A simple, powerful way to create a collaborative workplace

Last week I visited the awesome Studiomates collaborative workspace in Brooklyn, New York. When you visit the space, you immediately notice the collaborative, friendly atmosphere so I asked how they go about cultivating that. Naturally they are selective about who they accept as studiomates, but once people are in, how do they get people collaborating?

A big part of the answer over there is simply eating lunch together every day. You don’t have to have a Google-style free gourmet canteen to do this. Just have a set time every day and encourage everyone to eat their lunch together. It’s as simple as that, but don’t under-estimate the power. Humans have been talking while they eat together for thousands of years. It’s a very natural way to find out what’s going on and who needs help as well as creating and strengthening relationships and having fun.

We’re starting this practice at The FuseBox today. How about doing this at your workplace?

What the humble Hacky Sack can teach us about being happy at work

Here’s a great little meme you can start today which will make your workplace just that little bit happier. Thanks to Tom Bailey who told me about it over a cuppa the other day.

You know those times when someone makes a mistake and goes overboard with “sorry, sorry, I’m really sorry, arrrgh, my fault, I’m sorry!” Or conversely, when someone points the finger of blame at someone else for a mistake? The next time one of those things happens, simply say the words “Hacky Sack.” This, of course will be met with complete bewilderment the first time they hear it, giving you the opportunity to explain something wonderful about the simple game of Hacky Sack.

In a game of Hacky Sack, failure is part of the process. At some point, the Hacky Sack will dropped. Probably many times in a session. This is just the nature of the game. And if it’s just the nature of the game then there’s no need to go overboard with an apology when it happens, and no need to chastise anyone for screwing up. So in Hacky Sack, the etiquette is to just pick it up and carry on. No apology expected; no blaming allowed.

This sounds a lot like how workplaces should be. At work too, failure is just part of the process. It’s not something we need to go over the top with apologies or blame for. Hell, it’s even something to celebrate at times.

OK, I’m sure there are exceptions like where you’ve broken trust or failed to respect someone and a sorry can go a long way towards repairing a relationship. And perhaps it might not apply quite so well where lives are at stake, but that’s a tiny minority of workplaces. But for 99% of the everyday failures and mistakes that are made at work, make Hacky Sack the rule in your office.

Are humans selfish or cooperators?

I’ve previously written about dangerous and wrong assumptions about human nature. That the view of humans as fundamentally self-interested limits us to ineffective methods of motivation, and that we actually have evolved to cooperate.

I’ve heard more evidence over the last few days at the Imagine conference that humans are naturally cooperators. Let me give you a couple of examples.

David Erdal, author of the brilliant book Beyond the Corporation looked at first contact reports of hunter-gatherer tribes. He found that across the world they all had one thing in common: When they hunted meat, it was shared amongst all members of the group. You might expect that it was shared mostly with close family to help propagate ones own ‘selfish genes’ or shared in reciprocal agreements between individuals, but in every case it was discovered that ‘the criteria for receiving meat was simply having a mouth to feed.’

This is group selection in action – something that for many years even Richard Dawkins denied (but I believe has since come around to in the face of the evidence.) Beyond an individual’s own genes, it’s advantageous for the whole group to be well fed. Hunting meat is sporadic and tribes where nobody goes hungry are ultimately better for everyone within them.

Bringing this up-to-date, there are modern studies which show that in more equal societies which have smaller gaps between rich and poor, there are lower instances of social problems like infant mortality, crime, teenage pregnancy, alcohol and drug abuse and domestic violence. Most interesting is that beyond a certain point in wealth, it’s income equality rather than extra income that correlates with healthier societies. And surprisingly, both rich and poor people in less equal societies suffer more from social problems. In other words, you are likely to enjoy a higher standard of wellbeing being slightly less well-off in a more equal society than richer in a less equal society. So cooperation with others in your society to create equality is actually in everyone’s best interest.

