What do today’s employees have in common with “nationalists?” I recently attended a lecture by Anne Marie Slaughter, president of a think tank and former Princeton professor, who described the rise of nationalists in the U.S. and around the world. In her view, nationalists are citizens who seek sovereignty at the national level rather than at the global level. They are those who are anti-globalization, anti-free-trade and against the U.S. having a leadership role around the world.
She then explained what she considered to be the three bases for nationalism. The first is a sense of belonging. Nationalists are rooted in a place; they are what David Goodhart (2017) calls the people who see the world from somewhere (versus the people who see the world from anywhere). In Goodhart’s categorization, “Somewheres” are those who are “…feeling uncomfortable about the modern world, having a more ‘fellow citizens first’ view of national identity, and being prepared to sacrifice liberty for security.” (p. 45) Somewheres have a strong sense of ascribed versus achieved identity. These are terms from sociology referring to characteristics that a person has at birth or has no control over (e.g., your race, your birthplace) versus those that a person has acquired (e.g., your profession, your educational level). By contrast, “Anywheres” are those who are “… feeling comfortable about the modern world, having a loose and open idea of national identity, and putting liberty before security in the civil liberties debate.” (p. 45)
The second basis for nationalism is a strong sense of autonomy or independence. Nationalists want sovereignty, and they do not want their country to be dependent on other countries, or perhaps worse still, global institutions. As she has pointed out (Slaughter, 2017):
By maintaining sovereignty at the national rather than the global level, borders can be defended and communities defined and maintained. If those borders dissolve, what binds human beings to one another is no longer their community or their common cultures, but only their identity.
The third basis is a strong feeling of fairness, of wanting a level playing field; the nationalists sense that their countries are being taken unfair advantage of.
As she spoke, I was struck by the parallels between these bases and what many organizational researchers have identified as the key drivers of employee engagement, commitment, work satisfaction and job performance: belongingness, autonomy, and fairness. In addition, I would add a sense of purpose as another basis for nationalism as well as another key driver of employee engagement and work satisfaction.
First, belongingness. The drive to bond and to form alliances is strong in the human species, and workers who feel a sense of belonging tend to have what researchers call “affective commitment.” Affective commitment - the emotional attachment, identification with and involvement with an organization – is a powerful driver of retention, organizational citizenship behavior and job performance (Meyer et al, 2002). People like to be with people who are like them, even if sometimes those similarities are superficial and can be manipulated easily.
Second, autonomy. Hackman and Oldham (1980), among many others, have found that workers having some degree of autonomy feel more responsible for work outcomes. Many organizations these days have jobs that have been designed to provide workers with a greater degree of autonomy, from assembly-line work to managerial activities. For example, Toyota has long been known for allowing workers to pull a cord in the assembly line whenever they see something that seems defective or not right. Telecommuting, another indicator of the desire for more autonomy, has become more common; The Wall Street Journal (June 5, 2017) recently reported for example that 59% of Dell’s 110,000 employees work remotely at least one day a week and that they are encouraged to do so. Although IBM recently asked employees to start working at one of its regional offices rather than at their homes, the company has developed its own tools to facilitate remote work, and advises many of its own clients on telecommuting. In fact, according to surveys by Gallup, the proportion of Americans working from home has gone up to 43% (from 39% in 2012), and the proportion working remotely went up to 20% from 15%. As yet another example of providing greater autonomy, a few corporations such as Whole Foods and Zappos have implemented versions of self-managing teams. With the increased complexity in many organizational forms, as well as larger spans of controls by many managers, giving employees more latitude for performing their jobs as well as allowing for more fluidity in defining job responsibilities has become more commonplace.
Third, fairness. In the field of organizational behavior, fairness is part of the concept of organizational justice - employees’ perceptions of what they consider to be fair in the workplace. Of course what is considered fair can be very subjective, and prone to self-serving biases. Nonetheless, researchers have identified three aspects of organizational justice. Distributive justice refers to perceived fairness of outcomes allocated, such as pay and other rewards (e.g., was the raise or bonus that I received fair?). Procedural justice refers to fairness of the process used (e.g., did I feel that the process used to determine my raise or bonus was fair; was it explained clearly to me?). Interactional justice refers to whether workers feel they are treated with dignity and respect (interpersonal) and on the quality of the explanations given to them (informational) when procedures are being implemented or outcomes are being distributed. Of these three aspects, distributive justice seems to be most strongly related to organizational commitment and job satisfaction.
