“If we wait for governments, it will be too late. If we act as individuals, it will be too little. But if we act as communities, it might just be enough, and it might just be in time,” said Rob Hopkins, pointing towards climate change and how it could be tackled. Communities are everywhere these days and yet their purpose is difficult to define. They might as well be the panacea and the pariah to resolving the world’s most pressing issues, depending on their focus and leadership. Thus, it seems to be rather the “communal thought” that might have an impact if we manage to (re)define and instill related values.
In a world of individual interests and self-fulfillment the idea of “building something together” has become increasingly hard to sell. What’s “in for you” if you collaborate, spend your time, or even dedicate yourself to an idea or vision? That’s frequently the question I am asking myself when approaching a potential business partner. Although I’m “selling” a collaborative approach I have to frame it as a “win-win” situation in which each party satisfies individual interests. This made me think.
What was the original idea of a community? It is a group of people with a common characteristic or interest living together within a larger society or a body of persons of common and especially professional interests scattered through a larger society. The communal thought precedes the formation of a community but does not necessarily have to result in it. It can as well be a value-based “attitude” or way of living and working that facilitates collaborations of any kind.
However, why is the focus these days on promising and realizing individual interests rather than communal collaborations? Why does there seem to be a trade-off between individual and communal interests?
The system around the people
The context counts, it sets the rules and defines the playing field. Business and management operate increasingly at the surface when designing incentive systems and implementing key performance indicators (KPIs). Mostly (monetary) selective incentives target motivations of actors. However, they neglect that motivations are rooted in people’s motives which are in turn emerging from underlying values, beliefs etc. Rarely, the attempt is made to understand this deepest, mostly culturally driven level. But it is essential to acknowledge these needs if we wish to retain our workforce and/or collaborate in the mid- to long-term. It is, in fact, this deeply rooted conviction that triggers intrinsic motivation and interest in building something together – it nourishes the soul of the individual, his or her attitude to work and life, and thus to collaboration.
The people within the system
There exists an alarming loss of interest in work. Already two years ago, the BBC raised the issue that especially in professions that people tend to enter largely because of an interest in the work, the field, or the company itself have seen an exodus of formerly passionate people – not because they did not love the work anymore, but because the circumstances didn’t allow them to do the job the way they wanted to do it. For some, this has come because of the pandemic and resulting changes in work conditions; for others it is a realization that even before the pandemic work conditions had deteriorated and the psychological contract – all the unwritten trust and implicit agreements – between the employer and the employee had been violated. Jobs were stripped down to their most essential components, workloads increased, and most importantly selective incentives changed the rules of the game.
Recently, the NYT reported on deeply committed doctors who are frustrated and unhappy – not because they were burned out from working too hard but because the healthcare system made it so difficult to care for patients: “In recent years, despite the esteem associated with their profession, many physicians have found themselves subjected to practices more commonly associated with manual laborers in auto plants and warehouses, like having their productivity tracked on an hourly basis and being pressured by management to work faster.“ These piecemeal management approaches have changed the practice of medicine, causing many physicians to feel alienated from their work. Jobs have become soulless because underlying motives and values are not addressed by prevailing incentive systems.
A vicious cycle is kicked off in which less motivated overworked professionals underperform which in turn increases pressure on their productivity and reduces their willingness (and capability) to collaborate. Frequently, we find ourselves in the classic game theory situation of the prisoner’s dilemma: two completely rational parties, separated and unable to communicate (each working in their specialized silos), can cooperate for mutual benefit or betray the partner for individual rewards. The highest reward for each party occurs when both parties choose to co-operate, however, individual decision-makers always have an incentive to choose in a way that creates a less than optimal outcome for the individuals as a group.
While this thought experiment does not always hold true in practice it illustrates the underlying issues of asymmetric information (not equally distributed – aka not everybody has the same level of information) and the lack of communication that prohibits the “communal thought” unless it is explicitly supported and enacted by a third party, i.e., management, that creates transparency and/or educates those left behind. For this to happen collaboration has to “pay off” – return on investment (ROI) is the three-letter formula one has to prove in order to move ahead with a strategy these days. Does it pay off to collaborate? Is it possible to pursue individual interests and “make money” and still collaborate?
We can also turn it around: will the desired ROI be achievable in the future if we do not employ a communal thought of collaboration? Will the pursuit of individual interests result in a zero-sum game in the long run if we do not change our approach?
The central issue revolves around measurability: today, if something can’t be measured it does not exist. The KPI “flood” has permeated organizations and any “soft” indicator – such as for example a communal thought or spirit – is a hard sell unless we can operationalize it in quasi-quantitative terms. Moreover, the inherent complexity of a soft measure has to be amortized in the process of management. Will its effectiveness overcompensate the additional expenses of its implementation, meaning that it has to prove not only to be effective in yielding a positive ROI but also prove more effective than easy to capture, yet not (necessarily) conducive interventions that are already in place?
On the other hand, the neglect of addressing underlying motives and meaning in the workforce has most likely already impacted ROI negatively: see the examples of high-performing engaged professionals leaving their jobs. We have to get beyond the myth that everything can be measured and acknowledge the importance of building something together through communal spirit.
Traditionalists say: If you can’t measure it, you can’t manage it.
I’d say if you can’t manage, you’ll have to pay for it – in the long run J (in terms of ROI ;-).
For years we have been focusing on growth that could be expressed in percentages and selective incentives that can be expressed in monetary terms. But we have neglected working conditions, emotions in organizations, cultivating values and context for human resources to thrive.
In our work we have learned that the communal spirit of “building something together” is key for accessing markets, designing ecosystems, and integrating organizations from very different backgrounds and diverse cultural backgrounds to create sustainable partnerships. Understanding and engaging human resources as the carriers of this philosophy is key and I am always spending a considerable amount of time during our interviews for strategic organizational (re)design projects on workforce topics. I strongly believe it is worth it and will pay off for our clients if we pay attention to building this essential backbone.
What do you think? Does it pay off to collaborate und build something together? Can we (re)infuse a “soul” into our and other people’s doings and reduce existing alienation while simultaneously meeting individual and collective targets/goals?
Please let me know what you think in the comments or directly by email. As my audience you are the most important people that make a difference. #shareyourwisdom
Stay tuned for part two of this perspective which will be released before the summer break: “ON THE IMPORTANCE OF BUILDING SOMETHING TOGETHER – HOW TO DO IT?”
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