Do No Harm: What Senior Executives Can Learn from Doctors

Most organizations would love to have passionately engaged employees. But how does that happen? How can leaders speak to their sense of purpose? How can leaders truly unleash the potential of their people and harness it towards fulfilling the organizational mission?

Clearly enough people deem these questions critically important, as evidenced by the sheer amount of time and money dedicated to answering them. From culture change initiatives, and work-life programs, to novel ways of leveraging technology and new KPIs to track engagement efforts…everyone is seeking a leg up in the race to retain and maximize the contributions of their people. Some of the brightest minds are eager to answer these key questions, creating entire ecosystems around their respective solutions. It’s competitive advantage 2.0.

But what if the questions, themselves, are not the right ones? Rather, what if there is a simpler way to shift the outlook on the entire engagement issue?

Current Assumptions

Allow me to elaborate. The implicit assumption behind existing narratives is that people need to get a shot in the arm (or two) to be engaged, inspired and passionate about their work. The story continues that corporations need to take on the active role of doing the work and building engagement, getting people excited about their work, and helping them find meaning in it.

I would argue that flipping the question gets us to a more accurate and simple place: the focus of organizations shouldn’t be to build it (engagement, passion, connection, etc.) rather NOT destroy it. It all depends on whether you see the glass as half full (employees are wired to come to work with these attributes) or half empty (employees need active catalysts to develop these attributes).

This is not unlike conversations taking place in the education space right now (led by Sir Ken RobinsonRon Ritchhart and Susan Engel, among others). The conversations are not about teaching kids to be curious and creative, or teaching them to be think outside of the box; kids are born with these attributes. They have voracious curiosities and can ask questions faster than you can answer them. Their creativity surpasses ours, as their minds are not yet constrained by the obstacles and “realities” that encumber our thinking.

Challenging the Status Quo

Rather, conversations in the education space are focused on creating new models of education to meet the needs of an ever-changing future. In particular, they are about making sure we don’t kill those creative attributes while we teach our kids. The questions asked include: how to maintain curiosity, how to build space for existing creativity, and how to construct an environment in which all kids will thrive in their own ways.

The mindset shift is towards allowing and maintaining the natural state of affairs, and away from building or developing it. In a very real sense, it’s a far lower hurdle to jump.

Now let’s go back to employees. They also come to work filled with hope, promise and curiosity. Their sense of possibility is grand…upon graduating from undergraduate school, taking on a new job, graduating from grad school, joining a new organization.

Think back to your first few days in a new role or company, why you took that job, what your hopes were, what you wanted to achieve. You had high hopes and aspirations for yourself and your team. You had an inspiring sense of the organization and the difference you could make there. You had your fingers crossed that perhaps this would be different.

Yet if you’re like so many others out there (those 3/4 of employees who are disengaged), those possibilities get stifled or squashed along the way. I think it was Gallup who first coined this; “Employees join organizations, but they leave managers.” Why do they call the first 3-6 months a honeymoon period? Because that’s about how long it takes for that engagement, passion, inspiration and motivation to “come back down to earth.”

A Way Forward

But what if that didn’t have to be the case? What if we could maintain that sense of purpose and inspiration by making sure that we didn’t get in the way? The ways in which we’d approach the work would require a 180° shift in perspective, away from how can we help towards how can we do no harm  Doctors sign an oath to uphold such a simple principle. In some ways it makes the job much easier. Just don’t kill their passion. Just don’t squash their engagement. Just don’t suck the possibility out of the job.


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