Companies are the sum of their constituent parts. They must be attuned to the emotions and even the soul of their workforce. That is what organizational health is all about – and every high-level decision either strengthens or weakens it. In these times of fear, despair, and tiredness, are our companies doing what needs to be done to halt the infectious spread of pessimism?
Do companies have feelings? In a way, they do. The emotions of every employee and every collaborator, including clients and providers, combine to make up the heart and soul of a company.
Just like people can be sad, demotivated, or afraid, so can companies. And when companies are in low spirits, this can set off a chain reaction of self-doubt and self-sabotage, because pessimism is contagious.
The title of this article is a reference to Philip K. Dick’s science fiction novel, Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, which was the inspiration for the cult film Blade Runner. Both the book and the movie suggest a future in which robots – or replicants, as they are known in the fictional universe – can have emotions, memories, hopes, and dreams.
In the same spirit, we may ask: are companies proving to have a soul, too?
If nothing else, this pandemic has put every company’s mettle and resilience to the test. At Olivia, from the beginning, employee motivation has been crucial to our continued perseverance. But a company’s sense of commitment – to its employees and to society at large – should not only be strengthened and nourished during times of crisis. In fact, it is even more important to do so in times of relative calm. Which, sadly, is when most companies invest the least in it.
During much of the 20th century, it was believed that companies needed to behave like robots. This was established early on by Henry Ford. A century has passed since then, but plenty of companies are still content with being robotic. It has been surprising to see how many companies, in the midst of a pandemic, have failed to take their employees into account when drawing up their contingency plans. In the same vein, they have also ignored their employees’ wellbeing and private lives.
Charles Handy, a philosopher and an expert in organizational behavior and management, has written: “Organizations have no choice but to reinvent themselves almost every year. To succeed, they will need individuals who delight in the unknown. The wise organization will devote considerable time to identifying and recruiting such people and to ensuring job satisfaction. Preferred organizations will be learning organizations. (…) They will see learning not as a confession of ignorance but as the only way to live.”
Given the above, it follows that a company’s emotions are the sum of its employees’ emotions. And I would add: of its clients’ and providers’ emotions, too.
Let us probe this idea further and consider these questions: Can a company experience emotions? Can it be sad? Can it be anxious? How can we interpret and treat its emotional state? Are sadness, anxiety, and a loosening grip on reality symptoms of an ailing organizational culture?
The danger of infection
When people are sad or anxious, they can seek out pharmacological, psychiatric, or psychological treatment.
But what can a sad or anxious company do? Is there a therapist’s couch they can lie down on? Can you treat organizational anxiety? And if so, should the treatment be companywide or only focus on its executives?
Companies can be afraid – just like people can be sad or unmotivated. And this can set off a chain reaction because negative thoughts are contagious. Self-fulfilling prophecies become the order of the day. “This project will fail, as usual,” turns into the company mantra. Or perhaps: “Our competition always develops better products than us.” We have all worked at companies where coffee breaks and lunch hours turn into spaces to vent, complain, and blow off steam. Such companies always end up in failure. Their employees have no motivation to innovate and change, and no self-confidence to provide constructive feedback.
As an executive, how can I diagnose this situation?
In my experience, there are certain symptoms and telltale signs. To notice them, you have only to stop for a second and observe the people who make up your teams. Are you seeing anyone smile? In meetings, are your teams active – or do they mostly remain silent? Do your employees and collaborators participate only when asked a direct question? Do they ever reach out to leaders and executives with new ideas and off-the-cuff suggestions?
Depending on your answers, you will be able to recognize if the seeds of sadness and anxiety have been planted in your organization. The main culprit behind these emotions is fear. That is: fear to fail, fear to be laid off. And once fear has taken hold of your organization, it is difficult to revert the trend. As Albert Einstein once said, “It is easier to smash an atom than a prejudice.”
Corporate sadness is expensive
Now that we have identified the issue, let us look at the numbers behind it. According to data from the Spanish Institute of Statistics, 40% of workers and over half of employers are suffering from stress. This is why it is important to understand the emotional state of our organization.
And this a worldwide – not just Spanish – phenomenon. In 2013, the European Union put the cost of stress at 617.000 million euros a year. It calculated this by adding up the related costs of absenteeism (272.000 million euros), loss of productivity (242.000 million euros), healthcare (63.000 million euros), and disability benefits (39.000 million euros). Considering how much stress we are all under right now, thanks to the pandemic, these numbers may have skyrocketed. The data is alarming – and it affects our health, our businesses, and our organizational productivity.
There are no magic potions to treat corporate sadness. The first step is to simply recognize that an issue exists, then ask for help. Cultural change, now more than ever, begins and ends with people, who are the true agents of all change.
If treatment comes immediately after a diagnosis, healing will arrive sooner rather than later. In an organizational context, we can consider the following “antidepressants” proposed by Peter Senge:
- Empowerment: Every member of the team should feel like they have a hand in the company’s direction. They should be empowered to approach their tasks with a creative mindset. And for this to happen, they must be allowed to fail.
- Mental models: This is one of the most important topics because it entails a cultural change within the organization. We must foster an environment where our team, our clients, and our providers feel like they are being listened to and that their feedback can lead to action.
- Building a shared vision: Vision is crucial in silencing negative thoughts. That is why our organizational vision must make sense. Employees and collaborators must believe in it. They must feel their organization or department is special. And we must back our vision up with actions. There should be no gap between what we say and what we do.
- Team learning: In the current context, defined by home working and social distancing, the concept of teamwork has taken a hit. We must find new ways to synergize and combine the know-how of our individual employees. In team meetings, everyone should be able to share their point of view. Every idea should be welcome. And to encourage this, we must advance initiatives built around teamwork.
Systematic thinking: Our teams need to know that they are not alone, that they are part of a whole, and that our clients are impacted by every decision we make. Horizontal communication is key. It is perfectly acceptable for employees to identify closely with their departments, but they need to understand that a company is greater than any one department. After all, organizations are only as strong as their weakest link. To encourage horizontal communication, we can organize meetings between teams in different areas of the company. The goal would be to empower cross-sectional teamwork and underscore the fact that every decision must consider the entire organization – not just a part of it.
By Óscar Velasco, Associate Director of OLIVIA Spain