This article was originally published on 15Five.
Twenty years ago, a company’s culture was something to scoff at. To many, it meant that you were soft and weak in the dog-eat-dog business world — a world where everyone worships the almighty bottom line, and only the strong survive.
Today, culture is seen by many as the most important aspect of a business enterprise. It is the glue that keeps employees working as a cohesive unit, and in some cases will distinguish you from competitors. Company culture is so important, that to preserve it Jeff Bezos just offered any Amazon employee $5,000 to quit their jobs.
How much is your company culture worth to you?
Clash of cultures
I began my career before I really understood anything about values and culture, and I left the first company I started solely because of cultural differences. Without knowing anything about culture, I intuitively asked interview questions related to matching cultural values. If I felt a good fit and a positive interaction, I hired the person.
I eventually created this beautiful bubble of a team within the organization that I really jived with. They were trustworthy, high-energy cooperative people, but there were issues and conflicts with other employees and tension with my co-founder who hired them.
Then I read an article in Inc Magazine that explained it all — you can’t have more than one culture within the same company. I shared the article with the CEO and co-founder, and the same lightbulb went off for him. The outcome of that conversation was my decision to leave the company.
As much as I wanted to grow my team, it would never mesh with the one my partner was building. Their values were not wrong or bad, just different. Had I understoodthe importance of cultural values, that would have been the first thing I would have looked for in a business partner. We had connection and synergy, but values were misaligned.
Protect your interests
According to Time, Amazon’s CEO just announced “what has to be the most counterintuitive personnel policy in corporate America today: If an employee isn’t happy working at the online retail giant, they can earn up to $5,000 just for quitting.” Amazon’s offer is a radical one, but one designed to preserve their most cherished assets — employees who are aligned with culture.
Making voluntary departure a reasonable and even profitable option makes sense since letting go of employees can be a tricky proposition. Firing a well-liked employee can be damaging to morale. They may not leave gracefully, poisoning the minds of others on the way out the door.
Disgruntled former employees may even seek some obscure legal justification for suing you, like constructive termination. A prospect that could cost you financially or devolve into a public relations fiasco, forever damaging your brand in the eyes of today’s ever-more conscious consumer.
But Amazon’s main motivation here is to preserve their fast-paced culture by weeding out those who are not committed. They borrowed this idea from Zappos, who they acquired in 2009 for close to $1 Billion. Amazon bought more than a profitable company, they bought a set of contagious ideals that they implemented throughout their enterprise.
Energy is contagious
Zappos is not a shoe company. They are a customer service company that happens to sell shoes. Customer service depends on people whose attitudes and very nature include humility, honesty, and positivity — values at the core of their corporate culture.
Paying average wages and offering mediocre benefits, they regularly score high on the ‘best places to work’ lists. According to Time, when Zappos began offering their employees $1,000 to quit, that was a money saver. Disruptions to corporate culture would have been much more expensive than paying workers to pursue a career elsewhere.
Amazon followed their lead, offering employees money to leave and limiting employment opportunities to people who really want to be a part of who they are and what they do. Those people are not motivated by money, but by the values and purpose of the company.
The culture at Zappos is quite unique, as is expressed by their #2 value – Create fun and a little weirdness, or #3 – Be adventurous, creative, and open-minded. When narrow-minded, low energy people are allowed to infiltrate, they can spread like a cancer within that organization. A few thousand dollars to preserve the foundations of an extremely profitable company sounds like a bargain to me.
The money-saving option
At 15Five, we have developed a less expensive way to preserve company culture and values. Rather than paying $5,000 to have someone quit, we offer a tool where managers pay $5 per month to get valuable positive feedback from an employee. We use our tool internally and ask questions like “What’s a way you’ve lived one of 15Five’s core values this week?” This keeps values top-of-mind and also exposes areas where people need more growth and support.
We’ve repeatedly heard from our customers that after several weeks of using 15Five, it becomes quite clear which employees are disengaged. This can lead to a one-on-one conversation with them and then corrective action. At that point they can write a check for $5K if they want to, but at least they know the truth about how an employee feels about the company and its culture.
Photo Credit: mtellin
What unique tactics have you used to retain your best talent? Please leave a comment below.
Running a company can often feel like caring for a newborn child. There is a natural and healthy fear that arises that if you are not eternally vigilant then something bad will happen. With a baby, this is called good parenting. With a company, this is called micromanagement and it is universally resented by all employees.
Your company may feel like your baby, but the professionals that you hire to implement your vision are competent skilled adults who desire to be treated that way. There is a certain amount of management necessary to advance people in their careers and keep them aligned with company goals. But executives and managers must learn to let go and trust, or risk stifling and alienating their talent.
