Monday, April 30, 2012

Meetings & Positive Business

Meetings. I think I can count the number of useful pieces of information I have gleaned from meetings in the past year on two hands. That may be generous. I have one meeting a week that I enjoy, but it isn’t because of the quality of information. It is more the way the information is delivered and the general level of amusement I attain through various degrees of banter and facetious remarks regarding the topics at hand.

I think I am pretty lucky that I only have three meetings a week, when some others around here have them almost daily. I could, however, cut two of those meetings out of my week and not really lose anything. I wonder if that couldn’t be said for most people here. The standard ways of communicating information seem to work pretty well. E-mail, telephones and the classic face-to-face conversation accomplish as much. As great as it is to sit around in a multi-departmental group and discuss the calendar, I am literate and know how to access it on the server. A half hour meeting on Monday morning isn’t going to make it any easier.

There are certainly companies that function with few to no meetings at all. People at these companies, (many of which are Results Only Work Environments), are expected to know what they’re doing and how to do it. In the ROWE business, they aren’t even required to show up from 9-5. An employee can arrive whenever, leave whenever. As long as their work gets done, there’s never an issue. Businesses that have taken this route show improved employee performance and have almost no turnover. How can that be, we ask no one in particular, astounded by this revelation and skeptical.

Well, no-one-in-particular replies, it works because the current business paradigm is more outdated than the 6 year old Dell computers downstairs in all the non-creative departments here. The standard business paradigm is to offer incentives and punishments, or, as we like to describe it more simply, carrots and sticks. The problem with that is carrots and sticks, they don’t work. Not unless you’re dealing with extremely linear professions that require little to no creative independent thought. If you’re paying someone to perform mechanical or mathematical functions (see, accounting), then you can certainly pay more someone to work harder and longer crunching numbers. The problem with that is it’s cheaper to pay someone in India to do it then pay an American. We outsourced our manufacturing and now we’re outsourcing our number crunching. (Drive, Daniel Pink).

If you are having a hard time with this concept, try this image on for size: imagine you are on your hands and knees, your boss straddling you with a bundle of cash tied to a string. He convinces you to keep moving forward by always dangling a little more of that cash out of reach. When you get tired and won’t go for the cash anymore, he smacks you with a little riding crop he’s carrying for some reason. How do you feel, imagining this? Belittled? Patronized? Insulted, perhaps? It’s a pretty offensive idea, and that’s how a lot of companies work.

On the other hand, businesses like those who operate on the ROWE system, their boss stands on his own two feet and helps the employee to his. Then the boss hands the employee that wad of cash, a task and says, “Go out and do good deeds.” Imagine yourself, given the money you need to live comfortably and the freedom to approach your work as a man (or woman) on your own two feet. Which of those two images do you find more bearable?

The reason this works so well is because creative people really only want to be paid what they feel they need/deserve. After a person has reached that point of individual comfort, bills paid, money for vacation, etc, more money actually lowers performance. Compare two pieces by an artist, one made for pleasure, for the sake of the art itself and the one you commissioned after seeing the first. Chances are, the first one is a much better piece.
This is because the work involved in the first painting had intrinsic value. Whether the artist sells it later or not, it wasn’t made with time nor money as a part of the goal. The art was the goal.

Most creative people work the same way, but one must understand first that the word, creative, describes anyone who must use some kind of creativity for their job. It is not just a term for artists, actors, novelists, and musicians. The engineer designing a bridge, the programmer designing a website, the fashion designer sketching new clothing, the allocations analyst who figures out a new way to track product, all these are working in creative positions. In general, most enjoy the kind of work they’re doing, if not the work itself. The goal, then, is to create a work environment in which they do enjoy their work.

There are three things to keep in mind while moving toward this kind of positive work environment. First, people want autonomy. They don’t want a manager riding on their back, looking over their shoulder, making sure they’re on schedule every 15 minutes. Second, they want mastery. People are happier when their job challenges them, though not so much that they can’t accomplish their work. They need to be able to learn new things that help them do their job better and give them the final of the three items, a sense of accomplishment.

It is these three areas that allow for improved productivity and employee well-being, which leads to increased profits. By focus on these areas, employees find intrinsic motivation to do their work and it has been shown that they do it better.

There is one thing that I think could help us all, here at work. Less meetings. More autonomy and less wasting the time I would happily spend working on the projects you’re talking about. The question you wanted to ask me took 30 seconds, tops. The meeting I had to sit through lasted ten minutes, at least. Remind me why my presence was necessary?

If you’re interested in reading much more detailed information about the science and studies involved in what I’ve been talking about, I recommend starting with Daniel Pink’s books, Drive and A Whole New Mind. They’re amazing books, and it’s because of them that I am hooked on Positive Psychology. Enjoy.

And a thousand words, goodnight.

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