Consider the depressingly low rates of employee engagement around the world. According to a recent AON Hewitt global survey, four in 10 workers report being disengaged.
But instead of focusing exclusively on the sources of disengagement and dysfunction, the authors explored people's positive visions for organizations around the world, asking them what their ideal organization would be like—one in which they could be their best selves. The responses grouped naturally around six broad imperatives, which form a handy 'DREAMS' mnemonic:
"I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I'm different and how I see things differently."
For many organizations, accommodating differences translates into this concern with "diversity," usually defined according to the traditional categories such as gender, race, age and religion.
These are, of course, of tremendous importance, but leaders' goals should be something subtler and harder to achieve—an organization that can accommodate differences in perspective, habits of mind, core assumptions and worldviews, and then go beyond accommodation to create a place where difference is celebrated and even leveraged to add value. Get difference right and you are rewarded with higher levels of commitment, innovation and creativity.
"I want to know what's really going on."
Organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of being transparent and open—both internally and to wider stakeholders. Reputational capital is becoming more and more important for high performance, even as that capital becomes increasingly fragile.
And yet, the growth of the communications profession is actually more evidence that companies are taking a superficial approach to disseminating the critical information that people need to do their jobs.
Why? Because so many communications professionals remain stubbornly connected to an old-world mindset in which information is power and spin is their key skill. Surely information is power, but companies no longer have control of it. In a world of WikiLeaks, whistle-blowing and freedom of information, their imperative should be to tell the truth before someone else does. When they do, they will begin to build long-standing organizational trust—both inside and outside the organization.
"I want to work in an organization that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development."
Elite organizations and professions have been in the business of making great people even better for a long time now. Part of their pact with employees is, "Join us and we will develop you." Unfortunately, they deal with only a tiny proportion of the workforce.
Surely other companies can do more. Research shows that high performance arises when individuals all over the organization feel they can grow through their work—adding value as the organization adds value to them.
"I want to work in an organization I'm proud of, one that truly stands for something."
It's fair to say that the concept of authenticity runs through all of the characteristics of the DREAMS organization—because authentic organizations encourage you to be your best self at work and to perform at your best. But when looking at authenticity as a specific organizational quality, use these three markers:
A company's identity is consistently rooted in its history.
Employees demonstrate the values the company espouses.
Company leaders are themselves authentic.
Where this happens, employees enjoy a sense of purpose, pride in what they do and higher levels of trust. Sadly, rather than rise to the challenge, in many organizations the task of building authenticity has collapsed into the industry of mission-statement writing. This produces not high performance but deep-rooted cynicism.
"I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful."
The search for meaning in work is not new. There are libraries full of research on how jobs may produce a sense of meaning—and how they can be redesigned in ways that produce engaged employees.
But meaning in work is derived from a wider set of issues than those narrowly related to individual occupations. It also emerges from three Cs found in the research:
Connections: employees need to know how their work connects to others' work.
Community: they need a workplace that promotes a sense of belonging.
Cause: they need to know how their work contributes to a longer-term goal.
If these deeper issues are not addressed, faddish efforts at increasing employee engagement will only have fleeting effects.
"I don't want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others."
The truly authentic organization has simple rules that are widely agreed upon within the company.
Many organizations display a form of rule accretion, where one set of bureaucratic instructions begets another, which seeks to address the problems created by the first set. In response to this, organizations have attempted a kind of radical delayering. This at least attempts to address the problem of losing good ideas and initiatives in a byzantine hierarchical structure.
But that, too, is only a superficial fix. The ideal company isn't a company without rules. It's a company with clear rules that make sense to the people who follow them, and it remains vigilant about maintaining that clarity and simplicity—a much larger challenge with a far greater payoff. Good rules maximize discretion which, in turn, facilitates problem-solving. They unleash initiative rather than suppress it.
These attributes can often run counter to traditional practices and habits in companies, and they're not easy and simple to realize or implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention.
Named one of the Ten Best and Brightest Women in the incentive industry, Michelle M. Smith, CPIM, CRP, is a highly accomplished industry leader; international speaker, author, and strategist. A respected authority on leadership and employee engagement, she is past-president of the FORUM for People Performance at Northwestern University, vice president of research for the Business Marketing Association, and president emeritus of the Incentive Marketing Association, among many other prestigious board positions past and present. Michelle is vice-president of marketing for O.C. Tanner. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org