To Get More Out of Workers, Invest More in Them

Bob Chapman, chief executive of Barry-Wehmiller Companies, and Raj Sisodia, a founder of Conscious Capitalism, are the authors of "Everybody Matters."

We perform better when our most pressing needs are met. That is common sense, and it is also supported by a raft of research. Even so, it’s far easier to treat people like machines, without worrying about how they’re feeling.

When I ask business leaders whether they believe that their employees perform better when they are happier, healthier and more fulfilled, the answer is always yes. When I then ask if they systematically invest in making their employees happier, healthier and more fulfilled, the answer is almost invariably no.

The truth is that most leaders don’t think much about what the people who work for them are feeling or how meeting their needs influences their productivity.

What fuels people at work is deceptively simple. We want to feel valued and valuable — cared for by our bosses and colleagues and encouraged to develop and express our talents.

We want to matter and we also want the work we do to matter. We hunger to make our own mark and to be a part of a larger community engaged in a mission beyond ourselves.

These needs begin at the earliest stages of our lives. Feeling loved and cared for is critical to our survival and to our sense of security and trust throughout life – something the researcher and psychologist John Bowlby called “a secure base.”

At the same time, we have a need to separate and individuate – to establish our own identities. In a perfect world, our need for individuality would smoothly coexist with our need to be intimately connected with others and part of a larger community.

Instead, our early experiences are more complex, our needs aren’t always met, and they bump up against one another. The consequence is that we grow up with varying degrees of insecurity about ourselves and our relationships.

All this plays out in the workplace. Whether we are conscious of it or not, we transfer our core childhood needs into our adult relationships. It’s no wonder that the highest drivers of employee satisfaction and engagement on the job include “my supervisor genuinely cares about my well-being” and “I have the opportunity to do what I do best at work.” Feeling valued and valuable is the optimal fuel.

No chief executive I have met appreciates and articulates this deeply human drama more clearly than Bob Chapman, who owns and runs a company called Barry-Wehmiller Companies, based in St. Louis. Over the last 40 years, Mr. Chapman has taken a small, failing tool-and-die business founded by his father and built it into a company with an annual revenue of $2 billion. Along the way, Barry-Wehmiller has achieved a 15 percent compounded rate of return to investors.

Mr. Chapman has also become an evangelist for something he calls truly human leadership, which he defines as “sending people home safe, healthy and fulfilled.” I first heard him speak seven months ago at an event sponsored by the organization Conscious Capitalism. Over the last couple of weeks, I read “Everybody Matters: The Extraordinary Power of Caring for Your People Like Family,” a book that Mr. Chapman wrote with Raj Sisodia, a founder of Conscious Capitalism.

The book tells the story of Mr. Chapman’s transformation as a leader and a human being, and how he translated that into his company.

“My business education had ignored the question of how my leadership would impact the lives of other people,” he wrote. “It was mostly about how to use people to further my own financial success. I was taught to view people as functions and objects to be used and manipulated to achieve my own goals rather than as full-fledged human beings with hopes, dreams, fears and aspirations every bit as legitimate as my own.”

Today, the company is built around this guiding principle: “We measure success by the way we touch the lives of people.”

Mr. Chapman explained what that means by saying, “We have seven thousand people, and each and every one of them is somebody’s precious child. Everyone wants to be valued as someone’s precious child, and no adult wants to be treated as a child.”

A turning point in Mr. Chapman’s journey was the day he walked past a locked storeroom containing inventory parts in one of his factories.

“That practice said loudly to our people, ‘We don’t trust you,’” he wrote. “It was humiliating. We began doing away with all such trust-destroying and demeaning practices.”

“It’s a fundamentally optimistic view of people and their possibilities,” said Rhonda Spencer, the company’s head of human resources. “Trust is given here, not earned. It’s our belief that given the opportunity, people want to do a great job and perform and make things better every day.”

During the economic downturn in 2008, the company suffered financially. “We asked ourselves, ‘What would a caring family do in this situation?’” Mr. Chapman said. “Rather than layoffs, we started offering furloughs. People could take them whenever they wanted to, and some took them to help ensure that needier colleagues wouldn’t have to do so. We didn’t have to lay off anyone.”

Days at Barry-Wehmiller factories begin with a 15-minute “touch” meeting for all employees. Rather than focus on weaknesses and shortcomings at these meetings, the emphasis is on recognizing and celebrating people for what they have done right and well.

I’m not in a position to assess how well Mr. Chapman and his leaders live their message, and there are doubtlessly ways they fall short. They don’t pay above-average wages, for example, and except in a couple of factories, they don’t offer employees any form of profit-sharing. At the same time, they offer flexible hours, opportunities to rise rapidly through the ranks, time off to do service in the community, educational assistance and a powerful commitment to treating people as whole human beings.

For too long, the primary value exchange between employees and their employers has been time for money, and not much more. Bob Chapman is suggesting a deeper, richer value exchange: We will invest in you not just as a worker but also as a human being. You’ll get better at both, and so will we.

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