Merger. When 2 Cultures Come Together.

A merger is the integration of two organizations into one. The reasons to do so are numerous: economies of scale, industry capacity reduction, growth, acquisition of know-how … But the data are impressively dramatic. Most mergers fail and destroy value. One of the main reasons is because there is not enough focus on cultural compatibility.
I propose these 10 “guidelines for culture management during mergers”.
  • Integrate “culture” in the process of the due diligence. Do this early on.
  • Assess both cultures to detect differences and more importantly the common ground.
  • Take mutual appreciation as point of departure. Avoid the pitfall to focus on weaknesses. Search for compatibility, synergy, commonality.
  • Try to appropriate cultural differences and commonalities from the very beginning, during the merger negotiations. Negotiators should be very aware of how the culture of the other company works.
  • Appoint someone to deal with culture change. Make sure that this is someone with impact.
    Don’t confuse this person with a change manager. Change is very often about culture. But someone who deals with culture engineering will continuously look for ways of reinforcing the culture, independently of any project.
  • Define a third culture, next to the existing two cultures. Avoid that one group has to adapt to the culture of the other group. Both merging groups should evolve versus this new third culture. Make sure that this is clear for everyone.
  • Make sure the new culture is tangible. Look for early beacons of culture change. Many small initiatives, will make the culture change. Ut is also important to detect inconsistencies between the current operation model and the target operational model.
  • Make sure that important decisions are made in a culturally neutral way. The risk exists that one group will impose decisions over the other. This will create a quilt-culture instead of a homogeneous culture. For every strategic decision a cultural risk assessment must be made, and actions should be define to neutralize negative fall-out.
  • Design processes and interfaces between the various parts of the organisation with the third culture in mind. Develop ways to detect cultural short-circuits.
  • When designing a new culture, adopt an empathic way of working. Think about how the new culture will feel like. Emotion, Experience, Effort are three elements to integrate in the culture design. Take into consideration the doubts of people and address them early on. This is more important when the merger took place between former competitors.
The success of a merger should not be a matter of coincidence. Even though the integration of two organizations does not follow predictable paths, organizations can do a lot to avoid the collision of two cultures.

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Executive Pay is on the rise. Which role can HR play?

From a legal point of view, there is no problem with high executive pay. But companies should look at the adverse impact on employee motivation and on leadership reputation. The perceived injustice of exuberant executive pay also harms your organisation. It might decredibilize its leadership and hamper the execution of the strategy.

Public Outcry on Executive Pay

CEO Pay has been on the radar for a long time. How much can a CEO earn? What determines the contribution of a CEO and how can we measure that contribution. Articles in newspapers illustrate the public outcry:

The Data

One thing is sure. CEO Pay is on the rise. Equilar has published a list of the 100 highest paid CEOs in the US.These are the observations:

  • 100 million Dollar pay packages are back.
  • Pay of the best paid CEOs is increasing
  • The stretch between the CEO pay and the median employee pay can be as high has 5908. The CEO of Weight Watchers International earned 5908 times the median wage of her employees, mainly due to the low median income.

And also in the UK there has been an increase of CEO Pay. The median pay of chief executives (CEOs) of FTSE100 firms has risen by 11% between 2016 and 2017. Check the research by the High Pay Centre and the CIPD. These are the main conclusions:

  • The mean pay ratio between FTSE 100 CEOs and the mean pay package of their employees is 145:1, which is higher than last year (128:1 in 2016, 146:1 in 2015).
  • Just seven FTSE 100 CEOs are women, an increase from six in 2016 and five in 2015. While women make up 7% of FTSE 100 CEOs, they earn just 3.5% of total pay.

The recommendations of the study is to report the pay ratios immediately and not wait until 2019. The reports pleads for more transparency. Also they recommend that the remuneration committee takes the overall compensation within the organisation in consideration when taking a decision on executive pay. And finally they argue in favour of expanding the evaluation of CEO performance to non-financial parameters.

