Welcome to our interview with Robert Fuchs. Robert is a creative design leader in the software development industry with a background in systemic psychotherapy. He leads the research of the HappinessGroup on highly effective teams and corporate culture transformation. The happinessgroup.eu develops meta-frameworks, methods, and tools for decision making and problem-solving by integrating the latest insights from science with philosophical schools of thought.
Here are a few of the things you’ll learn in this interview:
- Why corporate culture is only partly visible & what we’re missing
- The critical question in getting employee full attention & best performance
- Why the current view on employee engagement is short sighted
- How we teach employees learned helplessness
Welcome Robert, and thank you for contributing to the questions that are at the heart of Exploring Forward Thinking Workplaces 2.0.
Bill Fox: How can we create workplaces where every voice is heard and matters, everyone thrives and finds meaning, and change and innovation happen naturally?
Robert Fuchs: Change and innovation happen naturally in environments that foster learning and growth, which naturally leads to transformation and is the same as innovation.
Now comes the tricky part because the environment or the corporate culture is only partly visible through explicit values and value priorities. And at the same time partly invisible through our own constructions of this reality. This means that a culture can be perfect, but because of flaws in my perceptions of this reality, I can’t see the possibilities I have within this culture.
From a leadership perspective, I have to ensure that every voice is heard and relevance is seen in the diverse voices. From an individual perspective, I have to find a function within the organization that I can give meaning to. Meaning is not something external, but only I can give meaning to the things that happen in my life. Life by itself is meaningless unless I give it meaning. So this is the personal task of every employee, which happens best in collaboration with the rest of the team. Only in interaction and collaboration with others can I find the sweet spot where meaning for the team and meaning for me personally intersect.
Because roles and responsibilities change as fast as the business models they are grounded on, we have to regularly evaluate these tasks and refactor or reintegrate ourselves as we do with software.
Bill: What does it take to get an employee’s full attention and best performance?
Robert: I think the critical question for leaders is this: “Is the employee not able or not willing to perform at best?” To get to the answer for this question we have to look at two aspects.
An employee’s attention depends on internal and external factors, so let’s look at the external factors first. Our brain works perfectly when we have to process the right amount of information with the right level of abstraction and complexity. If there is too much information, our brain produces misunderstandings. If there is too little information, our brain produces false assumptions. Both produce human error and are the sign of the absence of attention.
In other words, lack of attention can be a direct result of useless information input. Our internal resources are limited by our capacity, utilization and availability to process new information. The smaller our capacity and the higher the utilization, the smaller is the availability—in this case our attention to process new information. We have to be aware that our brain is in constant problem-solving mode as long as we have problems to solve. The more problems we concurrently have to process, the less we are able to focus on the problems at hand. In other words, the more private or personal problems we have, the more of our capacity is utilized, which results in less availability for new problems. In this case, the employee is not able to perform better until other problems, which rank higher are solved. For example, if a child is sick or the employee has to look for a new apartment, then the new branding guideline of corporate marketing ranks a lot lower on my internal priority list.
The second dimension of attention lies with our talent and fitness or with our skills and abilities. The more skill in pattern recognition the employee has, the easier it is to make sense out of information and to derive meaning. In addition, the greater one’s fitness or level of pattern integration, the easier it is for employees to stay attentive. In other words, I would say that performance is based about 1/3 on the pattern recognition ability, 1/3 on the integration ability of new with existing knowledge, and 1/3 with physical fitness. Everybody has firsthand experience with attention when we have sleep deficits. Some companies even pay their workforce bonuses for sleeping eight hours at night. Just look around during your next meeting and check how many of your co-workers are well rested. Then imagine the impact on their decision making and problem-solving abilities.
Enough sleep, healthy diet and regular exercise probably reduce most attention problems. The rest can be dealt with through clear and meaningful communication and with more consciousness in reflecting on personal issues—that keep us from paying full attention to a situation.
Bill: What do people really lack and long for at work?
Robert: From a philosophical perspective, people lack function, meaning and purpose; and they long for peace, love and happiness. If employees believe that the role and responsibilities they have serve a good purpose, they are happy at work. This leads to theoretical and practical implications.
The theoretical aspects can be derived from our understanding of living beings. The function, meaning, and purpose of living beings are learning, growth and transformation (to who we truly are). This means that in order to learn, grow and transform, we need liberty to explore new solutions, equality to perceive and communicate information on the same eye level, and fraternity for collaboration.
