All Articles Leadership Management What might "the best workplace on earth" look like?

What might “the best workplace on earth” look like?

8 min read


This post is adapted from “Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization,” (Harvard Business Review Press, November 2015) by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones.

If you enjoy this article, join SmartBrief’s e-mail list for our daily newsletter on being a better, smarter leader.

The key idea in workplace is “place.” And arguably, in a knowledge-based or clever economy (to use our term from a recent book), this is the new task of leadership: less directly to excite others, more to orchestrate or to create environments where others can follow their own authentic obsession. Modern leadership may be as much about an authenticity of task or place as it is about the person leading and what that individual person thinks or does.

Consider the depressingly low rates of employee engagement around the world. According to a recent AON Hewitt survey, four in 10 workers on average report being “disengaged” worldwide (three out of 10 in Latin America; four in 10 in the US; and five in 10 in Europe).

This finding resonates with our research. But instead of focusing exclusively on the sources of disengagement and dysfunction, we explored people’s positive visions for organizations and how they are attempting to make these a reality. For more than four years now we have been asking people around the world what their ideal organization would be like — that is, one in which they could be their best selves.

Although individual answers varied widely of course, we found that the responses grouped naturally around six broad imperatives, which just happen to form a handy mnemonic:

  • Difference: “I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I’m different and how I see things differently.”
  • Radical honesty: “I want to know what’s really going on.”
  • Extra value: “I want to work in an organization that magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development.”
  • Authenticity: “I want to work in an organization I’m proud of, one that truly stands for something.”
  • Meaning: “I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.”
  • Simple rules: “I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others.”

Let’s begin with difference. We recently worked with an organization that had produced a 142-page booklet called “Managing Diversity.” (We wonder how many people will actually read it.) And yet in all those pages the crucial argument that creativity (a key index of performance) increases with diversity and declines with conformity is never really made. For many organizations, accommodating differences translates into this concern with “diversity,” usually defined according to the traditional categories such as gender, race, age, and religion.

These are, of course, of tremendous importance, but the executives in our research were after something subtler and harder to achieve — an organization that can accommodate differences in perspective, habits of mind, core assumptions, and worldviews, and then go beyond accommodation to create a place where difference is celebrated and even leveraged to add value. Get difference right and you are rewarded with higher levels of commitment, innovation, and creativity.

What about radical honesty? Organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of communications—both internally and to wider stakeholders. For example, we now find communications professionals at or near the summit of organizations. This is a step in the right direction: we have learned that reputational capital is becoming more and more important for high performance, even as that capital becomes increasingly fragile. Arthur Andersen was destroyed in a month in the wake of the Enron scandal. More recently, iconic firms like Apple, Nike, and Amazon have come under critical scrutiny for their employment practices.

And yet, the growth of the communications profession is actually more evidence that companies are taking a superficial approach to disseminating the critical information that people need to do their jobs. Why? Because so many communications professionals remain stubbornly connected to an old-world mind-set in which information is power and spin is their key skill. Surely information is power, but companies no longer have control of it. In a world of WikiLeaks, whistle-blowing, and freedom of information, their imperative should be to tell the truth before someone else does. When they do, they will begin to build long-standing organizational trust—both inside and outside the organization.

How can organizations create extra value? Elite organizations and professions — the McKinseys, Johns Hopkins Hospitals, and PwCs of this world — have been in the business of making great people even better for a long time now. Part of their pact with employees is, “Join us and we will develop you.” Unfortunately, they deal with only a tiny proportion of the workforce.

What about the rest of us? Our research shows that high performance arises when individuals all over the organization feel they can grow through their work — adding value as the organization adds value to them. That means the administrative assistants and cashiers as well as the executives and the shift managers. This is not impossible. If a company like McDonald’s UK finds it profitable to train the equivalent of six full classes of students every week to attain formal qualifications in math and English, surely other companies can do more.

What does it mean for an organization to be authentic? This is a big question. It is fair to say that the concept of authenticity runs through all of the characteristics of the DREAMS organization — because authentic organizations encourage you to be your best self at work and to perform at your best. But for looking at authenticity as an individual, specific organizational quality, we have developed three markers. First, a company’s identity is consistently rooted in its history. Second, employees demonstrate the values the company espouses. And third, company leaders are themselves authentic.

Where this happens, employees enjoy a sense of purpose, pride in what they do, and higher levels of trust. This is clearly not simple to achieve. Sadly, rather than rise to the challenge, in many organizations the task of building authenticity has collapsed into the industry of mission-statement writing. Some of the people we interviewed despaired that their company’s mission statement had been rewritten for the fourth time in three years! Not surprisingly, this produces not high performance but deep-rooted cynicism.

The search for meaning in work is not new. There are libraries full of research on how jobs may produce a sense of meaning— and how they can be redesigned in ways that produce “engagement.” But meaning in work is derived from a wider set of issues than those narrowly related to individual occupations. It also emerges from what we have called the three Cs — connections, community, and cause. Employees need to know how their work connects to others’ work (and here, too often, silos get in the way). They need a workplace that promotes a sense of belonging (which is increasingly difficult in a mobile world). And they need to know how their work contributes to a longer-term goal (problematic, when shareholders demand quarterly reporting). If these deeper issues are not addressed, faddish efforts at increasing engagement will have only fleeting effects.

Finally, the truly authentic organization has simple rules that are widely agreed upon within the company. Many organizations display a form of rule accretion, where one set of bureaucratic instructions begets another, which seeks to address the problems created by the first set. In response to this, organizations have attempted a kind of radical delayering. This at least attempts to address the problem of losing good ideas and initiatives in a byzantine hierarchical structure.

But that, too, is only a superficial fix. The ideal company is not a company without rules. It is a company with clear rules that make sense to the people who follow them, and it remains ever vigilant about maintaining that clarity and simplicity — a much larger challenge with a far greater payoff. Good rules maximize discretion which, in turn, facilitates problem solving. They unleash initiative rather than suppress it.

These attributes can often run counter to traditional practices and habits in companies, and they’re not easy and simple to realize or implement. Some conflict with one another. Almost all require leaders to carefully balance competing interests and to rethink how they allocate their time and attention. Of course, few if any organizations possess all six virtues — and even if they did, it would be quite a feat for them to excel at all six.