The Role of HR

Can HR play an influence in this process? Yes it can.
HR should be a member of the remuneration committee. They have the knowledge and the access to the data. They can train board members who do not have an HR background to take a balanced view on executive pay. And of course HR can make the link between executive pay evolution and the practices in the rest of the organisation.
But most importantly, HR can also assess the consequences of the decisions of the remuneration committee on the rest of the organization. The psychology of justice is an important aspect of this. And now that companies are forced to inform the public about executive pay and about the pay ratio, it would we wise to take decisions with the psychological impact in mind.

The Psychology of Justice

From a legal point of view high CEO pay poses no problem. But from an ethical and psychological point of view organizations should think carefully about their executive pay policy.

The psychological impact of perceived injustice is tremendous.

The psychological impact of perceived injustice is tremendous. How can an organization justify an increase of CEO pay when overall income has not evolved accordingly? Remuneration committees had better adopted a more empathic approach and should integrate an analysis of the consequences of their decisions in their decision processes.
There are different kinds of justice. Procedural justice is about the correct and fair application of processes and procedures. This is the kind of justice that remuneration committees often use to justify their decisions/ We have followed the procedure. The remuneration committee has been appointed following the rules of corporate governance. The problem with this kind of justice is that it is not relevant when there are issues with that other kind of justice, namely the distributive justice. If people feel that the distribution of pay is unjust, procedures become irrelevant. And one could say that this is a kind of unhealthy envy, but people who say this do not understand human psychology and the importance of fair treatment.
The argument that the CEO sustainably drives company performance is false, some exceptions taken aside. For instance during an IPO, the perception of managerial quality seems to influence the share price. But this is logical, as there aren’t much data on future share price. So analysts look at the CEO and are influenced by the charismatic qualities. And in general, charisma seems to have an impact on share price (and executive pay itself), but not on overall company performance. On the contrary, high executive pay may even threaten company performance. And as you can learn from the list with newspaper articles, there is increased activism against high executive pay. But it seems to come more from investors than from employees, who are less likely to protest openly against the remuneration package of their boss.
Leadership is a matter of making sure people go in the right direction and are willing and able to perform sustainably. And to do that, they need a context of trust. Exuberant pay and inexplainable pay increases do not inspire trust. And therefore this weakens a leader and it weakens commitment.
Inequality is only justified when the group can benefit as a whole. So the question the remuneration committee should ask is:

“how can we motivate an executive in such a way that he or she wants to join, stay long enough and perform.”

If the answer to the question is only or mainly money, disguised in long term incentives, there’s a problem. Do you want a mercenary or a leader? Do you want to talk money or mission?


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We all want autonomy. Really?

Running Away from Restrictions

Someone left the public sector to work in the private sector. He wanted to break free from all the restrictions, regulations and fixed ways of working that are so typical for government service. So he went. And he joined a private enterprise. And only then he realised how perception can fool you. There are also rules and regulations in private companies. These might change faster or more whimsically, but they’re there.
And then he realised that he had left a predictable environment of restrictiveness to join an environment of unpredictable, meaningless and scorching controls.


We talk a lot about autonomy in organisations. We say that autonomy is good for our customers because employees can take decisions faster. And with more empathy. We say it’s good for employees because they can benefit from more freedom to act. This is good for their mental state. And we say it’s good for organisations because they can become more agile and have to invest less in control. This drives performance.

But it’s too often a facade.

Alas. Never before have companies invested so much in control and restriction as today. Sometimes legislation forces them. But often it’s their choice.  Autonomy seems to be often not much more than a cheap and cosmetic act of employer branding. Companies embrace the principles of agile working. But they only want the flexibility, not the autonomy. Or they do not change the old culture and see agile as yet another method that will drive business results. But if the new method is not compatible with the old culture it might destroy business value.

