There’s been a significant shift in tone at many organizations over the past few months, amid heightened concerns about the economy. Executives have renewed their focus on individual worker performance, something that many had given lower priority amid concerns about retention, burnout, and adapting workplace practices over the first years of the pandemic.
Google recently instituted a “simplicity sprint” to improve efficiency, with Alphabet CEO Sundar Pichai telling employees to work with “more hunger.” At Meta, where CEO Mark Zuckerberg told employees on a call earlier this summer that he planned to “turn up the heat,” managers have been asked to identify and “move to exit” low performers. Goldman Sachs recently indicated that it plans to reinstate its infamous performance-review system, which historically has culled the bottom 5% of performers, after a pandemic pause. Swag is out. Layoffs are in.
And as short-term economic pressures rejigger company priorities, initiatives with longer-term payoff, like employee development, are taking a backseat. As one CEO recently told The Wall Street Journal: “In the good times, we want to focus people on the growth aspects… But when the economy appears to have the potential for that downturn, it’s fundamentals 101.”)
To understand how companies can maintain a forward-thinking approach to worker performance, learning, and growth even in times of economic uncertainty, we reached out to Dr. Kenneth Matos, director of people science at the employee-feedback platform Culture Amp, which recently published a report on why human-resources leaders should prioritize development. Below is a transcript of our conversation:
Can you explain how you define development and how that's different from feedback?
Development is focused on growing skills and underlying ability within the person, whereas feedback is much more focused on the specific task and being able to get that done in the moment. For example, good feedback is, ‘That report you wrote, let me tell you about changes you might make in that,’ whereas development is, ‘When we're thinking about reports and the way you write them, here are some of the ways in which we could elevate all of them, here are some of the thoughts you want to have about the audience.’ Development is something that a person's going to apply across multiple contexts. Feedback is, ‘Let me talk to you about this specific context so that you can make this specific thing better.’
Feedback is more often for this particular piece. The goal of development is to enhance the person's skills for the next thing. Also, development should be more transferable, so that what I learned about this report can be moved on to a totally separate project, because I have the underlying skill developed. I'm not just responding and living within the narrow, ‘If A, then B.’ It's more, ‘If alphabet, then response.’
A large chunk of what we were finding is that development is the thing that drives a lot of employer retention and organizational growth. When you're developing people, you're enabling them to apply their skills more broadly into a greater variety of situations. What we would expect for organizations that have strong development is that their employees become more multifaceted. They're able to deal with change more easily. They are able to innovate because they see connections between things, so they feel like they're growing. They're more invested in what's happening. And so you end up with organizations that are thriving in large part because they are advancing the development and skills of their people.
Is that something that’s more effectively attained through structured organization-wide programs, or through individual relationships between managers and their reports?
Each of those have their own advantages. In a small organization, you can focus just on the direct relationship. People have a lot more time and attention to spend on those individuals. As teams get larger, it's much harder to do all of that for everyone all of the time, and so having more formal processes that supplement the manager’s advice and perspective can help make that scale better. So I wouldn't say it's either/or. I would say that the more people you want to support, the more you're going to want to have some formal processes in play.
For example, a formal process might alert someone to a concept. Let's talk about coaching a manager to be a better manager. You might have a formal process that says, ‘As a manager, you should ask more questions than give advice, because that's going to make you a better coach.’ So the person says, ‘All right, I know I’m supposed to be asking questions. What questions? How do I ask those questions? How do I ask those questions of this particular person who seems to react poorly to questions?’ That's where direct support becomes really helpful. Sometimes this is a colleague to be like, ‘You're right. That person is really difficult. They react to questions very poorly. Let's talk about how we can frame this properly. Do you want coaching in this moment, or do you want advice?’
That's actually a concrete example I had with some of my employees. Culture Amp believes very strongly in having a good coaching culture, but sometimes it's coaching, sometimes it's advising. Just ask: ‘Do you want me to advise you in this moment, so that you can just get through a thing? Or do you want me to coach you so that this is a development moment?’ And the employee then says, ‘I'm really under time pressure. Let me just get advice. And then we can talk about this in our next call and that can be coaching.’ Others say, ‘I feel like I have some space. Let's coach.’
Could you say more about what it means to have a good coaching culture?
