Why Today’s Businesses Must Become “Enlightened Organizations”

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Jul 23, 2014

Call it a combination of ohhhhm and aha!

Those simple, powerful sounds sum up what my colleagues and I think is crucial for organizations when it comes to talent these days.

That is, companies need to be “Enlightened Organizations” in order to be great workplaces and to be successful.

We mean “Enlightened” in both the Eastern and Western senses of the term. Eastern in the sense of principles of wisdom, kindness and harmony. Western in the sense of the Age of Enlightenment, and its concepts of scientific inquiry, progress and analysis.

Why the “Enlightened” concept fits today

The Enlightened Organization blends the best of global traditions. It is hungry for data and high performance but balances these goals against the need to treat employees and all stakeholders humanely, to put people at the same level, if not above, profits.

Why does this concept fit now? Why is it vital? There are several reasons:

  • Imbalance — The “employment deal” in the West especially has been out of balance in recent decades in favor of employers. And this skewed arrangement — of transactional relationships, of shifting risk to workers and little job security — has profited employers. But it isn’t sustainable as business value comes increasingly from intangible, human assets. The deal is tipping back to a reciprocal one at Enlightened Organizations.
  • Evidence — The data is in that high-trust workplaces outperform peers. That caring for your people allows you to crush the competition. Enlightened Organizations see this evidence and the wisdom of creating a great workplace culture.
  • Big Data — The emerging big data push around people promises higher performance for companies. But it threatens to obliterate privacy for employees. For a scary vision of how this could transpire, check out the recent novel The Circle. The desire for data (Western tradition) must be tempered by the need for harmony and boundaries (Eastern tradition).
  • Transparency — If companies don’t strike this balance around probing and privacy, they will be exposed. Because we live in an age of growing transparency into organizations. Until now, the employee experience at a business has been perhaps the part most shrouded in secrecy. But LinkedIn, YouTube, Twitter and other tools are pulling the curtain back on what workplace cultures really are like. Enlightened Organizations welcome the sunlight of transparency — it allows them to shine all the more brightly.
  • Expectations –The exposure of crummy cultures wouldn’t matter so much if people expected little out of their jobs. But in fact expectations around work are rising. Millennials especially are no longer thankful just to have a job — they want meaning and a work-life balance. In fact, people of all ages are fed up with the heightened job burdens and stress of recent years. Well-being is the watch word. Enlightened Organizations are the perfect fit.

Too unrealistic for the hard-edged business world?

We could add another factor: the growing importance of attracting and retaining the best talent — and, therefore, the significance of a great employer brand.

Here again, Enlightened Organization are at an advantage. They understand that trying to “spin” the truth about what it’s like to work at a company no longer works in an age of transparency, when people expect to make decisions based on hard data.

As experts like Todd Wheatland have argued, the employer brand these days must be grounded in the actual experience of employees. Ideally told through their voices.

I imagine some readers are shaking their heads, thinking “enlightenment” is elitist or unrealistic or too soft-headed in a hard-edged business world.

I may have thought so a few years ago as well. But in my role studying top workplaces at Great Place to Work and reviewing companies at Great Rated, I’m convinced otherwise.

“Companies of the dark” likely to wither

I see employers of all sizes, industries and geographies taking on the contours of the Enlightened Organization. And the cold facts around public demand and business performance all point towards the need to establish a warm, people-oriented workplace culture.

In other words, enlightened organizations are those that will thrive in the years ahead. What you might call “companies of the dark” — firms that treat people indifferently, callously or even abusively and could hide their operations in a pre-transparent time — are likely to wither.

It’s a global age. And firms today would do well to learn from the best of all its traditions. Just remember: ohhhhm and aha!

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