Freedom and Autonomy

True. There is never a complete state of autonomy. There is never complete freedom. But sometimes you are free from something and you are free to do something. These two kinds of freedom are also present in organisations. You can be free from fear, burdens, humiliating treatment, demeaning processes and a bullying boss. And you can be free to take initiatives, experiment, make mistakes, be yourself. Too often there is not even the first kind of freedom. A lot of organisational practices are there to control people, to steer them into directions you want them to go. And sometimes you want to be free from control to end up in an environment where there is no freedom to act anyway.
And I see many organisations coming back to more control. Sometimes there’s a take-over by a more conservative force that has nostalgic feelings about how organisations operated in the 70ies and 80ies. But sometimes organisations and leaders are just disappointed or tired. Because building a culture of autonomy does not come easy.
If you want people to behave autonomously you have to invest. You need to invest in leadership, in flexible structures, in different ways of allocating budgets, in enhanced responsibilities and capabilities for people working close to the customers.
And above all, you need to invest in trust and meaningfulness.

Meaningful control and Liberating Autonomy

I am the last one to say that there cannot be any kind of control. Not at all. But we need to strive for a maximum level of autonomy within a meaningful and necessary frame. Controls and checks are very meaningful in e.g. hazardous environments. Many organisations exaggerate and think they need to implement a tyranny of KPIs, a multitude of procedures and a restrictive approach to learning. They are mistaken. People will make mistakes anyway in spite of these controls. They will “misbehave” and they will derail. They will behave exactly the way you want them to. You will get what you measure. You will get what you pay for.
When someone makes a mistake in a restrictive context, you can always blame either the person or the failing procedure. When they make mistakes in an autonomous context you can expect them to come forward, learn and come up with a solution. They will not hide mistakes, they will solve them. They will not wait for instructions, they will decide for the good of the company and the customer. They will not hide behind regulations, they will apply them when possible and challenge them when necessary. For many leaders this smells like ‘hard to handle’. Leaders will need to build down their control but be very available to explain, lead the way, enforce values, help when there are exceptions and support and defend when there is trouble.

Invest in Independence

So, excessive investments in control turns people into a kind of system components, that run on programmed instructions you are wrong. Instead, if you invest in the right level of autonomy you will bring your people to a higher level of independence. Everyone will benefit from it. But to make people flexible, you need to give them slack. And have the confidence to trust.

If you invest in the right level of autonomy you will bring your people to a higher level of independence

And if you only invest in autonomous ways of working to cut costs, you might be mistaken. People will smell your intentions and you will be unable to build a genuine feeling of freedom. You might end up worse.
And make no mistake, I have seen a lot of committed people in the public sector, who benefit from predictable regulations and who use the degrees of freedom resourcefully. That’s because they might not be free from regulations (it’s the law), but they are free to act. So before you leave your organisation, appreciate what you leave behind and assess where you are going to. You might be surprised.
Do we all want autonomy? Not really.

Fairness in Performance Management

I was intrigued by the title of the McKinsey Article. Fairness in performance management.


Fairness and Leadership

Fairness is one of the main elements on which sustainable leadership is based, as I have described in my book. Performance management is a tool for leaders. So it is clear that it should encompass the idea of fairness.
As Cedric Velghe rightfully points out it might be better to see performance management as a process to make progress happen, rather than a process of evaluation.
Every time we speak of evaluation, we get into the realm of justice and fairness. Evaluation is often linked to salary evolution. Therefore the process of performance appraisal often becomes a process of biased negotiation. It even gets worse when we add forced distribution (who still does this?).

Too much

Also, could it be that we overload the performance management approach with too many targets? And that we pollute it by adding administrative and budgetary elements?
We should ask ourselves which of the 3 functions of performance management as described in the McKinsey article, adds more value to the organisation:

  1. linking employees’ goals to business goals
  2. coaching
  3. differentiating compensation. Should the main function not be motivation of people?

In any case, we should explicitly choose what we want to get out of it.

Do We Need It?

I am convinced that we need a process that is focussed on progress and results. But it should be motivating (and fair).
And we should not forget that motivated people do not need such a process. We know that we cannot motivate demotivated people with this process. So let’s be careful with what we do.
But the performance management approach could be a way to:

  • create meaningfulness and direction (what do we need for whom and why),
  • help people to develop their competencies (how can we get there)
  • develop real autonomy (a balance between trust and control).