A lot of times, organizations get so focused on doing a thing that they lose track of the development and processes that enable people to do those things without being micromanaged. And so a good coaching culture shift its focus away from just saying, ‘Do this. You don't need to think, just obey me,’ and starts saying, ‘This is what we want to accomplish. How do you think we get there? There's some things that I'm going to say are limits and some things that are open. How do you think we should do this? Let's talk about that. Maybe we negotiate some of these things.’
It pushes the employee to engage in the actual thought process of how things get done, which I think is a challenge for a lot of managers when it's all top down, ‘Here's the order, just do it.’ You get a lot of resistance with that: ‘This seems stupid. Why are we doing it?’ Whereas if you prompt the employee to think through the process, very often they come to the same conclusion, or they reveal to you what information they lack. Every now and again, they come up with a better idea. I think a good coaching culture approaches giving direction in that manner. It's curious. It doesn't believe it has the answers already buttoned up, so it's open to alternative suggestions, but it's also able to say, ‘We've explored those particular suggestions. They don't work. We're going to continue doing what we're doing.’
I think a lot of people get lost at the idea of, being open to alternatives does not mean you have to do them. It just means that you are listening, considering, giving a response like, ‘That makes sense. Here are the problems. The final decision is blah.’ And that enables people to understand why things are done. Which ultimately allows you to spend less time managing them, because they're like, ‘Well, I understand how this decision gets made. I have all the information. I'm just going to make a decision you would've made.’ That's also how you get better leaders and managers.
A coaching culture, as you said, does take up more time. A lot of companies are worried about productivity right now—Google, for instance, launched its ‘productivity sprint.’ How would you advise organizations to approach coaching when they have this focus?
It really is, are you thinking long-term or short-term? A good example is manufacturing. Manufacturing often obsesses about never stopping the assembly line. ‘Gotta punch out as many widgets as possible’— that's a very American approach. There was a lot of conversation about concepts like Kaizen in Japan, which said, ‘Let's take the longer-term perspective. It's better to stop the assembly line and fix something now for long-term productivity, than to make this one week's numbers but have the machine slowly break down, and then we actually miss a month's numbers.’ There has to be that open acknowledgement of, are we emphasizing this for just this quarter, or emphasizing this for the next year? What level of productivity are we investing in? That then leans you more towards one way or the other. If it’s, ‘We want productivity to last long-term,’ then you're going to do the coaching work. ‘If you're saying, I just need to make this quarter’s numbers,’ not so much.
Those aren't necessarily mutually exclusive. I think one of the things that a lot of organizations get wrong is they moralize business strategy: ‘Coaching is good, orders are bad,’ or vice versa. In reality, it's that you’re trying to achieve a goal in either a sustainable way or in a one-shot way, with these people long-term or not long-term. When you define what you're trying to achieve, then it's much easier to say, ‘All right, if you don't hit this quarter's numbers, we're going bankrupt.’ You don't have time for coaching. ‘Let's just do this. Hit those numbers. We'll flow coaching in later.’ On the flip side, you may say, ‘We're not in any danger of folding, so let's do the coaching process.’
Is a coaching culture something that can be turned on and off, depending on business needs and economic climate? Or is it something that if you're not constantly investing in it, it's more difficult to reactivate when the time is right?
It is definitely difficult to swap strategies. This is where a lot of the conversation about psychological safety kicks in. If for a long time, you've just said, ‘We don't need to hear your opinion, we're just going to do the thing I say,’ you're not going to get opinions. It’s going to take you a while to reactivate the trust and the coaching. Organizations that are flip-flopping faster may come back and say, ‘Oh, this just doesn't work for us.’ That could be true. The business model will determine some of whether or not this works. But in most cases, if you are an organization that wants to innovate, that wants to grow, that wants to hold onto people, that wants to not engage in a lot of wasted costs from doing a thing and then having to fix it later because there wasn't conversation, a coaching culture is going to serve you really well.
If you know exactly what you're doing, you've done it for 50 years, you're going to do it for the next 50 years, the market's not going to change, these people have nowhere to go, it becomes a little bit less needy. But very few companies are able to live like that. That was a very ‘50s way of running a company. I don't think the world's going to let many companies get away with that now.
