Truths Among Us: Conversations on Building a New Culture

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Suppose you want to design the best company on earth to work for. What would it be like? This mission arose from our research into the relationship between authenticity and effective leadership. Simply put, people will not follow a leader they feel is inauthentic. But the executives we questioned made it clear that to be authentic, they needed to work for an authentic organization. What did they mean?

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Many of their answers were highly specific, of course. But underlying the differences of circumstance, industry, and individual ambition we found six common imperatives. Together they describe an organization that operates at its fullest potential by allowing people to do their best work. To find out, check off each statement that applies.

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The more check marks you have, the closer you are to the dream. These principles might all sound commonsensical. Executives are certainly aware of the benefits, which many studies have confirmed. Recent research by our London Business School colleague Dan Cable shows that employees who feel welcome to express their authentic selves at work exhibit higher levels of organizational commitment, individual performance, and propensity to help others.

Yet, few, if any, organizations possess all six virtues.

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Several of the attributes run counter to traditional practices and ingrained habits. Others are, frankly, complicated and can be costly to 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.

So the company of your dreams remains largely aspirational. We offer our findings, therefore, as a challenge: an agenda for leaders and organizations that aim to create the most productive and rewarding working environment possible.

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When companies try to accommodate differences, they too often confine themselves to traditional diversity categories—gender, race, age, ethnicity, and the like. These efforts are laudable, but the executives we interviewed were after something more subtle—differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions. A tough-minded physicist, he expected to find them in the science labs.

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But much to his surprise, he discovered them in all kinds of academic disciplines—ancient history, drama, the Spanish department. The ideal organization is aware of dominant currents in its culture, work habits, dress code, traditions, and governing assumptions but, like the chancellor, makes explicit efforts to transcend them.

Or the place where nearly everyone comes in at odd hours but that accommodates the one or two people who prefer a 9-to-5 schedule. And you do.

Truths Among Us: Conversations on building a new culture | Derrick Jensen

But alongside them you also encounter a higher-than-expected proportion of executives and specialists who monitor and assess ideas with an analytical business focus. Careful selection is part of the secret: LVMH looks for creative people who want their designs to be marketable and who, in turn, are more likely to appreciate monitors who are skilled at spotting commercial potential. Consider the assumption the diligent chancellor made when he equated research intensity with late-night lab work.

More fundamentally, though, efforts to nurture individuality run up against countervailing efforts to increase organizational effectiveness by forging clear incentive systems and career paths. Competence models, appraisal systems, management by objectives, and tightly defined recruitment policies all narrow the range of acceptable behavior.

Companies that succeed in nurturing individuality, therefore, may have to forgo some degree of organizational orderliness. Arup approaches its work holistically. When the firm builds a suspension bridge, for example, it looks beyond the concerns of the immediate client to the region that relies on the bridge. Accordingly, Arup considers the capacity to absorb different skill sets and personalities as key to its strategy. Managers make their expectations clear, but individuals decide how to meet them. In an industry that necessarily focuses on executing processes efficiently, Waitrose sees its competitive edge in nurturing the small sparks of creativity that make a big difference to the customer experience.

So the source of staff loyalty is not much of a mystery. If you want to learn piano, Waitrose will pay half the cost of the lessons. We have a friend whose father learned to sail because he worked for this organization. In that way, Waitrose strives to create an atmosphere where people feel comfortable being themselves. Why go to all the trouble? I needed to be myself to do a good job.

Everybody does. The organization of your dreams does not deceive, stonewall, distort, or spin. Some managers see parceling out information on a need-to-know basis as important to maintaining efficiency. Others practice a seemingly benign type of paternalism, reluctant to worry staff with certain information or to identify a problem before having a solution. Some feel an obligation to put a positive spin on even the most negative situations out of a best-foot-forward sense of loyalty to the organization.

The reluctance to be the bearer of bad news is deeply human, and many top executives well know that this tendency can strangle the flow of critical information. Eventually, those practices were extended to new-product development, manufacturing, distribution, sales, and support systems. More generally, a vision, core values, and a set of management principles were explicitly articulated as the Novo Nordisk Way. They interview randomly selected employees and managers to assess whether the Novo Nordisk Way is being practiced.

Does this really happen? Many employees have told us that they appreciate these site visits because they foster honest conversations about fundamental business values and processes. Think not about how much value to extract from workers but about how much value to instill in them. Radical honesty is not easy to implement. It requires opening many different communication channels, which can be time-consuming to maintain. And for previously insulated top managers, it can be somewhat ego-bruising. Women, who are a numerical majority of humankind, are trained to act like a minority.

The sense of potential victimization and vulnerability is the key. Of course not all people react the same way to stories. Women of color may react differently to their sense of potential victimization than men of color. We have to ask, again, how have they been socialized to behave?

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Who takes what role? What power relationship is being demonstrated? Most of the time people talk about violence as if it were a simple act. But it is a complicated scenario, a social relationship between violators and victims.

For every ten violent characters there are about ten victims. For every ten women who are written into scripts to express the kind of power that white males express with relative impunity there are nineteen women who become victimized.