Fourth, a sense of purpose. Although Slaughter did not mention this explicitly, a belief in a broader mission or purpose could easily be a fourth basis for nationalism as well as a driver for worker engagement and satisfaction. Many companies are beginning to recognize this, and are focusing on employer branding and, in their recruiting efforts, on the attractiveness of the company mission. Companies like Chipotle, Etsy, IDEO and Warby Parker are good examples. With their current employees, they are emphasizing how shared value provides meaning to their work; in fact, this is one of the key success factors for start-ups.
What do we make of these parallels and their implications for managers? I think this reflects both the changes in the external environment, as well as certain universal human behavior basics (which I explain in more detail in Chapter 3 of my book, Successful Global Leadership). The pace, scope and complexity of changes we are exposed to have unsettled many, and seeking comfort in the familiar is an understandable response. The following are four management practices that might help in continuing to foster belongingness, autonomy, fairness, and purpose.
First, strive to create a climate of “psychological safety” for your employees. This concept has been researched thoroughly and has recently experienced a resurgence (Edmondson and Lei, 2014) perhaps because of macro conditions such as the global financial crises and widespread job uncertainties. Psychological safety has been shown to positively impact job performance, learning and innovation in all kinds of teams – from surgical teams to pilot crews. Edmondson (1999) has in fact created a survey measure of psychological safety with statements that include: “People on this team sometimes reject others for being different” and “If you make a mistake on this team, it is often held against you.” As Edmondson and Lei have stated, “People are more likely to offer ideas, admit mistakes, ask for help, or provide feedback if they believe it is safe to do so.” (p. 36) Not only that, but the research is fairly robust in showing that establishing psychological safety helps enable performance. In my experience, a manager’s behavior is the most important factor in setting up a climate of psychological safety within a work team. Of course, employees also have a responsibility by taking risks, asking questions, and testing the boundaries that might in fact influence their managers’ perceptions and behaviors.
Second, be aware of employees’ concerns about fairness. In my discussions with students in the classroom, I have pointed to the difference between treating everyone equally and treating everyone fairly. Doing the former may at times conflict with doing the latter. Fair treatment practices include, among other things, not playing favorites, adhering as much as possible to meritocracy and merit-based practices, giving a voice to employees, and treating everyone with respect.
Third, ramp up your listening skills. In his biography of Henry Kissinger (Isaacson, 2005), the author mentions that people are surprised that Henry Kissinger’s brother Walter does not have Henry’s heavy German accent. When asked why, he replied. “I am the Kissinger who listens.” There is enough research on the value of effective listening that I don’t need to elaborate more on this topic, yet I continue to meet senior executives in my own consulting practice who fail to listen well. In my experience, this happens for one or more of the following reasons: one, they are not even aware that they are poor listeners; two, they have not developed effective listening skills (such as nodding, paraphrasing what they heard, suspending judgment); three, through the years, they have started to believe in their own press and think they have all the answers, so why listen; and four, they are insecure and don’t really want to hear feedback or what others have to say. In this day and age, when employees are expecting greater transparency and to have a voice, being a good listener is a foundational element of effective managers.
Fourth, seek to integrate. Goodhart quotes from another author (Stenner, 2005): “Ultimately nothing inspires greater tolerance from the intolerant than an abundance of common and unifying beliefs, practices, rituals, institutions and processes.” (p. 31) Despite the diversity of your employees, some of whom may be reporting to you from different parts of the world, creating a common goal and a sense of community will help you build a more effective organization.
Colquitt, J. et al. (2001). Justice at the Millennium: A Meta-Analytic Review of the 25 Years of Organizational Justice Research. Journal of Applied Psychology, 86 (3): 425-445.
Edmondson, A. C. 1999. Psychological Safety and Learning Behavior in Work Teams. Administrative Science Quarterly, 44: 350-383.
Edmondson, A. and Lei, Z. (2014). Psychological Safety: The History, Renaissance, and Future of an Interpersonal Construct. In Annual Review of Organizational Psychological and Organizational Behavior, 1:23-43.
Goodhart, D. (2017). The Road to Somewhere: The Populist Revolt and the Future of Politics. London: Hurst & Company.
Hackman, R. and Oldham, G. (1980). Work Redesign. Reading, MA: Addison-Wesley.
Henson, R. (2016). Successful Global Leadership: Frameworks for Cross-Cultural Managers and Organizations. New York: Palgrave Macmillan.
Isaacson, W. (2005). Kissinger: A Biography. New York: Simon & Schuster.
Meyer, J. et a. (2002). Affective, Continuance, and Normative Commitment to the Organization: A Meta-analysis of Antecedents, Correlates, and Consequences. Journal of Vocational Behavior, 61: 20-52.
Slaughter, A. (March 23, 2017). https://www.project-syndicate.org/commentary/nationalists-and-globalists-trump-wilders-by-anne-marie-slaughter-2017-03
Stenner, K. (2005). The Authoritarian Dynamic. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.