Why Work Still Sucks (And Organizational Change Is SLOW)

Why Work Still Sucks (And Organizational Change Is SLOW) 1024 512 Jason Lauritsen

We’ve been working on making work suck less for quite a while now.

Gallup has been measuring employee engagement for nearly 30 years and the results have always been terrible. Most employees are not fully engaged at work.

In other words, work isn’t working very well for the people doing it.

Don’t get me wrong, there are some organizations out there who have figured it out. They’ve redesigned work in a way that the humans love and are reaping the rewards. These are rare examples and proof of what’s possible.

We also have more research and science available to us today than ever before to help us understand people–how we are motivated and how our brains work, etc. In other words, with all this data, creating environments that are optimized for humans should be less mysterious and challenging.

And yet, we are still struggling just as mightily as we have for the past few decades. This riddle is one that I’ve pondered for a long time and while I’d love to tell you I have the answer to breaking through and being one of those rare examples, it’s not that simple.

I do, however, think I can point to one reason that this change is happening so slowly.

Let me take a step back for a moment. If you’ve been working with employee engagement for very long, you’ve probably debated–or at least thought about–whether it’s possible to take a disengaged culture and change it to an engaged culture without a change of leadership at the top.

Most of the stories we hear about an “epic culture change” start with a change of CEO. The old CEO didn’t get it, the new CEO does. And thus marks the beginning of the culture transformation for the organization.

Rarely do you hear a story about leaders who didn’t get it, but after some really compelling meetings with HR, they turned it around and became that leader who can spark a different kind of culture. I’m sure there are some examples of this happening, but it seems to be rare in my experience.

This leads me to an observation I’ve made throughout my career that I find particularly challenging.

Leaders struggle with breaking the system that gives them power, even when they know the system is bad.

It’s not an uncommon story to observe people changing as they rise up higher on the organizational chart. When they were a “high potential” new hire, they probably saw all sorts of issues in the system. They had pages of ideas for how leaders could show up differently and behave differently to make their work experience and their team’s work experience more rewarding.

But with every promotion, that individual moves farther and farther away from that employee perspective they once had. Every new title comes with a bigger paycheck, better perks, and more access to those with the real power.

Over time, that person grows accustomed to the role of the organization leader with all of its associated fringe benefits. The advice coming their way from those who grant the power at the top of the org chart begins to drown out those old ideas rooted in their own experience of leadership.

They become part of the organizational machine. And partially, that’s because there is so much at stake: big title, big paycheck, big office. All created by a system that they know isn’t working the best for most employees.

And so they find themselves, perpetuating the very behaviors and systems that they may have once railed against. It’s a cycle I’ve personally seen play out over and over again.

So what does it take to break out of this common pattern? It takes a rare and courageous leader to climb to the top of the ladder and then go about breaking apart the very ladder they are perched atop. That ladder is what affords them the power in the first place.

Willingness to break or fundamentally challenge the system that gives you power requires true vision, fortitude, and principle. It’s rare because the risks, or at least the perceived risks, are very high.

As I write this, I realize that this is a bit depressing. The system is designed in such a way that there are powerful incentives NOT to change, so what do we do?

I don’t think there are easy answers to this issue. But, here are a few things I’ve learned:

  1. If you have a CEO who gets the importance of engagement and culture, you are incredibly fortunate. Do not squander the opportunity by playing small with small ideas. When you have the CEO as your back, you can accomplish some amazing things for both your employees and your organization.
  2. There is one exception to the rule that leaders won’t break the system that gives them power. That exception is a crisis. When the organization is facing a crisis, leader’s minds open to alternate paths. If the status quo leads to extinction, then change is required. When your organization finds itself in crisis, step forward with bold plans. This may be your moment to truly change the trajectory of the organization.
  3. Don’t lose sight of what it feels like to be a non-management employee. As you succeed, you will get promoted and with that will come all the trappings of corporate success. Stay connected to the experience and challenges that your employees have each day and what matters the most to them. Create rituals or habits where you are in regular conversation with employees about their day-to-day life at work. And, to the extent you can, help the up-and-coming leaders in your organization to do the same.

Regardless of all of this, I don’t want you to take the wrong message. CEOs don’t have to “get it” for you to make some big progress. But, it’s a whole lot easier when they do.

Start with what you can control. Transform your team first. Practice the kind of leadership you expect from others. Your example may help nudge others in the right direction.

1 comment
  • Damir Kucan

    Good article Jason which accurately identifies the impact of the CEO. But you also need to include the rest of the Executive Team and the impact the CEO has on them. Now the problem is magnified.

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