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What does it mean to treat employees well?


In a 2004 interview, Herb Kelleher of Southwest Airlines mentioned that the airline used to host organizations wanting to learn from Southwest about how they built such an admirable workforce. Spoiler alert: he said that not too long after launching it, the program was discontinued because those who came often left disappointed. "Companies would come in from around the world and they were interested in how we hired, trained, that sort of thing. Then we’d say, 'Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well,' and then they’d go home disappointed. It was too simple.”

I’d like to tease out Kelleher’s comment because it is so reductive I believe the importance of it can be easily missed. “Treat your people well and they’ll treat you well”. Sure, that makes sense but what does it mean to treat your people well? Before you answer that question, an easier one to begin drafting up responses to is, “what would it look like if we treated our people poorly?” Below are some ideas

  • Do we admonish them publicly if they make a mistake?

  • Do we omit praise when they do a good job?

  • Despite what we say about valuing our people, do our behaviors signal that we value earnings above their well-being?

  • Do we show them paths by which they can grow with us?

  • Do we allow toxic managers / leadership to remain because they produce business or because we’re afraid to let them go?

  • Are negative office politics left unaddressed?

  • Do we expect them to work long hours with no end in sight?

Once you begin to point out what it looks like to treat your people poorly, it provides a great counterweight to what it would look like to treat them well. Avoid making them abstract, glowing statements but instead into actionable behaviors that can be measured. Kelleher’s comment is spot on it just requires taking the time to define what it means to treat people well (and poorly) and then ensure we practice what we preach. Unlike updating a piece of software and then being able to move on, there is no silver bullet to cultural change, which is why it's the hardest change. Danny Meyer refers to it as “constant, gentle pressure”. You make clear what the standard is and then you hold yourself and colleagues to it in a dignified way.

Calls for employees to do work that is more creative and dynamic are growing and yet sometimes despite what it says it wants, an organization’s culture ends up pushing back on exactly what it asked for. Creativity and dynamism both require risk taking and people putting their hearts and minds into brainstorming and experimenting. If the workplace shuns these behaviors then you end up talking about innovation but practicing stagnation.

According to author Dan Pink, your people need three things to be more motivated at work:

  1. Autonomy: a level of freedom to complete their work without being micro-managed,

  2. Mastery: the permission to grow in their role and work on increasingly difficult things

  3. Purpose: to be connected to the organization’s greater purpose.

Research around building trust informs us that trust is earned and lost in the little everyday moments. You can ask employees to do something but if they see what happens to other colleagues in moments when they are asked to do something and then scolded for it, you are unlikely to get the results you wish. This is why defining what it means to treat your people well is so important.

Terms like innovation and disruption have become so trendy and widespread that in many instances their meaning has become watered down. There is another side to the coin of these terms though that I often come back to from writer Maria Popova who said, “we have so fetishized disruption in our culture that we have forgotten stewardship is also required". Without slower-moving values and behaviors that ground your people in how to treat each other, clients and their work, efforts around improvement and change can end up adrift and ultimately cost you employees and clients.

Go Forth Boldly


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