As you’d imagine, we meet lots of business leaders in our travels and have many conversations about change and what successful organisations of the future might look like.
Future-thinking is illuminating. There’s no doubt that many of us feel that business has become devoid of emotion, organisations myopically focused on making profit to the detriment to any other sensible metrics. And yet it seems an almost insurmountable challenge to decouple our way of doing business from our current commercial obsession with perpetual growth.
Several years back, I made myself read a book called Prosperity without Growth by Tim Jackson. It was a hard read for me; I studied A-level Economics and didn’t enjoy it at all. Despite running several businesses, I’ve had an ingrained aversion to anything perceivably related to the subject ever since. Anyway, in the book, Tim Jackson sets a vision of how we might successfully adapt to a different economic model – one that successfully operates within the constraints of finite global resources. Given the twin challenges of climate change and resource depletion, it’s a compelling read for anyone interested in sustainability.
It strikes me that there’s something super-unhealthy about our current commercial obsession with growth. That we spend our time admiring those start-ups that achieve “unicorn” status is indicative of this. Perhaps I’m the fool, but I literally fail to understand why the markets get so excited about something so arguably risky. When we set business growth as the primary goal, we lose sight of many other important metrics.
It’s my perception that corporates who focus on growth and share-holder return beyond all other measures are, more often than not, completely toxic in nature. Employees of such companies tend to report much higher levels of work-related stress and anxiety and we’ve even been given accounts of bullying and threatening behaviour within these organisations. Such is the pressure to meet targets.
But here’s another thought. When business leaders put their own goals for financial growth before the needs of the partners who support them on their journey, they’re forgetting the importance of feeding their eco-system. We all need to make a certain amount of income to succeed commercially, and those organisations who drive a perpetual hard bargain with their suppliers will eventually feel the consequences. It’s already happening both in some areas of retail and in the restaurant sector, where suppliers can no longer afford to do business with certain chains – it just isn’t worth it.
In my recruitment career, too, I came across so many businesses whose only measure of success seemed to be how low a fee they could negotiate for recruitment services; months or years later they’d wonder why their supporting recruiters had such little experience. It simply isn’t financially viable to place an experienced recruitment consultant on client activity that yields such a small return.
When we feed our eco-system and pay our support partners a fair and reasonable rate, we’re building loyalty and commitment, invariably encouraging them to work harder and go the extra mile for us. When we squeeze on day rates, we send a clear signal that we don’t value their service as much as we could.
In the future of work, as commercial landscapes disrupt and we are forced to find new ways of doing business, our eco-systems will become critical. The commercial eco-system is made up of all those other parties who want to do business with us, who support us and who buy into our commercial vision and aspirations. It consists of the people and support partners who will help us achieve that vision. If we send a message to the members of our eco-system that we don’t value their contribution, we will find our eco-system is small and shallow.
Feeding our eco-system allows others to flourish. It enables other members of our business community to put food on the table, to pay for their children’s football or dance lessons. It enables all of us to feel useful and valued in these new uncharted commercial territories.
It’s time for us to move away from the old measure of profit and growth above all other measurable. We need to start thinking about business eco-systems that are sustainable, where all participants feel valued and that their contribution is worth something. I suspect this will be quite a break-away from how businesses have operated over the last 20-30 years, but in turn, I imagine that all participants will begin to feel altogether more fulfilled and purposeful, resulting in an altogether more symbiotic way of doing things.
I have a friend who works for a NASDAQ-listed multinational. She works long hours; her role is global, requiring regular calls with colleagues across Australia, APAC, Europe and the US. Some days, she has calls with people in all of these places. You can imagine the long hours that this would require.
As a public company, the overriding priority in the C-suite is to deliver shareholder value. Shareholder value and stock price is their north star.
This has a number of repercussions down the organisational hierarchy.
Employees are constantly expected to do more with less. There is no budget for any kind of staff development and the infrastructure available for employees to do their best work is restricted by finance, usually in response to the latest share price.
A lack of infrastructure investment increases the likelihood of system errors, for which workers are then held accountable. A blame culture has set in, as workers compete against one another to remain “safe”. Pressure increases and a vicious circle appears to have developed. The more stressed employees become about delivering increasingly ambitious (dare I suggest unrealistic?) goals in ever decreasing time-frames and with minimal spend, the more mistakes are made which have significant impact on customer service. Compromised customer service goes on to affect share price, in turn creating more pressure at board level, amplifying the stress cascading down the organisation. It seems that some executives are unable to handle the pressure, with aggressive and threatening behaviour and language accepted as culturally normal.
When I talk to my friend about her job, she is utterly miserable and disillusioned. She remains in situ because her salary is a good one, and she feels a responsibility to her family to deliver a certain lifestyle. In today’s job market and at her level, she’s not sure that many jobs exist for people like her, and even if they did, would she be “jumping from the frying pan into the fire”? In short, she feels trapped, and I’m reasonably certain that her work-life is already significantly impacting both her physical and mental health and wellbeing.
I write this because I know my friend is far from alone in her predicament. Many large corporates will acknowledge the continuous pressure of trying to deliver value to shareholders in a global economy that is increasingly dumbfounding even the savviest economists and investors. The pace of change afoot in the commercial world is unprecedented.
