What a good workplace looks like: Purpose, Recognition and Growth

In August 1983, I visited the Highlands & Islands of Scotland for the very first time. Everything was magnificent including, and I now know very unusually the weather. It was sunny, warm and dry every day for the whole trip. I fell in love with Scotland and have returned many times over the past 34 years. Unfortunately, I have never again experienced a similar extended period of perfect weather. In fact, I have frequently spent days suspecting that I was participating in some kind of ongoing ice-bucket challenge. Notwithstanding my subsequent experiences, I always think of Scotland bathed in the sunshine of my first visit. My perception and belief about what was both possible and desirable was set early. As a result, I return to Scotland with a sense of optimism, although experience has taught me to always pack my wet-weather gear.

It has been very much the same for me when it comes to work. I was similarly blessed in my first “real” job in 1987. It provided a very positive experience about what good looked like in the workplace and how work could be a “soul-enhancing” experience rather than a “soul-destroying” one. Over the last 30 years I have managed to experience a few similar positive work environments, indeed I am very proud that I have been involved in creating some of them. However I have also experienced or should that be endured the workplace equivalent of the “ice-bucket challenge; endless inclement cultures seemingly devoid of hope.

What I have learned from these diverse experiences is the difference between good and bad in the workplace. I believe it can be distilled down to the presence or absence of three factors. These factors are firstly a sense of purpose or meaning, secondly an ongoing stream of evidence of making a difference, that is adding value to something or somebody and lastly a feeling of personal growth or development.

When all three factors are present they amplify and reinforce each other. They are, in a very healthy sense contagious, in that individuals who display them communicate them to their colleagues, creating an environment which retains the right people and attracts other like-minded folk.

Unfortunately, when one or more of the factors is weak or absent then they diminish the positive impact of those that are present and good people leave in search of what they intuitively know is missing.

Let’s look at the three in a little more detail. Purpose is often talked about at a big-picture level and it is certainly motivating to think that your work is changing the world in some way for the better, Whilst I would always recommend that every organisation has a clear purpose in the form of a well-crafted mission statement, my experience is that it is the ability to find purpose in the more mundane tasks that our work often involves, that makes for a real sense of meaning on a daily basis. Activities designed with clearly visible progress and completion are a great way of providing this. It is also useful to focus on individual human interactions; “how” we do things and how we make our colleagues and customers feel are just as important as the “what” of what we actually do.

The second factor is related to our significance as individuals. Is what we do noticed and valued? Ongoing feedback and recognition is vital. The best kind of recognition is timely, individualised and specific; it seldom comes in the form of an impersonal award via a HR system! Validation from and the respect of our peers is especially important. The environment should be one where everyone is involved in improvements and is both allowed and encouraged to make changes. Again, it is the knowledge and visibility of progress that is vital. Performance indicators and metrics are of the most value when used to allow people to manage themselves as opposed to the more usual situation when they are used by managers to manage employees. An example of this approach is the world renowned “Toyota Production System”. In Toyota, the supervisor/manager’s role consists of facilitating process improvements and developing individuals.

This last point provides a nice segue to the final factor, Growth. Everybody needs to feel that they are developing in some way. The amount and type of growth required varies hugely between different individuals; this is definitely a case where one size does not fit all. A healthy workplace recognises this and provides a wide range of support, options and development paths along with just the right amount of challenge and pressure. I have been coaching and mentoring managers across the globe for many years and seeing these individuals grow and develop has been one of the most rewarding aspects of my career. Management author David Bolchover argues in his excellent book “The 90-Minute Manager” that one of the core tasks of any manager is the development of their people. Unfortunately, this task is often either forgotten completely or put to the bottom of the priority list, after all development usually takes time and costs money.

A healthy working environment that attracts and retains competent people and delivers the required results can take many different forms. Whatever the form it will be an environment where its people can find meaning, be recognised for their contributions and feel that they are growing. I strongly believe every workplace can and should be improved by a systematic focus on enabling these three factors. I know what a good workplace looks and feels like. Hopefully you too have experienced similar positive environments. The knowledge that they exist should give us hope that we can recreate them anew. It is this same hope that has kept me going whilst trudging through the driving rain on many a Scottish mountainside.

References

The 90-Minute Manager — David Bolchover

Toyota Talent : Developing Your People the Toyota Way — Jeffrey K. Liker , David Meier