The case for investing in employees’ psychological development

24 Jul

It’s easy to make a case for why companies should invest in the development of their people. Countless studies have shown that development opportunities are a primary reason people take a job and also why they stay put.

The bigger payoff comes when people are truly engaged in their work, committed to the organization and all in. You don’t necessarily get that from traditional training and development. I may stay for the training and job opportunities, but in the back of my mind I’m thinking about how I could use it to get a better job someplace else.

The development of people is important, but it’s not just about developing them technically so they can move up the corporate ladder. What’s just as important, if not more so, is helping people develop psychologically and move up a different kind of ladder. Think Abraham Maslow and the Hierarchy of Needs.

Maslow6LevelsWhen you understand an employee’s psychological needs and provide support at each level, you show them you really care about them as people, not just as workers. Not only can this have a profound effect inside your company, it can also positively affect all aspects of the employee’s life.

Psychologically healthy employees are not only more engaged and more productive in the work place, they are also better spouses, better parents, and better citizens. With this in mind, one could argue, as Maslow did, that companies have a societal responsibility for developing people.

Maslow felt so strongly about this he suggested companies who focused only on profits and did not develop their people were getting a free ride from taxpayers.

“I help pay for the schools and the police departments and the fire departments and the health departments and everything else in order to keep the society healthy, which in turn supplies high-level workers and managers to such companies at little expense to them. I feel they should, in order to be fair, make more returns to the society than they are making – that is, in terms of producing good citizens, people who because of their good work situation can themselves be benevolent, charitable, kind, altruistic, etc. in the community.”

Maslow and other humanists felt the best managers were those who genuinely believed in the potential of each employee and worked hard to create an environment and support system that enabled people to fully develop. Although he didn’t talk specifically about meaning and purpose in the workplace, the renewed focus on these topics is clearly reflective of Maslow’s work.

Robert Kegan and Lisa Lahey in An Everyone Culture provide examples of Maslowesque workplaces. One of these is Decurion, a company in Los Angeles that runs movie theaters. When you visit the Decurion website, it takes awhile to figure out exactly what it is the company does. The Home page has a picture of a tree, the word FLOURISH and its purpose statement – “Decurion’s purpose, the fundamental reason it exists, is to provide places for people to flourish. By “flourish” we mean to become fully oneself, which includes living an undivided life and growing into what one is meant to be.”

Another is Next Jump, a software company intent on changing the world by changing workplace culture. Next Jump describes its culture as one of deliberate development that encompasses not only career but life as well. “We focus on improving your health, emotional reaction, skills and sense of purpose.”

It’s difficult not to get excited and inspired by these companies. I found myself perusing the career pages, wanting so much to be a part of this new world. I didn’t take a job, but I did commit to doing my part in helping companies realize what Kegan and Lahey so eloquently describe:

Imagine so valuing the importance of developing people’s capabilities that you design a culture that itself immersively sweeps every member of the organization into an ongoing developmental journey in the course of working every day.

As exciting as all this is, it’s important to recognize that it’s one thing to say the words, quite another to build a culture that truly embodies the principles and values expressed. This kind of transformation and enlightenment doesn’t happen overnight, nor is the process pain free. In fact, a core tenant of Bridgewater, the third DDO (Deliberately Developmental Organization) mentioned in An Everyone Culture, is Pain + Reflection = Progress. They even have a Pain button app where employees record and share experiences of negative emotions at work – especially times when one’s ego defenses are activated by interactions with others.

On board philosophically, now what?

Philosophically buying into the concepts is one thing, but how does a company, particularly one steeped in old school thinking and infrastructure, transition into a deliberately developmental maslowvian culture? Here are a few tips to get you started.

1. Create the ecosystem.

Creating a developmental culture is about more than words – principles, values, tenets, mantras and the like. You need structures, practices, tools and shared language in place to bring these words to life, to drive behavior and create positive change. Bridgewater CEO Greg Jensen put it this way:

You build the habits of principles into the everyday work. So there’s no difference between doing the work and managing the work. It’s all the same stuff. We embed those habits in the technology and the tools, so the way you do things is consistent with the principles. You’re building the habits, and you’re building the muscle memory to operate in a certain way. It’s very hard to teach people to be fully transparent, to be all of these ways, so you really need to help them by creating the ecosystem that almost forces them to in doing their work.

