Most organizations want to hire employees to perform a set of tasks. So they advertise the available job, offer a competitive compensation package, and a queue forms. The queue is made up of people who need money to pay for their living expenses, such as food and rent.
In a model like this, the job is just a means to an end.
When a new employee is hired under this typical scenario and shows up the first day, the company tells her what work needs to be done and shows her how to act. This approach to employment allows leaders to predict and control what will come out of the job, at least in the short term. But this approach doesn’t produce the most productive, innovative work environment.
Over the last decade, we have been conducting field research on how dozens of companies in a range of industries (including entertainment, software, financial services, manufacturing, retail, consulting, and business process outsourcing) orient new employees. We have found that most organizations’ entry, or “onboarding,” processes share a common goal: to inculcate the organizational culture and teach new employees the job requirements. But we also identified a very different approach that encourages employees to be authentic and express themselves on the job. It isn’t more expensive than traditional approaches, but it does require leaders to adopt a new mindset.
One of the chief features of being human is our longing for opportunities to be valued as our authentic selves. Being valued for who we truly are makes us feel alive. We’ve found that when people gain insight into their unique perspectives and strengths and can use them at work, their work engagement increases — their work is no longer just a means to the end. Most organizations do not tap this power source and, as a result, do not get the best out of their employees.
Our recent research has focused on new hires and how firms can use the onboarding process to encourage authentic self-expression. Entering an organization offers people a rare chance to make a fresh start in a new social setting. It’s an extraordinary opportunity to negotiate one’s identity with new colleagues. And our research shows that it can be powerful, motivating, and even addictive to become known by others as the person you are when you are at your authentic best.
Consider one of the organizations we studied, Wipro BPO, an India-based global leader in the business-process-outsourcing industry. Wipro provides telephone and chat support for its global clients’ customers, who typically are inquiring about services or products (e.g., buying an airline ticket or configuring a printer).
In this industry, organizations routinely experience annual turnover rates ranging from 50% to 70%. Wipro found that too many employees were burning out and quitting only a few months into the job. The job can be stressful not only because it involves helping frustrated customers with their problems but also because Indian call-center employees are often expected to “de-Indianize” many elements of their behavior, such as adopting a Western accent and attitude.
As in many other companies, Wipro’s traditional entry process was tightly centered on teaching the company culture and necessary job behaviors to new employees. In 2011, with 605 new Wipro employees across three different operations centers as our participants, we conducted a field experiment testing whether an authentic approach would lead to greater performance and retention than the traditional entry approach. We randomly assigned incoming groups of employees to one of three conditions, which offered newcomers a different first-day interaction. The onboarding process was identical after the first day.
Our individual-identity condition focused on newcomers’ unique perspectives and strengths and how they could bring them to the job.
In the one-hour session:
In the organizational-identity condition, groups started with the assumption that newcomers would perform best when they developed pride in their organizational affiliation and accepted the organization’s norms and values.
In a one-hour session:
Our results showed that socialization focused on individuals’ authentic identity led to greater customer satisfaction and over 33% greater retention during the first six months on the job, as compared to both organizational socialization and Wipro’s traditional approach.
We replicated these effects in other settings, including controlled lab experiments, and found that shaping entry processes around individual, rather than organizational, identity has beneficial effects on employees’ attitudes at work, such as their engagement and job satisfaction, and also reduces turnover and enhances performance.
Authentic self-expression isn’t just important because it makes us feel better: When new hires introduce their authentic selves to their organization, both they and their employer perform better. Our research shows that when employees enter into relationships with others who recognize and verify their authentic self-views, they are more likely to share information and collaborate with colleagues, resulting in greater productivity. And when employees feel they can bring both their heads and their hearts to work, innovation and creativity thrive, and customers notice that employees authentically care about them.
Our authenticity perspective encourages newcomers to not only maintain their unique values, perspectives, and strengths but also to use their strengths to solve organizational problems. By making authenticity a core value from the start of employment, organizations may not only inspire greater commitment and effort but also strategically allow for the type of “positive deviance” that keeps them fresh and agile.
Dan Cable is professor of organizational behavior at London Business School.
Francesca Gino is a professor at Harvard Business School, a faculty affiliate of the Behavioral Insights Group at Harvard Kennedy School, and the author of Sidetracked: Why Our Decisions Get Derailed, and How We Can Stick to the Plan (Harvard Business Review Press, 2013). She cochairs an HBS executive education program on applying behavioral economics to organizational problems. Twitter: @francescagino.
Bradley Staats is an associate professor at the University of North Carolina’s Kenan-Flagler Business School. Twitter: @brstaats.
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