At the NPFA annual conference in Miami earlier this month, Don Rheem of E3 solutions presented a talk on neuroscience and its effect on driving high-performance cultures. He shared that 70% of employees who report to work in America today worldwide are disengaged. “One of the key reasons they’re disengaged is there’s a part of their brain that is telling them it isn’t entirely safe to be here working,” Rheem said. “This is what we call psychological safety, emotional safety, but it’s really important because this is the part of the brain that determines what do people actually do when they’re at work.”
Rheem said that the workplace is the new tribe of the 21st century. “Humans function under a herd mentality where every part of the brain is driven to be in a group, to be seen in a group and to be validated by that group,” Rheem said. “Without this understanding, it’s really, really difficult to truly understand what drives human behavior for all of us. And one of the marvelous things about this understanding is that all the traditional barriers — gender, ethnicity, education, none of that matters. Every Homo sapien on the planet is born with the need to be seen and to be validated inside that group. And this is the basis of creating high performance cultures.”
This need for a social environment has shaped our genes, Rheem said. And now, today more than ever, we need to strengthen the health of our social ecosystems — and that’s the corporation, the business, the department, he said. Things have rapidly changed in the last couple years and we need to figure out how to work with those changes.
Since the industrial revolution, there’s been one constant about labor that has allowed the organization to essentially not care about the conditions where human beings actually thrive and perform at their best. And that constant is there have always been more people than jobs. Until about two years ago, there was always more people than there are jobs, and in that environment, managers didn’t have to be very adept at creating conditions for people to look forward to coming to work.
People came to work because they needed the paycheck. And the importance of keeping that paycheck is that it meant people would continue to go into toxic workplaces, either emotionally, physically, environmentally. “But that era of labor abundance is gone and it’s never coming back in your lifetime,” Rheem said. That era of employers having paycheck leverage over employees is over with there being more unfilled jobs — 7.3 million to be exact — than unemployed people to fill them.
This is going to be one of the most severe economic threats that the U.S. economy, now the world economy faces, Rheem said, and it can be attributed to two separate trends. First, this February is the 113 month of continuous economic growth in the U.S. economy. We have never had that long a period of continuous economic growth, where every month the economy is stronger than the month before. And right behind that figure is 112 months of job growth, said Rheem.
Secondly, the fertility rate in the United States today is 1.7. That’s below replacement rate. The United Nations recently released their latest population assessment last fall and the current assessment of global population appears to be stabilizing and is probably going to start to decline. “One of the biggest threats faced in the global economy over the next few decades are plummeting fertility rates all over the world,” Rheem said. “And wait til you see what this is going to do to China. It’s going to be devastating, absolutely devastating to their economy.”
What does this mean, Rheem asked. A retention strategy is probably more important than a hiring strategy. “If you don’t have a retention strategy, you should be focused on one because it’s much more important in this environment not to lose the good people you have than it is to try and be out there trying to squeeze every rock trying to find new people,” he said.
Rheem stressed the importance of focusing on managers. Managers must have capacity to create conditions where their teams looked forward to coming to work every day. Studies show that 70% of how engaged your employees are is directly attributable to their immediate managers. “Employees join companies. They quit managers,” Rheem said. “85% say the primary reason they quit was managers.”
New generations with new priorities
Millennials and Gen Z demand more from the workplace than a paycheck, Rheem said. For instance, he highlighted how millennials have a particularly different and unique view of the workplace than the generations that proceeded them. Having lived through extended periods of true deprivation, parents of Boomers taught their children that they needed to work and keep their jobs. They framed work as a survival issue. You were lucky to have a job, said Rheem.
“Millennials have not experienced deprivation in their lifetimes. They do not see work as a survival issue,” Rheem continued. “What does the research say? Millennials see work as a place to expand their social network. So they want to enjoy the people that they work with and hang out with them. So that old canard in business of people standing around the water cooler wasting time and they need to be rushed back to their desks, it flipped.
“If you’ve got people hanging out around the water cooler talking to each other, you’ve got a culture where people like each other and they enjoy each other’s presence and they’re much more likely to stay.”
Make your culture one of cathedral building
Millennials and Gen Z particularly want to find meaning and purpose in their work.
Rheem told a story about asking three separate masons what they were building and the answers came — I’m laying brick, I’m building a wall, and finally, I’m building a cathedral. “Now, one of the key issues for you is: do your employees see themselves as brick layers or cathedral builders? If they see themselves as brick layers, you have no hold on them. They’ll work anywhere,” Rheem said. “But if they can build cathedrals with you, that’s different and that does resonate with Millennials.”
It’s important to develop your cathedral narrative, Rheem stressed, and make sure that the narrative is shared with managers so that they can work it into their storytelling it and how they interact with employees. “A cathedral narrative is an example of what we refer to as emotional Velcro and that’s the only thing that’ll hold employees to an organization going forward.
“And that going forward is going to be the distinguishing characteristics of the most successful organizations because those are the organizations that are going to hold employees. They’re going to become employers of choice because people are going to want to work there. Why is that? Because the limbic system finds comfort and peace there and it’s much more likely to want to stay.”
The future of work will be defined more by how it feels than how it pays. The felt experience of being at work is the only last remaining distinguishing characteristic, Rheem said. “If you want to know what your company culture is, just answer this question — what does it feel like to work here? That is your true culture, not the mission and vision statement, not your core values. Why do I say that? Because the way we feel determines how we behave. The way we feel determines our behavior.”
Research shows that high performance engaged cultures are 40% more productive than those that are not. “We believe the largest potential source of people to have healthy relationships is actually in your organizations and that’s the beautiful thing about doing this. The emotional Velcro connects and people are more likely to stay and they’ll also outperform.
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