How to Improve?

Here are some suggestions from my side:

  • Talk about purpose management, rather than about performance management. Talking about purpose makes it easier to discuss the progress
  • Focus on informal ways of influencing progress. The 5 minute conversation a leader has might be more impactful than the formal review
  • See leadership as a process that helps people move towards the creation of value. Or put in another way: making sure people are willing and able to perform sustainably.

Bad Leadership

I have seen leaders do the reverse. And the deplorable way they used performance management was a symptom of their inability to lead. So let’s work on this. Performance management should be a light tool that nudges leaders into productive leadership behaviour.
If we implement or review a process of performance management in an organisation, let’s think it through.

Don't Copy Spotify. It won't Work.

The promise of Agile

When I first saw the films about how Spotify had organised itself, I was immediately inspired. This is it, I thought. This is how organisations should function. Organically aligned, flexible, purpose-driven. I remember showing it to my colleagues in the executive committee in 2015.

Many organisations want to embrace the principles of agile. And they all watch the Spotify movies as a source of inspiration. But they forget one thing. The agile way of working is inherent to the DNA of the organisation. It adapted and adopted the principles of agile working as it grew.
An organisation with cultural legacy has a harder time doing that. It’s like changing brains. You cannot do it.
In my work as advisor I meet many organisations who try to become agile. But often they implement the agile principles in their own familiar way. A hierarchical organisation implements them in a hierarchical way. A controlling manager uses the agile methods to exert more control. He does not change overnight. An executive committee wants to make their organisation agile, but does not apply the principles for themselves.
Companies should stop wanting to be like Spotify. They are not. And they should integrate principles of agile as they go along. And they can look for ways how they can use the past to shape the future in a more agile way.
The promise of agile is strong. But the delivery is difficult.

Shift of Culture

It’s a shift of culture, more than it is the implementation of a method.
And this is not new. There are many examples of organisational innovation that faced similar problems.

  • When an organisation introduces a quality system that is culturally incompatible, it becomes a burdening administrative system.
  • If a hospital introduces JCI – a quality system for health care organisations – without integrating it culturally, it becomes a nuisance.
  • An organisation that wants to introduce lean thinking without changing the leadership approach, creates an empty box.
  • And when an organisation introduces autonomous work with the sole purpose of cutting cost, it won’t work.


So when managers yell “we need to become just like Spotify”, they make a terrible mistake. It says more about what they think of their own company, than about what they think about agile ways of working.
Wanting to be just like another company is naive and unproductive. And even when you copy its products and services, you cannot copy its culture.

So, don’t copy Spotify. Find your own way to thrive.

I will be speaking on the Conference on Agile in Berlin on August 29th.

Purpose, the Newest Toy for CEOs


‘The engagement hype threatens to make the manager a chief horse whisperer’, I wrote in a previous article. A manager/dog trainer who hopes to entice his people with the right tricks to still get the targeted engagement score and the corresponding bonus. In the days following the publication of the article, I received the same response from a remarkable number of readers: engagement through ‘purpose’ is different, that really makes a difference.
Well, let’s have a look. Purpose is something like the pursuit of a higher goal, a meaning. To explain the concept better, I’m borrowing the following known anecdote, I’m sure you know it:
It is 1962, smack in the middle of the Cold War. The US and the Soviet Union are embroiled in a violent space race to be the first to put a man on the moon. During a working visit to NASA, President Kennedy sees an elderly cleaner in a hangar struggling with a broom. He interrupts the tour, walks up to the man and says, ‘Hello, I am Jack Kennedy. What are you doing with that broom?’  To which the cleaner replies: ‘I’m helping to get a man on the moon, Mr. President’.
Corny, I know. It always makes me a bit nauseous when I hear the anecdote in yet another keynote presentation. It is a variant of a religion class I was served with at the age of 12: ‘A passer-by sees three masons and asks what they are doing. The first says: ‘I am stacking some stones’. The second states: ‘I am laying bricks for a wall’. The third says, ‘I am building a cathedral.’ Sigh. Yes, that is purpose.
Don’t get me wrong. Purpose is about giving meaning to your organisation and your job. And that is extremely important. Why do we do what we do? Would anyone care if we as a company no longer exist tomorrow? Where do we make a difference in this world and how does each employee of this company contribute?