The practical aspects of performance can be derived from our understanding of decision making and problem-solving processes. People perform at their best level if they are at peace with themselves and if they work in a peaceful environment. They also perform at their best when they can share love and empathy and feel loved themselves. Interactions with co-workers that make them feel happy are important too. The absence of any those three aspects results in mental, emotional, and/or behavioral stress. When this occurs, performance drops sharply.
Now we come to the problem. We have to differentiate between what people “want” and what they “need” because those two are regularly different. People themselves have a hard time distinguishing those two from each other. The “wants” that people have are the short term happiness factors. What people need are the long term happiness factors. The problem with fulfilling short term wants is that people need more and more to get the same positive experience. Whereas if a company focuses on the long-term needs, employees will become satisfied sustainably.
Having said all this, let’s take a look at a more global perspective and then think about the consequences for individual companies and employees. We know that we use up 1.5 times the resources of our planet within one year. This means that we are producing 50% more stuff than would be good for humanity as a whole. This means that the output of every second employee is harmful to humanity and therefore cannot be meaningful per se. The logical consequence is that no leadership or coaching initiative can seriously support employees in their journey to find meaning in what they are currently doing—unless it changes the business model of the company as well.
So if employees complain about a lack of meaning in their work, chances are that their work is, in fact, meaningless, and they should quickly start looking for alternatives before they are replaced with an algorithm. My advice would be to look for companies that focus on social change because only products and services that support social change will be sustainable in the future.
Bill: What is the most important question leaders should ask employees?
Robert: For me the key issue here is engagement. Considering that 60% of the workforce is disengaged and 20% only sometimes, this is the most critical question for any organization. Disengaged means not integrated. No system can function if its part is not integrated with each other.
The most important question management should be asking employees is, “Are you happy?” Now this question, however, opens a huge can of worms because unhappiness can come from personal issues, organizational issues, or both. It is hard for management to differentiate those from each other due to their interconnected nature. However, it reflects the paradigm shift in leadership we see happening. Leaders will only have value in future organizations if they transform into coaches for their teams. Only if management is able to help and train employees to become better at understanding themselves and become better at decision making and problem-solving. Hence, when employees are learning and growing, they will stay engaged and happy.
After about three times of fruitless engagement, people resort to the mode of “Just tell me what to do”, or “I don’t question anymore whether it makes sense or not.” This mental, emotional and behavioral check out is the worst that can happen to management because you can’t manage a dysfunctional and therefore unpredictable system.
Bill: What is the most important question employees should ask leaders?
Robert: I think the current view on employee engagement is too short sighted. The future of work will change dramatically, so the focus of employees should not be on the present and how a company can fulfill my dreams and wishes today but in the future. 50% of jobs will disappear due to digitalization and automatization within the next 20 years, and so will many business models and companies. The most important questions for employees should, therefore, be “What do I need to learn? How can I grow to still be more valuable than an algorithm in 5 years?” The point is that humans are in a race against algorithms. Only if we can do things bots can’t do will we have a job in the future.
On a personal level, employees should, therefore, be asking management how they ensure continuous learning and growth, so they are prepared when they have to leave the company.
On a corporate level, employees should be asking management how they are ensuring adaptability and resilience of the company’s business model, structures, processes, products, and services to be sustainable, so they won’t have to leave the company sooner or later.
Bill: What is the most important question we should ask ourselves?
Robert: The most important question we can ask ourselves is: Who am I? Only if we know who we are, can we accurately determine the possibilities and probabilities of our life.
Who we are consists of the three questions: What am I, how am I, and why am I? On one hand, these questions either limit or open up possibilities and probabilities. On the other hand, these answers also show us our level of integration. Only if we can answer all three questions for every facet of our life are we integrated or have integrity. Only integrated systems can function properly. In other words, misunderstandings and false assumptions are dysfunctions of our brain, heart or body due to the disintegration of our knowledge and beliefs about us and others.
On a personal level, the goal is always the integration of our fragmented self. Like a fragmented hard disk, our brain, heart, and body are fragmented. Fragmentation is a natural consequence when we are quicker to learn new information than we are able to integrate this new knowledge with our existing knowledge. Fragmented knowledge cannot be applied to other areas and becomes not only useless, but it can cause consciousness, perception, and attention problems. Fragmentation gives us the illusion of knowing when in fact we only believe to know. Hence the common term of “dangerous half knowledge”.