2. Create a double bottom line.

In order to make this work, managers (I would argue everyone) needs to be held accountable for developing people. It should never be a question of either or – profits or people. Profitability and support for human development are intertwined and emerge as one thing. Another great quote from Kegan and Lahey:

Imagine hardwiring development into your bottom line, so that, along with asking whether your culture is fostering the other elements of business success (such as profitability or the consistent quality of your offerings), you ask —demand that your culture is as a whole, visibly and in the regular daily operations of the company, be a continuous force on behalf of people overcoming their limitations and blind spots and improving their mastery of increasingly challenging work.

3. Align individual and organizational needs.

Maslow talked about this fifty years ago when he said “set up social conditions so that the goals of the individual merge with the goals of the organization.” In other words, regularly communicate vision and goals and provide working conditions that enable people to meet their own needs in the process of meeting the company’s needs.

Alignment is one of the most powerful tools in your toolbox. When people are able to see how what they do contributes to the vision and goals of the company, they become more impassioned and engaged. It’s important that people feel connected both at a purpose or vision level and at a practical day-to-day goal level. Begin by clearly and explicitly communicating company goals and strategies from the top down. Each organization, each team and each individual should then be able to see and describe how what they do enables or contributes to the achievement of those goals.

4. Provide psychological support at all levels.

There’s a lot of talk these days about building cultures that support meaning and purpose. Although well-intended, sometimes we get so focused at the top of the pyramid, we forget the lower levels. We assume basic needs – survival, security, belongingness, are taken care of, and in most cases that’s probably true. But just because the company provides a paycheck and a place to come to every day doesn’t mean employees feel their basic needs are met.

For example, basic needs include compensation and benefits, but its not just about the paycheck or the perk, its also about the perception of fairness in the administration of pay and perks. We assume most people feel their job is secure unless there are obvious reasons why they should be concerned. The truth is we inadvertently screw this up by lack of transparency and regular, consistent communication about what’s going on behind closed doors. When people are not included in the conversation, they imagine the worse, and create all sorts of negative scenarios in their head, many of which involve the loss of their job, position or power.

We also assume we’ve addressed social needs by grouping people into teams and organizing an occasional team building or social event, yet forced teaming does little to create a sense of belonging, at least not in the short term. Belonging builds over time as we get to know people around us, share ups and downs and work together toward common goals. We can’t prescribe it or force it, but we can help it along by creating an environment that encourages people to be open and honest – a trusting environment where people are able to talk about their fears, concerns, mistakes, and even be vulnerable.

As Brene Brown says, vulnerability is at the core of shame and fear and the struggle for worthiness, but it is also the birthplace of creativity, belonging, of love.

5. Use informal leaders to influence behavior.

Maslow believed there was a circular relationship, with a good work environment more likely to produce good people and good people more likely to create a good work environment.

“The better man and the better group are the causes and effects of each other. A better individual person tends to make a better group out of the group in which he is. But also, the better a group is, the more it tends to improve the person within the group. The same is true for the group in the larger society. They influence each other.”

Every organization (hopefully) has a few natural leaders and influencers that embody the attitudes and behaviors you’re trying to grow and develop. Identify these informal leaders and strategically plant them into groups where they can energize, demonstrate behaviors and create momentum.

6. Be the change you wish to see.

Companies like Next Jump, Decurion and Bridgewater who are successfully creating  developmental cultures all share a common focus/behavior – responsibility for one’s own self-development. If you want to transform your organization, start with yourself. Put another way, organizational transformation begins with individual transformation. It’s not just about senior leadership, although transformation of senior management is critically important. You can be influential no matter where you are in the organization. We are all part of team or group and have the opportunity to influence that team or group positively or negatively every day.

Forty years ago Maslow predicted a world in which “human potential will be the primary source of competitive advantage in almost every industry, every organization and every institution.” I’d like to think we’re well on our way to making that vision a reality.

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