Healthy workplace makes us bright

June 30, 2011 § 5 Comments

Imagine that you work in an organization that looses its top position as a result of managerial maneuvers and steeply falls from top to bottom. This has happened at Nokia and at my home Institute; the disruption dimensionalities might differ: we had a national top department that was abolished a few years ago and now we are at the bottom. In addition to this, imagine an ether of mistrust and rumors. This could be totally paranoid imagination and on the other hand not.

How to survive such disastrous environments? The answer is simple: in the middle of the turbulence and confusion, build a healthy work place around your own work, your team, and your immediate organization. Don’t revenge; don’t’ join the circle of destruction; help your young colleagues to continue that healthy building. Trust the self-organizing power of healthy relationships. Why? Because it makes us bright and creative. Because it gives us ears to hear and eyes to see. Because it is healthy, in a very concrete sense.

Two years ago I wrote a short column to a journal “Tekniikan näköalat/Visions of technology” of Tekes (http://www.tekes.fi/en) with a title (in Finnish) “Flames of motivation in enterprises” and offered a checklist for the creation of such positive flames:

  1. Does your organization have a valuable aim such as special quality, innovation, recognition, ethical product or a service or other non-quantifiable aim?
  2. Does the personnel experience that they have been provided with an opportunity to work at the upper limit of their own passionate competence?
  3. Does the personnel feel that they have been provided with the conditions and resources to excel in their work?
  4. Do you follow the “no asshole rule” (cf. Robert Sutton from Stanford) in recruiting the management and other workers?
  5. Are good manners a necessity at your workplace? (cf. Jeffrey Pfeffer, Stanford)
  6. Is the management capable and willing to interfere when misbehavior and unjust behavior occurs?
  7. Do at least 2/3 of the personnel feel that the rewards and salaries are fairly determined?
  8. Do you have time to immerse in other activities besides your core tasks?
  9. Is your organization free from local “politics”

My claim, based on purely subjective, qualitative experiences over the years, is that if you can say “yes” to all of these, then something good is happening or is about to happen. This is difficult to prove but I believe that even a failure in business or other organizational activity  – still having these characteristics – provides better potential and increased probability for success in the future. I also believe that any organization, small or large, that is not able to say yes to these simple items will break up and loose its social and intellectual capital. In an extremely well-educated country like Finland, this “law” of Return Of Investment into Organizational Health is crucial for success. The photo below is a symbolic one: two members of my POEM research group taking photos of the rest of us.

How to get there?

Finland is probably the number one country in talking about how to become the number one country globally. Strange enough, to me it seems that this national discourse is not the cause of our undeniable international success like being the best place to live in (Newsweek), having hosted Nokia with its great history, or having a top quality basic education system (Pisa results). Rather this discourse is a consequence of this success. And many want to join this conversation and enjoy the borrowed light of fame.

No wonder then, that today in Finland, a typical recipe offered for achieving these ambitious goals of the dreams, is to invest in better brains, top-of-the-top scientists, leading businesses and technologies, right substance in education, and top units on any field. We want to buy us on the top. Our journalists and businessmen are eagerly supporting the build-up of this new belief system.

But what is the point here? Something crucial has been totally forgotten, long time ago. It is not about what we do, what is the aim, and who does it but how we do it.

Putting collaboration ethics first

This background on my mind, I was happily surprised when invited to give a talk to young researchers at Aalto University, about my own career as a research leader. After the talk, someone from the audience asked something like “You seem to put an extreme emphasis on the ethics of work, why do you do that and what do you mean?” I realized that I had indeed done that, but had not explained what I mean or why I believe in the importance of high-class ethics at the work place, even more than I believe in the contributions of the “best brains”.

So here is a short beginning of an explanation. It is also an explanation to myself. But the first thing to do to is take at look at the mirror and see if the main problem smiles there as Robert Sutton reminds in his hilarious but serious book “The No Asshole Rule”. Assuming that we have already done that we can think about the value of a healthy workplace.

Here some of my ideas about a healthy work place that I call a “HWOP”.  I’m quite sure that the members of my research group POEM have a lot to say about this, and how well I’m able myself to behave accordingly. Should that indeed happen on some forum, it would reinforce my definition of HWOP: team members can disagree, it is valuable, a source of creativity and it is not a conflict.

