In reference to the Commentary I sent out on January 2nd, I have been contemplating the term “important things” as the concept is applied to the work environment; to organizational life. I have begun to develop what is turning out to be a multi- part series on the subject as the definition and application of what is important to organizations is critical to their success as well as the vitality of the people accomplishing the work that is the basis of such success.

To begin, we have allowed our organizational environment to become overwhelmed with an ever increasing number of structural changes, programs and tactics over the past few years believing this is the answer to improved performance. We have done this in the context of downsizings, additional job responsibilities and longer work hours with little acknowledgement or consideration of the human consequences that result.

The enormous pressure to accomplish “everything we have on our plates” in the belief that this will “turn the ship around” has left little time to develop the “esprit de corps“ that military and sports professionals know is the foundation of performance excellence and the creation of break-through results. Wikipedia defines “esprit de corps” as a term “used for the capacity of people to maintain belief in an institution or a goal, or even in oneself and others … [and is] applicable in business and in any other organizational context, particularly in times of stress or controversy.” Through our consulting work we see many organizations seemingly without an underlying sense of purpose or meaning or value for what they do. There is little sense of “esprit de corps“ or “we are in this together” or a “one for all, all for one” team spirit. As a result, we are seeing an alarming level of disenchantment in the workplace. We notice a mindset that work is burdensome and not enjoyable. This mindset permeates the organization and is expressed through a lack of positive energy, commitment and courage to bring about the results the organization desperately needs to prosper in this economically challenging time.

A recent survey by the Conference Board shows Americans’ job satisfaction has fallen to a record low:

  • Only 45% of Americans are satisfied with their jobs. This is the lowest level of satisfaction ever recorded by the Conference Board in more than 22 years of studying the issue.
  • Workers under 25 expressed the highest level of dissatisfaction with 64 percent of workers under 25 saying they were unhappy in their jobs.

The first reason given for this finding is that fewer workers consider their jobs to be interesting. The concern is that if the trend is not reversed it could stifle innovation and hurt America’s competitiveness and productivity. The underlying premise is that workers who find their jobs interesting are more likely to be innovative and take the calculated risks and initiative necessary to drive productivity and contribute to economic growth.

What do we need to do to create the kind of resilient, engaged organization that can set the stage to bounce back from the economic downturn we have been experiencing? What do we need to do to once again create the spirit, the meaning to our work in order to successfully address the challenges ahead of us? This initial Leadership Briefs on the subject will explore why engaging employees in a process to bring back a sense of meaning and worth to work is so critical today to create the economic prosperity and healthy work environments that are so urgently needed in today’s workplace.

To begin, on several occasions within the past few months I have been asked by clients to include a presentation on time management as part of my support. I know the subject is a concern as so many people (including myself) struggle with “getting it all done”. I have been using Stephen Covey’s four box important / urgent time matrix as the basis of the training.

The underlying message of the time matrix is to be aware of how we spend our time so we can consciously move to spending more time doing what is important and less time on doing what is urgent or convenient to do.

The key impediment I find is the discipline to determine and act on what is important day-in and day-out. As a result, we jump to what is seemingly important in the moment vs. what could be beneficial to us and the organizations we support in the long term.

While pondering this one day a few months back, I looked up on my bookshelf and saw a book by Peter Block that I had skimmed at one time and had not taken the time to fully appreciate (I believe at the time I thought it seemed a little too theoretical and not very practical). At that moment, however, I had the feeling that this was the book I needed in my desire to come to a deeper level of understanding on what is meant by the word “important” as applied to organizations. This was confirmed when I started to page though “the answer to how is yes; Acting on What Matters” and came upon Block’s statement “We have time for all that is truly important to us, so the question of time shifts to what is important?”

I have always thought that what gives meaning and joy to work is being at the intersection between what is most fulfilling for me and what is most beneficial to the organization (i.e. beneficial defined as the goals we are seeking which were developed in alignment with a longer term strategy and which I had a part in developing). I know when I am in this intersection as I feel in “the zone”; consumed by what I am doing while at the same time knowing what I am doing is most helpful to the individual, team or organization I am working with. In reading Block’s book, I found the attributes of the model he describes for a better organization gets to the heart of what’s important in organizations:

  1. Vision, clear purpose, and common goals are essential. We live into the future that we imagine, and the task is to keep focused on that vision and let that be the context for all our actions.
  2. We need effective tools and problem-solving skills. When we have the tools, we have the capacity to bring our intentions into being.
  3. Participation and empowerment are key. So are high involvement and high collaboration. Workers will perform best when they have influence over their workplace and act as owners.
  4. We need flexible structures and sophisticated information systems to support work processes that fit the task and mission. More agile, cross-functional structures plus easy access to the right information at the right moment create the capacity to meet shifting demands quickly.
  5. Leadership is key. We need intuitive, service-oriented, visionary leaders to set the tone and provide the example for those they lead. They must be role models for the change they want to see.
  6. Effective personal skills, good work habits, and behavior that are self-motivating as well as supportive of others are needed. Behavioral skills and relevant competencies make the difference.
  7. We need learning organizations, places where people are supported to fail, to question their mental models, to experiment with new ways.
  8. Organizations are places to live out our spiritual and human values. We need to bring our whole selves to work, where we create an ethical environment that values people as much as results.

So, let’s pause here as well as we begin this new journey. Let’s start the journey by considering the 8 principles described in Block’s model as we define the sustainable, successful organization we envision in the future. Let’s do this now, before we define our organizational and individual goals for the year. This will enable us to define these goals, as Stephen Covey would say “with the end in mind” which will allow us to begin our year starting to create the outstanding workplace we want to be a part of, today.

This discussion will be continued in a future Leadership Briefs as we identify the essential considerations when implementing k’s model within our organizations.

Dave Fleck