Lead for a Selfless Organization

 


12

Lead for a Selfless Organization

Ray Dalio, philanthropist and founder of Bridgewater, the largest hedge fund firm in the world, offers a great example of a leader modeling a selfless culture. He was invited by a team to join a very important meeting with a large client. After the meeting, he received an email from a junior colleague on the team, who unequivocally criticized his performance:

Ray—you deserve a “D–” for your performance today … you rambled for 50 minutes … It was obvious to all of us that you did not prepare at all because there is no way you could have been that disorganized at the outset if you had prepared. We told you this prospect has been identified as a “must-win” … today was really bad … we can’t let this happen again.

Coming from a junior employee to the founder of the company, this email may seem like career suicide. But not in this case. Ray understands the value of ignoring hierarchical status and dissenting when needed. One of his philosophies is that no one has the right to hold a critical opinion without speaking up about it. This is the philosophy the junior colleague took him up on, and tested by sending the email.

How did Ray respond? He forwarded the message to the other meeting attendees, asking them to rate his performance. They concurred with the “D–” rating. And to reinforce a culture that values dissention, he shared the whole email thread with the entire organization. By doing so, he modeled his philosophy that hierarchies, status, and ego are not conducive for a healthy organizational culture.

When you enter an organization with selfless traits, certain characteristics jump out. An organization with a selfless culture likely doesn’t celebrate the employee of the month. Instead, it’s acknowledged that every achievement is a result of interconnected collaboration. Consequently, the team is celebrated. In a selfless culture, everybody matters. There’s likely no picture of the firm’s founder on the wall. In a selfless organization, the founder rarely wants to take center stage, instead preferring that the focus be on the organization and on its purpose. Because of this, there will likely be photos of collective achievements on the walls, as well as photos showing people having fun as they support the organization and the communities they serve. The message is clear: People matter. Purpose matters. Service matters.

A selfless organizational culture is not about the individual, but about the collective mission and purpose. A selfless culture does not lack ambition and drive. Rather, it has the type of healthy confidence and self-interest to drive for results and achievement as one united team.

The selflessness matrix introduced in chapter 1 presents the potential of selflessness combined with self-confidence for leaders but it can equally be potent for a culture. A selfless, self-confident culture is where everyone looks out for one another’s interest, and all work for the common greater good.

Consider a challenging situation in your team you have experienced recently. Were team members focused on their own narrow interests or on the interest of the team, the challenge, and the organization? If it was the former, how would cultivating a more selfless culture be of benefit?

This chapter looks at environmental factors that can support the establishment of a selfless culture. We will also look at inequality and how it negatively impacts selflessness. Further, we will specifically explore how selflessness can be strategically applied to enable more meaningful and effective processes for managing performance.

Traits and Tips for a Selfless Culture

In a selfless culture, there are more constructive conversations and less gossip. Not because there are fewer difficulties—every office has different personalities and varied opinions—but because there’s less finger pointing. Difficult conversations are intended to solve issues that support the shared purpose of the organization rather than to place blame or find fault. Similarly, a selfless culture is more willing to acknowledge mistakes. Apologizing can be hard, but if people aren’t too attached to their egos, they won’t fear looking weak or compromised when they make a mistake. Specific traits of a selfless culture that are easy to cultivate include an abundance of gratitude, a reduction in symbols of status, and a visible incorporation of wise selflessness.

Show Gratitude

A selfless culture is rich in gratitude. As described in chapter 8, gratitude is the natural response to understanding how interconnected we all are, how much we rely on others’ skills and contributions for our own success. With this understanding, we are bound to have greater humility, and as a result, gratitude flows naturally. Gratitude in organizations has proven to improve productivity, well-being, mental strength, and job satisfaction. Furthermore, gratitude is contagious. When leaders show appreciation and gratitude, there’s likely to be a ripple effect. Showing gratitude toward someone is likely to inspire that person to thank other people.

In traditional company cultures, the people with the best sales numbers are rewarded and get the bonus. But with the wisdom of selflessness and interconnectedness, this approach seems shortsighted. It is rarely just one person who makes great sales happen. A selfless culture makes a point of identifying and showing gratitude to all those people who make the invisible contributions to the shared success.