There is also cognitive psychology research (G. Cory, 2006) which indicates that humans have dual motives – ego and empathy. We have a drive to protect out self-interest but also others. This makes sense based on the evidence about cooperation. Further, it seems that the binary question of whether people are selfish or cooperators is actually wrong. I heard a speaker assert that studies have shown that around 40-45% of people are indeed more selfish dominated and the slight majority are inclined more towards cooperation. This is why the hiring process is so important for organisations which want to set up a high-performing team that works together towards common goals rather than an under-performing team of selfish individuals working solely in their own interests.

There are many examples which break the theory of the ultimately selfish human. In the hugely successful, employee-owned retailer John Lewis, partners (owners) have consistently invested in their own company on timescales that would benefit future generations of employees rather than themselves. They understand that empathy for future generations gave them the business that they benefit from today and they work to improve it for those that will follow them.

I talked to a director of a credit union in Australia over the weekend which is 100% owned by its members (customers.) He was planning to direct some of the organisation’s surplus (profit) into a new charitable fund and he expected that the members would be supportive of this and not only that, contribute more of their own money on top. There’s no explanation for this kind of behaviour in the model of the purely selfish human but it is very heartwarming to know that humans can and do think beyond themselves and behave cooperatively.

So yes, humans can be selfish, but we are a sophisticated species which has evolved to cooperate in order to reach higher levels of wellbeing for ourselves and the societies in which we live.

Unhealthy, stressed employees are hurting your business

Sounds obvious, doesn’t it? But how far do most businesses go to create real wellbeing for their employees?

Extensive research and analysis from Gallup shows the impact on business of employee wellbeing, which it defines as five dimensions:

For example: Employees with high wellbeing have 41% lower health-related costs compared with employees who have lower wellbeing. In a firm that has 10,000 employees, this difference amounts to nearly $30 million.

And: People who have thriving wellbeing have a 35% lower turnover rate than those who are struggling; in a 10,000-person company, this represents $19.5 million.

The research is US-centric, and easier to attach financial figures to healthcare because they are usually born by employers, but in the UK, with long waiting lists for treatment on the NHS, and the cost of absenteeism it is just as relevant.

How the Facebook generation wants to be led

Interesting results from a Forbes roundtable discussing how young professionals want to be led at work. They boiled it down to five principles:

1. Empower us; don’t micromanage our talent

2. Sponsor us; serve as role models

3. Allow us to manage our own brand; don’t define us

4. Trust us; don’t question our intentions

5. Challenge us; don’t marginalize us

I think you could sum it up as just one thing: “Set us free” which is exactly the core concept of democratic business.

This is further evidence that workplaces based on democratic principles are the best placed to attract, retain and get the most out of the smart young people entering the workplace now.

How to be an awesome democratic manager in an old-school company

I usually write about transforming entire businesses into democracies. What if you don’t have the power to do this, but would like to realise the benefits to productivity and happiness in your team that democracy brings? Here are some tips for managers.

Old-school companies are secretive by default and only share information with employees when there’s a clear need. This breeds distrust because people fear the unknown. Democracies do the opposite. As a manager in any organisation you can adopt this principle, even if you can’t be as open as you would like to be. Go out of your way to be as transparent as possible about financial matters, strategy and decisions. Look for instances where information is not being shared, but not made explicitly secret and show employees what’s really going on in the company. Transparency breeds trust and avoids conspiracy theories.

Sharing your problems and opening up decision making is another powerful way to build trust. As a manager you don’t have to have all of the answers and solutions. A strong leader isn’t afraid to say ‘I don’t know’ and by doing this, you invite good ideas and a feeling of involvement from your team, plus decisions made with their input will be supported and faster to execute. Involve your team in the things that you are working on and you might be surprised at how much they can help. This is especially true of decisions that directly affect the people on the team.

Understanding what really motivates people at work is well proven by social science but little known to most businesses. Focus your team on these three principles and they will be happier and more motivated at work:

  1. Autonomy: People are most motivated when they have control over how to do their own work. Work with your team to decide what needs to be achieved, then get out of the way and allow them to figure out how to do it. Be there for them as a facilitator, helper and supporter. Not a supervisor.
  2. Mastery: Don’t get obsessed with objectives for performance. Whilst you will probably need success metrics and have to achieve some concrete goals, these are like a scorecard, not a strategy. Instead focus most of your attention on objectives for learning and improving your team’s skills on a path towards mastery. This is extremely motivating and a far more effective strategy for actually getting the best performance.
  3. Connectedness: People are motivated when they are contributing to a higher purpose, together with others. Discuss with your team how their work is helping to make the world a better place for people, societies or the environment (hopefully there is some higher purpose other than making money, otherwise it’s probably time to find a new job!)

