Ron Friedman, PhD has won awards for his work in the field of psychology, and he writes for everyone from Entrepreneur and CNN to the Harvard Business Review, Fast Company and Forbes. As well as being the author of The Best Place to Work, he’s the founder of consulting firm ignite80, which is dedicated to spreading Friedman’s vision of the future workplace.
With a pedigree like that, perhaps it’s unsurprising that Friedman’s book is an authority on the subject. It’s a complex read, but it’s the kind of read that makes you think and which leaves you pumped full of exciting ideas that you can’t wait to put into practice. Because of that, you’re going to want to read this one with a pen and paper beside you. Better still, don’t be afraid to scribble in the margins or to read it with a highlighter on hand.
As the subtitle of this book suggests, Friedman’s approach combines art and science to take ordinary, boring workplaces and to level them up into something quite remarkable. After all, our workplaces are the main physical representations of our businesses, and the way in which we present them has a knock on effect for everyone from our suppliers and our customers to our employees and our shareholders.
And so without further ado, let’s jump on in and take a look at the advice that Friedman has to share with us.
The idea here is that if you want your employees to be at their best, you need to reward their failures. The goal isn’t to encourage people to make mistakes or to miss deadlines, though. Rather, it’s to create a culture in which people have the freedom to make mistakes. It’s by making mistakes that we learn and improve ourselves, and mistakes are also inevitable when people are innovating or at the cutting edge of their field. If you reward only for success and punish people when they make mistakes, you’ll train your staff to play it safe at all times, which might help to cut down on mistakes but which will also cripple you and stop you from growing.
“Imagine a hallway with three doors,” Friedman says. “Behind door number one is a room that enhances your creativity. Behind door number two is a room that sharpens your attention to detail. Choose door number three and you’ll find yourself ready for collaboration. Sound like science fiction? It’s not. In fact, thanks to a flurry of new studies, it may represent the future of the modern workplace.” The idea is that “one size fits all” meeting rooms are no longer good enough. Instead, we need to have different rooms for different purposes, designing each room with its specific use-case in mind. Only by doing this can we truly tap into the power of place.
Google founders Larry Page and Sergey Brin were both educated at a Montessori school, where young people are encouraged to learn through play instead of through more traditional methods. And when you look at the way that the company developed, including with its famous 20% time where employees are encouraged to follow their own pursuits during work hours, it seems as though they’ve stuck with that ethos. Friedman argues that all employees at all companies should be given enough time to “play”, because it’s through this play that problem solving becomes easier and new ideas bubble up to the surface.
“A funny thing happens to your brain inside a casino,” Friedman explains. “Rational thinking becomes elusive. Logic and self-control fade. You suddenly find yourself gripped with a hunger for immediate gratification.” Casino operators use this to their advantage, tapping into psychology to encourage people to gamble as much as possible, such as by replacing cash with chips. They also encourage people to keep gambling by giving our frequent, low-level payouts but fewer large jackpots.
“So what’s all this got to do with the workplace?” Friedman writes. “More than you think. Research shows that happy people tend to be more effective in their jobs. When we’re feeling good about our lives, we connect with others more easily, think more optimistically, and free up valuable mental resources to focus on novel ideas. Happiness also breeds confidence. Positive moods make our situation feel more controllable, which can give us the grit to power through challenging tasks. How exactly do you foster happiness in the workplace? By taking a cue from casinos and embedding psychological triggers into the employee experience that promote a positive mind-set.”
A challenge that many of us are already used to thanks to the need for community management in social media marketing. Friedman explains that the idea of community building is just as relevant when it comes to human resources as it is for marketing. To see why this is important, we just have to look at sports teams. Even the best football player in the world won’t win games singlehandedly. Instead, they need to act as a part of a team. The same is true for your employees, and the best way to encourage this team spirit is to make your employees feel less like a group of strangers and more like a community with a mission and a message.
Paradox is the right word, here. The more forceful your leaders are, the less productive their teams will be. We’ve all had to work with someone who’s micromanaged us to such an extent that there’s been no room for creativity in our day-to-day roles. The best leaders know when to empower their employees to act under their own initiative, but that doesn’t mean that they just stand back and leave people to it. The key is to provide enough infrastructure and support so that people know that you’re there when they need to turn to you, but at the same time to give them enough leeway for them to innovate.