A client of ours, a global pharmaceutical company, created a system where everyone was prompted daily to acknowledge others’ work contributions that had affected their own work and day. Not surprisingly, it was not the best-performing salespeople who were awarded most often but rather the administrative assistants and other office staff. As a result, these normally slightly invisible contributions became clear to everyone. As a result, a greater cultural sense of interconnectedness and equality was established.

Reduce Status Symbols

A company with a selfless culture likely has no big corner offices. Corner offices were invented during the industrial revolution, symbolizing the status and power of the CEO and senior leaders. Jakob Meding, former CEO of HP in Denmark, raised eyebrows throughout the organization when, on his first day, he left his corner office and sat at one of the communal workstations with the rest of the employees. He made this change because he wanted to minimize the risk of ending up in the CEO bubble described in chapter 4. He shared how the move drastically impacted how people viewed him and how they engaged with him. Suddenly, he was just like everyone else, and people talked to him and shared important ideas and suggestions. This was valuable information he would never have obtained if he were sequestered in his corner office.

In a selfless culture, there is a spirit of interconnectedness. Each individual is only successful because of the shared efforts of everybody. Think of King Arthur’s round table—a symbolic and tangible mechanism to create a culture where all voices can be heard and everyone matters.

Take a moment to stroll through your office environment. Look for visible indicators of status and hierarchy versus team work and collaboration. Consider simple ways you can shift the environment toward promoting greater equality and interconnectedness.

Employ Selfless Wisdom

A selfless culture also has the space for wisdom. When Antoine Raymond, CEO of A Raymond, a global manufacturer of fasteners and connectors, and his leadership team learned that their biggest competitor was close to bankruptcy, they called an emergency meeting—not to celebrate and or to strategize how they could leverage the situation. Instead, they discussed how they could best support the competitor to keep it from going out of business. They recognized how their company was interconnected with its competitor in many ways. As Antoine explained to us: “Our industry, like any industry, is an ecosystem of clients, providers, and partnerships. We knew that if our biggest competitor left that ecosystem, it would destabilize the market. Beyond the obvious pain it would cause their employees, it would also hurt us.” Antoine picked up the phone, called the CEO of the competitor, and offered him financial support.

Marshall Goldsmith, world-renowned executive coach and author of several bestselling books on leadership, shared some insights with us. He has observed that one of the main problems for ego-driven organizations is the constant desire to win. According to Marshall, if we’re constantly driven by the desire for victory, we lose the ability to think in terms of “win-win” solutions. We lose the wisdom of seeing the bigger picture: we lose the holistic awareness of the interconnected ecosystems we all operate in. This is what the leadership team of A Raymond had in mind when they supported their struggling competitor. But few leadership teams behave this way. Understandably, many would have popped a bottle of champagne and celebrated a victory. And while that may be appropriate in some situations, there’s a risk when it’s done out of an obsession with winning and a thirst for dominance.

If you truly value all employees and believe that everyone matters, a great mechanism for cultivating a more selfless organization is in how performance is managed.

Redefine Performance Management

Feedback on performance is one of the most important conversations between people at work. To improve work performance and collaboration, people need feedback that helps guide them and reinforces particular behaviors. In many organizations, this occurs through a formal performance management process that very few employees actually find valuable. A 2013 Mercer Global Performance Management Survey discovered that only 3 percent of companies reported that their performance management system delivered significant value. Given numbers like this, many organizations are redefining how they manage, rank, rate, and discuss performance. Companies like Accenture, Deloitte, Adobe, Juniper Systems, Dell, Microsoft, and IBM have replaced annual reviews with more engaging and interconnected ways of supporting people’s performance.

There’s much we can learn about how to effectively support people’s performance. One of the most important lessons is that leaders must have ongoing, present, and personal conversations with their employees. To truly engage people, to give them a sense of real human connection, leaders must have frequent and informal conversations with employees. Leaders must understand what employees find meaningful, what engages them, and how they want to contribute. These topics and questions address foundational human motivations. To get to this level of personal connection, leaders must apply selflessness by letting go of outdated and distancing power hierarchies. According to the Mercer survey, the main reason for the failure of traditional performance reviews is the leader’s inability to effectively engage the employee.

