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What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization

December 15, 2015

authentic organization

ALL around us there is widespread societal disenchantment with organizations of all sorts – public, private, and even not-for-profits. Trust levels are at an all-time low.  TV programs like The Office make us laugh – and feel uncomfortable. They remind us that the contemporary obsession with “engagement” is symptomatic of a problem: widespread disengagement.

So we have begun to think about what it takes to create organizations that we believe in and want to be part of. We have been considering how we might build organizations in which people are trusted and feel they can be their authentic selves. Such organizations are likely to be attractive places to work, to retain talent, and to encourage creativity and innovation.

All of these seem like the positive characteristics of long term successful organizations. Our research, however, shows that there are few exemplars, and that achieving the status of authentic organizations may be harder than it first seems.

In our new book Why Should Anyone Work Here? we explore people’s positive visions for organizations and how they are attempting to make these a reality. Individual views vary widely, of course, but they group naturally around six broad imperatives that, together, describe the authentic organization:

  • Difference – “I want to work in a place where I can be myself, where I can express the ways in which I’m different and how I see things differently.”
  • Radical honesty – “I want to know what’s really going on.”
  • Extra value – “I want to work in an organization which magnifies my strengths and adds extra value for me and my personal development.”
  • Authenticity – “I want to work in an organization I’m proud of, one that truly stands for something.”
  • Meaning – “I want my day-to-day work to be meaningful.”
  • Simple rules – “I do not want to be hindered by stupid rules or rules that apply to some people but not others.”

On the surface, the DREAMS qualities or imperatives may seem obvious. After all, who would want to work in the opposite kind of place—an organization where conformity is enforced, where employees are the last to know the truth, where people feel exploited rather than enriched, where values change with the seasons, where work is alienating and stressful, and where a miasma of bureaucratic rules limits human creativity and effectiveness?

And yet we find that very few organizations fully illustrate even half of the qualities of this ideal workplace. Why? Our research indicates that when companies do try to tackle these issues, they often do so superficially. They apply Band-Aids to problems when they arise and seem unprepared to address some fundamental underlying issues, which loom large indeed.

Let’s begin with Difference. For many organizations, accommodating differences translates into a concern with “diversity,” usually defined according to the traditional categories, such as gender, race, age, and religion. These are, of course, of tremendous importance, but people are after something subtler and harder to achieve – an organization that can accommodate differences in perspective, habits of mind, core assumptions, and worldviews – and go beyond accommodation to create a place where difference is celebrated and even leveraged to add value. The consulting engineers Arup are a shining example that shows if you get difference right, you are rewarded with higher levels of commitment, innovation, and creativity.

What about Radical Honesty? Organizations are increasingly recognizing the importance of information sharing and communications – both internally and to wider stakeholders. And yet, the growth of the communications profession is actually more evidence that companies are taking a superficial approach to disseminating the critical information that people need to do their jobs. Why? Because so many communications professionals remain stubbornly connected to an old-world mindset in which information is power and spin is their key skill. Surely information is power, but companies no longer have control of it. In a world of WikiLeaks, whistle blowing, and freedom of information, the imperative should be to tell the truth before someone else does. More recently, iconic firms like Apple, Nike, and Amazon have come under critical scrutiny for their employment practices.

How can organizations create Extra Value? Elite organizations and professions – the McKinseys, Johns Hopkins Hospitals, and PwCs of this world—have been in the business of making great people even better for a long time now. Part of their pact with employees is, “Join us and we will develop you.” Unfortunately, they deal with only a tiny proportion of the workforce. What about the rest of us? Our research shows that when individuals all over the organization feel they can grow through their work – they can add value as the organization adds value to them. If a company like McDonald’s U.K. finds it profitable to train the equivalent of six full classes of students every week to attain formal qualifications in math and English, surely other companies can do more.

What does it mean for an organization to be Authentic? This is a big question. We have developed three markers of authenticity. First, a company’s identity is consistently rooted in its history.   Second, employees demonstrate the values the company espouses. And third, company leaders are themselves authentic. Where this happens – as at the US-based mutual New York Life – employees enjoy a sense of purpose, pride in what they do, and higher levels of trust. Sadly, rather than rise to the challenge, in many organizations, the task of building authenticity has collapsed into the industry of mission-statement writing.

The search for Meaning in work is not new. We know a lot about how jobs may produce a sense of meaning and “engagement.” But meaning comes from a wider set of issues than those narrowly related to individual occupations. It also emerges from what we have called the three C’s – connections, community, and cause. Employees need to know how their work connects to others’ work (and here, too often, silos get in the way). They need a workplace that promotes a sense of belonging (which is increasingly difficult in a mobile world). And they need to know how their work contributes to a longer term goal (problematic when shareholders demand quarterly reporting). If these deeper issues are not addressed, faddish efforts at increasing engagement will have only fleeting effects. The BMW engineer knows why (s)he is going to work – to build the ultimate driving machine. Do you have similar motivational clarity?

Finally, the truly authentic organization has Simple Rules that are widely agreed-upon in the company. Many organizations display a form of rule accretion, where one set of bureaucratic instructions begets another, which seeks to address the problems created by the first set. In response to this, organizations have attempted a kind of radical de-layering. But that, too, is only a superficial fix. The ideal company is not a company without rules. It is a company with clear rules that make sense to the people who follow them, and remains ever vigilant about maintaining that clarity and simplicity – a much larger challenge with a far greater payoff. Netflix, for example, is rightly applauded for its discipline in keeping its human resource practices as simple as possible. Good rules maximize discretion which, in turn, facilitates problem solving. They unleash initiative rather than suppress it.

So, we are optimistic but not starry eyed. The challenges are huge. There will always be reasons not to act; to push the pursuit of “dreams” down the list of priorities. But, crucially, this is not a matter of either/or. Building authentic organizations is not an alternative to, but rather a means for, responding to the new challenges of capitalism, for building productivity, unleashing creativity, and winning.

None of the corporations in our new book are completely there – but they are alert to the challenge and constantly striving to live the ideal. Whichever organization you are part of – and wherever you are within it – our aim is to inspire you to create something authentic which enables you to give a positive answer to a difficult question: Why should anyone work here?

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Building an authentic work environment is essential for long term success. Learn more ways to create more value in your organization through these AMA skills and resources.
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About The Author

Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones are co-authors of Why Should Anyone Work Here? What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization and Why Should Anyone Be Led By You? What It Takes to Be an Authentic Leader. Rob Goffee is Emeritus Professor of Organisational Behaviour at London Business School, where he teaches in the world-renowned Senior Executive Programme. Gareth Jones is a Fellow of the Centre for Management Development at London Business School and a visiting professor at Spain’s IE Business School in Madrid. Together, they are founding partners of Creative Management Associates

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