A customer-centric mindset should extend to employees.
There’s a trend in the business world that we need to start taking more seriously: the dissatisfaction of workers. Even when we look at organizations and businesses that are financially successful, we often see workers who feel unhappy, unappreciated and unrecognized. Amazon employees in New York recently unionized to secure better wages, benefits and safety standards. Starbucks employees at several locations also recently unionized after Covid-19 safety protocols were not enforced.
At first glance, we might be tempted to say that this is a wage issue – and stagnant wages might well be part of the problem in some organizations. But worker discontent is not limited to lower-wage employees. Last year, white-collar tech workers at Netflix and Google staged walkouts to protest at their working conditions. Post-pandemic, we’re seeing workers in all sectors and in all paygrades demand more: more flexibility, more balance, and more appreciation. In short, workers want to be treated like human beings.
How can organizations respond meaningfully? How can leaders show their employees that they really are valued as people and not just a means to a financial end? In today’s digital world we’re experiencing a power shift from the institution to the individual. That’s no bad thing, but how can we leverage this shift to make our institutions better?
We need to focus on the individual – and we need to focus on the right individual. For so long, the only individuals that organizations tended to care about were customers. “The customer is always right!” goes the refrain. If the customer is the one consuming the company’s value and making it possible for the company to continue existing, then the customer is the one we need to make happy – or so the logic goes.
But workers are now demanding that we see another truth: workers make it possible for the company to continue existing, too. “Our people are our greatest asset” is the new refrain. Well, they should be treated as such. This means we need a mindset shift. We need to expand our definition of ‘customer’ to include our workers.
How do we do this? I have two suggestions. First, organizations need new perks. Workers don’t care much about ‘pizza party’ perks. They don’t want thin appeasement thrown at their discontent. Instead, organizations need to focus on benefits that show their personal investment in their workers. This might mean providing more coaching and mentoring opportunities, which, studies show, actually support employee retention.
Second, organizations need to be responsive to their employees. I envisage an organization that has a more symbiotic relationship with its workers. The symbiotic organization takes seriously the unique hopes, dreams and skills of its workers, and consciously lets them lead from these hopes, dreams, and skills. It takes employees’ suggestions and ideas seriously too, trusting that workers will add value when they are creatively fulfilled.
This might involve letting go of some outdated notions of centralized power and leaning into collaborative creativity.
Organizations stand only to gain by making this cultural shift. They will gain more fulfilled employees who are loyal to the organization.
They will gain the creative influx of employees who know they will be heard and taken seriously. And they will gain their humanity, where all are dignified. They will learn that only in serving are we really served.
Sanyin Siang is executive director of the Fuqua/Coach K Center on Leadership & Ethics (COLE) at Duke University.