Esther Derby: Author of 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change: Micro Shifts, Macro Results. President of Esther Derby Associates, Inc.
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How can we create workplaces where every voice matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
The very first thing is to get out of the extractive mindset. A lot of our business education and a lot of our systems really aim at extracting maximum labor from people.
That's the first thing to address because anything else we do, as long as extraction is the underlying principle, will not get very far.
It's curious because all the research that I've come across indicates that when people feel respected and valued, they find some meaning, they are actually more likely to contribute discretionary effort.
This whole idea that we have to push people, and if they're idle, they're wasting our money, is counter to what people actually want to achieve: having engaged people who want to work there.
And that said, there are some people for whom a job is a way to support the other things they care about. I don't think that for everyone, we can make work meaningful in and of itself. There are people who, you know, their job supports them for the rest of their life. And that's okay.
What does it take to get an employee's full attention and best performance?
Respect. That's my one-word answer. It really does come down to respect and interest in that person as a human and connecting the employees with why their work is important. And that seldom has to do with shareholder return, being number one in the industry, meeting some financial target, or the CEO getting his bonus.
It seldom has to do those things, which seems obvious when you say it, but those are very often held out as the things that will motivate people, like some financial target or some date, and what engages people is doing something that matters.
That might be solving a really challenging technical problem. It might be making a difference in someone's life. It might be, you know, solving some problem that people have. But I think respecting people and then connecting them to the meaning of their work is what really makes the difference.
What do people really lack and long for at work?
It varies from person to person. The themes I encounter when talking to many people are that they want respect.
They want somebody to pay attention to the system and remove obstacles because, for so many people, just getting anything done is an everyday ordeal.
That may not be a physical ordeal, but so many hoops to jump through and so many processes that don't work together and so many of this and that, and going back to the idea of extraction, I think many managers focus on individual work rather than focusing on how work flows through the system. I would love it if managers paid more attention to the system, which is not something they're incentivized for in most cases.
And they want work where they have some autonomy and where they can feel important, and where they can feel related to other people. It's the old self-determination theory.
What is the most important question leaders can ask employees?
That's a very difficult question because I think it depends a lot on what's going on.
The most important question is, what should I ask you?
I draw this little picture sometimes where there's a diamond on the top, and then there's a diamond on the bottom and a little overlap at the tips. The top one represents a kind of contextual knowledge about the company, why we're in the business we're in and our customers, and how we make money. The bottom one represents how day-to-day work gets done and the front line. And the overlap is often very small. So that leads to a lot of assumptions on both parts and a lot of mistrust on both parts.
When I was a Dev manager and a financial services team, I remember talking to a VP who said, well, why can't we just tell the computer what we wanted to do? This was in the age of green screens and mainframes. He was 30 years ahead of his time, perhaps. But, you know, he was asking a question that you didn't show much understanding of what the capabilities were. I met other managers or leaders, senior leaders who couldn't understand why something was taking long. It's just a database or something like that, but it was very complex.
And on the other hand, I remember talking to a developer struggling to implement some functionality around a certain type of trade. And she said this is going to take a long time. This is going to take me half a year to get this done. We should just tell them to stop trading, which showed that she didn't understand what was going on.
So it happens on both sides. It wasn't because she was stupid. She was a very bright person, as were the leaders who asked those questions, but they lacked knowledge about what the other part of the company did. So I think about that little diamond, the overlap of those two triangles, and making that diamond bigger.
What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
That's another tough question, even though I've had time to consider it. I don't have a ready answer because it depends on the situation, maybe what keeps you up at night. After all, that would give some indication of what the concerns are, and then you can ask more questions.
What is the most important question we can ask ourselves?
What brings me joy? People often do things out of expectation or because that's always been the assumption. I would do this, or I would do that. We need to focus more on what brings us joy.
You've written an insightful book I enjoyed reading titled 7 Rules for Positive Productive Change. Why did you write this book?
What motivates me to keep working is I want to make workplaces more humane. I realize this is not work that will be completed in my lifetime, but I will do the work, and someone else will carry on after. But that's really what drives me. So I want to make work more humane.
This specific book came from years of watching change projects not work very well. The things I tried that did work better. Earlier were talking about a change project you were involved in where it was turned over to people, and they had no motivation to do it, so they weren't working on it. I've also seen projects that didn't go very well in corporate settings.
I remember one with a history of projects not meeting their budgets and deadlines. They were fantasy. Nonetheless, the leaders decided that they would implement a new methodology, and the methodology would solve other problems. Of course, this was rather naive. But anyway, they implemented the methodology, and one of the vice presidents gave a big pep talk about how it was now business as usual.
And I looked around and said, nothing has really changed. So it is business as usual because the underlying system was still there. This is the system with all of the things contributing to the things being late, and they slap this method on top of it. Of course, the patterns reasserted themselves.