What factors make an organization effective? An obsession with quality? A great business plan? A well thought out strategic plan? Yes, these factors matter but recent research indicates that companies that motivate employees to unselfishly help each other can be more effective.
Adam Grant, author of “Give and Take”, writes in the April issue of McKinsey Quarterly about the value of cultivating a “giver culture” in your organization. The word ‘culture’ itself can be confusing. It can mean something quite different depending on who you ask. Generally speaking, culture suggests a group’s values, beliefs, and practices.
In terms of organizations, culture amounts to the statement “this is how we do things around here.” There has been a great deal written and spoken about organizational culture over the past few decades, but many managers only have an abstract understanding of what organizational culture means and often fail to grasp the practical implications of organizational culture (i.e. what it’s like for the average employee).
Organizational culture reflects organizational values. These values are espoused, attributed, shared, and aspired. (Bourne & Jenkins, 2013). For brevity’s sake, let’s focus on the distinction between espoused and attributed values. Espoused values are what top management says, and attributed values are what the employees actually say about the company. It doesn’t matter if you have a principled, poetic mission statement if you are not backing up such lovely words with action. People judge you by your actions, not your good intentions.
In the McKinsey Quarterly article, Grant cites a study conducted by Harvard psychologists on the effectiveness of U.S. intelligence units. The highest-performing teams of intelligence analysts displayed clear helping behavior, like coaching, teaching, and consulting with each other. Meanwhile, low-performing teams exchanged relatively little help. Other studies confirm the idea that the single strongest indicator of group effectiveness is the amount of help that group members give each other.
“Giver” cultures support the effectiveness of an organization because employees are part of a team that solves problems collaboratively. Problems get a fresh set of eyes. When people give and add value without asking anything in return, the organization is richer. Employees feel supported and are more likely to seek out the help or advice of co-workers, which catches errors before they happen.
“Taker” cultures are characterized by employees trying to take what they can and give as little as possible. The cutthroat environment of a taker culture discourages employees from sharing information and helping each other, which slows productivity and inhibits morale. When employees are competitors, rather than teammates, their personal priorities supersede organizational goals.
You may be thinking, but isn’t a little healthy competition good? Don’t we want to incentivize our workers? In “Drive”, author Daniel Pink says that while extrinsic rewards can be effective for some routine tasks, they can actually decrease performance when it comes to more conceptual work characteristic of the new millennium. In his words, “Carrots and sticks are so last century.” Collaboration and cooperation harness the natural energy and talent of employees.
So how can an organization foster a “giver culture”? The article McKinsey Quarterly suggests such strategies as having a peer recognition system, where employees can reward each other for being helpful. Many companies are beginning to have peer-bonus programs where employees can nominate co-workers for small bonuses or recognition for helping behavior. Daniel Pink specifically mentions Kimley-Horn and Associates, a civil engineering firm in North Carolina which uses a reward system where anyone can give a $50 bonus to a co-worker.
Grant’s article in McKinsey Quarterly also offers the common-sense approach of being mindful about the kind of people you hire. In other words, make sure to screen out potential employees who display “taker” behavior. Grant cites a study done by researchers (Arijit Chatterjee and Donald Hambrick) which found that takers use words like “I” and “me” rather than “us” and “we”. Words matter. Other “taker” behavior includes being charming with the boss but quite different with coworkers and subordinates and other obvious behavioral traits like badmouthing coworkers.
Organizational culture starts at the top. If managers and executives are not modeling “giver” behavior, this provides little incentive for employees to do so. Leaders need to embrace a mindset that acknowledges and celebrates our interconnectedness. Kinship and reciprocity are important human values that can be harnessed to improve not only work environments for employees, but better company outcomes, as well.
John Bradley Jackson
Director, Center for Entrepreneurship
- Bourne, Humphrey, and Jenkins, Mark. Organizational Values: A Dynamic Perspective. Organization Studies 34(4) 495-514
- Grant, Adam. “Givers take all: The hidden dimension of corporate culture.” McKinsey Quarterly, April 2013.
- Pink, Daniel (2009). Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us. The Penguin Group (USA) Inc: New York.