many factors that affect employee engagement – job fit, company culture and manager / employee relationship to name a few. When I reflect on my own career and the times I felt more or less engaged, I wonder if the widespread lack of employee satisfaction has more to do with a deeper disconnect between the DNA of a corporation and the DNA of a human being.
Purpose, Passion and Entrepreneurship
I had the fortune of working for two very successful medical software / services startups before starting Keyhubs. Their paths, milestones and turning-points were uncannily similar.
Both companies were founded by passionate academicians-turned-entrepreneurs, intent on changing the practice of medicine through the use of innovative software technology.
The early days of each company were marked by an entrepreneurial and innovative spirit. The founders were relentless in solving problems, delighting customers and outlining a broad and far-reaching vision.
Both companies went public and were worth half a billion dollars at their peak.
While these companies made significant contributions to their field and became leaders in their respective domains, there was a distinct change in culture that occurred during my tenure, at both firms, that adversely affected my level of engagement.
As the companies grew, attracted more outside investment and went public, the culture of these companies began to shift from being entrepreneurial and purpose-driven to being managerial and money-driven. At one point, both companies rebranded their names and identity to match their stock ticker symbol! (Could you imagine Google changing its name to GOOG?)
Forced to answer to Wall Street, the entrepreneurial spirit began to wane. This spirit died a symbolic death when both founders were effectively sidelined, despite the research suggesting that founder-led firms do better. Both ended up departing the companies they started.
Money, Investors and ROI
As time progressed, and especially after the founder departures, these organizations went from being companies with vision, passion and purpose to firms that only cared (or so it seemed) about next quarter’s financial results and what that might do to their valuation. The new leadership culture was intent on taking what had already been created and leveraging it as much as they could. There was very little place for creative experimentation or innovation – a phenomenon shared by countless post-IPO companies.
Unsurprisingly, this was followed by a marked decline and / or stagnation in revenue. Both companies were acquired shortly thereafter at a fraction of their worth during their peaks.
These stories remind us that even when you work for a business that is “doing well by doing good”, it is easy for the culture to become dominated by the money motive, especially if those companies are controlled by outside investors. After all, that is, more often than not, the only reason investors are at the table.
While the DNA of a corporation is to maximize shareholder value, employees – the resource investors are depending on for an ROI – need more.
Engagement and the Human Spirit
As human beings, we seek meaning and values. We live for, and thrive on making a difference. Once we have enough to cover our basic necessities, money contributes very little to our well-being and satisfaction.
The fabric of what makes humans happy is at odds with the very reason that many businesses exist. If that is not a recipe for active disengagement, I don’t know what is.
Don’t get me wrong. Businesses should make money. They should prosper. Yes, money is necessary to survive, grow and innovate. However, when that motive becomes the primary driving force of the business, you lose employees, if not physically, emotionally. If you lose them emotionally, you begin to sow the seeds of active disengagement.
When businesses live and breathe a mission that is bigger than just making a buck, they draw out the best in people and significantly increase their chances of long-term success. There are many awesome, inspiring examples.
Look at how Salesforce.com built meaning and purpose into their DNA from the beginning. 3M is legendary because they have maintained an entrepreneurial spirit even in the face of becoming a large, publicly held company. Their ability to innovate, decade after decade, is the subject of many books, articles and case studies. Google, Apple and Tesla are other obvious examples. One of my favorites is Southwest Airlines. They chose a ticker symbol that represents their most important core value: LUV.
As leaders trying to grow a business and engage employees, we need to think about why our businesses exist and what kind of message we are giving employees. Are we starting and ending with purpose and passion or gravitating to, and celebrating, only financial outcomes?
If we are to have engaged employees, do we need to alter the DNA of business to align more with the DNA of human beings? Do we need to harmonize the spirit of commerce with the almighty human Spirit?
Vikas Narula (@NarulaTweets) is Creator and Co-Founder of Keyhubs (@Keyhubs) – a software and services company specializing in workplace social analytics. He is also Founder of Neighborhood Forest – a social venture dedicated to giving free trees to kids every Earth Day.
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