Keys to Employee Enthusiasm: It’s All About Principles and Purpose

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Jan 23, 2014

By David Sirota and Douglas A. Klein

Make no small plans…for they have not the power to stir men’s blood.” — Niccolo Machiavelli, 1514

The way I see it, leadership does not begin with power but rather with a compelling vision or goal of excellence.” — Frederick W. Smith, CEO, Federal Express

A critical condition for employee enthusiasm is a clear, credible, and inspiring organizational purpose; in effect, it’s a “reason for being” that translates for workers into a “reason for being there.”

This might seem odd when talking about for-profit enterprises — isn’t the idea simply to make a buck, and don’t employees, in turn, understand that and simply want to be paid well?

Well, in fact, no. We humans are not that simple. Not in what we want and not in what we expect from the organizations to which we belong and to which we are asked to give our talent and loyalty.

Elements of pride in one’s company

It is difficult to exaggerate the importance to most people of being part of something they can be proud of and care about. We see this clearly in the way people identify with a nation, an ethnic or racial or religious group, a city, a school, or even a sports team.

Workers start their employment caring a lot about the company. When their caring diminishes, it is largely because of the characteristics of management and the company, not those of the individual. For example, people find it difficult to be loyal to, or feel pride in, organizations that treat employees as little more than costs to be tolerated or reduced, rather than as genuine assets to the business.

It is also difficult to be loyal to an organization that stands for nothing but making money.

Obviously, making money is far from trivial; in fact, the financial achievements of a company can be an important source of pride for its employees. But just as an individual employee derives pride from more than his income (from doing high-quality work, for example), so does pride in an organization depend on more than its profitability.

It all comes down to excellence

Our research reveals a strong correlation between pride in the organization and the overall satisfaction of workers with that organization. We find four main sources of pride, all of which reflect different facets of a single attribute — excellence:

  • Excellence in the organization’s financial performance;
  • Excellence in the efficiency with which the work of the organization gets done;
  • Excellence in the characteristics of the organization’s products, such as their usefulness, distinctiveness, and quality;
  • Excellence in the organization’s moral character.

People want to work for an organization that does well but also does good. Roughly speaking, the first two of the factors listed relate to doing well (working for a business that is profitable and well run), and the latter two relate to doing good (providing something of real value to its customers and conducting its business ethically).

These four aspects of excellence are, of course, interrelated. As we shall show, it is difficult to produce excellent long-term financial results without providing value to customers, or to succeed for long with unethical business practices. But, as determinants of pride, each of the four is distinct and important. Thus, the desires of employees that their company act ethically and produce high-quality products are important in and of themselves, not only because ethical behavior and quality are, in the long run, good for business.

You might be surprised by our assertions about the importance to most people of working for a “good” organization. Our evidence comes from both the statistical analysis of our survey data and from our qualitative material (the write-in questions and the focus groups, where both doing well and doing good receive significant mention).

The positive things employees say …

Indeed, employees want their companies to do very well and a lot of good. Here are a few typical write-in comments from employees in a number of companies. First, positive comments. (These are responses to the question, “What do you like best about working here?”)

  • The commitment to be the best. The folks who run [company] have the money to be the best, and they spend it.”
  • Keep up the good work of making [company] successful. I enjoy working for [company] and want to continue working for the company long term.”
  • “Great product, great strategy, great leadership, great concern for employees, great care for customers, great honesty. Senior management is terrific. We are very lucky.”
  • It is a pleasure working with an executive leadership team that is willing to put actions to their words…gets it done for customers and shareholders. Thanks. It is great to part of the [company].”
  • “I am insanely proud of my work as a [job] for [company] and insanely proud to be here. It is universally recognized as a great company with very high standards and integrity. Most importantly, I grow and learn every day, have a chance to show what I can do and feel I’m contributing to a common good… In fact, I still feel, after several years here, that I would almost pay for the privilege of working for [company]. I couldn’t afford that, really, but you get the idea.”
  • It’s the top of the game, like being on the roster of an organization like the New York Yankees.”

… and the negative things that bother them

Now, some negative comments. (These are responses to the question, “What do you like least about working here?”)

  • As a company, we are not “leaders” in any areas anymore. We no longer strive for innovation or excellence. We do … what “everyone else is doing” yet we say we wish to be “best in class.” You can’t have it that way. The man who leads must break the wind … we sure are becoming mediocre.”
  • We seem to be going out of business with a knee-jerk approach to everything. We talk growth but that’s all it is—talk and no growth. We are throwing out everything that’s not tied down and that includes loyal workers. What happened to the great company that we were?”
  • Top performance is desired and is needed, but top management has done almost everything possible to make it a non-performer. The smallest detail must go to the top for approvals. Having the president determine the transfers within the lower levels of a technical function is incredibly inefficient and it takes forever to get a decision made. Where is the leadership?!”
  • They put up Quality posters all over the walls but the foreman tells you just get the pieces out the door. Nobody believes anything the company says; it’s all baloney. They lie to customers.”
  • “All they want to do is cut costs and people and the work today is sloppier than it has ever been. It’s getting embarrassing to tell people where I work.”

The desire for highly competent management — a real “winner” — will not come as a surprise to most readers, and most agree that employees don’t want to work for clearly unethical management.

Hard to get enthusiastic about mediocrity

But outstanding regarding ethical standards? Outstanding regarding product quality? You bet! Again, read the positive comments to sense the worker pride that comes from corporate excellence and ethics.

Keep in mind that, here, we discuss the determinants of employee enthusiasm, not “contentment” and certainly not just the absence of anger. It is difficult to be enthusiastic about a company whose financial performance is mediocre, but of comparable importance are the questions: how is the business being conducted, and to what ends?

Without good answers to these questions, one’s job and organization tend to become mere means to the achievement of other goals, especially financial. They have no value in themselves and won’t arouse or sustain enthusiasm except in those few people who are motivated by nothing but financial gain.

If you doubt what we say about workers, ask what, in addition to your pay and benefits, you want from your employment?

It’s about principles and purpose

For example, what does it mean to say, “I have done a good day’s work”? Is it not a feeling that you did quality work that day, that your work showed skill, that your work was having a significant, positive impact on the organization or a customer? Furthermore, except for gangsters and other sociopaths, people usually don’t feel good about a day’s work that requires lying, cheating, or stealing.

And people don’t want to work for companies that act that way. People don’t want to produce products of mediocre quality.

In early survey work for U.S. automobile companies, in the late 1970s, workers complained bitterly about the poor quality of the cars produced by their factories. In that period, the workers and their union were often blamed for shoddy U.S. products. However, most workers felt terrible about what they said they were being forced to produce.

Enthusiasm about one’s company requires a company with purpose, especially in relation to its customers. And it requires principles.

Excerpted from The Enthusiastic Employee: How Companies Profit by Giving Workers What They Wantby David Sirota and Douglas Klein. Published by permission of FT Press; August 2013.

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