Building an informal recognition programme is another very simple but powerful motivator. Take frequent opportunities to recognise great performance and effort as and when it happens, and in person as much as possible. Be very specific in feedback. Not just a ‘great job’ or ‘thanks’ but say exactly what they did well and why it’s appreciated. It has to be genuine. Lead by example to build a culture of feedback in your team by actively soliciting feedback from the team. Reward after the event, not by dangling carrots.

Encourage your team to create its own rituals like the Church of Fail or Ringing the Bell of Awesomeness. This helps you to build your own culture-within-a-culture based on better, more positive principles.

Lobby for change in the organisation. You can start by suggesting that one or two employees come to the board meeting each month, or if you’re not on the board, suggest that regular employees can come along to other meetings that are usually ‘above their paygrade’ to see what’s going on and provide input. The board or senior team will gain from the ‘reality check’ of having regular employees present, and it breaks down fear of ‘them upstairs.’ Question secrecy, making requests for more transparency and communication.

Whatever happens, and no matter how much corporate crap you’re putting up with, don’t ever allow yourself or team to fall into a spiral of negativity and complaining. Become a tribe of happy rebels, not whingers. Push the boundaries of the prevailing culture as far as you can; do things differently within your domain; and be a catalyst for change.

If you begin to work with democratic principles within your team or department, others will notice how much more productive, motivated and happy your team is. When they ask you what your secret is, this might just kick-start a change to make the whole organisation more democratic.

Good luck, and please post your own experiences, questions and ideas in the comments. I’m sure there are lots of other things you can do to be a great manager in a difficult culture.

Happy IN work vs. Happy AT work

I had an email from a reader who gave me permission to anonamise it and share:

[After working in sales and feeling something was missing] I moved into the care sector, retrained and was running the company after 3 years. He’s where it differed, there was and still is very little margin in the sector for any financial rewards. Care practitioners are on slightly more than minimum wage and do not have a reasonable fuel allowance. In domestic care they are accountable legally for the care/support they give and must attend quarterly supervision (by law) and have to retrain yearly. They work 24/7 365 on a rota.

Last year I moved to a new company and had to explain to 300 staff why their duties would expand due to ward closures, their area of travel would increase, but I wasn’t or rather couldn’t pay them any more. They were not happy. As qualified care practitioners, they were on less than staff on supermarkets check-outs.

I had of course checked the budgets, asked the directors for an increase and took another look over the council contract, where I realised that the contract was worth less than the previous year. When I queried this, I was told “carers do it because they care, not for the money“.

How about that for assumption. I handed my notice in soon after…

Classic management screw up, making an assumption about their people ‘they do it because they care, not for the money.’

The huge flaw in that logic is not understanding the difference between being happy IN work and happy AT work. The carers were happy to be IN work in a profession where they had real meaning and improved people’s lives, but it´s impossible to be happy AT work if you’re paid so little that money is a huge, pressing stress and you’re worried sick about paying the bills.

This is all too common in the charity sector where employers believe it’s enough for people to be working for a cause they feel passionate about and so don’t pay people enough or create a good working environment. At best, this is de-motivating, and at worst it makes great people leave and take their talents elsewhere.

Conversely, in many corporate jobs, including sales much of the time, the opposite is true. You get paid really well and have a nice comfortable life so you feel happy AT work but if you feel like you’re just being paid in order to make even more money for shareholders then there’s very little to make you happy IN work. And again this can cause great people to lack motivation or leave.

The key therefore is to create organisations with a very clear, higher purpose that people believe in and want to be a part of, and to ensure that you pay people enough to take money off the table as an issue so that they can focus on work. Once these base level needs are met you can then work up to higher levels of human satisfaction through recognition, social belonging and mastery of their craft which will take their motivation and performance to soaring heights.

