7 Things That Are True For Top Workplaces

By Debra D. Bass
St. Louis Post-Dispatch

WWR Article Summary (tl;dr) With modest effort and by following a few rules, companies CAN make employees content, if not outright happy.

St. Louis Post-Dispatch

We’ve got bad news.

More than likely, your company doesn’t really care about you. Sure, your employer wants you to show up and do a good job, but “you” is generic. You could be anyone.

That’s no surprise to Markus Baer, an associate professor of organizational behavior at Washington University’s Olin School of Business.

“Ask yourself that question,” prompts Baer, who specializes in motivation and innovation. Does your company really care about you?

OK, now, don’t panic. He assures that it’s not the biggest travesty taking place in the workplace.

“Making employees feel like they are truly cared for and providing them with work that allows them to make progress towards truly meaningful goals” are not mutually exclusive — and, yes, companies should make an effort to do both, he said. “But the former seems more difficult to achieve in reality.”

So is there good news, you wonder? Yes, but it’s a little weird.

Cold-hearted corporations don’t need to be especially concerned about this because that’s not what keeps employees happy. This means that — hooray — employees can be happy even if they don’t think their employer cares.

A company can essentially fake it, and provide a beneficial atmosphere that inspires loyalty from top-level executives and front-line customer representatives by exercising some care with its decision-making.

With modest effort and by following a few rules, companies can make employees content, if not outright happy.

Rule #1: Don’t be a jerk
A company might not care, but it shouldn’t go out of its way to remove all doubt.

“The nature of most employees is not that they want to punch the clock and leave,” explains Susan Cejka, managing partner of the Grant Cooper executive recruiting firm. “People want to do a good job. Period. And as an employer you have to work hard to take that away.”

However, she says matter-of-factly, “You can beat them into surrender.”

Rule #2: Don’t blithely move the goalpost.
“The difference between a good day and a bad day for most every employee is whether or not they feel like they’ve made progress toward a meaningful goal,” Baer said. “Those are the days when you’re much happier.”

Progress, he said, looks different for different positions. But he said it starts with people having a clear idea of their goal, or what’s expected of them. And it’s really important that a company doesn’t stop someone mid-project to say, “oh, never mind do this other thing instead.”

Let’s say a company tells a team that they are going to climb a mountain because it’s vitally important. People research the terrain, map the course, buy the gear, load up and start their climb. Then halfway up, without any explanation, someone says, nope, not this mountain, let’s trek across that field over there instead.

Sounds stupid, right? Yet, Baer says the analogy is frighteningly familiar to many disgruntled workers.
“Many organizations are thoughtless that way; I wouldn’t call them toxic but thoughtless,” he said.

Rule #3: Motivation is a myth.
A best-selling report called, “One more time, how do you motivate employees,” from the Harvard Business Review’s Must Read section, explains that employees can’t be motivated externally.

It’s like trying to make someone else happy. You can’t do it, you don’t have that control, but you can be a positive force in someone else’s happiness. Happiness or misery, however, is an internal state.

The Harvard article argues the same with motivation. Providing a kick-in-the-pants to spur employee productivity (i.e., “do this or suffer punishment”) might have an immediate effect but in the long run job satisfaction is key. Does the employee feel they are making achievements, getting recognition, gaining responsibility and advancing steadily.

“Even a janitor can be motivated if you show them how important their role is,” Baer said. He said it’s easier, perhaps in a hospital, where janitors and sanitation workers literally save lives, but just as valid in a technology company that depends on a clean, comfortable and inviting work environment to reach goals.

“Imagine not having them around for a couple of days and think of how they’d be appreciated,” Baer said.

Rule #4: Get out of the way.
When Cejka is looking to recruit top-level executives away from one firm to work for another, she said their current level of happiness is never a consideration.

“I don’t care if the candidates are happy or unhappy in their current job, it’s my job to make the candidates think my job is so good that they should change anyway,” she said.

You’d think money and benefits would be priorities, but by now you probably know that’s not the answer.

“The first question is always, ‘What’s my boss going to be like?’ That’s what everybody asks,” Cejka said. No matter what the level, most people report to someone, or possibly a board of directors.

But she said that more often than not, employees want an assurance that their boss will trust them to do the job they’ve been hired to do, offer advice when prompted, provide recognition when warranted and to otherwise exit stage left.

“I don’t think day-to-day communication is very important to be honest, depending on the job. If the person feels empowered, the boss doesn’t need to check in very often,” Cejka said. “But they need to set clear goals, say ‘I’m available, if you need me’ and then get out of their way.”

But if someone veers off track, they need to know it, so autonomy is good but don’t forget to check-in.

Rule #5: Celebrate failures.
If you’re asking employees to do something they’ve never done before, chances are they’ll fail or stumble at some point, Baer said. If they think there’s no room to fail because you’re cutting staff or known to be maniacal and vindictive, they’ll be less likely to discuss their lack of progress or blunders.

And that means valuable learning lessons are being wasted, or worse, horrible mistakes may shake the foundation of the corporation. As an example, Baer said that Samsung royally messed up on the Galaxy Note 7 exploding battery catastrophe. At what point were the wrong corners cut, data ignored or cover-ups allowed that made that possible?

If the problem had stopped sooner it might have cost a lot of money, but it would have cost less than an international scandal of corporate incompetence.

“People have to be free to talk about mistakes,” Baer said, noting that this should be in real-time and not hindsight.

Rule #6: Lighten the mood.
Baer said that workplaces need to master valuing people as people — mothers, fathers, grandparents, voters, homeowners, marathon runners. Not just budget items, not just batteries to take out of one project and plug into another, not mindless drones to be treated inelegantly.


Not every workplace can be a technology oasis flush with money, but you can apply a little effort to not make it feel like a dungeon or a rat maze. Maybe you can only afford some paint, plants and better light bulbs, it’s a start.

“When we have people visit from cube (cubical) farms, they get very excited walking through the space,” explained Phyllis Ellison, the director of entrepreneur services at Cortex, a bright dynamic work space with college campus feel. “Modern workers have a higher standard for their work environment.”

She said studies show that physical space can have an impact on its occupants. Space can energize, it can also create a festive atmosphere that encourages interaction.

Rule #7: Humans like socializing.
Any company that thinks it’s promoting productivity by keeping workers quiet and sequestered is ill-informed, she said. Cortex has more than 300 different companies and 4,400 workers and despite all the high-tech amenities, architecture and abundance of free snacks, one of the best benefits cited by occupants is “serendipitous collisions,” she said. This might be as simple as human eye contact, as someone in a glass-walled room sees someone walking through the hall.

“We want a dynamic space with the opportunity for people to socialize and connect,” Ellison said.
Kathleen Osborn, executive director of the Regional Business Council, said, “They won’t say they are leaving because they don’t have friends, but they will do it.”

The council launched its Young Professionals Network 12 years ago that has grown primarily by word of mouth to include 3,500 people, including a population that’s 65 percent African American, 10 percent Hispanic, 10 percent Asian and 15 percent white.

“When we talked to young professionals and talked to those who were leaving, they were looking for diversity and a place to meet people,” Osborn said. A workplace (especially a small one) can’t do it all, but it can provide opportunities or encourage participation in activities that aren’t strictly work-related, she said. The Young Professionals Network also promotes volunteer opportunities.

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