One of my cousins is, among other things, a former concert pianist and piano teacher. She taught at one of New England’s premier music schools for almost 20 years. Recently she was informed her position was being eliminated… by a form letter.
Although she was addressed by name, the text of the letter – telling her that her services would no longer be required in the next academic year – had all the warmth of a crocodile before sunrise. Call me overly cynical, but I’d almost swear the author accidentally skipped the postscript; you know, the one that read “Thanks for all the blood, sweat, and tears you poured into building this school for nearly two decades… sucker!” During our discussion, she also related that many people of her, shall we say, “seasoned” generation have also been repeatedly purged from the ranks in the last several years. (I can only wonder what another, late, cousin in this same branch of the family tree, a member of the Stradivarius Quartet and a long-time violin teacher at that same school during his life, would say about these events.)
Another person, a long-time friend from my time at Ford, is an Industrial Engineer’s Industrial Engineer. He was working a job wearing multiple hats. On one hand, he was a Continuous Improvement (CI) Engineer for one plant, and the CI Manager for two other plants. His boss, who would threaten him weekly with firing if he didn’t produce results, expected him to be out on the floor 8-10 hours a day for the CI engineering job, and then fulfill his CI manager’s duties from home after hours… an explicitly-stated expectation of an additional 8-10 hours per day. While no salaried employee objects to crisis-mode overtime, he was expected to, essentially, work a double-shift every day to get his regular duties done.
In his five months on the job my friend saved a flat-lining plant by finding $1.3 million in cost reductions, improved the other plants’ bottom lines by $1.2 million, and submitted a draft FY2015 plan identifying $3 million in further savings.
He just lost his job because, as I understand the official reason, his FY2015 plan was not detailed out, including financial justifications and a project plan for each project… in the three days he was given to develop it. (He is convinced his boss was just waiting to fire him until after the CI opportunities for 2015 had been developed.) He joins my other friend who just lost his job – not for actual performance, but because a new manager decided he didn’t like him, and set things up to justify firing him.
In the amusing book Landing on the Right Side of Your Ass, author Michael Laskoff dispenses job search advice amid some therapeutic venting. One of the things he observes is that losing your job is like getting dumped from a relationship. It’s emotionally wrenching (and makes one gun-shy). Combine this with the accelerating churn of people in and out of companies fueled by the increasingly-loud chorus of “Fire ‘poor’ performers fast!” and it paints a picture of an aggregate workforce that is, emotionally, walking wounded (NB: I put “poor” in quotes because, as with both my friends and likely countless others, actual performance had nothing to do with their being fired. In the case of these two friends, I know them both well enough to say that with 100% confidence). Not only that, but even people who are employed know people – friends, family members, and others in their various social circles – that are not just unemployed, but who were dumped by their employers.
Why Won’t Employees Innovate?
So along comes an article in the Harvard Business Review: Even Good Employees Hoard Great Ideas. The article is worth reading, but here’s a key paragraph:
Driving this debate is the fear that employees will not develop and bring forward creative ways to improve the business unless they are given something “extra,” like time, resources, ownership, or money. For example, one manager recently told me about an employee who refused to share her innovative solution with anyone in the firm unless they would sign a non-disclosure agreement to prevent colleagues from running off with “her idea.” An executive in a different company described a situation where the owner of a particular database would not allow it to be used by another business unit unless his team was given a portion of the revenue.
The author wonders whether incentives should be given, and what they should be, to spur innovation.
Inverting the question
Liz Ryan, founder of The Human Workplace, is someone whose writings I follow on both LinkedIn and on twitter, and from which I’ve pulled several ideas for essays as well as quoting some of her pieces directly. In a prior essay I quoted her piece What Happened to Employee Loyalty?, and it’s worth quoting again:
The horrified and angry people who write to me asking “Whatever happened to employee loyalty?” are barking up the wrong tree. The relevant question is “Why would anyone expect employees to be loyal to employers who can (and do) change their work arrangements, cut their hours, cut their pay, and lay them off at a moment’s notice?”
In similar fashion I think the wrong question is being asked by the HBR author. My late father was famous for rewording questions. As a professor, he commented on his role as a teacher:
“The statement, ‘We must learn how to teach,’ if thought through carefully, must be revised to ‘We must learn how people learn.’ If one has done this, even imperfectly, he will be a teacher.”
So following his lead, I will revise the HBR author’s question… it’s not “Why won’t people innovate?”, it’s “Why should they innovate?”
Fool Me Once… Fool Me Twice…
Whether through direct experience with being dumped, along with the associated emotions, and/or by watching multiple others going through the experience, people are having that question – “Why should I innovate for a company that might dump me?” – form at the back of their minds. Not only are people reconsidering their level of loyalty to what one of those fired friends* now contemptuously terms “replaceable paycheck generators” (i.e., employers), they’re realizing that their intellectual property and knowledge, the product of their minds, are their only true assets… and are deciding to not give them away so freely to organizations whose higher-ups can decide, at the stroke of a pen, to eliminate their job.