Why do we accept giving up all of our rights at work?

I’m reading Beyond the Corporation by David Erdal at the moment and so have been thinking a lot about employee ownership. It’s making me wonder why we accept so little in the way of rights at work than we otherwise enjoy in the free and democratic societies we live in.

In a democratic country we have the right to choose the leadership and hold them to account; we have a right to transparency and information and we have the right to speak our minds, dissent, make our voice heard and participate.

In almost all businesses the employees have no equivalent rights. The rights belong only to the owners of the business – the shareholders. The shareholders are the only people with rights to information, to appointing or removing the management and ultimately deciding what the business does. Further, the shareholders are the only people with the rights to the profit and capital gains that it generates. Shareholders can sell these rights to whoever they choose in spite of any feelings the employees may have about it. The employees in the business create all of the value that it generates, yet they are merely ‘rented’ in return for pay, like a piece of machinery.

Why is it that we accept so little in the way of rights at work that we take for granted in society? Perhaps it’s because life is generally OK and we don’t feel hugely repressed, in spite of the lack of rights. Perhaps it’s because the status quo is so deeply entrenched in our history that we accept it as ‘the way things are’ and it cannot be changed. I wonder if this the same as the burgeoning middle classes in China who have decent jobs and access to consumer goods and perhaps don’t worry too much about the fact they cannot oppose or hold their politicians to account or have access to free information. But surely we can do better than this.

I am convinced that the solution is more than just democratic organisations. It is full ownership of companies by the employees. Only by the transfer of all rights from external shareholders to employees can we have true democracy at work.

Many democratic organisations are not actually true democracies at all. Whilst there are 10 principles of democratic organisations, what sets a true democracy apart is inalienable rights, not just operating principles which can be changed at the whim of the owners.

Most ‘democratic companies’ are actually benevolent dictatorships. The company I co-founded (and have now left but am still a shareholder in), NixonMcInnes, is a classic example. The company truly buys into democracy and has been independently assessed and shown to be living by the 10 principles. There is a huge level of transparency and employee involvement, from fully open financial information to guest seats for employees to attend board meetings. Employees have a say in selecting and evaluating managers, contribute heavily to strategy and planning, and have the right to ‘dissent’ by raising their own ideas, challenging anything that they are not happy with, and know that they will be listened to. There is also a generous profit sharing scheme in place. However, none of these things are actually rights – they are the policies set by the owners and can theoretically be reversed at any time, and the owners still have the right to sell the business to anyone they like who would be free to do as they please.

At NixonMcInnes, the concept of employee ownership has been discussed at length. I remember when we first talked to the employees about the idea and all of the rights that it would give them, they weren’t as excited as I thought they would be. The reason for this was that they felt they were already enjoying a lot of the benefits through the democratic principles, and the only real difference would be a big chunk of debt to pay off the old shareholders. In other words, life was OK under the benevolent dictatorship. I had to agree that this was a fair point, but I think there is something bigger at stake here.

Perhaps I am wrong, but I can’t help thinking that there is something hugely important about concrete rights that are set in stone forever – hopefully hundreds of years in the case of NixonMcInnes and certainly beyond the lifetime of everyone working there today. Rights that cannot be eroded over time or given up to new masters who want to do things differently. I think there is a massive difference between principles and true rights.

This is all sounding very socialist which is not a notion I’m terribly comfortable with to tell you the truth. In talking to socialist friends, they often say that the solution is for workers to unionise and to force (usually begrudging) employers to give them better rights. Personally I think the goal of better rights for employees is spot on, but the further polarisation of the situation into ‘them’ and ‘us’ is incredibly negative. It actually accepts and reinforces the status quo of the shareholder-employee relationship and misses out on huge opportunities to build amazing businesses that benefit the employees as well as society and the planet as a whole.

I would like to see far more employee ownership in order to give people these enduring rights at work. Perhaps unions could work towards raising finance to buy companies outright for the employees. I would also like to see bids for public companies to be taken out of the hands of short-term investors on the stock markets and into the hands of the people who work there.