The first initiatives around purpose were authentically lived, sincere and embedded in the DNA of the organisation. I recently spoke with Omar Ishrak, an alumnus of King’s College London and currently the CEO of Medtronic, one of the world’s largest Medtech companies. In 1949, the founder of Medtronic expressed his purpose in a crystal-clear manner: ‘Alleviate pain, restore health, and extend life.’
Nothing has changed that higher goal in the past 70 years. Every employee of Medtronic has the same concern to make this purpose come alive. It is more than a slogan or a poster on the wall. It is the DNA of the company. No meeting goes by without patients being present to testify about the role of Medtronic technology in their lives. Family members of deceased patients testify about where technology is failing or are being involved in product development.
Omar Ishrak connects purpose to his own life story. He lost his mother in his home country of Bangladesh to kidney failure, because they had no access to a kidney dialysis machine in hospital. He strives for another, affordable healthcare system to make medical technology accessible to everyone in the world. Authentically lived, sincere and consequent.

Illuminated CEOs

But when you look around these days, you see that the purpose trend is unfortunately already perverted into a management trick, a hype. It is the CEO’s newest toy. Illuminated CEOs suddenly feel that their organisation must also have a ‘purpose’. They philosophise together in visionary think tanks and roam about the keynote circuit to talk about their high-minded social ideals.
Sounds nice, until you talk to a number of employees on the shop floor, where little of those ideals can be found. ‘Making a profit, that’s what we are expected to do here’, is what you hear. Employees do not feel involved in a purpose that is imposed on them. Not everyone gets the same meaning from work.
With the help of communication agencies, campaigns are rolled out to desperately encourage employees to testify about their own purpose. No more bets please. We are back to where we started. Sometimes I wish we could go back to companies being without fuss. Ronseal’s ‘It does exactly what it says on the tin’. Simple and clear. It must be my Flemish roots.
This blog was originally posted on the site of King’s College London and is republished with the permission of the author.

Agile is (also) a Matter of Trust.

How Might We Become Agile?

Many organisations have ‘discovered’ agile working practices. But they face big challenges. The advantages of agile are clear: faster processes, a more rewarding work culture and enhanced flexibility. But the question they face is how exactly they might become agile. Most organisations do not have a history of flexible work practices, unlike organisations like Spotify. Spotify has crafted its entire culture on agile thinking. The others need to go through a change process.

It will not work if the organisation is not ready to go all the way.

Organisations have developed (bad) habits over the years. It’s not with a stroke of a pen, or a flashy presentation that people will change their behaviors. And it’s not by implementing only the mechanics of agile that an organization becomes agile.
One can replace organizational structure with “squads”, “tribes” and “”chapters”. And one can introduce daily stand-up meetings and scrum-like habits. An organisation can introduce agile coaches to support the way of working. But still you are not sure that despite all these efforts, an agile culture will arise.
Every new organization is as bad as the previous one, unless all stakeholders show commitment to embrace a new way of working consistently and radically. It’s always about behaviour and intentions.

