Authentic Workplaces Don’t Try to Make Everyone the Same


Here is an excerpt from an article written by Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones for Harvard Business Review and the HBR Blog Network. As I read it, I was again reminded of a brilliant observation by Margaret Mead: “Always remember that you are absolutely unique. Just like everyone else.”

To read the complete article, check out the wealth of free resources, obtain subscription information, and receive HBR email alerts, please click here.

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Look around your organization, at the people with whom you interact every day. What do you see? Does your workplace reflect a relative balance of males and females in leadership positions? A healthy range of diversity in terms of age, skin color, religious conviction, culture, or/and sexual orientation? Yes? Before you congratulate yourself on how diverse your workplace is, what if we told you it might not be diverse enough — or at least not in the ways that matter most?

To attract the best people and succeed as a business, the “authentic organization” of the future — where people can be, and be valued as, their best selves — will need to foster environments where creativity and innovation are at a premium, employees feel engaged and committed, and leadership pipelines are carefully cultivated for future success. In our research, workplaces with those qualities look for an unusual kind of diversity, hiring people for differences that are more than skin deep.

Differences — Not Just Diversity

Let’s be clear about what we mean by “difference.” While many companies define difference along the lines of traditional diversity categories — gender, race, age, ethnicity — the executives we have interviewed were after something subtler. They surrounded themselves with people whose differences in perspectives, habits of mind, and core assumptions would challenge and push them in new directions. Therefore, we focus on the fundamental differences in attitudes and mind-set between one person and another (whether or not there’s also a demographic difference between them).

Make no mistake: companies that succeed in nurturing people’s uniqueness and individuality may have to forgo some degree of organizational process and structure. Consider the route taken by Ilkka Paananen, the CEO and cofounder of the Finnish gaming company Supercell. “We don’t have an HR function, and that is a deliberate decision,” he told us. “Retaining the culture and hiring the best people is our primary task . . . You cannot delegate that responsibility to HR.”

Conversely, pursuit of predictability leads to a culture of conformity, what Emile Durkheim called mechanical solidarity—“a solidarity sui generis which, born of resemblances, directly links the individual with society.” But cultures in the companies we followed were forged out of “organic solidarity”—which, Durkheim argued, rests on the productive exploitation of differences.

There are two aspects of individuality that we explore in the context of organizations. The first, simply put, is that authentic workplaces allow people to be themselves: to have a voice, exercise discretion, express disagreement, show what they really care about, feel “natural” or self-fulfilled on the job. So we are talking not just about the buttoned-down financial services company that embraces the IT guys in shorts and sandals, but also the place where nearly everyone comes in at odd hours while accommodating the one or two people who prefer a nine-to-five schedule.

The second, equally important aspect of individuality is that effective organizations are willing and able to leverage the wide range of differences among their people. This is critical in fostering a culture of authenticity, and executives in our research cited this trait again and again as key to job satisfaction.

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Note: This article was excerpted from Goffee and Jones’s latest book, Why Should Anyone Work Here?: What It Takes to Create an Authentic Organization, published by Harvard Business Review Press (November 2015).

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Here is a direct link to the complete article.

To learn more about Rob Goffee and his work, please click here.

To learn more about Gareth Jones and his work, please click here.

Click here to read my review of Why Should Anyone Work Here?

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