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Is it possible to balance organization deliverables vs value for people?

Updated: Sep 29, 2020

Will we get to a point where more organizations truly value people through the employment life cycle?

Most organizations craft employee value propositions that promise an environment that will help employees thrive and reach the career goals that they have always dreamed of. The ‘people are our greatest assets’ declaration has now become ubiquitous in organizations globally. Leaders assert consistently that their human resources are the reason they are leading in their business and mandate. And yet, for specific leadership teams and organizations, there are so many subtle and not-so-subtle signs that tests this assertion.

You can tell how authentic a leader’s or organization’s value for people is by how they treat employees' personal time. I have watched organizations drive people to debilitating levels of fatigue by encroaching on time that is meant to be resting, off-work time. Many workers relentlessly chase deadlines, expected outputs or targets throughout their careers. In some organizations these goals have no respect for ample sleep, family demands, leisure, health or self-care. People are constantly driven to achieve goals with no attention to their wellbeing or health and so, overtime, we end up with exhausted, unhealthy and drained ‘achievers’.

This scenario is not even about periodic peaks where you need to achieve a set target – there seems to be a frenzy of activity that is constant in many workplaces. A sense of urgency that is persistent, without clarity on why it is so ‘urgent’. This unexplained frenzy eventually morphs into a routine with people simply continuing with this drill because the ‘boss says so’ and, with time, convince themselves that this feverish pace is important and warranted. Indeed, this creates a celebrated culture that applauds ‘star performers’ who can work with no sleep, food or reprieve. When I started a new job one time, I was leaving no earlier than 9 p.m.; and one evening a colleague I met as we descended to the ground floor sympathetically said: “this is how it is. You’ll get used to it.”

So, the bottom line is achieved, and goals met, but at what price? I constantly wonder: could we not achieve the same results while still paying attention to the rest and personal time that people need to live a healthy, balanced life? Do we necessarily need those impromptu, emergency meetings? Is that impromptu lunch hour meeting necessary?

Now, I am not advocating for a lazy approach to work or one that is not sensitive to emerging needs, but I am always perplexed that many workplaces squeeze so much out of people; with no attention to their wellbeing. Often such organizations remind their staff that they are ‘paid for it’. But the truth is they (staff) also ‘worked for it’. It is a cycle that is unresolvable if we only look at it as a transactional arrangement and not a question of the fact that workplaces are human places. Humans do work and they do have personal needs. We even have solid research evidence that an employee whose needs are met, is a more productive one.

Yet many times, our approach to dealing with ‘difficult’ staff at work is not humane at all. Leaders tend to withhold critical information, openly criticize and isolate those that dare to veer away from the ‘expected’ (or should I say, demanded?). One would think that if we truly valued people; then we would be willing to treat them with dignity and respect; even when they are not dancing to our tune. Equal treatment should not be capped when people don’t agree with our perceived right or norm. While organizations have rules, procedures, expected behaviors and so on; deviants should not necessarily be treated as ‘less than’. I believe that, yes, we can ‘punish’ them if warranted or show them the door, if that is what it is called for– but that, too, should be done with dignity and respect.

I have seen the deterioration of treatment for people who organizations know they want to let go. The switch from employee to departing employee seems to trigger all manner of negative behaviors by the leaders or organization – indifference, isolation, withholding information and, the ultimate, escorting them out of the building with security. While some of this is necessary for terminations or if the person involved has potential to harm/ damage property, information or people, this nature of treatment happens even for redundancies where one would think there is less acrimony.

I was talking to my niece recently who narrated a similar scenario where the normal warm, friendly work atmosphere morphed into cold, fact-based formal interactions. Formal meetings replaced the usual one-on-ones, and the people wondered why until they realized it was to communicate the decision on redundancy. Even though those affected were less than 8 employees who could have been met individually with a more humane touch, the leadership team gathered them to convey a blanket, numbers-driven decision. They instructed the affected staff not to call anyone. Essentially, ‘don’t call us, we will call you’.

While it is true that communicating bad news is difficult, I think that it is a cop out when leaders fail to prepare themselves enough with relevant information that allows a uniform message to be communicated in a humane, respectful and dignifying manner. This abscondment of leadership is a disease that insidiously eats organizations and leaders don’t seem to be ready to confront it. We fail to see how this stance affects those who remain. They, too, suffer in such moments and in many ways go through the ‘survivors’ guilt’ and a seed is planted that whispers: ‘you are valuable only as long as we think we need you’. Can you imagine what that does to the human spirit? Could we measure the cost of the discretionary effort and engagement that slowly ebbs away?

One would think that organizations should know better and do better. Yet many organizational leaders seem to have become a two-faced, disingenuous and cold-hearted machinery driven by numbers and results; not by value for people. If people are truly the most valued asset, then one would think that this message is maintained from entry to exit.

Is there really no way that all departing/ departed employees could be treated better? I think there is a middle space that allows for maintaining some dignity and respect, while letting people go.

I am just thinking. What do you think?

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