Autonomy & Trust

Agile will not work if the board and the executive committee do not endorse it and adopt themselves agile ways of working. Agile strategy n become the basis an organization crafts its future culture upon.
An agile way of working assumes autonomy. Autonomy can only exist if there is trust. Trust is a fragile but essential element of culture. Trust needs confirmation all the time. Therefore it’s better to introduce agile slowly, build experiences and go step by step. A Bing bang will hardly ever be the right approach.
Leaders who apply agile principles should try and find a balance. Between alignment and autonomy, between steering and supporting. Agile methods can be used for both sides of the balance. But leaders who use dailies only for control are undermining the agile culture in its essence.
Some elements of an agile culture are even counter-intuitive. People like to achieve things and work together. But at the same time people are also competitive and focused on personal survival. So one of the biggest challenges is to make sure that people adopt agile principles is to remove barriers for coöperation. Organisations should select people on their ability to work together and coach them.
When organizations change and move towards agility, they have to build and maintain trust at the same time. If they fail to do that, agile will be just another empty phrase that is pushed through the organisation.
Agile is (also) a matter of trust.
I will be speaking at the Agile Conference in Berlin on August 29th. Download the Agile Manifesto Infographic  or click on the picture below to go to the conference information.


What's the Purpose?

Purpose. How organizations and people can complement each other


What makes us go to work — quick answer? Money. The logic is as impeccable as it is inescapable. We have needs — for food, heat and shelter, for internet and Netflix box sets. These things cost money, so we have to sell our time.

So far so good. If we were rational beings, homines economici, and money was the reason we work, we would of course do no more than the bare minimum in return for our wages. That kinda makes sense: in economic transactions, we tend to sacrifice the least possible in return for what we obtain. We don’t typically give the butcher another fiver over and above the price of our pork chops, and the butcher doesn’t typically throw in an extra chop, free of charge.

You could take a similar perspective about organizations. Why do they exist and do what they do? Commercial organizations provide goods or services to customers, in order to make a profit for the owners — much like people give their time and effort in return for a salary. Public institutions or non-profit organizations are not looking for a financial profit, but have other external performance expectations and targets, which fulfil a role similar to that of shareholder dividends.

This perspective on both individual and organizational motivation is very transactional and, let’s be honest, a bit simplistic. Not many people and organizations actually function like this. Most people and organizations make trade-offs that are more complicated than this. Yet we seem to pay a lot of attention to these transactional aspects.

But It’s Not That Simple, Really

So what more trade-offs, other than time or effort for money can we see? Let’s look at how we, as individuals, might do things over and above the bare minimum needed to earn our keep (and not lose our job).

Imagine a colleague asks us for help, and we drop what we’re doing to respond. You could argue that there is an ulterior, material motive: perhaps we do so because we are building up relational capital that means they will help us in the future. But we don’t really know for certain that they will reciprocate, so in any case, helping others for nothing tangible in return goes beyond the transactional domain. When we put in extra effort to help a colleague, that feels good, and if it means that in the future they act on our call for help, that is more like an added bonus.

Many of us also take pride in our work. We could submit a document without proofreading it, and with typos and unnecessary repetitions left in. Will that get us fired? Most likely not. A flawless document rarely even means that the person receiving it would be able to do their job better. It hardly makes any material difference… Yet we put extra effort into making sure that it’s the best possible document we can produce. And that feels good. Even if it then also helps us grow a reputation of a dedicated person with an eye for detail, that too is an added bonus, and not the main reason.

Can organizations similarly transcend the lowly transactional domain? Consider an employer doing more than simply paying workers the minimum wage needed to keep them. Think of benefits in kind like free coffee, a pleasant working environment, even sacrificing organizational capacity — through dedicating the time of certain employees or through paying consultants — into developing a positive work culture. Is there an ulterior, material motive behind this all? After all, it helps attract the best candidates, supports staff retention and may well boost productivity too. But it’s rare for there to be a cool and considered business case based on just financial or material costs and benefits of doing so. It’s more a case of ‘doing the right thing’ — which is like the organizational equivalent of ‘a good feeling’.

So there’s more to working — as a person or as an organization — than minimizing costs and maximizing revenue. But what we’ve just seen is really just a case of tweaking the boundary conditions. When we work to earn money, of course it’s nicer if we and our colleagues help each other out, and if we find pleasure in doing a good job. But we hardly go to work in order to help colleagues out or in order to generate pride in our work. The same applies to organizations. They must generate a profit or meet performance targets, and of course it’s good in its own right of they can do so while having a good reputation as an employer. But they’re not in business in order to create a pleasant work environment and a positive culture.

