Real Change at Work Will Happen By a People's Coalition

May 8, 2018 Dawn Burke

Shaking hands

Twenty years of HR Leadership experience has taught me many things. Experience has taught me when I am in the middle of a tough project, I talk out loud to my computer screen.  Experience has taught me if I don’t have my 3:30 p.m. coffee, one of the zeroes on your paycheck may accidentally disappear! And on a more serious note, my experience has taught me that many employees simply aren’t happy at work. This may seem like a broad generalization, but many of the sessions at WorkHuman 2018 confirmed there is truth to my gut feeling. Employee unhappiness at work is real. 

There are lots of things leaders have neglected to focus on despite years of warnings. For instance, one issue that has contributed to a lack of happiness is the continuance of using broken feedback methods with employees. At WorkHuman, Dr. David Rock, director of the NeuroLeadership Institute, taught us that feedback is still (yes, still) a crucial problem, since feedback is still (yes, still) mainly driven by leaders, unsolicited. 

In addition, leaders are still (oh my goodness, yes, still) neglecting to build trust-based workplaces. Best-selling author and speaker Simon Sinek said the inability of leaders to let go and give employees “agency, autonomy, and discretion” to make their own decisions impacts this problem. Simon encapsulated perhaps the biggest workplace failing in one sentence: “Too many [HR teams and leaders] are for the advancement of executives; not enough are for the advancement of people.”

Before we throw stones at leaders, a lot of unhappiness has been exacerbated by lack of individual accountability as well. According to Cy Wakeman, author of “No Ego: How Leaders Can Cut the Cost of Drama, End Entitlement and Drive Big Results,” employees under stress will make up stories, judge others, and perpetuate their own drama. “Most people vent about their ‘story,’ not the reality,” she said. “You must separate your reality from your suffering.”

But there is hope for a change in happiness levels at work. #MeToo has ripped the scab of hidden abuses toward women (and men) wide open. Rock shared: “[The brain thinks] social pain is the same as physical pain.” When Americans feel physical pain by observing these social injustices, it impacts the way employees expect to be treated at work.

Barbara H. Whye, chief diversity officer and VP of human resources at Intel stated, “Outside social issues are affecting [practices] inside of the company.” And companies are being held accountable for not taking hard stances on these issues. For example, lack of social advocacy in the workplace is making it harder to recruit new talent. Citrix, Walmart, and Twitter are just a few companies who have changed practices based on outside social issues.

Equally important, these outside social issues have helped support the notion that inclusivity is broader than a minority issue. Inclusivity initiatives ensure all people feel a sense of belonging. Whye shared that “employees who view inclusion favorably are five times more likely to stay at Intel.”

Will these changes in workplace happiness be driven by leaders having magical, Oprah-like “aha” moments? Probably not. True change will happen by a people’s coalition. Barbara Williams Hardy, global head of diversity, inclusion and belonging at NetApp, said, “We are learning the power of the coalition, the power of the crowd to solve problems.”

I am hopeful this coalition will help bring belonging to the workplace and am thrilled to see changing workplace norms in some of the largest companies in America. Now, more than ever, our continued exposure to these humanity issues at events like WorkHuman Live gives people a better chance of finding happiness at work than ever before.

About the Author

Dawn Burke

Dawn Burke is an HR leader with 20 years of experience and the founder of Dawn Burke HR.

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