Once you pause a cultural element of a company, like coaching, how long does it typically take to reinstate it effectively?
It depends on what level you want to talk about it at. If you're talking about the company, that can take months to a year or two. Any particular team or department, that can go pretty quickly, depending on, does the manager do any of the maintenance work? Explaining why we have to do this with a little bit less coaching or conversation is a key part of being able to reactivate it later, because then you can say, ‘The situation has changed. Therefore you should believe me when I say we're going to invest in this effort.’ If it's black box of motivations, then the leadership just seems fickle. That's why some departments will get it back on really quickly, because that leader has done that quiet maintenance work, while others have just dropped it and so they have to rebuild it from scratch.
There's been some reporting in recent weeks that as companies brace for this downturn, they're getting more harsh in their feedback. Goldman Sachs recently said it was bringing back its performance-review system that it uses to cull bottom performers. What do you make of all this?
I find the trend interesting, because I think in the end it is a sign that there's a problem in their performance systems to begin with. If you need to drop your performance review and put it back, ‘It needs to get harsh, ‘It needs to get soft,’ then you're not really doing good performance reviews. You haven't communicated to your people what performance is for you. You haven't communicated clear enough goals and guidelines. You haven't invested in ensuring that you enable them and train them and develop them to be able to hit those goals that you're putting forward. And so it ends up wobbling back and forth. You get too harsh, you break people, they leave. You get softer to get people in, to keep them, but then the performance standards decline. And then suddenly you're like, ‘Oh, gotta get harsh again.’
If you have that well thought-out, consistent performance perspective, it doesn't wobble nearly as much. It’s funny, a lot of organizations don't get the press because they're not always obsessed with being new and innovative. They're obsessed with doing what they do well. And so the ups and the downs, they just sort of walk through them and go, ‘Yeah, it's a little bit this way, a little bit that way, but my world doesn't change every cycle.’ Whereas with a lot of the big-name companies, they're interested in being seen for the new, the innovative, so they keep rejiggering everything. There's something useful about being thoughtful and open to change, but in all of these fads and trend moments, it's like, ‘Hmm. If you had a clear and consistent thing, it probably would have carried you through all these scenarios, but the hyper-optimization means that you're constantly losing time and energy to these transfer costs.’
They know their finances. Maybe those transfer costs are negligible compared to what they actually pull in. But for a lot more companies, with the switching back and forth, by the time they make the change, the market has shifted. And the amount that they would get is kind of lost in having to switch back. So having a steady process, I think, is a better choice.
With all the layoffs happening right now, do you anticipate more companies using the performance review as a tool to figure out who to cut?
I think there's something legitimate in making those decisions based off of performance reviews, especially if you've had a clear process throughout. If someone has always been enabled to try and perform at the right level, then it's a very logical decision that people understand and tend to accept. They may not like it, but it's like, ‘I get it. It made sense.’
When you don't have those kinds of performance processes and then you suddenly implement them with super high stakes, you get a lot of blowback. I think one of the things we are always wary of is getting into a place where you're just culling people from the bottom 10%. What tends to happen then is you end up with all these super excellent people whose performance variation is in decimal points, and you're actually not saving all that much. You're making everybody oppositional as a result of setting it up, like, ‘10% of you are going to go, so make sure you're not the last one that the tiger catches.’ That just leads to bad behavior and sabotage, so it ends up not actually getting you as much as you think it does.
I think the people who don't make their goals that are required are probably the people you would wanna let go, versus setting a flat percentage, which has weird secondary blowback effects. Unless those goals are no longer sensible, like, ‘My market has completely dried up, but we expect it to come back in three months. Do you really wanna fire me and then have to rehire someone in three months?’ Sometimes you'll have to, sometimes you won't. So I think there's a lot of considerations.
Can you say more about the link between culling bottom performers and bad behavior, sabotage, etc.?
