Last week I caught up with an old friend who leads a financial PR business in China. We fell to reminiscing about corporate life in multinationals, and it didn’t take long for the old discontent to resurface (he’s still harness, while I’ve thrown the traces). We both worked for decades in businesses that promotes themselves as creative. Yet internally ‘It’s all about the idea’ changed into ‘it’s all about the money.’
The truth is, in most major businesses globally it is all about the money. But the reality is that shareholder value is compromised when you squeeze the human energy out of your enterprise.
I see it in my work with companies around our region. On average, at the ten-year mark even the most entrepreneurial companies begin to darken on the inside. Anxiety about future growth or client retention or public profile seeps into the organisation from the top down. As it permeates, anxiety turns to fear.
Left unaddressed, fear breeds fear. And when you are fearful a strange thing happens inside your brain. Your evolved brain, and in particularly your frontal cortex, switches itself off in favour of older parts of the brain that are all about survival. You’ll know if this is happening to you at work because you’ll find you can’t remember things or articulate properly. You feel a burdensome weight that makes the slightest task onerous. Like trying to write an email with a sofa balancing on your shoulders.Worse still, some people in organisations like to use fear as a weapon. You know the kind – they invoke the CEO’s name in any request. They highlight failure and point fingers. They create whisper campaigns to destabilise more successful colleagues.
So, very soon the organisational culture is drenched in fear. Some bosses might say (and I have heard them): ‘That doesn’t matter, I like to keep my people on their toes.’ But that is wrong. Even the most robust human beings cannot sustain stress for very long. Individuals become unproductive. Teams become dysfunctional. Employees seek comfort in other forms – alcohol, sex, abuse of company property, even theft.
Eventually growth slows and profitability declines. Which is ironic, because in many businesses this is the outcome of a Performance Culture. A performance-driven culture worsens staff fears by creating a zero-sum game in which people either succeed or fail. And you are only as good as your last success … or failure.
By contrast, a growth culture begins with the question, “How much human energy can we liberate?” In my experience, the answer to this is “unlimited” given the correct stimulus. And you may be surprised to hear that Millennials show the strongest response.
Chris Harrison leads the Brand Inside