“HOW” is not a question, it’s the answer

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It is about abandoning the question of who has the power to do something, and instead just ask what is the right thing to do? And it’s very difficult. Because the currency we trade here is not money, it’s trust. And trusting is very hard. Which is exactly why it is so valuable for the recipient.

The day I met Dov Seidman the debate around me raged over religion and state, political power struggles. And one religious leader was reflecting, how such attempts at extreme coercion in fact distance followers from the values of religion, this in this particular case one of the assets most of us actually love, the Sabbath – no matter how we choose to spend it. And I remembered something Dov told me that morning, how at this point in time, formal leadership gives way to moral leadership. While the former is based on “do it because I have the power and I said so”, moral leadership instead maintains: “do it because it’s right, because you believe in what we do here, because we share values.”

If you ask a group of executives what sort of behaviors they wish to promote in their organizations, the responses you hear usually include teamwork, commitment, communication, trust. Sounds familiar? Now here’s the difference between what we say and what we do in practice. Even if you double the wages paid to the people in the organization, it will not lead to trust, to genuine commitment, to collaboration. The tools we use in order to change the behavior in the organization, tools such as pay raises, bonuses – the carrot and stick do not affect the behaviors we really want to promote. Why? Because these are human behaviors that stem from a completely different place: from values we can connect with, from a purpose worth committing to, a path worth devoting time and energy to, from knowing that what we do is meaningful.

Marketing departments in many organizations already understand this, just look at what happens in the space where organizations meet their customers. Chevron, the energy company, dubbed itself Human Energy. Cisco speaks of the Human Network. Samsung says its device is Designed for Human. Discussions on online marketing communities are currently focused on this trend, of marketing that embraces the “Human factor.” Companies that understand they need tell the world about their relationships with people and how these are reflected in products and services. In the business world, it is often the marketing departments who are first identify and respond to major trends, and marketers have already realized that “being human” is good for business. Now is time for the rest of the organization to translate this into processes, policies, leadership and behaviors at all levels.

Leadership is Personal

One of the most obvious indicators of the inner connection an organization maintains with the human world is the level of engagement of its own employees. Research firm Gallup has been measuring the level of employee engagement for years now, and the figure in the US has not changed, remaining at the steady figure that indicates 7 out of 10 employees are not engaged. 7 of 10 employees – indifferent, showing up at work for the paycheck, but not bringing themselves fully with heart and mind. Even worse, 2 out of these 7 employees are actively disengaged, which means they are actively speaking or acting against the organization, including sharing that negative sentiment openly internally or on social media.

The challenge of employee engagement has been on the table now for a number of years, we’ve been talking about it, trying in different ways to do something about it. And yet the numbers don’t change. The good news is that more and more players, including businesses, are beginning to talk about this using new terminology. This is why I was so excited to meet Dov Seidman, founder and CEO of LRN and the man who wrote the book “HOW: Why HOW We Do Anything Means Everything“. We met in Tel Aviv for a fascinating conversation about the new era, the era that emerged when the world transformed from being connected to being interdependent. Interdependence means that something one banker does in one continent can bring down markets across the world. That a photo taken by a single person in a remote country can set off a series of global moves. You affect me, I affect you, we rise and fall together. This dependency requires us to think about the world we live and work in through a completely different lens. To rethink “how” we operate. Because all of a sudden, “how” is what sets us apart from each other.

“How” is a word we are used to present as a question. Dov, however, says that in the new era “how” is actually the answer. The reason is that many of the personal and organizational successes in the business world are actually related to excellence in terms of behavior, of conduct. How we delight others, how we keep our promises, how we apologize, how we mean what we say and say what we mean. Every email we send, each post and message, can quickly disappear without a ripple or alternatively create a huge wave of human energy. Leaders who understand this know that within the organization, this wave cannot be generated using the carrot and stick tactic, nor by leveraging extrinsic tools, such as salaries and bonuses. This wave emerges when we encounter something human, work that emerges from inspiration, shared values, a goal worth our efforts. It is about abandoning the question of who has the power to do something, and instead just ask what is the right thing to do? And it’s very difficult. Because the currency we trade here is not money, it’s trust. And trusting is very hard. Which is exactly why it is so valuable for the recipient.

LRN has been publishing a report titled “HOW”, examining 16,000 employees in 17 countries (including Israel), and using the characteristics of the organizations they work in to identify a spectrum of different types of organizational cultures. On the one end is the culture of blind obedience, the culture of those production lines where you only do what you’re told, what you’re measured on. Next on the spectrum is a culture of conscious acceptance, one which is based on rules and hierarchies, the one which dominates most organizations we work in today. Compared to an obedience oriented organization, this culture was progress, it allowed us to manage organizations with more collaboration and in environments of uncertainty. And to enable that, we used the carrot and stick approach for shifting behaviors. But as we’ve been seeing, this is no longer the most suitable way to engage contemporary employees, to win commitment, creativity, teamwork. Organizations which understand this are shifting towards a new culture, on that Dov defines as values based self-management, a culture where employees strive towards shared values and do not simply follow guidelines. They do what is right rather than what is permitted.

Over a number of years now, LRN’s report is showing a steady increase in the number of organizations that operate and lead through values and purpose instead of rules, processes or even hierarchies and power. While the number is still very low, measured at about 8% this year, these organizations generate better financial results. I ask Dov about this dilemma, of organizations that need structures, processes and hierarchies, and how difficult it is to manage values and trust within the organizational structures we have today. Speaking from the perspective of one who consults organizations that transition to values based management, Dov asks us to be patient. It takes time, he explains, but we are already witnessing this shift in the terminology; and the younger generations, they will not stand for a business environment that is driven solely by profits for shareholders and hierarchical leadership. We are now living the change and so we still cannot see or understand all the possibilities that will emerge.

In this age, leadership is personal, individual, it is for each and every one of us. In a world where we depend on each other, formal leadership gives way to moral leadership. And moral leadership is something that anyone can take, you don’t need to wait to be promoted. Instead of leading through power over people, now is the time to lead from power through people. In his introduction to the book, former President Bill Clinton writes: “We cannot continue to think about success as a zero-sum game, meaning that the success of one group can only occur at the expense of another … it requires us to come up with new ways to motivate and act …” And this begins with our own individual “how”, with every dialogue, with post, email, every response or lack thereof, with trust. With how each and every one of us decides to personally behave and act.

Published in Globes Israel Business Arena

Nirit Cohen

Nirit Cohen is an expert in the future of work, bridging the gap between emerging trends and practical solutions, providing valuable insights for careers, management, organizations, and broader societal systems.

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