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Happy Talk? Keep Talkin' but Start Doin'

May 9, 2013
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Ed Frauenheim is on assignment.

A recent New York Times article on corporate culture seems to have hit a nerve with some HR pros.

The May 7 piece by entrepreneur Cliff Oxford titled “Where the Happy Talk About Corporate Culture Is Wrong” asserts that there are two types of happiness in a work culture: “HR Happy” and “High Performance Happy.” The former is a place with superficially nice bosses feigning interest in their workers and the latter is a workplace where employees are treated like grownups and take their lumps like Gen. Patton’s men, no crybabies or slackers allowed.

I’d like to give HR a graceful exit here because I don’t believe that the responsibility for creating a happy or a dysfunctional culture rests with HR. Company dismissed.

Workplace culture is shaped by the folks in charge. They determine whether the workplace has “a second-rate corporate culture where people resign themselves to the fact that they will get more if they accept being treated like children,” or a place that allows them to make decisions and trusts them “to handle their vacation schedule, their paid time off, and the tools they need to get the job done,” as Oxford writes.

If leaders rule by fear they get bullies and brown-nosers. If they rule by micromanaging, they create disengaged employees. The core of a high-performance culture is respect, Oxford argues. And the absence of it is certainly the mark of a dysfunctional one.

 “High Performance Happy means you give employees tremendous responsibility, and they are happy to show that they are the best,” Oxford writes. “You don’t have to con them into doing things with a flavor-of-the-month methodology that suggests they will perform if you make them happy first. HR Happy says, I want you to think that I like you. High Performance Happy says, I believe in you.”

Leaders who truly respect their workers and their talents get people who take work calls at 4 a.m. or finish projects after the kids go to bed. Nothing kills that kind of passion faster than measuring performance by tallying the hours an employee spends in the office rather than the quality and timeliness of their work. Or by the number of times a customer service agent says a customer’s name rather than by the quality of their service.  Those kinds of measures don’t say, “I believe in you.” They scream, “I don’t trust you.”

When trust is at the core of any employer-employee relationship, great things can be accomplished. Motivation comes from an inner drive to do your best and work toward a common purpose, whether it’s helping a customer solve a problem or tackling a global issue. Birthday cupcakes or a shout out in the company newsletter can’t inspire that, but an employer who trusts and values you can.

Rita Pyrillis is Workforce’s senior writer. Comment below or email editors@workforce.com. Follow Pyrillis on Twitter at @RitaPyrillis.

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