When I was a young manager working for a Fortune 500 company, I signed up for a workshop that Stephen Covey was conducting at a conference center outside New York City. I had just read his book, “The Seven Habits of Highly Effective People,” and wanted to learn more by listening to him live. He was a bit what I expected an author of such a book to be - sincere, straightforward, passionate about his beliefs.
When I learned that Mr. Covey passed away recently, I went back to this book that had such a profound influence on my professional life to see whether there were other insights I may have missed the first time around. Over the years, I have always remembered to “begin with the end in mind” and to focus on the “important, and not necessarily the urgent” (although I have not always successfully followed this advice).
But something else struck me as I skimmed through the book. In my classes in OB, I have interesting discussions with my students on what good OB practices are, and whether they can be applied to different companies in different industries. One of the best articles on the subject is Professor Pfeffer’s “Putting People First for Organizational Success.” Here, he lays out seven OB practices that he claims have been proven to result in productivity and high performance. They include selective hiring, employment security and self-managed teams. We have good debates in my classes as to whether these practices can apply to all organizations regardless of their situation, or to organizations in different parts of the world.
The “a-ha” for me was Covey’s insight that “Principles are not practices. A practice is a specific activity or action. A practice that works in one circumstance will not necessarily work in another … While practices are situationally specific, principles are deep, fundamental truths that have universal application.”
There are many so-called “best” OB practices today that seem to work well for certain companies at certain times. All you have to do is read the practices that Fortune describes in its annual Best Places to Work survey. Who does not know about Google’s free food, W. L. Gore’s self-managing teams, and GE’s Work-Out Programs, to name a few?
But Covey is right. Practices, including OB practices, are situationally specific. Depending on the company’s strategy, its organizational goals, its cultural context, and its industry (among other things), these practices may or may not work.
But are there OB principles with universal application that lead to high performance and high commitment? Based on my experience having worked for several different corporations, consulted with many others, having learned from some great minds in the field of OB, and having worked in many different countries, I would say there are at least five that I believe are universal. First is to treat employees fairly and with respect. Whether it is a state-owned Chinese firm or a private enterprise in Brazil, organizations that uphold this principle will produce a higher level of commitment from employees than those that do not. The specific practices on how this principle is implemented will vary by culture. In Western cultures, treating employees with respect might mean listening to their ideas. In Asian cultures, treating employees with respect might mean paying great attention to making sure employees do not lose face.
Second is to create a positive, motivating environment. In Western cultures, this might mean such things as managers providing encouragement to employees, having an open-door policy, and conducting meetings where employees can express their opinions. In Asian cultures, this might mean joining employees after work for karaoke, making sure they understand the history of the company, or even providing uniforms so employees can identify better with their company.
Third is to build self-confidence in employees. Berating employees may instill fear and compliance but more than likely will build resentment and mere compliance, if at that. We know from research that there is strong evidence of an “expectation effect” between teachers and students, as well as between managers and subordinates. Sports trainers and coaches spend considerable amounts of time working on the mental aspects of the sport with their pupils, even with world-class athletes. In Western cultures, building self-confidence might mean giving some autonomy to employees or providing them with a challenging assignment. In Asian cultures, this might mean offering them special titles or giving a team special recognition.
Fourth is to set high standards and expectations. There is strong evidence from the research on goal setting that setting moderately difficult goals can be motivating. GE popularized the practice of “stretch” goals. In Western cultures, setting high standards might involve meeting with subordinates to discuss goals and pointing to the alignment of these goals with department and company objectives. In Asian cultures, this might involve having a senior leader of the company speaking to employees about the importance of meeting stretch goals for the good of the team and for the good of the company.
Fifth is to build collaboration and teamwork. While talented individuals will continue to come up with inventions and innovations, breakthroughs today are more often than not the product of teams of individuals working together. The image of the lone inventor or scientist toiling in isolation is somewhat exaggerated anyway; even Thomas Edison had a small team who worked with him to invent the light bulb. In Western cultures, building collaboration and teamwork might mean focusing on the right incentives and rewards to reinforce the right behaviors. In Asian cultures, this might mean focusing on team-building to create a strong sense of group and company identity for employees, or on redesigning the work to build interdependence.
These are five principles that I believe represent good OB, are backed by years of research and that are universal. However, let us also keep in mind, as Covey has wisely said, that principles are not practices. How these principles are applied and implemented will certainly vary and in this global world, Covey’s advice is worth heeding.