By | Dave Ulrich | Speaker, Author, Professor, Thought Partner on HR, Leadership, and Organization
Decades ago, I was drawn into the then-emerging field of “organizational behavior” because I was enthralled with how organizations shaped people’s lives. I bought into my mentor’s mantra, “organizations don’t think—people do” (JB Ritchie). Over the ensuing years, my passion for shaping organizations that deliver value to employees inside (and customers, investors, and communities outside) has only grown. With so many others, I have been committed to helping evolve the agendas of both the individual competence (talent, skills, workforce) and organization capability (culture, systems, workplace).
Talent clearly underlies how organizations operate. Over the last forty years, there have been thousands of ways to define and improve how people respond to work: what I loosely call employee sentiment. The latest incantation of people at work has been labeled employee experience (EX).
Too often in pursuit of new ways to enable people at work, many in HR seek new shiny objects that fail to build on what has been done, and primarily reinvent and reinforce what others have already done. I call this circular vs. spiral thinking where circular thinking recycles what has been done while spiral thinking makes progress with each iteration of ideas on what can be done. New insights often come by acknowledging and building on the past. For example, in the technology space of integrated circuitry, the field builds on the past to improve the future. Following Moore’s law, new chips evolve and replace old circuits. The same might be highlighted for how organization leaders build improved employee sentiment leading to employee experience (see Figure).
So what’s new and unique about employee experience ideas that will improve understanding of people at work?
Often, when I read about EX, I see historical people-related topics about how to ensure that employees are motivated, happy, learning, healthy, committed, or engaged:
- creating a company’s vision to match employee identity or purpose.
- giving employees opportunities to learn, grow, and be healthy
- involving employees in work decisions.
- deploying tailored HR practices (e.g., incentives, careers, learning).
- building team unity and positive relationships at work.
- having attentive leaders.
- tailoring the work setting.
Each of these (and many other) impactful ideas have been proposed, tested, and adapted by industrial/organization (I/O) psychologists over time.
The increased value of EX ideas and practices may come from how it rebrands some of the traditional employee sentiment work. Rebranding Apple from a hardware to a software to a lifestyle company or Amazon from an online retailer to a customer service company has helped both companies grow. Likewise, rather than being a skeptic about the liabilities of EX recycling ideas, let me suggest how EX rebranding might help advance the talent agenda in organizations.
First, EX ideas capture imagination and attention. Words matter and terms like engagement, discretionary energy, commitment, identity, expectancy, and psychological well-being may appeal more to I/O theorists than leaders. When Joseph Pine and James Gilmore defined the experience economy logic in 1999, their words inspired new thinking and ways of crafting a user (customer) experience that went beyond traditional market research terms. Likewise, business and HR leaders may use EX language and ideas to improve the user (employee) experience, particularly in the digital age when sometimes clunky technology is not readily accessible. EX, as Gallup suggests, may also be used to integrate all HR processes related to the life cycle of people at work
Second, EX can be more clearly be linked to customer experience and investor confidence because the “experience” logic has become an overarching way to think about the flow of daily events. The research on how EX links to customer experience is not new but can be reinvigorated with the new EX work to demonstrate the business impact of leaders attending to their people.
Third, EX discussions may open vistas for how employees respond to work. For example, focusing on the EX opened attention to employee responsibility for the desired experience. This has led Marshall Goldsmith to add the personal choice antecedent (“Did I do my best…?”) to traditional employee sentiment questions about boss, pay, and working conditions. EX may also open the way to synthesize more clearly how to help employees respond favorably to their work setting through the essence of their experience—the extent work increases their ability to believe, become, and belong.
But a caution . . .
Organization Matters Even More. Even as EX rebrands and stimulates the people agenda, we must realize that while “organizations don’t think—people do,” organizations shape how people think, act, and feel. In our research (see Victory Through Organization) we found that in predicting business outcomes and customer and investor results, “organization capabilities” (culture, systems, workplace) matters four times more than individual competencies (talent). EX (particularly around technology) alone will not create competitive organizations as employees have to become self-reliant on their skills and on how the organization melds individual competencies into organization capabilities. The most important thing a leader or HR professional can give any employee is an organization that wins in the marketplace because then the EX is possible.
So I hope the shiny object of EX gets put into perspective. It builds on a legacy of exceptional theory, research, and practice. It allows for further insights and actions on how to improve how people work in and find meaning from organizations.
How has the concept of EX helped you and/or your organization make progress on the people agenda?