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How Like Becomes Love

David Kippen | OCTOBER 12, 2013

Enough paper clips. Permission to use the copier. A “higher-up” you can actually talk to. Sometimes, the biggest problems can be solved by addressing the smallest things.

I’ve had the good fortune, during my years of market research, to meet with employees from many of the world’s most respected companies, best-loved brands and producers of things that make modern life modern. Because it’s what we do at Evviva, I’ve also had the opportunity to walk a mile in their shoes, seeing the disconnect between the customer and the employee experience first-hand.

In almost every case, the organization that’s hired me has hired me for one of two reasons: “To tell our untold story” or “To help us diagnose what’s broken and fix it.” And in almost every case, in almost every employee interaction for virtually every company I’ve supported, I’ve observed the same two things.

The first is an optimistic observation. Most people show up to work wanting to do a good job. And many of them want to do much, much more. The second isn’t optimistic at all. Most operations in most locations in most organizations don’t seem to believe this. They often start from the same premise—that management means counting paper clips and setting permissions to the lowest common denominator—and problems flow from there.

So managers become “higher-ups” who exercise their unquestioned power by making arbitrary decisions about day-to-day activities they often don’t fully understand. And workers become disenfranchised. No longer inclined to give their all, they give what’s requested on their job description. What could be love becomes like. And the sort of explosive growth that made these companies worth knowing about in the first place becomes a thing of the past.

But here’s the thing: in the juxtaposition of these facts is actually a wonderful opportunity. Confucius observed that, “It’s not the mountain before you but the pebble in your shoe that slows your progress.” His point was that we shouldn’t worry so much about mountains. We’ll either climb them or we won’t. We should worry about today, about the small, simple, easy-to-fix things that get in the way of progress.

That keen aphorism applies to organizational management with excellent precision. Rather than legislating whether employees can use color copiers, buy office supplies, wear a certain type of blouse or use social media, organizations should focus on hearing and fixing the small things that make life difficult. Try aligning the start of a shift with the arrival of a bus, even if it means the shift doesn’t end or start on the hour. Listen if women in a distant market say a certain dress makes them uncomfortable and understand that comfort isn’t always about fit.

I could come up with endless examples, but they have a common theme. They represent sensible changes management can easily implement. The changes are simple, but the results are transformative. People feel less like workers and more like people. In learning that their voices can affect the decisions of the business, they find a new confidence in sharing insights that can improve the bottom line. They gradually shift from a mindset of “workers” to a mindset of “owners.”

All because management finally stopped focusing on mountains, and paid attention to the pebbles.

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