The Missing Bit

What is missing in this picture is purpose.

Most of us (going out on a limb here, anyone with robust evidence to the contrary, please leave a comment! :-), deep down, have a desire to make the world a better place, not just for ourselves, but also for others. We have a purpose which is bigger than just doing the bare minimum, and serving just our own individual, narrow purpose. (80,000 hours analysed 60 studies on job satisfaction. Their advice for a fulfilling career: “Do what contributes to the world”.)

Some of people feel this urge really strongly, and are not deterred by risk or practical constraints — they start their own company, or they go and volunteer for Médecins Sans Frontières. But it is not because others are not so eager to gamble with their wealth and health, or because their ambitions are a bit more modest, that they don’t have a purpose. Providing people with a solid, good-looking kitchen table, a reliable car, tasty and healthy paté or neatly-papered walls, or solving people’s problems with opening a bank account, returning a misdelivered item or applying for housing benefit… it all makes for a better world than mediocre or poor variants of these and more.

Shouldn’t that be the purpose of the organizations in which these people work, rather than for the people? For sure. “The Business Case for Purpose”, a report from Harvard Business Review Analytical Services, found that more than 80% of senior managers and executives believe purpose matters for employee satisfaction and customer loyalty. But only 46% thought their company has a strong sense of purpose.


But there is a real opportunity in combining the sense of purpose of an organization and the sense of purpose of the individuals it comprises. That means more than just communicating the organization’s mission, and hoping that workers will get it and be motivated by its rousing words.

Individuals and organization can help each other in a mutually beneficial two-way process, helping them both develop, refine and clarify their purposes. This in itself encourages alignment — not through repackaging or fudging the meaning of words, but because the connection is made at the deeper level. If you can align around a common desire to contribute to a better world, then the detail is likely to take care of itself. Furthermore,

The purpose of the organization and the purpose of the individual can be woven together. But before the two can be fused together, we need to let go of the unthinking assumption that people and businesses, in general, are driven by material gain (and non-profits by targets). In the absence of a clear purpose, that thought is unfortunately what dominates.

Let us be clearer about what our true purpose is — as individuals, and as leaders in the organizations where we work. As soon as we do this, the whole motivational tradeoff can change. And then the real magic can begin.

This post was written by Koen Smets and Paul Thoresen. It appeared originally on

The Mysterious Vanishing of Good Soldiers

Why we should not use the phrase “good soldiers” any longer. It dates back from an industrial era when organisations focused on operational excellence. We need an army of the finest.
good soldiers

Good Soldiers

“We need good soldiers”. It’s a phrase that I have to hear too often. It resonates with an industrial era that demanded iron discipline and gave us perfect officers that we had to follow.
The Chief Executive Officer, the Chief Financial Officer and even the HR officer, will keep on lingering around for a while, the industries that need soldiers, however, are fading.
We can still find them in organisations that practice “operational excellence”. They’re built upon repetitive processes that need to be implemented by people that we want to behave as machines. And they are fading because just of that: we now have intelligent machines that can do that kind of work much better than their human counterparts.
Unfortunately, the term “good soldiers” is frequented in all kinds of organisations. By it, management refers to somebody with just enough intelligence to do the job, not ambitious, not critical and obedient. Low maintenance. Average.

Small People

By maintaining good soldiers, an organisation is keeping their people small, and the reasoning behind this is that you need people to do monkey jobs, while not spending too much time, money and effort on them. We know what will happen with the monkey jobs. And if you haven’t automated these jobs already, you are lagging behind your competition anyway. In fact, you’re overspending, as automated processes will cost you much less than employees.
It should management’s task to find people that can bring real value to the mission of the organisation. Or find, nourish and develop the talent that lies in people that gives us a unique advantage. Don’t keep them small, let them blossom. And contrary to common belief, most people have that special “thing”. If an organisation needs a certain talent, we should be able to develop those talents or find and attract people that have that talent in high quantity and quality. Because great people will attract other great people. Average people will attract average people. Just look at the market these days and you will notice that some organisations are attracting all the top talent.

