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Eva Sage-Gavin: 20/20 vision on 2020 corporate culture

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Eva Sage-Gavin
HR Leadership columnist Eva Sage-Gavin is a distinguished HR thought leader and former CHRO with more than three decades of broad experience in Fortune 500 global consumer, technology and retail corporations. She currently serves as the senior managing director for Accenture’s global talent & organization consulting practice and as a technology Board Director. She can be emailed at [email protected].

My friends and I issue a wonderful challenge to each other at the beginning of every year. And as we embark on 2020 and a new decade, it feels right to bring it to all of you.

It’s simple, but I believe the most powerful ideas are. We ask ourselves to take stock of where we are healthy in our lives and where we’re not. Then we keep each other accountable for improving upon the areas that need focus, cheering each other on as we go.

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As HR leaders, I invite you to take this challenge but move it beyond your personal lives into your collective employees’ lives. Delve deep beyond the obvious, especially if nothing initially comes to mind. So many times, we inherit or “grow up” in an organizational culture or practice. And, after some time, while we attend to what seem to be more pressing issues, we become inoculated against seeing that certain practices are no longer serving our people or our teams well. For instance, in my previous life as a CHRO, I worked hard to ensure a 24/7 work culture did not become the norm for our people. I tried to protect those most vulnerable to burnout with a culture that respected their lives outside of work–and respected those who often pay the price of burnout, our families.

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Social scientist Dr. Kelly Monahan, one of the colleagues I partner closely with–is wonderful at keeping me honest with this “fresh eyes” exercise. Her recent TEDx talk highlights four key areas where business leaders can infuse the positive–systemically, intentionally–into their cultures in a way that makes their workforce healthier. At a time when nearly half of the workforce (45%) expresses negative attitudes about the future of work, that’s an infusion most of us would welcome.

First, a bit of background. Kelly talks about the tendency by leadership teams to try to “fix the human.” In an age of technology and fast-paced business, we tend to blame humans when things aren’t working as we think they should. But Kelly points out that research actually shows it’s not the humans we need to fix. It’s work culture.

She points to medicine, a field in which practices are updated based on evolving knowledge. In business, she says, we aren’t as good at keeping up with the expanding field of knowledge on how humans work best and thrive. Many organizations still think of our workforces in mechanistic terms. They focus on getting people to work harder and faster. We need to evolve that thinking based on what we now know.

Research shows that four foundational truths can help create a healthier work culture:

  1. People need a sense of stability at work, particularly when it comes to income, working hours and work relationships. Transparency and trust with leaders can help workers not worry if their next paycheck is coming. Reasonable workloads that don’t swing wildly and unexpectedly can eliminate the extreme variability that so many workers say causes them stress at work and at home. And healthy work relationships depend on a culture of mutual respect. I realize these are three very different levers for stability, but all merit a new look as we begin 2020.
  2. No matter our role and responsibilities, we all crave intellectual stimulation. Roughly one-third of us are underemployed. In cultures that still operate on the notion of “butts in seats” from 9 a.m. until 5 p.m. every day, intellectual stimulation may not be the name of the game. Those are also the cultures where our people tend to lack the psychological safety to contribute their diversity of thought. We have to be willing to create new models of collaboration and productivity to unlock the untapped power of employees’ minds. This could represent a deep well of untapped creativity and innovative ideas. 
  3. We all need a sense of dignity at work. So much of our identity is tied to our work, and feeling worthy matters. We’ve found employees who feel they share and contribute to a company’s purpose are more committed and happy–so much so that workers said they’d be willing to forego 23% of their entire future lifetime earnings in order to have a job that was always meaningful. The same study estimated that highly meaningful work could generate an additional $9,078 per worker, per year.
  4. There is no substitute for meaningful connection. We are wired to connect. And, as Kelly said in her TEDx talk, we’ve evolved as a species because of our ability to collaborate. Yet, most of us exist in corporate cultures wired for competition. We live in an era where places like Britain have appointed officials responsible for coming up with innovative solutions to a rising problem–loneliness. As HR leaders, we are in a unique and powerful position to architect a culture of connection. And the data show these strong, positive cultures belong to some of the most innovative companies in the marketplace.

I mentioned at the outset of this article that my friends and I hold each other accountable for honest answers and for progress in the areas we need to focus on for better health. It’s the accountability that keeps us from letting other priorities eclipse our best intentions.

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Let’s commit to looking with fresh eyes at our goals in 2020. So many exciting possibilities for positive change await. And our teams will benefit from reimagined and reshaped cultures of connection in this new decade of possibility.