Work life doesn’t have to suck. I don’t care what kind of organization you lead — I don’t care what kind it may be, how big it may be, what you do, or where you may be in some larger hierarchy — you can make that organization that you have the good fortune to lead, a great place to work.
When we talk about making a place a great place to work, we’re not talking about employer-provided amenities like free food, free beer, foosball and ping-pong tables. We’re talking about making a place a great place to work for all who have a stake in the success of the enterprise: a better place for customers to experience, a better place for employees to practice their craft, a better place for owners to invest their money, a better place for suppliers to do business, and a better citizen in the many communities to which the organization belongs.
The traits of a great place to work are pretty straightforward; they are all cultural characteristics, and each of them cost nothing, or next to nothing. Yet, there are a lot of reasons why work life in the organization you lead may suck. For example:
- The organization may not be held in high regard by others outside your organization, perhaps even by your superior.
- The work your organization is doing may be 99% routine drudgery.
- Your people may feel that the work they do is not worthwhile, lacks meaning, or has little to no connection to a mission or any higher purpose. They don’t see how their work matters.
- Your people may be unappreciated, even when they do their work well.
- The people in your organization may dislike and/or distrust each other.
- Your people may know that doing their work the way they are directed to do it produces results, although apparently acceptable, that are of crappy quality.
To be brutally frank, the most frequent cause is in the leadership. So, as a member of your organization’s leadership team, honesty compels you to ask yourself, “Am I the problem?”
- Do you treat your people like indentured servants?
- Are you a Dilbert-like, clueless, pointy-hair boss?
- You may be bright and talented, but are you “just passing through?” Is your primary focus on your own career; do you regard this role as a brief stop, a layover to be endured until your next promotion up the ladder? Do you pay more attention to managing your relationship with those who can aid your career progression than you do with those whom you lead?
These types of leadership behaviors require an epiphany to resolve.
However, there are also those leaders who are well-intentioned, whose heart is in the right place, but who either don’t know any better because they’ve never experienced any other example, or who feel that they have no other choice given how they are measured. And there are those that may be thinking, “My organization is just a small cog in a much larger machine, what can I possibly do? What difference could I possibly make? Doesn’t stuff like this have to start at the top and flow down?” Finally, there are those that may rightfully recognize that their organization is an island in a larger organization that is highly toxic, and are wondering how you go about creating an oasis in the midst of dump site.
The fact is that there is quite a lot you can do.
It is challenging, but it is not impossible. Certainly, there will be things beyond your influence to which you will have to yield — like everything else in life, you’ll need to choose your battles. But if you focus on those things within your influence, if you resist the distraction of those things that may be of concern to you but over which you have no influence, and if you mindfully design your whole organization — its processes and its culture — then you will be amazed at the progress you can make and what you can accomplish.
If you are the leader of an organization that must operate in a larger environment that is toxic, you have more options than fight or flight. Fighting will only add to the toxicity, and fleeing is the same as surrender or abandoning ship. However, if you lead your organization in the spirit of “be a light, not a judge; be a model, not a critic” then you will be amazed at the impact you can have.
The vision of having people as excited to come to work in the morning as they are to go home in the evening is not a far-fetched myth. Also, we can tell you from our own career experience that, although the larger environment may be toxic, a motivated leader can make their organization a great place to work. In fact, this kind of organizational change rarely starts as a top-down, CEO-led effort. If it takes root, it is usually from the middle out, where the micro becomes a model for the macro.
Again, we’re not talking about employer-provided amenities like free food, free beer, foosball and ping-pong tables. We’re talking about making a place a great place to work for all who have a stake in the success of the enterprise: a better place for customers to experience, a better place for employees to practice their craft, a better place for owners to invest their money, a better place for suppliers to do business, and a better citizen in the many communities to which the organization belongs.
The organizational traits that make any place a great place to work are not many, they are not complicated, and they are universally applicable. There are five, and you can learn more about them here. These are all cultural characteristics, each of them cost nothing, or next to nothing, and each is well within your direct influence if not your direct control.
Striving to make that corner of the planet, which you have the good fortune to lead, a great place to work is a worthy goal, and a noble adventure.
Work life doesn’t have to suck. You’re the leader. You can fix it.