There’s often a disconnect between academia and the “real world.” Between classroom theory and practical application lies a San Andreas-like fault. Business-related coursework taught me that the employee experience is essential to the bottom line—but in reality, knowing that and doing something about it are two entirely different things.
The employee experience, innovation in the workplace, organizational culture and trust-based leadership are among today’s hottest topics in the workplace. They are on every organization’s list in order to achieve organizational success and employee well-being.
Sounds great, but how do you do it?
As a recent Psychology and Business Administration graduate from Sonoma State University, I was fortunate to attend the 2018 Great Place to Work For All Summit in San Francisco as one of their first-ever student ambassadors. At the Summit, I saw theory in action for the first time—from the greatest workplaces around the globe.
When Organizational Theory Comes to Life
Strictly learning foundational theory of organizational psychology is like memorizing the Dallas Cowboys playbook without ever playing a down of football. For example, in school, we are taught that for an organization to reap the benefits of diversity and capitalize on the individual differences of its employees, trust must be a norm reflected in the organization’s culture.
And, this widespread positive ethical climate always begins at the top of the organization. Leaders who desire ethical cultures must choose to build ethics into the company’s core values in ways that translate into ethical actions for managers and employees. When trust is present, employees gain a sense of psychological safety, are more likely to bring their whole selves to work without fear of judgement, and are able to express their individuality as valuable contributors to innovative thought.
These ideas are compelling, but for a student without real world experience they can be difficult to translate into practice. The Summit, though, threw me right into the game, shoulder pads and all. It was my first experience where everywhere I turned, professionals were detailing how they connect the dots between theory and application.
Here are three practices from some of the world’s Best Workplaces that bring textbook learning to life:
1. Letting employees wear jeans to work—without rules attached—can build trust.
In his keynote address, Tim Ryan, Managing Partner at professional services powerhouse PwC shared that he had recently decided to allow employees to wear jeans at work—something employees had been asking for. The HR team immediately wanted to know whether they should put limitations on this decision. For example, what style of jeans would be allowed? Would acid wash or jeans with holes be ok? Ryan felt that by reining in choices, they were missing an opportunity to build trust. .
"The point of this whole thing is that we trust our employees enough to make the right decision,” he said. Suddenly, it all made sense to me. PwC moved towards a culture of trust and exhibited trust-based leadership by trusting their employees to use their best judgement in deciding what jeans to wear.
In essence, Ryan let go of control, and put the decision into employees’ hands. That expression of trust isn’t what you will read in a textbook, but for me, it brought to life the idea that leaders can build trust with employees in small, unexpected ways that can have a powerful impact.
2. Innovation doesn’t just look good, it feels good too. And you never know where you might find it.
During a focus session titled “Innovation By All – How to Win the Innovation Game” led by Tony Bond, Chief Innovation Officer at GPTW, Ed Frauenheim, Director of Research and Content at GPTW, and Anne Donovan, People Innovation Leader at PwC, we experienced what innovation feels like through an interactive and collaborative creativity workshop where we teamed up to create a business on Mars. In this playful activity, we were asked to imagine a restaurant that Marvin the Martian and other space travelers would want to patronize. (Ours was called FUEL-UP in case you were wondering!)
The exercise was fun. And that was one of the points made by Tony and Ed: letting everyone get involved in innovation fires people up even as it helps generate powerful new ideas for organizations.
We also learned how to “look to the fringes” for innovation within your organization, the same way the Golden State Warriors did in their historical 2015 NBA Championship comeback against Lebron James and the Cleveland Cavaliers. We heard the story of how one of the lowest-ranking members of the Warriors’ coaching staff came up with the critical idea of starting a smaller, faster player against James. That move proved to be the turning point of the series. It took a willingness by Warrior’s coach Steve Kerr to listen to all his people for good ideas.
3. A great culture starts at the top.
To seal the deal, I had the privilege of meeting and taking a photo with Michael Bush, CEO of Great Place to Work at his book-signing table. After meeting him and reading his book, it is apparent that the inclusive, human ideals Bush writes about are what he actually role models through his leadership of Great Place to Work. “I hope our paths cross many times,” Bush said to me. And I could see that same warmth in the way he treated his staff throughout the conference. That was one of the greatest ties between theory and real-world application of all.
Armed with newfound awareness, knowledge and skills, the Summit prepared me to take action towards creating the next generation of socially responsible organizations. The Great Place to Work For All Summit has my highest recommendation for agents of change looking to connect the dots between theory and application, to expand their toolkits and bring innovation home.