Do You Really Want To Know?

There are no right answers to wrong questions. This was the title of my keynote address at RECON22, the 2nd Annual Recovering Leadership Conference hosted by the Kimmell Foundation for Recovering Leadership. I was asked to talk about reimagining our metrics, and since I am an engineer, that seemed a reasonable topic to request of me.

Metrics are like rules. Rules aren’t bad, but they are often used poorly and unnecessarily. In moral and ethical societies, rules are the guidelines that allow us to live and work cooperatively; they are not fences or walls or guards or monitors.

The speed limit is based on the speed that average drivers in average cars can negotiate the road, have enough time to see changes in conditions ahead, and respond—all in a wide variety of expected conditions. It is not about you; it’s about everyone.

The speed limit doesn’t work to keep people who refuse to participate in the community from doing what they want. Even stiff fines and penalties don’t slow some people down. As long as we all choose to participate in the community and stay within a certain range centered on the guideline, it works. We can all drive down the road safely.

Metrics should be used the same way. Which means we must start with a moral and ethical community in our business. So, what does a moral and ethical society look like in a business? It starts with the belief that everyone is equally valuable, and that value is intrinsic, not created by accomplishment and performance. We are not all the same—we have different skills, knowledge, experiences, capabilities, and responsibilities—but we are all equally valuable.

From there, we derive that everyone should be respected and cared for equally. In other words, it should be the community’s goal to help each person live their best life. I can hear some of you saying, “We can’t make up for people’s personal choices….” That’s a red herring. If you truly value someone and care about their well-being, you do whatever you can for them. However, we have to acknowledge that the individual is only one member of the community and there are subgroups within the community that have slightly different needs.

So, here is the problem.

Historically, we have believed what is good for management (owners) requires a significant sacrifice on the part of labor. We have believed that for labor to get what they want, management will have to give up their needs and the owners will lose. We have believed there is a necessary and natural conflict between management and labor.

This conflict has played out many times over in history, from the labor movement in the late 1800’s and early 1900’s in response to poor working conditions, low pay, child labor, and other issues to the current trends of the great resignation and quiet quitting. In each case, the conflict between labor and management was the belief that labor wanted higher wages and better working conditions (higher standard of living) at the expense of profits, and management wanted lower costs and higher output (higher return on investment) at the expense of workers.

What we believe controls how we act. What we believe limits what we can see and hear. What we believe creates the environment (culture) that surrounds us.

In the case of the worker, the belief that management is taking advantage of them leads to suspicion and inability to believe what they are told, a lack of motivation to do any more than what is absolutely required (quiet quitting), and a lack of loyalty demonstrated by increasing turnover.

For leaders, the belief that workers will take advantage of them leads to increasingly restrictive controls and measurements, a reluctance to give any more than necessary to get the work done, and a lack of loyalty demonstrated by reluctance to provide more than the minimum required benefits and employment security.

So, do you really want to know the truth?

Labor and management are NOT in conflict. In fact, they are not actually discernibly different. In any organization, everybody embraces both management and labor functions (and everyone is someone else’s customer also).

If we have a missional connection to one another, we are all trying to accomplish the same thing. Additionally, if we think of the subgroups as the three legs of a stool—Capital (the owners, or management), Labor (our team members), and Customers—all need to be cared for if the business is to be stable. If one “leg” gets shortened or cut off, the platform collapses, and the other legs suffer loss too.

Moral and ethical organizations ask the right questions. They ask what their participants want to accomplish in their lives. They pay attention and listen to each other. They want everyone to have the opportunity to live their best life. They are not afraid to invest in others.

When each group is well cared for, they, in turn, create additional benefits for others. One group does not have to sacrifice for the others. All can prosper and receive a good return for their investment. When leaders start asking the right questions and are not afraid to find out how they are really doing, everyone wins, and we find The Kimray Way.