Friedman’s argument is that money can only motivate us so much, which is why its subtitle is “What Games Can Teach Us About Motivation”. Unless you’re a cynic, you can probably think of plenty of times when money hasn’t been the driving force behind a group of people working together towards a common goal. Perhaps you’ve volunteered for a charity or you’ve done something nice for someone just because. He’s not arguing that you shouldn’t pay your employees, but he is showing that some things are more important than money. Creating the team spirit that we touched on in chapter five will help, but really it falls to leaders to find out what makes their employees tick and then to make sure that they’re being catered to in the workplace.
Professional hostage negotiators are masters at actively listening to people, mirroring their body language and terminology and ultimately forming relationships with people under the most trying of conditions. It isn’t an easy job, and there’s not much room for errors, but it does have some interesting similarities with sales and marketing. Just like hostage negotiators, your employees need to be able to form a rapport with people in record time and ultimately to tap into those communication skills that make hostage negotiators so persuasive. The influential and motivating part will come later.
Friedman tells a story about tennis player Monica Seles, who he attributes with introducing grunting while hitting the ball as a common practice. When Seles was playing, she was the only one who grunted. She was also the best in her field. Nowadays, the vast majority of the top players grunt as they hit the ball, which Friedman says reveals something important about human behaviour: it’s contagious. Even as toddlers, we learn to speak by imitating other people. That’s why the best managers focus on themselves: because if they lead by example, their good habits will rub off on the people they work with and ultimately improve the performance of the company as a whole.
Author Gary Klein, who wrote a book with the same title on the different ways in which we, as human beings, arrive at insights. It’s a skill that can’t easily be taught but which can be developed over time, and the goal is to spot patterns, correlations and opportunities that others might overlook. Friedman talks about how this all begins at the hiring stage and continues from there. On top of that, while it’s difficult to teach it, it’s still a learnable skill that gets better over time, with practice. Friedman also says that just like when we’re driving a car, we all have blind spots. The key is to identify those blind spots so that we can go out of your way to address them, in the same way that when we’re driving, we check our mirrors and use indicators.
Sports, politics, and religion are three topics that it’s usually best to skip if you want to avoid causing offence. Here, though, they’re a great example of what Seth Godin would call “Tribes”. We live in a big, wide world which has been brought infinitely closer together thanks to the rise of the internet and social networking. Now, no matter how unusual your passion might be, you can bet that you’ll find a community online that celebrates it.
The word ‘celebrates’ is key here, because it’s this idea of having a common goal and celebrating wins and commiserating losses together that eventually leads to a sense of pride. This kind of pride takes time to develop and it’s impossible to force or to fake. Ultimately, all you can do as a business owner is to make sure that you’re doing everything you can to encourage that pride to develop. At the same time, you need to find a balance so that you’re encouraging people instead of simply pressuring them to feel proud.
Friedman concludes the book by pointing to the results of an annual Gallup poll that investigates the levels of employee engagement from around the country. According to Gallup, 70% of American employees feel disengaged in the workplace, costing American businesses approximately $550 billion every year.
To combat this, Friedman has highlighted three keys to creating an extraordinary workplace:
Lesson #1: Psychological needs are at the heart of employee engagement
Lesson #2: Organizations are more successful when they address the limits of the mind and body
Lesson #3 Integrating work and family life improves the quality of both
Of course, these lessons essentially just summarise what Friedman is advocating throughout the rest of the book, so if you’ve been paying attention so far and taking notes as you go, you should have a good idea of how to tap into the lessons that Freidman has to share. What this actually looks like is different for everyone and there’s no right way or wrong way of going about it.
Ultimately, creating an extraordinary workplace is an ongoing effort and you’ll never be finished. There will always be new ways of creating the best place to work, and so the key is to avoid complacency. Listen to your employees, test out new approaches and do more of what works and less of what doesn’t. You’ll have the best place to work in no time.
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