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Big Companies Don’t Have to Be Soulless Places to Work

March 23, 2016

Studies have shown that 70% of the workplace is disengaged. That’s on top of the fact that in the near future 40% of the workforce will be freelancing. What this tells us is that most employees are either quitting and leaving their jobs or — worse — quitting and staying in the organizations in which they work. The small number of companies that top best-employer listings such as Fortune’s 100 Best Companies to Work For and Glassdoor’s Best Places to Work seem to be in elite leagues of their own.

Big corporations seem to have it especially hard: according to an Accenture survey, only 15% of college students who graduated in 2015 said they would prefer to work for a large company. These larger companies, once considered pinnacles of career opportunity, have become employers of last resort. Unless the companies make radical changes, the best talent will go elsewhere. And many Fortune 500 companies will just go away.

What is to be done? Big companies have to take the most chronic complaints about them and flip them on their heads, making radical changes that will dramatically improve how they are experienced by their employees.

Instead of hiding the truth, welcome and promote it.

It’s astounding how routine deceit is in organizations. When people know they are part of a collusive environment where the truth is unwelcome, they hide parts of themselves. Worse, when information is fabricated to create the illusion of safety and anonymity, performance and retention plummet.  

In the 2016 Edelman Global Trust Barometer survey, of more than 33,000 people around the world, only 27% of leaders were seen as behaving in open and transparent ways. In the 2013 report of the same population, 82% of workers around the world did not trust their bosses to tell the truth. Another study found 85% of employees admitted to withholding important concerns about critical issues from their bosses.

Over the last 20 years, we’ve conducted more than 5,000 diagnostic interviews assessing performance in large organizations. More than half of the vital perspectives we heard expressing dire concerns about company practices, leadership behavior, confusion over strategy, resentment over unfairness, or fear about the future had never been voiced to leaders who had the power to act upon them.

This has real costs. One study on the impact of leadership deception in organizations showed not only that leaders were seen as less credible but also that employees were less likely to feel proud of their company’s services and products and more likely to express shame for just working there.

Yet truth telling has profound implications for performance and retention. Researchers James Detert and Ethan Burris have found that “when employees can voice their concerns freely, organizations see increased retention and stronger performance. At several financial services firms, for example, business units whose employees reported speaking up more had significantly better financial and operational results than others.”

While truth telling is critical in any organization, larger organizations are perceived as more political and therefore less safe to be honest in. Sheryl Sandberg, COO of Facebook and best-selling author of Lean In, recently said at a conference, “If you look at any company in Silicon Valley that is failing, everyone in the company knows it’s failing, knows why and how it’s failing, but no one is saying anything. If people felt safe to speak up, many organizational failures could be avoided.”

And it’s important to remember that white lies are still lies. For instance, one CEO client asked me to review his remarks to employees following a difficult analyst call announcing missed earnings. The reasons for the missed earnings were clear and correctable, but the remarks had been spun to dismiss the sting. He said to me, “I just don’t want to rub people’s noses in our failure.” I responded, “That your organization has failed is no secret. You have 36,000 people now watching to see how honest you are about it. If you minimize the significance of this, so will they. And any valuable learning to be had will be minimized along with the truth.”

Instead of creating boring jobs, creatively design great jobs.

It’s no secret: Organizations are, on the whole, terrible at designing interesting jobs. Boredom seems inevitable. And yet in the Accenture survey mentioned above, what the class of 2015 most wants in a job is interesting, challenging work. A multiyear research project by McKinsey reports the single greatest factor in determining effective strategy execution is people feeling like they are making progress in meaningful work.

But many jobs don’t match the passions and skills of those doing them and are frequently disconnected from strategic relevance. The McKinsey study also revealed that leaders unwittingly undermine a sense of progress by “dismissing the importance of subordinates’ work or ideas, destroying a sense of ownership by switching people off project teams before work is finalized, shifting goals so frequently that people despair that their work will ever see the light of day, and neglecting to keep subordinates up to date on changing priorities for customers.” Worse, in the survey referenced above, nearly 40% of respondents felt underemployed in jobs beneath their skill set or not requiring a college degree. A Deloitte Millennial survey reinforces this danger: Only 28% of 7,800 future leaders say their organizations are making full use of their talent.

You don’t have to be a wildly successful organization, rolling in cash, to make work more meaningful. In an interview in an otherwise struggling organization, one exuberant respondent said, “I love my job!” Shocked at her genuine delight, I replied, “What do you love about it?” Without hesitation, she declared, “Because it loves me back!” She went on to explain how it was her dream job, nourishing her soul with a deep sense of meaning, and how she enjoyed her colleagues every day. This is the case too infrequently for most workers.

Organizations can make it less rare by designing jobs that connect skills with strategies and matching the right people to the work. Work can also be reshaped around the needs of the people you have, not just shaped around how “the organization has always done it.” Tomorrow’s leaders see every role as a stepping stone to their next opportunity, so make each step count for mutual good.

Big companies ought to have an edge here. While many people assume smaller, more entrepreneurial organizations offer better opportunities to stand out, contribute, and learn, their chaos and freneticism offset those opportunities with exhaustion and frustration. Larger companies, with more resources and opportunities, ought to excel in designing meaningful jobs that match desires to contribute with strategic importance.

Instead of allowing competing priorities, focus people on a few common goals.

Leaders often end up unintentionally undermining alignment and cohesion. A diffused focus splinters efforts and diminishes people’s connection to something bigger than themselves. Teresa Amabile and Steven Kramer aptly call this “strategic attention deficit disorder.” In their study, they cite one company having “strategic ADD that appeared to stem from a top team warring with itself. Corporate executives spent months trying to nail down a new market strategy. Meanwhile, different vice presidents were pushing in different directions, rendering each of the leaders incapable of giving consistent direction to their people. This wreaked havoc in the trenches.” They conclude, “If high-level leaders don’t appear to have their act together on exactly where the organization should be heading, it’s awfully difficult for the troops to maintain a strong sense of purpose.”

In a recent organizational assessment, one interviewee insightfully named the ambivalence that accompanies unclear direction: “Why should I care? I know that the priority du jour is going to change, and what’s really expected of me is to make my boss look like he knows what he’s doing. It’s not like we’re all in this together.”

By contrast, when companies know what they do well and organize around unassailable differentiators, they unleash great pride in their people. Narrowed focus allows clearer line of sight between what workers do every day and the market performance of the organization. Further, when companies clearly serve greater goods beyond their own financial interests, commitment soars, especially from emerging leaders.

Organizing human endeavor toward great achievement was once a noble act for large corporations. It’s become something to avoid as more people conclude working on their own is better. Big companies that are reputed to be out-of-touch, undesirable workplaces don’t have to remain so. Any company that wants to optimize the contributions and engage the hearts of tomorrow’s leaders will have to make these radical changes to avoid extinction and be great again.

Ron Carucci is co-founder and managing partner at Navalent, working with CEOs and executives pursuing transformational change for their organizations, leaders, and industries. He is the best-selling author of eight books, including the recent Amazon #1 Rising to Power. Connect with him on Twitter at @RonCarucci; download his free e-book on Leading Transformation.