As the Wall Street Journal reports, more than half of all business owners have roles they can’t fill. And while the shortage stems from many factors, one key factor is that many people are no longer interested in working in a “traditional” power setting in which the employer sets the rules and the employee obliges.
It’s not surprising that people find the traditional power dynamic antiquated. It’s hundreds of years old. In fact, it was set after the industrial revolution and has consisted of employers looking to maximize their returns on paid wages, and therefore telling employees how to act, dress, and operate.
If we can learn anything from what is happening right now in the job market, it’s that this model is breaking down before our eyes. People don’t want to fit themselves into a box and be told what to do. Instead, they want to be themselves, be treated equally, and have a true part in setting their own goals and the methods to achieve those goals.
The good news? Encouraging individuality and working toward a common goal works. We’ve seen proof of that at Gong, where rethinking the employer-employee dynamic earned us a spot on Fortune‘s 2020 Best Workplaces in the Bay Area. Our team is engaged and motivated, and people want to contribute as much as possible.
Personally, I’ve also seen proof in a somewhat less predictable place: around the picnic grounds with my son.
What happens when you let people express their individuality?
My son’s class was holding a picnic, and posted a sign-up sheet online. They listed everything they needed, from disposable plates to hard-boiled eggs. When the sheet was posted, families rushed to sign up for the easiest tasks. It’s much easier to buy paper plates than to prepare a platter of hard-boiled eggs.
The next time we held a picnic, we changed the process. We simply wrote an email to the families, saying, “Bring whatever you want!” In theory, a recipe for disaster. But then, this gave each family two very important things. One is individuality—each family can bring whatever they feel would be great for everyone. Two, accountability—now each family has to bring something that will be appreciated by everyone. So, people got creative. They baked pies, bought bread from local bakeries, brought gourmet cheese, and chopped up watermelons. It ended up being such a great event that we continued with this practice until my son graduated.
This naturally should make us all think: Can companies inspire this same mix of individuality and accountability? Can removing the guardrails in the workplace have the same effect?
How can companies rethink the social code with their employees?
A workplace is obviously not a class picnic, and one can’t expect to simply suggest to employees to do whatever they want. Companies have business objectives, and they hire employees for specialized roles.
But the key is a deep change in the social code between employers and employees.
Our lives are defined by relationship prototypes. We act differently with our spouses than with our coworkers. We bring flowers to our spouses on their birthdays, but it would be odd to do that for coworkers. Also, we act differently with friends than with family. We might share the restaurant bill with friends, but it would be odd (even, rude!) to offer our parents to share the cost of our Thanksgiving dinner. Relationship dynamics come with written and unwritten rules. Functional lives depend on following both.
The first step to change is to thoroughly rethink the relationship dynamics between employers and employees: How would we want that dynamic to be in the modern world?
Employers must realize that employees are not “resources,” but true partners for the journey. They are people who come to the workplace to enjoy their time at work, to have personal fulfillment, and with the expectation that the workplace is responsible for their success and career progression.
In such settings, employees need to trust the workplace in order to follow these guidelines. When there’s trust, people naturally contribute more without feeling that they’re being leveraged. When we host our friends or neighbors for dinner, we would gladly spend hours cooking the meal. But when the relationship dynamics are incorrect, spending extra time at work when required might feel inappropriate.
The social code does not change on its own. Employers must actively work to change it. Here are some realizations and steps to make it happen:
1. It starts with a mental shift: Employment is not a zero-sum game
Too many employers view their employees from a capitalistic perspective—as wages on which to earn a return. This, in turn, causes employees to reciprocate by viewing the employer as a place where they need to maximize their own personal gain. This leads to a dynamic like a pre-divorced couple—neither trusts the other, each is constantly looking for angles.
As with all paradigm shifts, this one starts in the mind. When company leadership treats employees as truly equal partners, the thought stops being “how can we pay less and get more” and becomes “how can we take the best care of our employees.”
When an employer actively ensures that employees are satisfied at work, professionally and personally, and are paid adequately, the relationship naturally becomes more mutually symmetrical, and employees worry less about maximizing their own return.
2. An environment in which people can celebrate their individuality
Employers often try to fit employees into a well-defined pattern. Admittedly, there has to be a professional fit. We’d all expect surgeons to know something about how to run a medical procedure. But employers sometimes forget that employees are human beings, and force them to create a different persona at work.
This is also a mental shift. Companies can encourage people to be themselves. It’s partially up to the company’s management: They also need to be authentic and avoid acting as executives in suits. But it also means setting an expectation to be oneself.
In our class picnic, one of the fathers drove to his favorite local farm to pick up gourmet cheese. He could have bought simple cream cheese from the nearby supermarket. But setting up an environment that allowed him to express himself made our picnic much more fun. In our Gong development center, each engineer who wraps up a first product enhancement invites his team to join in a toast with his favorite type of drink. In this case, too, most people select the drink they most enjoy and appreciate.
3. Behaving in a radically honest way
Honesty is key to a healthy relationship. If we showed up to a family event and realized we’d forgotten something, we’d most likely apologize rather than make up a story about getting mugged.
However, many employers feel that honesty is not mandatory for the relationship with their employees and would be reluctant to transparently discuss the rationale behind promotions, salary, team assignment, and more.
According to, there’s a belief among many employees that companies are somehow trying to disadvantage them—negotiating them out of top compensation, giving them the least healthcare benefits possible, and so on. Then, they also don’t feel the need to be truthful.
Employers should go out of their way to invert this idea.
Rather than paying employees minimally, they should proactively give them fair packages that make them want to stay. They should ensure there are candid discussions across the organization. When people know they’re being treated fairly, they put trust in the company and behave in a way that resembles friendship rather than cold employment.
4. Giving people autonomy
A key part of our picnics’ success was that each family was accountable to bring something without being told what to bring. This way, each family made sure they brought something that made sense.
At work, many employers fall into the trap of instructing employees what to do up to the fine details. And, admittedly, giving people more autonomy introduces risk. Indeed, in one of the picnics, three different people brought a watermelon. Clearly imperfect, but not a disastrous scenario.
Giving up control is a leap of faith. In the long run, though, emphasizing the company’s goals and giving employees space to drive toward that goal lets people put more substance into their role and increase their contribution.
A new social code is the key to high employee contribution
A new social code is not just a slogan, but also a new configuration that is becoming more prominent.
By doing the right thing and treating people with respect and encouraging individuality and autonomy, the employer-employee dynamic relationship is more balanced, and people feel free to be themselves. And good things follow:
- We are more passionate about our work. Wherever we are, we want to feel that we own our destiny. Individuality brings employees that feeling, and we naturally have more passion for our work.
- We enjoy coming to work. When we feel empowered at work, we look forward to coming in—and we don’t think about leaving.
- We make a greater contribution. When we feel we have autonomy at work, we contribute more. This is obvious to many, as we’ve seen with my son’s class picnics, but it also has been backed by research.