In parallel, we are witnessing a rapidly emerging tsunami of poor mental health across much of the developed world. I’d wager that much of it is due to increasingly stressful working conditions. We may have a better standard of living than ever before, but work conditions are increasingly fraught, time-bound, and for many, increasingly miserable.
I want to take a moment to explore psychological safety. If you google “psychological safety”, you’ll immediately find various articles from websites including hbr.org, hrzone.com, forbes.com and personneltoday.com, each stressing the importance and benefits of psychological safety in the workplace.
So, what is it? Wikipedia describes psychological safety as:
“…a shared belief that the team is safe for interpersonal risk taking. It can be defined as ‘being able to show and employ one's self without fear of negative consequences of self-image, status or career’. In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected.”
Psychological safety and the future of work
Psychological safety at work is essential. Not simply to reduce the rising tide of work-related anxiety and depression, although that alone is reason enough to strive for it.
For workers to successfully contribute to the innovation that we know will be needed to commercially survive and thrive in the future of work, psychological safety is vital.
Successful business leaders recognise that psychological safety is the bedrock of commercial progress. Being able to create and sustain work environments where every opinion counts, where each worker feels valued and supported, and where everyone knows that all mistakes made are considered a learning opportunity, is in many ways the antithesis of where many organisations currently are.
Evolving towards environments of psychological safety will require a shift of focus away from the current fixation with quarterly shareholder returns and a realisation that in order to create more sustainable and holistic shareholder value, employees need to feel part of the business, and not just a “human resource”. Only once this happens will true transformation and innovation take place.
Thankfully, we’ve started open dialogue about the importance of good mental health in the workplace. Recognising our mental health crisis is a HUGE step forward. Acknowledging work as a contributing factor is the logical next step.
As painful as it will no doubt be, identifying and alleviating the work-related triggers of stress and anxiety will be essential, and those leaders enlightened enough to recognise their responsibility in this regard will be the first to benefit commercially.
Leading business schools and think-tanks predict that creativity and critical thinking will be increasingly critical and sought-after skills in the future of work. Rapidly transforming commercial landscapes require agility, innovation and consistently fresh perspectives and approaches.
Yet developing and honing these skills isn’t so easy.
In many schools, the Arts are increasingly shunned in favour of STEM (science/tech/engineering/maths) subjects. Education can be rather ‘spoon-fed’ at times – students are taught how to regurgitate data points and a precise method of essay construction designed to pass exams. So target and results-oriented have we become that there is little room left for free-flow debate, something which is absolutely vital for successful complex problem-solving.
Our lived environments no longer support or encourage critical thinking and creativity either. At home and at work we face constant disruption – beholden to the flashing lights and beeps of our smartphones and devices. In fact, recent research data from the US suggests our internet habits are entirely addictive, and are significantly eroding our capacity for deep thinking and reflection.
Developing critical thinking and creativity as skills to compliment increasing workplace automation won’t come easy to many. While both can be learned, the acquisition of either will require applied commitment and space away from distraction in order to focus.
But here’s another thing. Creative and critical thinking require time and space to allow for fresh ideas to bubble to the surface. I’ve been blogging now for 18 months and I can say with certainty that writing doesn’t happen prescriptively; it happens in ebbs and flows, and inspiration arrives at the most unexpected times. Most successful writers will support this. Writing is just one example of creativity and I’m learning through experience to sit in the discomfort of an empty page. It’s not easy.
In the workplace, however, the challenge amplifies. The modern work environment is 100% results-driven; each and every one of our workplace objectives is tightly measured for success. Business managers and leaders are adept at quantifying every single input in order to be able to measure the associated output. True fact.
So what happens, then, when the time and space that are so vital for new ideas to surface and flourish can’t be measured? How much time is needed for critical thinking? Will organisations put a time limit on it?
Transitioning to a new work landscape, where critical thinking and creativity are embraced is going to be a MASSIVE (and in some cases, insurmountable) challenge for many organisations and even more managers. In addition to changing mindset, we need to find new ways to measure progress; non-financial yardsticks that provide a framework within which ideas and experiments can flourish. Hand in hand with this comes the necessary realisation that not all ideas turn into tangible, profitable outcomes. Mistakes will and MUST be made, in order for us to learn, pivot and grow. While experimentation is easier to embrace in small and lean start-ups, businesses that are committed to quarterly reporting of earnings will undoubtedly struggle to shift mindset, both in terms of how activity is measured and how the mistakes that are critical to learning and innovation are justified.
I don’t have the answers to how these necessary transitions will play out. My best guess, however, is that stakeholders, including shareholders, will have to adapt to a new landscape of reduced profits, accepting instead that break-even is better than the inevitable commercial atrophy that WILL occur if innovation and creativity aren’t allowed to become the new normal.
We have great challenges ahead of us. We’re headed towards a perfect storm. We have to learn ourselves out of the commercial situation we’ve found ourselves in.
We predict that mindfulness and meditation at work will become regular features, as means by which to facilitate the creative thinking required to maintain competitive edge. That these practices will help reduce work-related stress and hopefully restore mental health along the way is an added bonus.
In the meantime, the sooner we can all acknowledge the new skillsets, and better still, what organisational transitions will be required in order to achieve them, the better.
Cat’s recruitment career has furnished her with fascinating insights into how people behave in the workplace, particularly in response to change. She has a deep interest in human behaviour, organisational psychology and helping business leaders create sustainable, ethical and values-based working environments.