July 24, 2014

Choosing between the Business Sucks or the Work sucks (and you can’t say “it depends”)

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work sucks by V-s-G on deviantart.com

Last week on Linked In, I posed this question in the Q&A forums:

Which would you prefer – A workplace with a progressive culture and employee-centric focus to its operations that struggles due to suboptimal business performance, or a difficult command-and-control environment, but with a record of high performance?

There were several fairly lengthy and quite well thought out responses, such as this one from Mark Aldesberger:

Depends. You seem to imply that a command-and-control environment is necessarily a negative culture; I think that’s not a universally accepted truth.

In the spirit of your question, though, let’s assume the 2nd option is a company where the culture really is negative – where command-and-control mentallity is applied in ways that really hinder morale, etc. Still the answer depends somewhat.

A job is, first and foremost, a job. if the workplace with the progressive culture is sacrificing so much in terms of business results that it can’t be expected to survive, then it might be somewhat irresponsible to choose this path. Of course there are matters of degree. The other end of the spectrum, maybe they are actually consistently profitable but not as much as the next guy. There are many points in between, and for the company’s specific circumstances you would have to weigh the risk (of compelte company failure) and also the potential for the company to evolve.

That last point is the major one in favor of choosing culture over current success (provided it’s not such an extreme case that you can’t take the risk). It is far more likely that a company with good culture can “learn” how to be more successful, than that a company with good success will “learn” how to have a good culture. Success + poor culture = entrenched poor culture, and it takes a very unpleasant shock to change that. Often things get much worse before they have a hope to get better.

But if the culture is truly good – i.e. things like “employees have a voice for their good ideas”, not necessarily “management panders to employees to propr up morale” – then you can go in and try to be a change agent with respect to the lacking business results. If it doesn’t work out, maybe you find yourself having to move on in a few years; but at least maybe you weren’t miserable in the mean time.

What I found interesting about this, and many of the answers, was how much they discussed the issues they supposed were behind the question, or the question’s merits, without ever really providing an answer.  Perhaps it’s just too hard to choose, or differentiate, between enjoying and unstable environment and feeling secure in a miserable one.  Consider this from Carolyn Reid:

If performance is suboptimal, the employee-centric focus needs to be reworked. Employees can be happy and productive. There are so many different employee perks in companies today. What works for some companies isn’t even feasible for other companies. And what works for some employees doesn’t work for others. Even the industry matters. For instance, if all of the work is online it doesn’t make sense to require suits and ties. So I believe you can optimize employee perks and have good performance. Command and control environment works for some people but I don’t think it is considered an environment where people feel they are providing a great value to the company and using their creativity.

 What I also found unfortunate, albeit not too surprising, was that there are a number of people who simply don’t care how bad work is as long as the business is strong.  I have to wonder, if you spend an hour of your day commuting, and hour at lunch, 8 hours working, that’s at least ten hours a day spent on things wholly dedicated to a place that you don’t enjoy.  Take a look at these responses:

The latter, to be sure. I’m of the opinion that happy people are NOT productive, but that productive people are generally happy.

I love hitting the numbers, even if the price is rigidity.

I’d like to point out that I’m not dependent on “company culture” or any other soft management tactics for my fulfillment. It’s intrinsic. I don’t look to work to socialize. Not saying that’s good or bad, but it’s my way. Work is for work, and my social life exists outside the four walls.

Susan Black (Niven):

Most definitely the latter, unless of course the business exists solely for the purpose of providing a comfy work environment for a bunch of non-productive people :)

I agree with Andy that productive people are generally happier – happier inside their own skins in that they know they are earning their pay cheques. Various employee ownership plans – like granting stock options – can be useful, but in my experience that is not always the case.

A business that is producing results – i.e. making a profit – is the only place that I, personally, ever want to be investing my time. If I don’t get a lot of (or any) warm fuzzies along the way, that’s fine by me. Like Andy, I get all of that from places that have nothing to do with work.

There were several, however, who clearly don’t see the point in showing their toughness by dealing with a poor environment, and would rather enjoy their time, even if the business is suffering.  Here are some thoughts from Ilona Jerabek:

As a business owner and as an employee, I would rather run and work in the former company. If you have a great team of people who get along well, are happy to come to work, show initiative and are truly engaged, you can figure out how to optimize processes and improve performance from the economic perspective.

Working in a place with tight control and nasty atmosphere generates too much of a negative vibe, fear and chronic stress, in addition to discouraging creativity and initiative. In such a company, employees are not motivated (or motivated by fear of being fired), turnover is high, people get sick … physically and emotionally. It takes years to change the climate from something like this.

However, I would argue that while most companies have their pile of problems and issues, a compromise between the two extremes is more common than you claim.

As managers, you can be demanding but fair, approachable and caring. You can figure out how to motivate your employees without using coercive measures. You can become a person who has authoritative power (rather than authoritarian) but who doesn’t need to use it very often … because the problem with power is that when you use it, you loose it.

What I find interesting in many of the responses to questions such as mine, is the attitude that it’s perfectly okay for work to suck, because we expect it to.  ”A job’s a job” is heard all too often, and without any consideration for the larger picture, which states:  A Life’s a life.  Certainly, those who focus first on the entirety of their existence have a very different view of how work fits into that existence.  For others, however, work is something they are willing to endure, if they are unable to enjoy.

The response I found most interesting, however, came from Nathalie Jays, who developed an interesting overview of both sides of the argument.  Ultimately, however, she emphasizes the importance of culture in order to create both a positive atmosphere and high performance:

Hi, I share the view of a few above in the sense that I think the premise of your question may not be quite that straight forward.

Having fun at work does not mean Managers relinquish their management responsibilities to the bin. There is still a great deal of it around but it is done in an engaging and flexible manner, with a great deal of respect for employees’ working styles and pro-activity.

From my experience, great (ie. positive) cultures breed loyalty and dedication. Employees who have fun at work are actually very dedicated and want to come to work in the morning. They have a great deal of energy and they want to see their organisation grow and prosper. I was so lucky to actually work in such an environment in the past. People respected each other and supported one another. They had fun and members of the Executive team were the first to foster that fun environment.

Employees feeling close to one another meant projects ran smoothly and were on time, because when you respect and genuinely like your colleagues (incl. your Line Manager), you don’t want to let them down. So you check your work before it is passed on to the next person, thus ensuring errors are addressed along the way and not at the last minute.

Such a culture also fosters collaboration. Colleagues lend a hand, and working longer hours on occasion to make sure projects are delivered on time and are of high standard, is not a big ask. This collaboration comes naturally in a positive work environment.

Having fun at work is from my own experience the best motivator, and organisations that foster such cultures create successful sustainable businesses.

Now the second example of culture from your question, which is a “difficult command-and-control environment, but with a record of high performance”. I really am dubious about the level of long-term success this type of environment would truly achieve.

I would rather imagine, the best performers will soon leave this organisation – because let’s face it, employees spend so much time at work, they’d rather spend it with people that are respectful and pleasant to be with. In addition, few employees actually like to be coerced, and micro-managed.

So the best people would leave and how would the business replace them? Well these days, businesses rapidly acquire reputations in the market place and this affects who comes knocking on the door of the HR Manager asking for a job.

I believe the premise: “employees join an organisation, but leave a Manager” is fundamentally true. So that’s really bad news for the second type of organisation, with an exodus of employees and little hope to attract talent in the future.


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