Organic Leadership

A few days ago I had a meeting with a leader at one of the largest corporations in the U.S.  We were talking about a group with a high ratio of employees who’d been with the company for many years, and remained satisfied in their jobs.

Several patterns about the group leaders emerged quickly.  First, they were serious about giving employees work that they enjoyed doing and were good at.  Second, they communicated clearly and consistently.  Third, they buffered their employees from day-to-day bureaucratic matters.  Fourth, they treated people in a way that they themselves would like to be treated.  And finally, they knew the difference between attacking the problem and attacking the person – so that when something or someone need to be corrected, it wasn’t made personal.

This comprehensive approach to building employee loyalty was completely organic – not the result of a five-point employee retention plan.  The group leaders believed that these were just the right things to do to keep good people motivated and highly productive: which, of course, they are.  But why are they?

It turns out that once our basic needs of shelter, clothing, food, and political safety and freedom are met we humans don’t experience a significant boost in our happiness set point (a similar concept to that of a weight set point) by having more of those things.  We do experience a temporary increase in happiness when we get a jazzy new car, or a promotion, but soon after that we go back to where we were on the happiness meter.  We return to the same level of happiness from whence we came.

This is because what really moves our happiness set point up the scale are intrinsic qualities like strong social connections, a set of goals, doing things that keep us engaged, and having a sense of control over our lives. The work of positive psychology leaders such as Martin Seligman, Authentic Happiness and Sonja Luybomirsky, The How of Happiness bear this out.  Their research is an eye-opener for those who believe that more stuff is what we need to push the happiness meter higher.

The group in this story has, without a grand plan, realized this.  Because the leaders assign work based on an individual’s talents they create a greater possibility of happiness (think of a time when you’ve lost yourself in your work, and how good that felt).  They communicate clearly, which limits opportunities for staff  to ruminate and conjure up negative theories that may or may not be true.  And by being a buffer of daily bureaucratic tasks, people can focus on their work which, as we just saw, creates a positive experience.

The last two characteristics:  using the golden rule of doing to others what you would want done to you and attacking the problem and not the person – well I think they speak for themselves.

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