Roger Martin began an interesting series of blog posts on Harvard Business Publishing this week.  In the first, he explains that all human beings seek happiness in a sense of community, and that the three components of that sense of community are: 1.  We are a valued member of  2.  a community that we value, and 3. that is valued by members outside the community.  Happiness depends on how many legs of the triad we can check off; Al Qaeda members, for example, are only medium happy because while they are valued by a community that they value, the rest of the world thinks they should be jailed or executed.   Business executives seek the same sort of happiness, and in the 50’s and 60’sthey were able to find it in the companies they worked for because of the role these companies often played in serving local or national goals, providing great products and great jobs, and the sense of civic duty that was more common in the WWII era.  Now, however, a company’s only goal is to maximize shareholder value, and this creates inauthenticity in that it asks the company to serve the needs of a faceless, nameless group of people whose goals are short-term and insubstantial, and to do so by manipulating numbers and financial reports. 

Executives long for that sense of community whether it is authentic or not, Martin says, so they “drink the coolaid of shareholder value” and try to content themselves with what they can get. 

If we think about this in a modern-day leadership context there is no shortage of spectacular examples; I’ll lump them all together and label them “Enron”.  What I find even more interesting, however, is to consider the question of whether this helps explain the rise of the team concept in the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s.  If managers could no longer find an authentic sense of community in their membership in the larger organization, it makes sense that they would have sought it in smaller groups organized around mission, vision, values and goals, and thus hierarchical organizational structures would begin to flatten and matrix themselves increasingly.

This reinforces a sense that I’ve always had that if you want your employees to be happy, you must find a way to give them a sense of belonging to a community.  Zappos gets this, with their four-pronged definition of employee happiness: perceived progress, perceived control, meaningful relationships and connection to a larger vision.  If you can no longer create these elements in relation to a company’s broader mission (because that mission is merely to increase shareholder value), you must create it in the smaller context of teamwork.  You must build teams that give your employees a sense of connectedness with each other and alignment with an organizational goal that feels authentic.  Money, benefits and perks cannot replace this; employees might stick around for these, but they won’t pour their heart and soul into the work for them.

In the secondof Martin’s posts, he goes on to explore the demons who played a role in the rise of shareholder value: business schools who taught the new credo, Wall Street bankers and analysts who recognized and incentivized it, consultants who advised companies on strategies to get there, and the financial press who looked for the story in all this.  It will be interesting to see where Martin’s next post goes exploring; the question in my mind is, what’s a soul-less, community-starved, modern day executive to do?

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