When Rob Goffee and Gareth Jones wrote Why should anyone be led by you? it became a bestseller. The two authors argued that authenticity was integral to leadership and unfortunately augured a fashion for business executives spouting homespun hokum about being yourself at work. This was unfortunate because the authors’ message was more nuanced and professional than that. In essence they had urged readers to “be yourself — more — with skill”.
This new book, Why Should Anyone Work Here?, publishing on November 3, builds on that previous work. Prof Goffee, emeritus professor of organisational behaviour at London Business School, and Prof Jones, visiting professor at IE Business School, argue that creating an “authentic” organisation allows people to flourish and reveal their true (or, the best form of their true) selves.
This is important, they write, because workers are rethinking their relationship with organisations. The death of the corporate man — someone who saw their entire career with one employer — has hastened this renegotiation. “They are not demanding less of organisations, but more — more accountability, more opportunities for self-expression and development, more transparency, more responsiveness — beyond the basic demand to earn a living.”
They make no bones about asking: what might the best workplace on earth look like? More specifically, they say, changing work conditions mean that the challenge is now how to create “strong identification [to an organisation] within short bursts of employment”. Looking at examples from various companies around the world, the authors identify features of attractive workplace cultures. In their research over four years they found that the answers fit in a neat mnemonic: D-r-e-a-m-s.
The letters stand for: difference — people want to be themselves, able to express their difference; radical honesty — they really want to know what is going on; extra value — an organisation that magnifies their strengths and fosters personal development; authenticity — a desire to work for a company that stands for something; meaning — meaningful work; simple rules — dislike for rules that apply to some and not others. Putting aside the cheesiness of mnemonics, the ideals seem sensible.
The public relations industry comes in for some criticism. Too many PR executives remain mired in spin, the authors write. “In a world of WikiLeaks, whistleblowing and freedom of information, their [PRs’] imperative should be to tell the truth before someone else does. When they do, they will begin to build long-standing organisational trust, both inside and outside the organisation.”
They focus on the BP oil spill in 2010, as an example of a company completely out of step with openness. BP failed to share information with those affected by the spill in the Gulf of Mexico and the public generally. It did not tweet, for example, until some time after the disaster happened. This meant that a fake account was able to fill the vacuum. In contrast, they cite the brewer Heineken. A Facebook posting of a dogfight in Mongolia in 2012 made the fight appear to have been sponsored by the beer maker, which was not the case. In response, Heineken replied to all complaints. However, I could not help feeling that the two examples were not really comparable. It is easier to distance yourself from something for which you have no responsibility, than something that you do.
While a lot of this book is clear-headed advice I worry that too much has been taken on face value and that the authors have listened too closely to senior executives rather than those lower down the company ladder. I cannot help but feel uneasy that discontent may be lurking below the surface of some of the happy workplaces they describe.