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Monday, September 21, 2015

Work Fun Balance

Recently, the New York Times published an article about the competitive work culture at Amazon and how Jeff Bezos, the president was pushing people to work long and hard in the pursuit of excellence and innovation. Nobody can deny the success that Amazon has had in online retail innovation. Their list of firsts is unchallenged in the industry. Many acknowledge that they single-handedly put the largest book seller, Borders, out of business.

The NYT article quoted former employees who spoke of broken home lives and grueling joyless work days. Is this a case of the ends justifying the means? Can the success of the company be attributed at least in part to this work culture? Or, is their success in spite of it? Since we can only travel on one path in life, it’s hard to say.

Companies like Google, Apple, Facebook and Amazon have some inherent advantages, not the least of which is their first mover status. They have been very successful at recruiting the best and brightest from universities. As a small businessperson, I have not enjoyed these benefits. Yet, I must attract the best people available and get the most out of them.

Back in the slavery days, a simple whipping was all that was necessary to motivate the “staff.” The threat of “no food” was almost as effective. Unfortunately for modern managers, indentured servitude and corporal “motivation” are no longer an option (although EDS did try a form of indenturing with their mandatory personal loan co-sign technique). Nowadays, it’s all carrots and no sticks.

Don’t get me wrong, I love carrots. Heck, by the time you get to the stick the situation is usually unsalvageable anyway. In Daniel Pink’s Drive, he discusses how studies have shown that carrots (extrinsic rewards for the technically minded) can have the opposite effect on workers who must engage their creativity and judgment in the line of duty (i.e. white collar workers).

In my experience, the smaller the reward, the better. I used to keep some $25 gift cards in my desk. I liked to hand them out randomly when I caught someone doing something extraordinary. People always seemed so appreciative. Far more than when their bonus was direct-deposited into their bank account. It seems that rewarding specific behavior spontaneously and on-the-spot means more to people.

More than carrots, the culture can be the biggest motivator. Sometimes I really needed people to work longer hours. The best way I’ve found to do that is to create a fun environment. That means flattening the organization -- and not just in name only. It means removing fear from relationships. I encourage what I call “healthy disrespect.” I’ve had employees come to me and ask me “why do you let that guy talk to you like that? He works for you.” I need to explain to them that I work for that guy as much as he works for me.

If I alienate him, he might not feel free to tell me what’s on his mind. I can’t do my job to guide the company if I don’t know how people are feeling and what is troubling them. Keeping the lines of communication open means removing fear from the relationship and that’s not easy. We’ve all been programmed to fear “the boss.” Bosses hold the keys to our professional future in their hands. We think that if we tell them something they don’t like, especially about their own bad behavior, the repercussions will not be good for us. It takes a lot of work to convince people that they have nothing to fear; that if they’re doing a good job, they can say whatever they want (within accepted social bounds) with no negative consequences.

Building that sort of trust in an organization has many dividends. People will work harder. They will care more. Most importantly the honesty surfaces issues quicker and suppresses bad ideas equally fast. The thing about balancing the joy of a great working environment with the work is that it emerges naturally. Any attempt to modulate it will be disruptive. As a matter of fact, I have been known to be the head joker. Sometimes people get a little too serious. So, my business advice for today is from the immortal words of Sgt Hulka in the movie Stripes, “lighten up, Francis!” You’ll live longer and have more fun in the process.

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