My dad worked in the business world, as a print publisher, while I was growing up. To me, on the occasional wife-and-kid-visits to Dad’s office in New York, the business world seemed boring and stale. My dad said, “It’s not boring to us, on our team. It’s fun. We solve problems all day long and make things up and figure things out.” I wasn’t convinced.
When I got into the business world myself through a series of flukes that I’ll tell you about another time, I saw first-hand why the business world gets such a bad rap. Business can be wicked fun, not to mention creative and intellectually stimulating. There are aspects of theatre and social work and epic adventure all rolled into it, such that at times in the business world I would feel completely in my body, in the zone and on a mission from God.
There’s a huge problem in the business world, though, that keeps the theatre and epic adventure out of it, to the detriment of employees, managers, customers, shareholders and all of us. That problem is, of course, the very odd and dysfunctional set of beliefs that we carry around and teach to business newbies, the structure of rules and policies and hierarchy that we at Human Workplace fondly call Godzilla. (We chose that name for the beast because of the Blue Oyster Cult classic song by that name.
Godzilla is the edifice of fear-based management practices and picky protocols that sap the life force from working people and reduce creative and energizing work to mindless steps in a bureaucratic process. Our three favorite Business Lies, described below, make up part of Godzilla’s backbone. All we have to do is stop and consider each of these inanities to see how ridiculous these three lies and all the other Business Lies are, and the more often we do that (and the more we talk about this topic, the dehumanization of work and the shift toward the Human Workplace) the more human our work will become, and the happier and healthier we’ll be. Ready for the list? Here goes!
Business Lie Number One: If You Can’t Measure It, You Can’t Manage It
It’s a funny thing about measurement – as technology advances and measuring instruments become more precise, the results of our measurements change dramatically. The first person to measure the coastline or Britain (or anywhere), for instance, got a much lower number in his measurement exercise than a surveyor would find today. When we measure the coastline of Britain with a fine enough instrument, we will find that it is infinite (though bounded), the same way cosmologists believe our universe to be.
Measurement itself is a very flawed — or I should say, evolving – science. Funnily enough, some of the things that we can measure with the most precision, like time (measured in impossibly small increments by ever-sharper Atomic Clocks at the National Institute of Standards and Technology, just down the hill from me) are made up things anyway. Time isn’t even real, just a handshake across countries, but we treat it like a sacred object, and we even say “Time is money.”
So measurement kind of sucks to begin with, and then our choices about what to measure at work turn out to be the things that have the least to do with anything important. We measure output in rows and columns. We measure what time someone arrives at work and what time they leave, in case our customers give a shiz about that, rather than about whether the customer got what they need from us. We measure ridiculous things like how long it takes to hire a new person once a job requisition is approved (HR folks call that yardstick Time to Fill) when we should be viewing the recruiting process as the wave function it is – no particles needed, if we’re always watching the supply-and-demand talent waves ebb and flow, if we can break out of Particle World and Measurement Land long enough to see the wave crests and troughs and make use of them.
We measure all the wrong stuff, and we teach working people that the measurement of everything and everyone is the whole point of the job. That is sick, sick, sick. People bring ingenuity, creativity, wisdom, pluck and a hundred other rare and immeasurable gifts to the job, and we say “Nah, we can’t see that stuff, so it must not exist. We’d rather evaluate you based on our irrelevant yardstick.” We are addicted to yardsticks in the workplace, and it hurts us in employee buy-in, trust, the physical and mental health of our teams and in a hundred other ways, all of which have negative effects on our customers, market share, earnings per share and every metric we care about. How stupid is that?
The most important things to observe, reflect on, celebrate, cultivate and reinforce at work – things like momentum, energy, passion, trust and innovation – don’t lend themselves to the 19th-century yardsticks we love. If we don’t nurture these things, they’ll shrivel and die. How can we nurture them if we don’t see them, don’t talk about them and pretend they don’t exist? Let’s get rid of the Measurement First mentality in honor of the turn of the new millennium, only thirteen years ago. We’re just in time!
Business Lie Number Two: Numbers are the Language of Business
I heard this every day while I was coming up in the business world. Right on the face of it, this wheezy adage makes no sense. Do the numbers talk to one another, across the gridlines on the spreadsheets? Do the numbers in the cells make some kind of numeric magic together when we’re not watching, like the cobbler’s elves late at night? No. They do not. They sit on the page and do nothing, just as numbers have always done.
The only thing that moves revenue lines up and costs down and makes everything good happen in business is conversation among people. That’s it. We have no other way to change the numbers in the cells, apart from live conversations, telephone calls, email messages, podcasts and product brochures. Businesses grow when communication flows and trust shoots across the divides between us and our customers, our employees and our shareholders. Language is the language of business, whether that language is English or Tagalog or something else. People move business. The numbers are just placeholders that tell us some of what we need to know to steer the ship.
Business Lie Number Three: It’s Not Supposed to be Fun – That’s Why They Call it Work
Really – work is not supposed to be fun? Interesting idea. Are you going to put in your company’s annual report, “Here at Acme Explosives, the work isn’t fun, but our employees can’t find a better job, so here they are.”? Is that what we want our brands to be? People who aren’t having fun are too expensive to keep around. You won’t get their best, so why have them in the place at all? If your view as a CEO or a leader is that the paycheck is enough, that people should be excited to bring their A game just because having a job is better than not having a job, here is my two-part question for you:
Don’t your customers deserve to work with employees in your shop who care about their work? Isn’t that part of what your customers buy, when they decide to buy from you?
Aren’t you, as a leader, smart enough to figure out how to let your employees connect to their own power source (not your feeble carrot-and-stick proddings) and bring themselves completely to work, every day? Do you trust yourself enough to hire people you trust, and set them loose?
If you work in a place whose culture sends the message “You’ve got a job, so be thankful” you have to get a new job immediately, because these people do not deserve you. If you’re the boss in a place where the air is heavy with the message “It’s not going to be more fun than this, so don’t expect it” you are likewise at a point in your life (and look how far you’ve read in this story, already!) to take a long look in the mirror.
It’s great to be a boss and have a big office, but is this what you want as your legacy — a management job that paid the bills but put you in charge of a crew of galley slaves? I have a feeling the universe has more exciting things in store for you than that.