James was driving along a dark stretch of highway. There is not much more he remembers. He remembers being lifted into the emergency vehicle. He remembers the lights. He wrested his phone from his pocket and managed to hit the right keys. “Len, I think I’ve been in an accident.”
Len is not a family member. Len Schleifer is the president and CEO of Regeneron, a progressive, growing biotechnology company located in Tarrytown, New York. James is a senior manager. He thought of calling Len first because Len would know what to do.
Roland was fishing off the coast of Key West, Florida. When he had not returned by dusk, his family became alarmed. They called Paul. Paul is the CEO of a transportation company in Key West and Roland is one of his employees. Paul also is a licensed pilot and as soon as he heard the news that Roland was missing, he notified authorities and joined the search by air. They found Roland on one of the deserted islands that dot the area. He had abandoned his capsized boat and swum two hours through choppy waters to land.
These are not typical people to call in emergencies. Yet these calls from employees and their families to company executives illustrate the types of relationships we observed within premier organizations. These calls and the quick reactions of executives are typical of people who trust and care deeply for one another.
Most of us have gone through half our working lives believing that close relationships of the sort depicted in these accounts are impossible within organizations; we think it best to keep work relationships, especially those that traverse grade levels, businesslike or at arm’s length. We refrain from revealing too much that is personal, or counting on one another beyond basic courtesies. Our impulses tell us not to get too close for fear our social and business affairs will become enmeshed and complicate our lives. We worry that our feelings may interfere with the icy reasoning that is presumed needed for effective decision-making.
All of this is a business fable that promotes an untruth. Yes, close relationships sometimes crumble, badly. However, relationships that embody loving concern and compassion are more pleasurable, mutually beneficial, and durable than those that are missing warm bonds and fellow feeling. Healthy, close relationships make productive social living easier, not harder.
We have no doubts about the kind of organizations employees prefer. Employees will take their chances on companies like Regeneron where people have genuine affection for one another and are able to grow while doing their best work. They prefer organizations where friendly relations and trust prevail. They prefer to be free from the interpersonal turmoil and political intrigue of combative workplaces. Employees, in fact, want to work in companies whose operational premise is kindness.
Bill and I are on a mission. We want to change the way organizations are managed. Given the preponderance of evidence and stockpile of human experiences that indicate what good and bad management look like, we would expect to see more of the former and less of the latter. We do not. In practice, many organizations seem stuck on worn-out theories and antiquated notions of management, and are hesitant to embrace truer, more invigorating forms of organization. Companies remain too accommodating of managerial abominations who take them perilously close to new-age sweatshops. Without changes in our attitudes toward the way people should conduct themselves and relate to others in the workplace, our fear is that institutions will linger in an aged form, and on the wrong side of history, longer.
When it comes to people, companies seem out of step. Despite the known value of leadership in improving employee welfare and productivity, most of the glory for gains in corporate productivity are attributed to capital improvements, financial maneuvers, and technological advances. We credit the efficiencies of new machines, the facility of intelligent systems, the advances of momentous innovations, and the accretion of smart investments for corporate progressiveness. In contrast, we attend too little to our management practices, which, sans soot and grime, remain archaically mired in an age of “dark satanic mills” (as decried by William Blake).
Unvarnished capitalism seems well past its prime. But we do not need a new economic system; we need a variation on a theme that is more just and responsive to the human condition. We need more talk about quality of life alongside GDP, productivity, cost containment, and jobs, for better financial results do not ensure better lives.1 To enhance human welfare, we will need institutions that are prepared to refute an ethos of selfishness and survival and boldly embrace corporate communities that are more receptive to human virtues.
As we were writing this book, many people wanted to know the secret of exemplary companies that perform and grow while creating humanizing cultures. Although each company contains mystery ingredients particular to its success, all companies have one ingredient in common that rises above the others. Every reader of this book can wager a guess as to what that is—and win. It is perceptive, inspirational leadership. This revelation may disappoint since it is a cliché; however, it also should comfort since it confirms what is known to be true: companies absorb and personify the values and attitudes of their leaders.2 We need great leaders to show the way.
The corporate founders we spoke with built their companies with people in mind. They coupled a market idea with a workplace where people could thrive. They created places where a healthy culture is as important as a healthy balance sheet.3 These founders’ goals are to provide the organizational nutrients analogous to soil, air, water, and sun that allow people to develop their capabilities and to flourish.4 Their goal is to fulfill human potential.
If the goal of organizations is to keep employees psychologically well nourished, the prognosis is not good. Only 20 percent of the adult population describe themselves as flourishing, defined as mentally healthy. The World Health Organization describes mental health as a state where people are able to realize their capabilities, tolerate normal daily stresses, work productively and beneficially, and contribute to their communities.5 Business has plenty of opportunity to transform the workplace and contribute to the well-being of millions of people.
1. Jiang K, Lepak DP, Hu J, Baer JC. 2012. How does human resource management influence organizational outcomes? A meta-analytic investigation of mediating mechanisms. Academy of Management Journal 55(6): 1264–94.
2. Ryff CD, Singer BH. 2013. Know thyself and become what you are: A eudaimonic approach to psychological well-being. In Delle Fave A, ed., The Exploration of Happiness: Present and Future Perspectives, 97–116. Happiness Studies Book Series. New York: Springer.
3. Ryff CD. 2018. Well-being with soul: Science in pursuit of human potential. Perspectives on Psychological Science 13(2): 242–48.
4. Deci EL, Olafsen AH, Ryan RM. 2017. Self-Determination theory in work organizations: The state of a science. Annual Review of Organizational Psychology and Organizational Behavior 4: 19–43.
5. Seligman MEP. 2011. Flourish: A Visionary New Understanding of Happiness and Well-Being. New York: Free Press.