With the faster churn through people coupled with the race towards core teams supplemented by contractors and consultants on an as-needed basis – essentially creating a mercenary workforce – employees are rightly concluding that they need to protect those only true assets they possess in the workforce: their expertise and their creativity. Author Ayn Rand had it right: “Wealth is the product of man’s capacity to think.” People are recognizing that it applies to them personally insofar as they need to protect their ability to generate wealth for themselves.
Take away peoples’ sense of job security; take away their belief that their loyalty is reciprocated; pit employees against each other with a forced-rank bell curve system; squeeze-squeeze-squeeze more and more hours from people out of fear; downsize at the first opportunity because it’s the easy way to reduce costs for the stock analysts; disconnect employment and promotions from competence in favor of naked politics, connections, and brownnosing; insist the company owns every shred of IP a person develops even if it doesn’t have a scintilla of overlap with the company’s business**; give a plaque and a handshake to workers whose IP creates millions of dollars of value with not a dime directly seen by those workers; pass peoples’ ideas to other departments who reap the success with barely a footnote to the person who originated it; and so on… and then wonder why people now refuse to give the products of their minds freely.
This was utterly predictable.
Turn Back and Inspire Again
Make people secure again. People are adults and they know there’s no true certainty or absolute guarantee. But when people worry – by seeing demonstrated corporate policy and actions internally as well as seeing the economy and corporate behavior generally – about their economic safety, they will not concentrate on higher levels of Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs… like creativity and problem-solving.
Set an example. Far too often companies downsize, and the C-Suite gets bonuses. This news engenders bitterness and venom, poisoning the workforce against their next employer… just as your new hires’ prior experiences have, very likely, poisoned them against you. This is another “root cause” creating a lack of employee innovation: the aggregated perception and scuttlebutt discussions in the professional community.
Instead, take a hit yourself in an attempt, even if only symbolic and insufficient to prevent layoffs. A specific example: when I was in undergraduate school, the University of Massachusetts system was undergoing budget cuts. The Chancellor, in an attempt to show solidarity, also took a pay cut. While the raw dollar amount wasn’t enough to undo anything elsewhere, the fact that he did so created an immense sense of admiration and solidarity in the community.
Share the wealth and recognition. When I was at Ford I got a check when my first patent was filed, another when it was awarded, and a third when it went into production. These were nominal amounts, to be sure – but even those modest checks were welcome – and indicated in real dollars that the company valued my innovative contributions. (At my first position there, in Sandusky, Ohio, a teammate won the Henry Ford Technology Award; first, it was given to just a select few accomplishments ever year, thus creating and reinforcing a person’s reputation in the company, and second, it carried a substantive financial award as well – just the thing to create a double incentive to others to strive to make similar accomplishments.)
Innovation is Victory
In today’s economy, innovation is the lifeblood of companies that will survive and prosper.
Inspiration is the key; genuine, actual leadership that generates true loyalty – which, in turn, results in people being willing to share their innovative abilities. Motivation by the lash and/or the Sword of Damocles over peoples’ economic security does not work – people know and respond to true leadership when they see it. There is a story of Alexander the Great leading his troops through the desert:
Alexander had shared 60 days of misery in the Baluchistan desert with his men. Offered a helmetful of precious water, the king poured it out, showing that he would suffer with his troops.
While no business leader expects their people to risk death for them in battle, in the battle between companies leaders need people to innovate. Faced with a life-and-death situation of dire thirst in the desert, Alexander shared his subordinates’ suffering – because he knew they were all in it together; he didn’t downsize half his army because resources were scarce. As a consequence, they followed him with tremendous loyalty. Contrast this with today’s company leaders who dump people at a moment’s notice, and then add insult to injury by claiming bonuses that are often larger than the annual salaries of some of the individuals let go.
Alexander’s army’s loyalty meant victory in battle. Company employees’ loyalty means innovation. Are you nurturing it, or sabotaging it?
* My friend who was fired by his new manager just landed a new position. He attempted to negotiate for a modestly-higher salary and a better vacation package; he was told “take it or leave it” on everything from salary to vacation and other benefits. Included in this no-negotiation position was a requirement that he sign multiple waivers up-front, including giving his new employer permission to contact former employers and allowing them to talk freely without legal risk. He likewise had to permit – up front – this new employer to talk freely to any employers he might go to in the future without legal risk. After a month on this job he is already looking for another job, and has openly stated he will have no reservations about cleaning out his desk and walking out with no warning. This is the attitude that is slowly metastasizing through the professional community… because it’s not just his one voice I’ve heard with this view, but a growing chorus of private feedback I’ve received from multiple persons.
If you are in the C-Suite and this widespread-and-growing undercurrent of anger towards employers doesn’t send chills up your spine, there’s something seriously wrong with how you view your “most valuable asset”.
** At one job, soon after my undergraduate degree, my employer made me sign the standard “We own all your IP” form. I read it, and insisted that the wording be changed to cover only work-related IP. I was writing a lot of poetry at the time, and they would have owned it too. This was confirmed by a lawyer I consulted later out of paranoia… and she said it was a good thing I insisted on that exemption.
© 2014, David Hunt, PE