Plenty of people will tell you that Sartre had something else entirely in mind with this brief quotation. Whilst they may be right about Sartre’s intent, I do think he’s unintentionally hit on something we aren’t too comfortable with discussing when it comes to the world of work. Taken on average, people are pretty rubbish. One dichotomy in business is that every ounce of value in your organisation is entirely down to people. Even in businesses where the people calling the shots are notoriously bad at treating the other people in the business well. There are some hugely successful companies out there with people stories that make some of the more outré comments on Glassdoor look like glowing praise by comparison. Big retailers lose millions every year in what is quaintly referred to as “shrinkage” but is better known to most of us as “staff nicking stuff” and the worse people treat other people, the more gets nicked.
We don’t need a book from Pink or a speech by Welch or the latest tranche of neurobollocks to know that every shitty thing that ever happened to someone at work was caused by another person and that all the great things that happen at work are down to other folk too. In general, if you’re nice to other people, they’re nice back. Nice might be the biggest taboo in work for the past few decades. We expend millions of column inches in praise of the latest flashy wanker to worship at the temple of Mammon whilst conveniently forgetting that nice is the essential lubricant of our entire society. If we all behaved like the Wolf of Wall Street we’d be in an even bigger mess than we are. The worst CEOs are like Dr. Frankenstein, creating monsters in their own image, locked away in their towers, so preoccupied with whether or not they can that they don’t stop to think if they should. It’s about time the nice guys dusted off the pitchforks and became flaming stakeholders.
But, here’s the other dichotomy. The inert rump of indifference. You’ll have a few bad apples. You can fire them (manage them out). You’ll have your angels. They’ve got discretionary effort coming out of their arses. Every other bugger couldn’t give a flying robot monkey butler about pretty much everything you put in front of them. And frankly that’s their, and your, comfort zone. Since we know that (robotics notwithstanding) every cent you make is down to those humans in all their messy, contradictory, cussed glory, you’ve got to drag everybody, yourself included, through something bloody uncomfortable if you want to derive more value from and for the other people you work with. Your traditional change or transformation approach always involves a bit of pain based simply on the fact that the response of the vast majority will be “Oh, here comes the latest bright idea. Let’s humour them until we can get back to doing what we’ve always done but now with added beanbags.” Most commonly, they aren’t as successful as they might have been. And that is down to a single failing. They don’t aim to change people. They hope to change behaviours. It’s a noble aim but people are rubbish. Giving someone a fussball table while continuing to bully them into working unreasonable hours isn’t going to change anyone’s behaviour. Unless they snap and strike down upon you with great vengeance and furious anger.
Of course, behaving nicely and actually being nice are quite different things (as anyone who has held a children’s party will be able to to tell you). And this is where value and values come in. The values-system that a business operates within is driven primarily by the way that the CEO and other senior leaders are seen to be the embodiment of the values and in the way that trickles down to the actual experience of being at work. The unfortunate truth being that while people might be rubbish, leaders have a tendency to operate on a higher plain of rubbish than us mere mortals. In fact, the very desire to occupy a position of leadership should preclude someone from becoming one in the first place. In business, they can only maintain that position through the work of every single individual and the value they produce. The less they feel valued the less value they’ll produce and the less time you have to enjoy the view from the ivory tower.
The CFO will argue that you can’t measure the value in people, only the cost, but she’ll happily include in the company’s annual report and accounts huge sums under the opaque terms “Intangible assets” and “Goodwill”. Goodwill, eh? Sounds a lot like niceness to me.