Why Letting Employees Be Themselves Is So Darn Good for Business
If you missed this jam when it lit up the web back in 2009, it’s not too late to buckle up and enjoy. (Behold rapping flight attendant David Holmes in the video below.)
Holmes is an oft-cited example of Southwest Airlines’ ethos of promoting employee individuality. The idea has become a hallmark of Southwest’s reputation and certainly sounds nice in theory. It turns out it’s good in practice, too.
That’s the finding of a study from Daniel M. Cable of the London Business School, Harvard professor Francesca Gino, and UNC’s Brad Staats, who took to an Indian call center that was struggling with high burnout.
The researchers theorized that part of the reason for the turnover was an averse reaction from employees to the values instilled during the company’s orientation and training systems, which urged the Indian workers adopt Western accents.
A Test of Individuality
So the researchers tried setting up two different orientation systems in the existing one's place.
One program focused on the individual employees, including a one-hour program that probed the newcomers about their individual skills and work experiences. And at the end, each employee was given a company fleece labeled with their individual name. The second orientation system, instead, featured company leaders speaking about the organization’s history and values, and participants were given badges with the company’s name on them.
The results? The orientation group that placed a premium on individuality increased retention by 47.2 percent over the existing orientation system, and was 26.7 percent less prone to turnover than the orientation group that focused on the company. Meanwhile, customers reported higher satisfaction with the employees who had been through the first, employee-centric orientation.
You might not run a call center, but that data should still show you why it’s important to empower individuality on your teams at every level of your organization. Here’s how.
1. It starts with the start. Perhaps the clearest takeaway from the experiment is that you should make room to stress individuality during the orientation process. They researchers offer instruction on how to do so in an article for the MIT Sloan Management Review. "Encourage employees to answer personalized questions such as 'What is unique about you that leads to your best performance and happiest times at work?' … At Wipro, for example, leaders asked newcomers to reflect on a specific time, at work or at home, when they were acting the way they were 'born to act.'"
2. Debrief deliberately. It might seem odd to suggest that getting a team together at project completion to talk about the project they just completed together would strengthen individuality, but it does just that, says John Baldoni, chair of leadership development at N2Growth. Baldoni says debriefing, engages employees to express their individual experiences after having gone through the communal process of teamwork. "The purpose of the debrief is learning," Baldoni says, "but it’s good for employees to know, 'My boss wants to know my point-of-view and how I felt about the project.'"
3. Brainstorm separately. Research has shown that brainstorming doesn't work best in its most classic representation: A bunch of people spitballing in a conference room. Instead, brainstorming should occur individually before the group comes together. Let your people come up with their best ideas, then bring them into a room and modify once they get together. Not only will this create better ideas, but it will also emphasize the individual members on teams.