Have you ever heard the phrase, ‘You don't need to be the fastest person fleeing the tiger, you just need to not be the slowest’? What you've basically done is set up that scenario. If you don't want to be the slowest, don't share your ideas. Don't enable other people. Don't mentor. Push people down when you have a chance. You've created an incentive system for antagonism amongst your employees, because they're all sitting there saying, ‘I could be in that bottom 10%, because everybody here is really good, because you keep cutting off the bottom 10%.’ The first time you do that, you might see a big change because there's probably a lot more variance in performance levels. After you've done that a bunch of times and increased your salaries to get everyone and every position to be the cream of the crop in their space, to keep doing that, you get to, ‘Well, I'm a 4.9999999 and you are a 4.999998. Do we really need to fire you?’ It's so close. One bad deal, one mistake could end up putting me in that bottom percentile. So it's very much a management through fear perspective. If you're much more focused on enabling each person to do their best, and setting the minimum to stay, the minimum for raises, the minimum for promotions, you get people to continue to strive for the higher level that they want.
And then recognizing, you know, does every job need to be somebody who's pushing towards the top? I think that's another thing that we are really struggling with in the current era, is everyone is saying, ‘I need a promotion. I need a promotion. I need a promotion.’ There's so much career focus, but most orgs are set up as pyramids. And so if you make everybody super, super amazing, top of the line, the second they walk in the door, they're just going to say, ‘Where's my promotion?’ But you need someone doing that job, right? And so you need the development to have some breadth. You need it to have some timeline that makes sense, that people are growing in the role they're in, or you're going to find your salaries jacking up really high, very fast. It's not surprising that these sorts of culling dynamics happen at very, very, very high-revenue organizations where they can afford to keep paying the salary upgrades.
What do you think is driving that increased push toward ‘I need a promotion now?’
If we went back to the ‘50s, people wanted job security. They wanted to know they had a job, that it would be here tomorrow, that it was steady, stable day.
People will recognize now that there's very little in the way of job security available. Most organizations, even the nicest ones, are still organizations. The market has a downturn, you're likely to still have to go. We're having this exact moment now, where a lot of employees came in like, ‘My company cares about me.’ It does, but it's also a company and it has to survive.
So now many people have shifted over to career security. They want to know that they can get another job, which is part of why development is so essential to keeping employees engaged. If I'm not focused on staying at this org for the next 20 years, I need to know that every moment I'm at this org is setting me up to be able to jump to someplace else should this go away? I call that career security. And part of that is always accumulating more skills, accumulating more ability, more resume builders that enable you to go somewhere else, should this relationship end. Promotions, raises, title changes—all these things are examples of ways in which people assure themselves that they still have career security.
Which is the more salient driver of career security there—is it something like a promotion, or is it something like upskilling and learning and development?
It's both. Employees care about having their skills enhanced, but the value of having skills enhanced is a sign you are wanted. The organization that's going to invest in development should also have some really clear thoughts about growth: Is there a place for me to go when I become really amazing? If you have a couple of leaders or managers thinking about organizational expansion, what are we going to do next? Because then the employee’s like, ‘I'm super developed. Where's my promotion?’ Let's start talking about this new research area, this new market that we want to break into, that’s going to grow your company in tandem with the growth of your employees.
Development will grab them and hold them for a period of time so that if you don't have it, they'll go much sooner, but it does not obviate the need for growth. And I think organizations need to think about, how do people actually grow? Do they want to trade employees with other companies? Some organizations and industries really benefit from having people move back and forth amongst the different orgs, with a lot of cross-pollination of perspectives and cultures. Others, not so much. Owning that strategy and its inevitable tradeoffs is what makes an organization truly successful.
In an economic climate like this, how should companies be approaching growth when they also might be downsizing or pausing initiatives?
If organizations are doing a culture-first approach to layoffs, they are thinking about, ‘How do I make these moments meaningful for people?’ For example, when you're thinking about who's going to cover for a role that is now vacant, who does it actually benefit to cover this role? What will usually happen is they'll throw all their best people at everything, and those people will burn out and leave as soon as the market changes. All the knowledge walks, and they have to rebuild everything. But instead you're focused on, ‘Okay, who here actually will be growing? If they're doing this work, let's get them to do some of that. Let's have the other person mentor them.’ And then it's a much more interesting experience for both of those employees, as opposed to saying, ‘You're super skilled. You just go do it, because then nobody has to think about it.’ I think that that is one of the ways in which you do growth even as your workforce shrinks.