In today’s overly busy, complex, and often geographically dispersed work settings, personal human connections often get lost. In many cases, leaders don’t have the time or the skills to effectively engage people in meaningful conversations. And even if they do, their minds are racing so fast that they’re not truly present during the conversation. So although there’s merit in getting rid of performance reviews and replacing them with regular, informal check-ins, leaders must be equipped to do so in an effective way. Learning to be present—to be solely focused on the current situation—during the conversations is a great starting point. But skillful performance conversations require more than presence. It requires understanding how the mind responds to feedback and how feedback can be more effectively delivered.

Researchers have found that the phrase, “I would like to give you some feedback” activates the same pain response in our brains as someone holding up a stick to strike us. How is this possible? As social animals, one of our greatest fears is being kicked out of the tribe—of being isolated, which for our early ancestors would mean death. Today, feedback has become synonymous with criticism. And criticism is a strong indication of possible isolation. In this way, the word feedback signifies an evolutionary threat, a possibility that we’ll be excluded from the tribe.

And what makes matters worse is that most people do not like giving other people feedback because they don’t like inflicting pain. As a result, too often organizations end up in situations where really important conversations about how people can enhance their performance go terribly wrong or don’t happen at all.

If instead we embrace the premise that we all have an intrinsic desire to have meaning and purpose in our life and that work, for many of us, is a big part of life, it makes sense that we would all want guidance and support on how we can add more value. This can best occur in a culture where everyone is valued and constructive feedback is viewed as a means toward collective improvement. A truly selfless approach to performance management requires a culture where giving and receiving feedback is valued as a mechanism for greater collaboration and collective development. Feedback should be something that everyone welcomes and receives, including all employees and in all directions.

As noted in chapter 10, one of the best things a leader can do is model desired behavior. When a leader is willing to receive criticism publicly, it sends a powerful message to the rest of the organization that ego should not get in the way of collective success. Ray Dalio demonstrated this behavior when he shared his “D–” rating with the entire organization. But modeling selflessness is only the first step. Organizations that want to support a more progressive approach to performance management by creating a more selfless, “not about me,” culture need to implement systems and structures to support it.

In our conversation with Debi Daviau, president of the Professional Institute of the Public Service of Canada, representing more than fifty-five thousand workers in the public sector, she spoke about the importance of creating a culture of constructive feedback: “The success of the organization cannot be about me. It has to be about ‘the whole,’ which is why people, including myself, need to know when we are doing well and where we have opportunities for improvement.” She believes it is essential that recognition and feedback go hand in hand. “If people do not feel recognized and appreciated for what they contribute, they will not respond well to hearing about things they didn’t do very well.”

In our experience, making an organizational norm of giving and receiving feedback is key to enhancing performance. Making time at the end of each meeting or formally at the end of each week to reflect on team and individual performance, including discussions on how we can improve, makes having these conversations much easier. In addition, creating a value around “sharing feedback” as core to organizational success and performance is key. And reinforcing this through guidelines on “right speech,” which say that I shouldn’t be talking about another person unless it is in their best interest and unless I am willing to say it to them directly in support of our collective success.

Take a moment to consider the performance reviews you have with your people. What results do you think these conversations yield? Are you creating authentic human connections? Are you engaging your employees’ or team members’ basic desire for happiness? For meaning and purpose? When developing a selfless culture, another important question to ask is how equal or unequal your culture is.

Selflessness and Equality

Selflessness goes hand in hand with equality. Imagine you have two monkeys in front of you. You teach them that every time they give you a pebble, you give them a piece of cucumber. After a few rounds of giving both of them their reward of cucumber slices, you suddenly give one of them a grape—their favorite fruit. What happens? The one getting the grape is thrilled. The other, however, is deeply offended. It throws the piece of cucumber at you, and demands a grape. This is exactly what happened in a study directed by Emory University professors Frans de Waal and Sarah Brosnan. Monkeys have a strong sense of fairness and resist conditions of inequality.