Army of the Finest

This is an important fact for all organisations, but maybe even more for start-ups. This process works as an avalanche, and once you’re in it, it will be hard to escape from it.
To win your war, you will not need average, good soldiers, but an army of the finest.
This post appeared originally as an article on linkedin.

What a Gas Law Can Teach Us About Well-being.

Gas Law

The Gas Law

It always amazes me how we seem to neglect a simple law of nature.
(a) What happens when you increase temperature? Pressure goes up.
(b) What happens when you increase pressure? Temperature goes up.
This is a simple application of Guy-Lussac’s Gas Law:

P/T = k

(Pressure over Temperature is constant)
So if a tyre heats up because of warm weather or because you drive the car, the pressure in the tyre goes up. And if you don’t do anything the tyre might explode. The only ways of dealing with it is (1) to stop driving, (2) to put the car in the shade, (3) to release pressure by opening the piston and (4) to invest invest in a new stronger tyre to replace the old tyre.


You could use this law as a metaphor for what happens in organisations and the impact on Well-Being. What happens when temperature goes up (fear, uncertainty) temperature rises. People feel the pressure and react to it.
What happens when pressure increases (more things to do, change, …) then temperatures goes up (people feel uncertain, tired (no pun intended) or even exhausted.
This is a simplified application of Bakker’s Job Demands Resources (JDR) model. People will feel strain (temperature) when there is increased workload (pressure). Unless there are resources that provide a counterweight. These resources bring energy and finally motivation. There are both personal and contextual resources.

The solution when this happens is:
(1) give people time to recover or to stop working (possible?), (2) provide measures to cool the system down, like temporary reinforcement or work reschules, (3) give people the resources to handle the pressure themselves, (4) invest in contextual and personal factors that increase resilience.
And you need to work on all aspects. But if you work on (3) and (4), you might not need to invest in (1) and (2). You cannot give someone a course on mindfulness to strengthen personal resilience, without looking for contextual measures to enhance overall resilience.

Work harder

People can work a lot if you give them the right and supportive context. But very often the phrase that comes after the “if” is forgotten and all that remains is:

Our people can work harder

Leaders can massively influence the contextual resources and leaders can support people to develop personal resources. And of course one could work on the workload itself. The latter lever is not always available, or there is no willingness to intervene. Working harder is a basis for growth, many people think. But it’s not a sustainable way of thinking as there are limits to working hard(er).
We can make work a source of energy by focussing on job quality, social support, easy organisation design, meaningfulness, autonomy, leadership, …
And we can help people develop their own energy sources through personal development.
So when you know that pressure will go up, you can anticipate the increase of temperature. It all boils down to providing resources that have a positive impact on the strain reaction. And if there’s an increased temperature without a clear cause, you will need to investigate.
If you do not anticipate you will not only increase the strain reaction, you will also destroy motivation. And if that is happening, you might be worse of.

The Right Amount

It’s not easy to anticipate. Often organisations and their leaders feel compelled to move fast and have no time in preparing the change. The collateral damage might be high.
So the challenge lies in finding “the right amount” and “the right timing“. There’s the right amount of work and there’s the right amount of well-being protecting and enhancing measures. It’s not an easy balance to find. Both personal and contextual resources evolve over time. Reactions to measures are individual. Well-being is individual. And so even when you have implemented a well-being program with the best of intentions, or even when you have prepared a change meticulously, it still might not suffice for one and be an overkill for the other employee.
The answer to this lies probably in giving the handle to the ones in the driver’s seat and making sure they can impact the choice of road and the speed even when they cannot decide on the direction.
Think of the Gas Law: temperature and pressure are related. If one goes up, the other follows.
And remember

There’s always something you can do to make it better.

I hope this blog makes you think. Share it if you like it.