In many ways, you are reverting back to those earlier stages of entrepreneurial organization, where you have a lot of things that need to be done and probably not all the people you want to do it, so they need to be creative. They need to work together. They need to be more thoughtful. So you push the organization to actually force development, and then growth should be, ‘When this is over, the first people we're going to look at are the ones who have been developed by dealing with these problems in this moment. We need to refill this slot. Who are we promoting to refill it?’ Or, ‘We're hiring five more people. You get promoted. You're going to manage those people because you learned everything while you were here during the tough times.’
What is the right way to think about feedback right now, when productivity is a consideration, doing more with less as a consideration, but so is morale? And how do you balance those?
So some of it is acknowledging the reality. Yes, this is changing. It is harder. I don't think there's a lot of that in organizations. There's a culture of stoicism, of pushing through it. But what you really want is validation and acknowledgement of the situation, and an open conversation of how it's not going to change anytime soon, so how do we make it more manageable? Shift the conversation from, ‘oh my God, I have to do this thing’ to ‘Yes, you have to do this thing. How can we make doing this thing more manageable for you? Is there a process that we should be cutting ,that we shouldn't be doing now because you need to focus your attention over here?’ There's very little conversation in these moments where a manager says, ‘All right, you're taking over Sarah's job. What in your job and in Sarah's job is really low priority that we can just cut so that you can do thesE two important things reasonably well?’
That kind of conversation allows people to have some sense of control over the situation. It's a little bit like telling your child, ‘Do you want to to use the red toothbrush or the blue toothbrush to brush your teeth tonight?’ We're not questioning whether or not you're going to brush your teeth, but let's give back some say in what's happening, so that you can be effective at it and not just feel like things are being done to you, which bleeds a lot of emotional energy.
I'd love to hear about what else you're working on.
A couple things. We are working on creating more prescriptive advice for our customers off the back of some of their standard surveys. What do you do when things are not scoring well? We're also going to be leaning into a lot of different experiences that employees and managers are working on. I was just talking to somebody today about how to have the conversation about there not being a lot of growth opportunities in your organization. If you do have a role that does not climb the pyramid in any natural or predictable way, how do you position that job for the person who's going to take it? And how do you position the manager to own the fact that either you're going to get somebody who isn't super ambitious—they're going to sit the role and be happy in the role, so let them be happy in the role—or, if you have someone who's super ambitious, how do you get them to come in, do a great job, learn as much as they can, and leave in a constructive and positive manner?
That’s one of the places where I think a lot of organizations have muddled their messaging around, ‘Hey, we want to be a place that cares about you. We want to be a place where you can grow. Here are your opportunities.’ It became ‘This will happen’ in people's minds. No, no, no, no. This will happen for some of you. The vast majority of you are either going to stay in this role or move someplace else that has the opportunity. So I think that is another key piece of helping people feel more comfortable with the change in organization that may need to happen for roles that don't naturally advance in that org.
How do you un-muddle that messaging?
A lot of it is not being afraid for employees to be sad or be frustrated in the conversation. I think a lot of managers have gotten to a place where they want their employees to like them. And similar to the way we tell parents, ‘Your children are not your friends,’ your employees are not your friends. You can be friendly with them, but you have to be able to present things that they may not enjoy or like, and then coach them through that.
I often tell people, ‘Here's the situation, here's what is possible. How do we want to work within these constraints?’ Just having that conversation openly with your employees resolves a lot of it. You'll find that some of them are perfectly happy in that role as it is for a period of time. Some of them are going to say, ‘Can I have this other thing that makes it worthwhile to me? If I have the vacation time here, I can stay here for a while, because that's the lifestyle I want to live more holistically.’ Others are going to say. ‘No, that's not what I want. I'm going to get angry and cranky.’ And then I’d be like, ‘Great, let's have you leave in a constructive fashion.’
I've definitely counseled out employees in roles that I've had where they’re like, ‘I want to do this. And I was like, we don't do that at this company. We do these things. Are you interested in any of these things?’ ‘Not really. I could do this for another six months.’ Great. Let's have you doing this for another six months. Let's keep this conversation going. If we can't find anything, you should start looking. I'll be a reference. Keep me involved in your process and I'll make sure that we're also prepared to backfill and you can do some documentation on some of the things that are unique to your job. You'll launch with the full support of our company. And we'll be all prepped to have somebody you come in
To bring it back to your point about ambition: Anecdotally, it seems there's been a lot more conversation since the pandemic started about rethinking ambition and our relationship to it.