  1. We all are different and do apparently the same things but mostly for completely different reasons. People are actors, not parts of processes, not even process owners, and they don’t just follow management’s views and orders, however well formulated and wise they may be. These different individual reasons are the main drivers of what we do and a potential source for innovations that can differentiate us from others. This does not happen without a healthy acceptance of these profound differences. Typically in organizational studies these reasons or behavior drivers remain invisible. In fact. I don’t think that it is ever completely possible to know them, and they remain the individual secrets of life and personal motivation.
  2. By showing real commitment to the work place people deserve uncompromised protection of their intellectual capital. Their value is not in how much they contribute directly or what it is in detail that they produce, the real value is in the genuine commitment.
  3. In the long run, I believe that any ingenious invention, innovation or a deed can become totally worthless, or not worth the cost  if it is produced by unethical means. The reason to this belief is that unethical behavior – mistreating your colleagues, stealing their ideas, preventing them from having merits, keeping silent about research data that is against your own theory, lobbying the decision makers so that you get rid of “difficult” researchers who have different opinions, creates a chain of an unhealthy evolution and an unethical environment. The negative consequences of this become impossible to correct.
  4. I have observed a strange phenomenon that carries over generations: spread of ill-minded critical logic and a will to hurt and oppress people and colleagues intellectually; I have observed this to spread over 2-3 generations without even a direct link like between a student and a supervisor. It is enough that someone powerful in an organization has initiated this negative value system, triggered the chain, and created an atmosphere that is difficult to break because it has ecological power in the organizational race. In scientific environments it is easily misinterpreted as a culture of  “critical thinking”. But it is not a matter of organizational culture but rather a camouflaged destructive power of individuals. We don’t see its real effects immediately, but time can sometimes reveal them.
  5. In 1000 years, which is not a long time in the human knowledge history, the potential harm of unethical behavior overcomes the potential benefits of any individual innovations. So, no misbehaving genius has such a value that it would be wise to let these disastrous powers loose: we may win by tens of years but loose by the hundreds. This is also why it is so difficult to build peace and non-violence; working backwards is strenuous.
  6. I believe that most of the good work in science and in other fields can directly benefit from a HWOP that invites everyone to think, supports trials, facilitates careful work, helps to learn quickly also from mistakes, and rewards from finding alternative directions.
  7. In a HWOP, the results, work for them, and the rewards achieved are shared. This social multiplication is a huge source of energy, joy and commitment. I remember a saying, the source of which I have forgotten, that we are all on a journey together, whatever we do, in business, science, service, building rockets, cleaning floors, on our journey to solve the problem of the Universe. It is a valuable task and we can share everything on the way.
  8. Clever minds move fast and in many directions simultaneously. But they are easily jammed by negative control, paradigm guards, or by narrow definitions of what is a “result”. In a HWOP a result is something that nourishes the colleagues and the environment. The use of these results is another story, but I have not seen organizations where people would not be intellectually engaged and directed towards relevant topics.
  9. A HWOP is curious and keeps eyes open to different directions. It has the capacity of Opportunity perception, a concept that Mark Nelson from Stanford and I have become fond of and inspired by it.
  10. It matters how we talk about ourselves and about our environment. I’ve heard a scientist talk about his “enemies”, by which he meant another research group.  This rhetoric paints our own souls with exactly those colors used to paint our colleagues.
  11. During the times of new communication the home pages tell a lot about the academic and other organizational internal rhetoric. For example, compare the pages of Stanford University (http://www.stanford.edu/) and the University of Helsinki (http://www.helsinki.fi/university/), and you can notice the difference: Stanford site focuses on the contents of science, the whole university, world, and the society, while Helsinki tries to convince the world of its quality by repeating the rhymes like “Bologna process”, ”Quality and Evaluation”, “League of European Research Universities”, “Multidisciplinary research of high international standard” and news about research groups who have done “internationally significant work”.  In the university rankings, UH is somewhere around the position of 100, depending on the rating source and Stanford belongs typically to the top ten.  This is not a healthy sign and diverts people’s interests to superficial issues, local competition, lobbying and pr. It neglects the joy of curiosity and enlightening that every scientist seeks for. Why is this so? I don’t know, but it is part of the chain initiated somewhere.

Finally, how does this make us bright? This is a long story, but I’m sure bright people have seen it already.

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§ 5 Responses to Healthy workplace makes us bright

  • Great post, Göte. Couldn’t agree more.

  • Michael says:

    This was one the longest blog entries that kept me reading until the end. I have only faint memories of the academic world, but it was easy to reflect your words in company life also. Thank you for reminding what is difference between true and empty words.

  • Excellent post. I always try to value good atmosphere. I’d even be willing to get my hands dirty, taken my position would be guaranteed safe (never probably).

    I guess the challenge for some is trying not to take too much selfesteem from considering others inferior to you + being ready blame someone.

    Presupposing blame in character is always destructive. Focus on issues at hand instead.

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