Put away the microscope
In physics, the observer effect states that observing a phenomenon has an impact on what is being observed. For example, when using an electron microscope to view subatomic particles, the light from the microscope impacts the movement of those particles. Since scientific methods require objectivity, the influence of observation can call the entire experiment into question.
Micromanagement works in much the same way. When employees are aware that they are being observed by managers, that impacts their behavior — usually negatively. That means that managers don’t even get an accurate, clear picture of employee performance. Their presence and constant unsolicited input is changing how the employee would perform without that added pressure. If employees do not perform up to standards (which may or may not be fully communicated or explicitly expressed), the manager feels justified in his obsessive behavior and a vicious cycle begins to form.
Peggy Drexler contributed an article to Forbes last year, detailing causes and solutions to the “helicopter boss” syndrome. She discusses how the constant hovering of certain bosses is the most significant barrier to employee productivity. Nobody wants to work when their every move is scrutinized.
For Dr. Drexler there is a thin line between being detail-oriented and obsessive. Some managers keep a watchful eye because an employee has let them down in the past or as they are ramping up a new hire. Others hover over every employee due to their own control issues — fear of failure or job insecurity.
Light pressure is a good thing –if your employee can’t perform well with you standing there, how will they perform in an adversarial setting like negotiating a sale? But the undue pressure of constant involvement by management causes people to choke when they might otherwise excel. Talented team-members begin to lose faith in their own abilities under your constant gaze.
Motivation comes from within
Micromanagement is not just annoying, it deprives employees of the most critical components of satisfaction. According to Daniel Pink, author of bestseller Drive, while providing your employees with autonomy can feel scary, it is one of the key drivers of performance. Pink found that for today’s knowledge workers who perform tasks requiring even rudimentary cognitive skill, there are three intrinsic motivating factors that affect performance: autonomy, mastery, and purpose.
Autonomy is the desire to be self-directed and no amount of money, benefits, or perks can provide that basic human need. When managers are involved in the thought process behind every employee decision and direct every action, they rob employees of the personal satisfaction that is attained by conquering a challenge through individual effort.
Mastery is only attained when people are allowed to work on a task autonomously for long enough (with periodic input and support from leaders). The accompanying satisfaction is incredibly powerful, like autonomy on steroids. That is why, according to Pink, employees will work so hard during their discretionary time. Both Wikipedia and the Linux operating system exist because people wanted to perform challenging, technically sophisticated work for no greater reward than personal fulfillment.
The final piece of the motivation puzzle is that people are highly driven to work towards a purpose. I believe that this desire to be part of something that is greater than oneself is the path to true happiness. Instead of stifling this innate human need, company leaders can channel it. Gently guide your best and brightest towards the fulfillment of your company mission – to provide great products, change the world, or help individuals and organizations reach their highest potential. By micromanaging, people are only driven to perform in the hope that you will one day leave them alone.
The observer effect on a physical process can often be reduced to insignificance by using better instruments or observation techniques. I have found that the best observation technique is asking my team questions. Knowing what drives the team and knowing their pulse (what they need, how they feel) allows for the cessation of micromanagement and the establishment of space for employees to flourish creatively.
Visibility into the team gives managers the confidence to let employees do their jobs. You can quickly identify performance issues, triumphs, and the way that each individual team member feels. Ask them what they would suggest and why in any given circumstance. I allow every team member the opportunity to freely tell me where they are challenged, since articulating problems begins the process of solving them. Employees grow more and more confident in their skills and abilities, understand their roles better, and eventually unlock their potential.
Asking questions and receiving candid responses also creates a culture of communication and transparency. When everyone on the team is communicating, they can hold themselves and others accountable. You essentially have a whole team of managers without the confining aspects that damage employee morale or that interfere with their autonomy.
Let go of the wheel
Giving your talent the space to do their best work doesn’t mean that you let go of the wheel completely. You have to check in with them regularly, align them with the greater purpose, and either let them know that they are doing a good job or support them in the areas where they feel stuck.
By having a dialogue with your employees instead of telling them what to do, you are telling them that you trust them to do the right thing. You are present enough to offer support when needed and there to coach and guide instead of dictate and direct. More often than not, this presence is enough to steer them towards the right decision.
Your employees will make mistakes, and some of them will be costly. But by letting go, you empower them to learn from their mistakes, make better decisions, and ultimately grow into leadership positions where they can manage others with the same light touch.
How has micromanagement impacted you or your company? We revel in funny stories, feel free to share!