Written Rick Smalling, Executive Consultant at Riverbank
How much is the rent for our office?
That is one of the questions we pose to colleagues during orientation. Aside from management, most employees are blissfully unaware of the office rent, even though it’s a major expense for the business.
To follow up, we ask: when was the last time you lived someplace where you did not know the rent? We typically receive a consistent answer: “When I lived with my parents.” My answer is the same. My parents never told me their mortgage payment, and I never asked. I was blissfully unaware.
This inquiry is honest and intended to connect our colleagues to the realities of the our financials. It’s a jumping-off point to our basic financial training. The income statement is a very important scorecard for the business. We believe it’s important for our entire team to understand how it works.
One day, the tables were turned on me. A colleague asked me if I knew what a one-bedroom apartment costs in our city. I had no idea. I had been a CEO for years, and it had been a long time since I worried about rent. It was a clear sign that I was not as in touch with our employees’ reality as I should be.
I did not understand management’s point of view until I became management. Afterward, it was interesting how fast I forgot what it was like to be an employee.
Walking in someone else’s shoes is almost always an enlightening experience. So often, we become inured to our own way of thinking, our own perspectives, and we are often blissfully unaware of what others are experiencing. This ignorance happens all the time in business (and life). Management and employees complain about each other and lament how the other side ‘doesn’t get it’. The best organizations work hard to provide opportunities for each to walk in the other’s shoes. Humble and genuine inquiry helps create bridges.
Too often, management and employees end up on opposite sides of the table, negotiating a zero-sum game. That’s too bad, because it is a lot more fun to get on the same side of the table working on an important challenge together. Finding a way to creatively make the pie bigger together is a much better result than fighting over that last piece.
Getting on the same side of the table
Continuing with the financials example, one way we can come together is during the annual renewal of health insurance benefits. Health insurance is something that most colleagues care deeply about. It is also one of the biggest expenses for the business. I have worked in organizations that simply announce what is happening without much dialog or background. The decision has been made — they cut the benefits, and the process is opaque to employees.
There’s an opportunity to invite colleagues behind the curtain and share the choices that the business is facing. As with rent, employees often do not understand the magnitude of the expense for the business, and management is often focused on its bottom line without considering the impact of the changes on employees.
Most employees are surprised that good health insurance costs more than $2,000 a month to cover a family, or that health insurance costs are a significant percentage of earnings. Forgive the rather crude analogy, but we’re all sitting together in the same blow-up pool as colleagues when it comes to health care. If anyone misbehaves, it impacts everyone. It’s in all of our interests to stay healthy and help keep our insurance costs in check.
When we sit down together around the situation, we move to problem-solving mode. Sometimes there’s not much we can do about the situation; in those cases, at least we can help employees understand the problem and we’ve discussed the best solution for all stakeholders. Research shows that employees are healthier when they are involved in the decision making process.
Beyond financials, there are many other ways to engage management and employee as colleagues. Another practice that we found helpful was to create an advisory council made up of a diverse cross section of employees. Participating in the council is a voluntary position and doesn’t take much investment from the participants. Colleagues on the council represent their colleagues’ views and are more deeply involved in decision making. They become guardians of company culture. Often we invite naysayers onto the council to ensure diverse viewpoints and expose potential weaknesses. Managers are not part of the council to help ensure leadership is in touch directly with employees.
The CEO and head of HR treat this council like they treat the board of directors: with respect and authenticity. The council helps keep management better connected to employees. At the same time, the council pulls back the curtain to help employees better understand the business. It avoids costly mistakes in policy changes and communication, and it helps identify talent and leadership potential.
Transparency and respectful dialog builds bridges.
I did not fully understand parenting until I became a parent. After I had children, I spent the rest of my life apologizing to my parents for what I put them through. [In hindsight, I should have also apologized to all of my former managers as well.] I’ve often wondered how I would be different today if my parents had helped pull back the curtain a bit on what they were experiencing.
Cultural change requires trust and shared commitment. Trust is built up over a long period of consistent behavior — though it all starts with a simple question or a simple action. The more we work to understand each other, the easier it is for us to tackle change — together. Real cultural shifts require a compelling reason for the change — the social contract we enter into to make it happen. It requires a genuine effort to understand the different perspectives involved.
Investing in many small efforts to get onto the same side of the table solving problems together will make it much easier to tackle significant cultural change. It is also much more energizing and fun to tackle a challenge together rather than pushing through a company edict or negotiating a zero-sum game. Build bridges, walk in another person’s shoes, genuinely seek to understand — small efforts over an extended period lay the groundwork for successful cultural change.
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 Jackson, S. E. (1983). Participation in decision making as a strategy for reducing job-related strain. Journal of applied Psychology, 68(1), 3.