That is one of the big drivers of a lot of turnover that we've seen at orgs where people are saying, ‘I just had a mortality moment. I want a more holistic life. Did I ever really love my job as much as I thought I did? Was it going to give me the rewards?’ I think there's also a recognition of, ‘You promise me these things, but I might die first.’
I would argue that people's ambitions have changed, not that they have lost their ambition. It is self-serving for organizations to define ambition as being solely climbing up my ladder and winning my approval. And I think that that attitude blinds them to the ways in which they could really motivate and work with people. So I would say, what are your employees' ambitions? It might be to have a family. It might be to be a world-class marathon runner. It might be somebody just saying, ‘I want to be able to play ball on the weekends and not stress about work. Those are my ambitions.’
So give credit to that ambition, and then be clear about what you as an organization want and need. There's a lot of trying to let everybody have it every which way. Organizations need to be able to say, ‘This is what we need in order to hit the marks we need to hit to stay in business and be successful.’
I had a good coaching conversation with somebody who is hiring new entry-level sales people, and she was saying, ‘They really need to learn to hustle.’ What does hustle mean? ‘Well, sometimes they're just going to have to stay late, but they all insist on leaving at five, so they cannot succeed unless they're willing to do some of these later evenings at work.’ Have you ever told them that? ‘No, no, no, no, because we have this big thing about wellness and wellbeing.’ Then you're lying to them. Stop lying to them and you'll get people who match what you're looking for, and they will calibrate accordingly. If you tell them they can leave at five and they will advance, but then secretly say, ‘Nobody who's leaving at five will advance,’ that's where the problem lies. It's not that you have expectations or requirements. It's that you're so eager to just get somebody hired quickly that you're not hiring the right people for your job.
Have you seen any sort of adjustment or shift in the way that organizations are handling this redefining of ambition over the past few years?
The flexibility and remote work conversation is that, in many ways, as people realize how much time they're wasting, primarily in commuting. The research I've seen suggests that the real remote push was for the people that were driving an hour or two each way. If you had a 15-minute commute, going to the office wasn’t daunting. So I think recognizing, ‘Hey, do we need to do these things this way? If the world has changed so that we now have remote communications, is the office as necessary as it was for the way we do business? Is it just that I like it? Or is it actually achieving the goal that we're setting forward?’ Organizations that are asking themselves those questions are better able to adapt because then they can parse, the business actually requires this. A reception job is really hard to do if you're not there to receive people, whereas an architect can probably do most of what they do at home since they're drafting all day. Do I really need to bring them in?
So clarifying those kinds of job responsibilities, and then moving over to, ‘We talk about the culture of the organization. What is that culture? What is the information that's being treated? Can that be done in another way? Or is it just that I like saying it to them face to face, and so I insist they do it?’ Organizations that are adapting to this transformation are really being clear about what their needs are and what they can bend on, as opposed to sort of being reactive.
It's a lot, honestly. A lot of this isn't that different than managing a romantic relationship or a roommate relationship, where you're saying what it is that you want, and the other person can either lean into that or lean out from that. You can decide if you want to stay or not. I think everybody's so afraid of breakups that they end up driving themselves towards the breakup, and consistently connecting with the wrong people, employees, managers in the first place. There's a real need to embrace that some things do have their seasons, and that allows you to have a much more honest conversation. That's going make everybody happier.
How widespread is that tension that you were describing in that conversation of, ‘These are my internal expectations of what employees will do, and this is what we talk about as happening in our culture’?
I'm not going to say I have the perfect answer to that. I think the way the media sets up organizations to put out their messages, and compares those messages to each other, it creates a bit of a word war. Who can say the right terminology? And nobody knows what that terminology means.
I really like organizations that make a point in their screening interviews of being able to say, ‘Hey, for us, these words mean X, Y, Z.’ I got this very early in my career, and I always appreciated it. I was at a career fair where GE was present, and the recruiter was like, ‘I just want to be really clear with all of you who are applying to jobs here. Our offices are in this place. Almost every job that we're going to get is going to be in the small town, not the New York office for the media group. One person's getting that. The rest of you are going to the small town. If that's what you want, great. If it's not what you want, don't waste your time applying, unless you're a hundred percent certain you're going to get the media job. Second, we are a culture that loves our work. We work hard and we get fulfillment from that. We're there long hours. We're there on weekends. We are happy about that. If that's not the life you want to live, do not apply for this job.’ And I was like, ‘I don't want to live that life. I'm not going to apply for that job.’
