by Nick Hixson
It has been proposed that there is a link between well-being and small business success and that link extends beyond the entrepreneur or business owner to the team, although in academic literature the team element appears to have been overlooked. The premise is that small businesses have a better ability to produce well-being in the team than their larger cousins, and that well-being contributes to innovation, sustainability and growth.
Well-being has been defined to include happiness at work, meaning and purpose, and complex mental tasks such as creativity, flexibility, and innovation. All these aspects are highly prized in businesses of any size. However, if we consider the annual Gallup survey, we see that employee engagement is very low and getting worse despite the efforts and expense that larger businesses go to.
The 20th century Fordist economy and the rise of bureaucracies
The economy of the 20th century was shaped by standardisation and the production line. To maintain growth ever more bureaucracy was needed, which created a sort of force field – an external carapace – that enveloped the business. The plethora of internal procedures meant that team members spent most of their time dealing internally. The consequence was that external forces, such as customers, became more of a distraction and annoyance no matter what management said about customer focus, described in this short post, elegantly entitled Arse Time. We all have stories of customers whose wishes were not matched by the bureaucracy of the “machine” such that the customer had to accept what the machine deigned to produce.
Improved creativity and wellbeing through reduced bureaucracy
Psychologically, losses are more real than the prospect of gains, so this encourages bureaucracy as the solution to loss minimisation. But this demotivates people, who are reminded every day that they are perceived more as a threat to the business than an asset.
There has to be a higher trust model if your business is to operate with reduced bureaucracy and higher accountability. Less bureaucracy enables a better working relationship between team members (including management), and a more customer friendly attitude.
Further, team members, being the expert in their tasks, see any issues and opportunities at a granular level that often escapes management, and feel empowered to raise matters quickly and easily. They are also more motivated to fix issues that directly impact them, and also the customers they interact with.
This contributes to a greater sense of job satisfaction and well-being.
Small business approach
This is very much a small business approach. Small businesses are closer to customers, suppliers and other stakeholders because there are fewer layers of management. Entrepreneurs and their teams are clearer as to the consequences of their actions on third parties. This leads to more a transparent and customer focused approach, and teams, freed of bureaucracy, are able to make decisions which directly impact people, whether customers, other team members, or other stakeholders, so they are seen to be responsible and accountable for their actions. This of itself produces more meaning for the individual team member.
Objectives and goals (personal vs business)
Still there is a disconnect. In most of the literature and in practice the only objectives and goals that are mentioned are business- centred. Case studies are based on larger businesses, even well-known ones such as Morningstar, which has a culture where any individual is enabled to make capital expenditure suggestions, or process improvements. This study talks almost exclusively about corporate goals and not personal ones. The employee engagement strategies adopted by larger businesses also focus exclusively on corporate goals but fail to realise that work is part of an individual’s life and only fulfils some of their personal goals. No one has ever or will ever go to work to fulfil a corporate objective! Yet personal objectives are seldom discussed or integrated into business.
Moving from what should happen to how it might
In my practice, we spend considerable time with entrepreneurs to ensure that their personal and business objectives are congruent and remain so. We have a framework for discussing strategy that ensures individuals’ needs are properly explored and incorporated into the overall strategic plan. The first element is a discussion to determine the entrepreneurs personal goals and objectives. By that I mean their life goals and objectives, not exclusively their business ones. They soon come to the realisation that business objectives are merely a subset of their personal ones. This is the disconnect so well illustrated by the Gallup results. Our experience is that it is detrimental to the individual if their business and personal goals do not remain congruent. Maintaining that healthy balance is critical.
Congruence and growth
When there is congruence, growth tends to happen naturally and organically. We have had significant success in helping businesses grow where the owners have maintained this alignment. Entrepreneurs naturally reflect this attitude towards personal objectives in their dealings with their team. Business owners come to realise that what is good for them is good for others too. We have a team objectives tool in beta version which is designed to help the individuals discover their personal objectives and how they fit with the business.
In our studies, there is empirical evidence that improved communications in this way leads to better results, be that team retention, customer retention, innovations or profits, although causal measurements have eluded us. Indeed, I wonder if the mantra “if you can’t measure it you can’t manage it” has led to simplistic measurements based on what can be measured, rather than what should be measured. This may lose a more nuanced view of the overall context of the organisation and its place in society, as part of an ecosystem with customers, suppliers, team and other stakeholders. We accept that humans are complex organisms; perhaps it time to accept that our businesses, comprised as they are of people, are organisms too, incapable of strict measurement at every level, but still detectable.
The wellness of the individuals, being the community of the business, become the wellness of the business. Instead of a top down bureaucracy, we need to look for management to enable individuals to flourish.
Judgement work is the new Knowledge work
Enabling is the new Management
Serving is the new Leadership