Humans are very much the same.

In many organizations today, there are significant differences in how people are treated. This inequality has deep, far-reaching consequences. Keith Payne, professor of psychology at the University of North Carolina and author of The Broken Ladder: How Inequality Affects the Way We Think, Live, and Die, has researched the effect of inequality on society and found that monkeys aren’t the only primates with an instinctive reaction to inequality. Inequality kills social connectedness, makes people unhappy, erodes trust, and kills engagement. Unless we’re the ones on the better side of the inequality spectrum.

The following is an example many of us can relate to. We board a plane, entering at the front. Our first sight is the beautiful, spacious seats in first class. With wide armrests and ample leg room, they look like luxury cocoons. Maybe a glass or two of champagne has been served, and a few seated passengers glance through the menu, deciding on steak, fish, or chicken. But we keep plodding toward the back until we reach our own seat in economy class; crowded, cramped, and vaguely stale. Our mood sours. Interestingly, studies have found that air rage and fights on airplanes happen four times more often if the plane has a first-class cabin. In fact, having a first-class cabin on a plane increases the risk of serious conflict as much as nine-hour delays do.

From a performance point of view, research has found that in baseball—an occupation with wide income disparities—equality in incentives and pay created better social cohesion and team performance. A study showed that with more equality, not only did the lesser-paid players perform better, but so did the best-paid players. The final report of the World Health Organization Commission on the Social Determinants of Health found that societies with higher levels of inequality have worse health issues, more crime, and more social problems.

In organizations, the same patterns apply. Organizations with higher inequality have been shown to have higher resentment among employees, which adversely affects the company through decreased effort, a lack of cooperation, and even outright sabotage. Companies with extreme pay inequality are riskier, perform worse, and experience greater shareholder dissent. Studies have also shown that inequality harms performance-related outcomes such as product quality, leads to feelings of unfairness, and increases employee turnover. This is just about everything that can afflict a poorly performing company, which speaks to the destructive force of inequality.

We intuitively know the benefits of equality. In a study across forty countries, people were asked how much more CEOs should be paid compared to unskilled workers. Although there were significant differences across countries, when compared with what CEOs actually make, the conclusion of the research was that universally, the pay gap is too big. According to a 2015 report by the Economic Policy Institute, the top US CEOs make more than three hundred times the salary of the average worker. That’s a dramatic gap. Between 1978 and 2014, inflation-adjusted CEO pay has increased 1,000 percent, while the typical US worker’s salary has only increased 10 percent. There may be some valid arguments for why a CEO deserves so much more, but our focus is on how this difference impacts perceptions of fairness and creates a culture of entitlement, hierarchy, self-importance, greed, and selfishness.

The current levels of inequality are not compatible with selfless leadership behavior, a selfless culture, or a people-centered organization. We recommend that leaders who truly want to create a more selfless culture start by reviewing the compensation levels throughout their organizations. Is there a sense of equity? Do you think that people are valued appropriately for their contribution? If compensation packages were visible to everyone, do you think it would enhance engagement? Or would it detract from performance?

Although we know money doesn’t provide genuine happiness, we also know that inequality fosters the opposite: dissatisfaction, dissension, and division. Because of this, a people-centered, performance-oriented organization must attempt to avoid inequality wherever and whenever possible. This is also a great step toward creating a more compassionate culture, where everyone truly cares about one another’s performance and well-being.

Quick Tips and Reflections

  1.  Reflect on the degree of selflessness in your organization and how this enhances or detracts from creating a collective sense of engagement, meaning, and purpose.
  2.  Consider how people are recognized and rewarded; commit to one thing you can do to enhance appreciation and gratitude in and across teams, departments, and levels.
  3.  Consider how you currently manage and measure performance; is there anything you can do to make it a more engaging, meaningful, and impactful process?
  4.  Identify five people who make significantly less money than you do; invite them for coffee to find out who they are, what they do, and reflect on their value to the organization.
  5.  Reflect on the level of equity in your organization and commit to at least one thing you will do toward enhancing it.


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