Which question are you more inclined to ask as a manager:
How can I create a workplace where people thrive?
How can I get people to ensure my organization thrives and its goals are met?
The distinction between these two questions may signal whether you’re viewing your organization more as a living organism or as a bureaucratic machine. And according to a recent white paper by consulting powerhouse McKinsey & Company, the latter view — the “old paradigm” — cannot long endure in today’s fast-changing, competitive economy.1
Long before McKinsey recognized the major paradigm shift in how organizations are viewed, however, Darden School of Business Professor Joseph Harder and his collaborator Peter Robertson (a professor at the Sol Price School of Public Policy at the University of Southern California) were onto the new paradigm — and teaching MBA students accordingly. In fact, they’ve been talking about how to make organizations great ever since meeting in graduate school in 1984.
“We posit that the mechanistic bureaucratic model of organization is being replaced by a new form of organization that reflects the characteristics of a living being,” Harder, Robertson and Hayden Woodward wrote in 2004.2 The authors went on to discuss the need for organizations to “become more flexible, adaptive and innovative” — that is, agile (to use McKinsey’s term).
That 2004 paper captured the philosophy behind a course Harder and Robertson began offering in 2000, called “Spirit of the New Workplace.” The course built on ideas of forward-thinking leaders such as Stanford University’s Jeffrey Pfeffer — Harder’s Ph.D. adviser, a member of Robertson’s dissertation committee, and author of The Human Equation: Building Profits by Putting People First.
Now in its 19th year, the class continues to be in high demand. But “Spirit of the New Workplace” is much more than a Second Year elective; it’s an ideal, a framework for approaching the workplace.
“Spirit of the New Workplace” centers around the philosophy that a company is more like a living organism than a machine — and thus its culture should be “humanizing” rather than dehumanizing, inspiring innovation rather than dread.
Here are three ways a company resembles a living organism, with examples of how real organizations have embraced these traits in practice.3
- Interconnected: The whole is greater than the sum of its parts. Just as every part of a body matters and is both distinct and interdependent, laborers are best viewed and treated as members, each critical to the organization and its purpose. Transparency, information sharing, fair wages and equitable reward systems should be valued.
Example: Hilton was recently recognized for its workplace culture of treating all its employees with the same hospitality shown to hotel guests in terms of perks and amenities.4
- Self-organizing: Members thrive when able to self-manage and self-regulate (think flexible work schedules) and when they’re able to influence decisions that will affect them. Consensus and democracy are therefore preferable (in general) to hierarchical, autocratic-type decision processes.
Example: Zappos.com took this idea to the extreme when CEO Tony Hsieh famously eliminated traditional manager roles in an attempt to become a holacracy, in which organizational governance is decentralized and a good degree of autonomy is given to teams and individuals. Some of the company’s culture-driven practices have succeeded, such as offering several thousand dollars to candidates to leave after orientation and exposure to the company culture. Those who stay are committed and suited to the environment.5
- Coevolutionary: Organizations, like animals and people, need to be able to evolve and adapt to a changing environment.
Example: Netflix quickly pivoted from a DVD-rental to a video-streaming service while maintaining a strong culture with an underlying value of putting people first.6
Implications for Practice
Moving from a more mechanistic approach to a “living organism” approach to management can be difficult, if not downright scary. Plus, culture change can take time, sometimes years, and productivity and profits can’t be paused in the meantime.
The good news is, you don’t need to go out and fire all your bosses (or something similarly drastic) . . . at least not yet!
Step 1: Start With Yourself
Harder suggests beginning at the individual level — which is where he starts with his students. Do an “energy audit,” examining yourself holistically: mind, body, heart and soul.
- Are you drained or refreshed coming to work each day?
- Do you have a sense of larger purpose in your work, or are you going through the motions — “dying for a paycheck” (as Pfeffer puts it in his book by the same title)?
- On the physical side, are you getting enough rest, exercising, eating healthily, coping adequately with stress and maintaining a healthy work-life balance?
Once you’ve done your audit, consider these two tips:
- Fun is allowed. One of Harder’s former students noted that one of the most valuable lessons she learned in the “Spirit of the New Workplace” course was that work doesn’t have to be miserable. Fun and work are not mutually exclusive, as another student put it. From finding a fresh setting for your weekly team meeting every now and then to introducing some humor or creativity into the project you’re working on, infusing little sparks of “play” into work can go a long way. Importantly, they also remind you and your colleagues that you’re whole people, not cogs in a machine.
- Personal well-being matters. Mindfulness and health are often discussed in the context of individual well-being, but they also have an impact on your relationships and the entire organization. Whether it’s a midday yoga session or mindfulness exercise or establishing better personal habits of rest and leisure outside of work, the effect on your workday may be indirect, but it will be tangible.
Step 2: Look for These 7 Keys to a Strong Workplace Culture
Once you’ve tended to your personal well-being, check for the following key features of the ideal “living system” in your own organizational culture.
- Purpose: Do members come to work with a sense of collective and individual reason for being there (not just for doing tasks)?
- Design: Is there a strong culture based on shared mission and values, with minimal hierarchy and maximum autonomy among “self-organizing cells”?
- Governance: Do inclusiveness, open participation and consensus mark the decision-making process?
- Membership: Is there respect and a sense of mutuality among all members of your organization?
- Leadership: Are your fellow managers/leaders facilitative or controlling? Do they serve or wield power in an autocratic manner?
- Rewards: Are rewards distributed equally based on 360-degree performance evaluations or reserved disproportionately for those at the top?
- Learning: Is there a spirit of continuous improvement and innovation? Is there regular reflection on your processes — and a willingness to “flex” if needed?
While much more could be said about each of these features, the bottom line is that we’re well into a new era in the history of organizations. No longer does the old, bureaucratic-machine paradigm work. For your workplace and its people to thrive, the “cells” of your company — its people — must come first. The health of the entire organization will follow.
- 1. Wouter Aghina, Aaron De Smet, Gerald Lackey, Michael Lurie, and Monica Murarka, “The Five Trademarks of Agile Organizations,” McKinsey & Company, January 2018 report, https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/the-five-trademarks-of-agile-organizations.
- 2. Joseph Harder, Peter J. Robertson, and Haden Woodward, “The Spirit of the New Workplace: Breathing Life Into Organizations,” Organization Development Journal, 22(2), summer 2004, 79–103.
- 3. These three characteristics are developed more fully in Harder, Robertson, and Woodward (2004).
- 4. For more, see “Hospitality for All,” from Great Places to Work, https://www.greatplacetowork.com/resources/reports/hospitality-for-all.
- 5. Aytekin Tank, “The Power of Culture: How to Hire and Attract Amazing People,” Yahoo News, March 19, 2019, https://sg.news.yahoo.com/power-culture-hire-attract-amazing-people-052750548.html.
- 6. Andrea Huspeni, “6 Things You Need to Know About How Netflix Built Its Powerful Culture,” Entrepreneur, June 29, 2017, https://www.entrepreneur.com/article/296209.