“It’s just not the same around here” … Understanding those Water Cooler moments and what to do about it
In a growing business have you ever heard people utter the phrase “It’s just not the same here anymore.” This comment is usually delivered in a tone of voice expressing sadness or frustration. It is often framed as a sense of loss. Supporting people through change is the subject of a future article, but for now I’d like to spend a few minutes unravelling this well-worn phrase.
Change in any organisation especially for long-serving staff can be disturbing and at worst destabilising. I have observed this myself and heard it from many law firm staff in growing firms or who have been part of mergers or acquisitions.
But what to do about it?
Let me share two completely different sources of knowledge that may help our understanding:
- Learning about what really motivates people in the long term
- Learning about the evolution of the human species
One subject is deeply rooted in anthropology and the other in psychology. But what have they got to do with our water cooler sentiment above? Our psychological wellbeing is deeply rooted in motivation and engagement, which are key to achieving a happy work life. Many of us expect that pay and financial rewards are the most important aspect to a happy workforce. Not so, although get it wrong it can certainly have the opposite effect. Pay and financial rewards are called ‘hygiene factors’ – they can detract from motivating people but do not work in the long term for positive motivation.
Maintaining personal relationships
In a growing organisation, processes that worked well before start to break down and things can start to feel a bit chaotic. This often happens when an organisation hits around 100+ people. Enter research on Homo Sapiens what we now know about human evolution and the emergence of human culture and society (Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari, 2015) shows that we humans can successfully maintain a maximum of approximately 100 personal relationships at one level or another.
Looking at a law firm with under 100 staff the Managing Partner or Partners can usually achieve a conversation or interaction with staff at least once a week or so; office meetings can typically accommodate everyone in one location; and come the Christmas Party most people know what everyone else does in the organisation and where they personally fit in. Grow beyond 100 people or so and these casual interactions that tell you so much about someone, snippets of knowledge about the organisation, issues and future direction are hard to maintain. For firms spread over a geographical area it is even more challenging.
It is at this point in a growing organisation we often start to hear phrases such as “things are not like they used to be”, “it’s not the same firm to work for as it once was”, “I miss the good old days” or “it’s just not fun anymore”.
What motivates employees?
So let’s discuss what we know about motivating people. The three stars of long-term motivation are Autonomy, Mastery and Purpose (Drive: The Surprising Truth About What Motivates Us: Daniel H. Pink, 2009). Is one of these particularly impacted by the loss of regular informal contact with management? Yes, Purpose.
Purpose is a strong sense of why you are doing something. Working for that firm. Working for those business owners. Not just working to help your clients solve legal issues.
Most lawyers feel a strong sense of purpose about this latter aspect of their work. Helping clients is a common prime motivator for lawyers (my MBA research project, 2016). Of course, this particular box could be ticked by working for another law firm.
As an organisation grows it’s inevitable that more processes and systems have to be introduced to calm the chaos and codify instructions. It makes sense that it felt more ‘fun’ before as everyone naturally had more autonomy and a sense of mastery in “getting things done” in the smaller organisation. I often hear feelings best summarised as “everyone mucked in and pulled in the same direction under a connected leadership team.”
So, growing pains hey?
Enter stage right good old Homo Sapiens and how cultures and societies evolved – arguably a complexity that separates our species from others, and a topic for another day perhaps! If these feelings are common growing pains for an organisation and it doesn’t sound like we can change the structures in order to have a functioning business, what else is open to us to smooth the way, to find the new ‘normal’?
With one eye on the three-star motivators, the other aspect so key to Homo Sapiens’ ascendance was Imagination: the ability to believe in the abstract, the unseen, to imagine the future and to pass these ideas on as stories. Story-telling is the key to communicating a strong purpose, helping an organisation grow successfully beyond a critical mass of 100 plus people. To do this internal communication is as important as marketing is outside the organisation.
Challenging the water cooler moments
Strong story-telling about the firm’s origin, key personalities, achievements and future plans can help tackle those potentially corrosive water cooler moments. Organisations that do this well also foster a sense of belonging, understand and communicate what good looks like (Mastery), and cultivate and reward a sense of ownership and responsibility for the firm’s outcomes (Autonomy) – combined with a strong core Purpose that is often firmly rooted in ‘service to my client’ psychology. Of course, these ideas need to be lived by those in leadership positions and delivered. If not, then we will break what psychologists call the hidden “Psychological Contract” with our staff. This will be the subject of a future article: what is it, why is it so fragile and why is it so crucial for staff engagement and retention.
Good luck with your storytelling and surviving those organisational growing pains. A healthy dose of mastery, autonomy and purpose to everything you ask people to do should help ease those aches and strains.