This is not just social ideology. It is actually great business sense too and this is what gets me excited as an entrepreneur. In Beyond the Corporation, the myths about the supposed flaws in employee ownership (lack of innovation, inability to make tough decisions, bureucracy, short-termism etc) are thoroughly debunked by the reality of employee-owned companies like John Lewis, Arup and Publix who consistently out-perform their peers across all traditional measures of business success. It’s clear that employee owned companies can actually be more agile, innovative and better able to cope with tough times.

There are compelling reasons why employee ownership would be a far better and fairer standard framework for business than the current shareholder model. To test this theory, imagine for a moment that employee ownership was already the standard and employees had parallel rights at work as they do in society. Would any sane person suggest that it would be a good idea to remove all of these rights and give them up to owners who don’t actually create the value within the firm? Would anyone believe that these businesses would perform better? Would anyone think it would be better for society? Of course not. The current model only hangs on by virtue of the fact that it is ‘the way things are.’ But I don’t think it should or even can hold on forever. The day of the employee-owned firm is coming.

Building a team from the bottom up

I’m working on a business plan for a new venture at the moment which I’m hoping to get going next year once I’m settled back in the UK (disclaimer: all plans are subject to change, especially whilst I’m still travelling!) I will make the plan publicly available for comment soon (the anti-non-disclosure-agreement) but I can tell you now that it includes setting up a large cafe/restaurant.

I’ve got a fair bit of entrepreneurial experience, but the hospitality business is completely new to me. So I figured that the first team member I need to get on board is a restaurant manager. Then I got to thinking, I wonder if you could run a restaurant without a manager at all and instead share the responsibilities with everyone working there. It would be unusual (I think) for a large restaurant and you would need to carefully implement some democratic systems and processes to make sure that the place runs smoothly, but I think it could be do-able.

My next thought was that to build a new team, instead of starting with the traditional approach and recruiting a manger first who then hires the rest of the team, how about hiring some junior employees first then working with them on the business plan (after all, they will be in the front line of actually delivering it and I’m sure will have some brilliant idea of their own too.) Then together with them you could talk about the management responsibilities and see if they could be effectively distributed. And if not, then the employees could hire their own manager. Not as their boss, but as an equal, just with a different set of responsibilities.

I think the benefits of this could be enormous. The employees would see that they really are the most important people in delivering the service to customers. They’re not just working ‘for’ a manager who has the real responsibility. And who knows how it might lead to a better team and customer experience if all front-line staff share the responsibilities and power of a manager.

What do you think? I would particularly like to hear from anyone who has worked in a restaurant but all views are welcome.

The secret to out-aping a primate boss

Much of human behaviour, specifically at work, mimics the behaviour of our hairy ancestors and cousins.

The WSJ cites an author who observes two colleagues talking over coffee and how the more powerful one ‘stares down’ the subordinate when a contentious issue is raised in the conversation. Classic non-verbal alpha male behaviour of the kind we’ve all seen at work.

But what’s not mentioned in the article is that by being a human rather than an ape we can transcend this kind of primate behaviour using the very human skill of empathy. A less ‘dominant’ but smart and empathic human can say something like ‘Gosh you look like you tensed up when I said that. Are you OK? Did I offend you? How are you feeling about what I just said?’ Suddenly, the non-verbal ‘threat’ is made much more visible and the dominant is forced to interact at a higher, more human level. At that point the primate advantage is lost and you’re on a level playing field for a fair and constructive conversation.

If it were true that alpha male types are better suited to, and more succesful in leadership roles then wouldn’t we see the majority of positions of power filled by men like this? Hmmm oh dear, yes unfortunately we actually do. BUT this is changing fast.

I can’t recall any serious article in recent times advising on aggressive, domineering alpha male behaviour as a recipe for success at work. However I do see a big trend towards empathy, communication and, frankly, more female traits as the recipe for success.

Next time anyone tries to use alpha male tactics on you, don’t ignore it or try to fight it head-on, just use a little empathy to uncover their true feelings.