I've always been grateful to that recruiter for being like, ‘What we are is wonderful. It's just not for everybody.’ There is a real value in having that kind of straightforward honesty. And there's levels of that. I would argue an organization like Goldman Sachs, whenever they say they're being kind and generous, you still know it's investment banking. There's some degree of knowledge that their version of wellbeing is not the same as a different organization.
Has the heat of the labor market exacerbated that kind of sugarcoating of employee marketing?
Yeah. I think there's definitely a desire for that. When you have a limited group of people to pull in, you're going to have to try to adapt. In best-case scenarios, they actually do adapt. Like, ‘We want to get more tech employees, fine. We're going to try and give them these benefits that they like.’ It may take you a little while to get everybody on board with the remote work or the other aspects, but you'll get there.
Other orgs are like, ‘Once they're here, they're here. We are not really going to change.’ Those are the ones where it's like, no, no, no. Then they're just going to leave and go somewhere else. Everyone is telling them this thing is normal and accessible. If you're not actually doing that, they're just going to think you are the betrayer and move on. Maybe after they've been betrayed five times, they'll accept, ‘Oh, the industry actually isn't doing this.’ It's creating this revolving door where organizations are like, ‘Why are young people so unable to stick to a job?’ One of the reasons is that you did not give a realistic job preview.
If an organization has over-indexed on that warmer, fuzzier view of itself that doesn't necessarily match up to what it's really like to work there, what would be best practices for ratcheting that down, or bringing it closer to reality?
I saw some examples in some law firms that were looking to recruit more mothers. They actually got mothers at the org to talk about how they live those principles in reality, so it was people with similar concerns talking about how they actually achieve the shared goal. And some people were like, ‘No, I'm not going to do that.’ But for a lot of them, it was like, ‘Oh, I could do that. That seems reasonable.’ And they managed to recruit a number of women that otherwise wouldn't have gone to that law firm based off what they were told. So if you want to speak to your younger employees, getting employees you recruited just a few years ago to be like, ‘This is what my journey was. This is what was hard. And this is how I overcame it. These are the things that make it work.’
So I think one of the problems is trying to paint an ever more rosy picture to generate confidence, when in reality, we need to tell people, ‘This is what it is. It is not always easy, but it is doable. There are tools and tips and allies to get you there, but you have to be willing to engage with the challenge. Is that something that you're cool with?’ When you just give them the rosy picture and then they experience the harsher reality, they just blame themselves. ‘I'm broken. I'm wrong somehow.’ And then that either leads to sort of imposter syndrome and sort of depression and self-recrimination, or it leads to resentment of the org where they reverse it and say, ‘No, you betrayed me. You lied. Now I'm gonna go find someplace else.’
There’s a real need to recognize that you can't corporate marketing your way out of the norms of human relationships. And if you invest in those consistently, it works. But if you're constantly trying to win week to week, these are the problems that you're going to have. And these are the trade offs you need to make. I try never to say one thing is absolutely right, but I think what I would say is: Organizations, if this is not the trade off that you want, where you're telling people all the rosy things and then they’re having the challenge later, try the other trade off. You may decide you don't like that one either, but you're going to end up with a trade off. You are no more able to get everything you want than the employees are. So just tell people what your tradeoff is, and you'll get the people for whom that's a reasonable tradeoff.
And most importantly, if you find that you can't get enough people who want that tradeoff, maybe you need a different business model or a different tradeoff framework, because the limits of the market are the limits of the market. We apply the rules of capitalist boundaries to individuals, but we almost never reflect them back to the company and say, ‘If you can't get the people, then that's just a sign that you need to change.’ It’s the same thing as you saying, ‘We all want this, why can't you be more like what we want?’ It’s no different than in any other relationship saying, ‘I'm perfect. Why don't you change to match me?’ That philosophy makes it a lot less stressful and a lot more controllable by both parties.