How to Inspire Lasting Change in Organizations

For the past several months, US media outlets have been abuzz with debate about an ongoing “Great Resignation.”

Why are so many people quitting? How long will the trend last? 

Many questions remain, but one fact is certain: A lot of people voluntarily left their jobs in 2021. In November alone, a record 4.5 million Americans quit, according to SHRM.

People are searching for something better

According to the World Economic Forum, the ongoing pandemic is largely responsible for the current paradigm shift. Not surprisingly, the US economy and job market became extremely unstable in 2020. Uncertainty remained high through early 2021, causing most people to hunker down and remain in their current positions (assuming they didn’t get laid off in 2020). Some companies adopted teleworking arrangements or more flexible, worker-friendly policies. Others did not. For some, conditions became more dangerous and grueling, particularly for healthcare workers, EMS personnel, and other essential workers.

As the economy began to bounce back last year, people took a harder look at their work situations. Meanwhile, job growth rebounded, creating more opportunities. Contrary to some narratives, most people haven’t been quitting out of laziness. Many have simply chosen to pursue new careers, go into business for themselves, or go back to school.

On social media sites like Reddit, the so-called “anti-work movement” has gained significant traction over the past year, with people publicly sharing horror stories of how they have been mismanaged, mislead, and mistreated in the workplace.

Two years into a protracted global pandemic, employees across the globe are growing tired of being treated as expendable, underpaid, and undervalued. At the same time, many CEOs, executives, managers, HR professionals, and others in leadership positions have begun asking themselves: How can we do better?

A new conversation about organizational leadership

“If you need a business case to care about people, then you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership position.”

–Zach Mercurio

To seek out insight and answers to these big questions, we recently spoke with Zach Murcurio, Ph.D., a writer, speaker, consultant, and instructor in CSU’s Organizational Learning, Performance, and Change Ph.D. program. Zach helps cultivate purposeful leaders and build positive organizations. His practice is informed by his work with more than 100 organizations in nearly every industry.

Here’s what Zach had to say:

Lucy: Hi, Zach. Do you want to introduce yourself? 

Zach: Yeah, thanks Lucy. I’m Zach Mercurio. I’m an instructor in OLPC. I also graduated with my Ph.D. from OLPC, and I’m an author and a consultant, primarily focused on how to create cultures that elicit meaningfulness and purpose in work. And I also continue to do research on meaningful work, as well.

Lucy: Great, thanks for being here today. I’m excited. We’re just going to jump in. The first question I have for you is: You often discuss the topic of meaning and meaningfulness and purpose in your work. So, what would you say is one of the most important focal points for organizational change and how so?

Zach: There’s change management, which is managing the things, the processes, the schedules, the tasks. And then there’s change leadership, which is inspiring the people to change and inspiring the beliefs and cultivating the energy to change. 

Now, what we know is that when human beings don’t believe that they and what they do matter, it’s incredibly easy for nothing to matter. So, in my opinion, one of the prime objectives for organizations and leaders who are wanting to create compelling, long-lasting, sustainable change is to make sure that people feel like they matter and what they’re doing matters. And that’s another word for making sure they feel like their work is meaningful and that it has purpose. And when you know as an organization what your purpose is, it can serve as the ultimate boss of your decision making. 

Mary Parker Follett, who was a management scholar in the late 1920s, said leaders and followers are both following the invisible leader: the common purpose. So, when we have that common purpose, our actions can follow. It’s like when you know why you are, you’ll know what to do. And many organizations that struggle with change don’t have that unifying, shared purpose, and they aren’t cultivating the energy through creating meaningfulness for people to take action to change. Because, ultimately, organizations don’t change. Individual human beings who organize do.

 

Lucy: So, a record 4.5 million Americans, quit their jobs in November. And there’s been a lot of discussion around the great resignation and what this means for both employees and employers alike. Can you talk a bit to what the great resignation says to you about what employees are looking for in today’s working environment?

Zach: I don’t think that it’s so much a great resignation as it is a collective demand for dignity. People are no longer willing to give up their human dignity for an extra dollar on the hour anymore. And I think the labor market is in a place where people can demand that dignity, demand to be treated as full human beings – where they spend 35% of their working lives at work. They demand to feel like they and what they’re doing matters, and to be in environments that don’t elicit fear, and that are respectful, and that show them that they matter. And I think that this is not really surprising. 

Upheaval events, economically or socially, tend to produce a search for purpose, and a search for meaning, historically. When we look at the second industrial revolution, a sociologist named Émile Durkheim did an enduring study of suicides that happened when jobs became automated. And what he found was that it wasn’t the loss of income that produced mental despair. It was the loss of the ability to contribute to something bigger than oneself. He termed that ‘anomie,’ which means our primal desire to contribute. And the Great Recession and the Great Depression… Stanford researchers found that it was a loss of sense of identity that contributed to mental despair. We have people visiting mental health facilities at four times higher after the Great Recession. And those are people who kept their jobs, right? So even that feeling of insecurity can cause questions of identity. 

And now what’s going on is we have research finding that people are increasingly reflecting on the quality of their jobs and their lives. We have frontline workers who have been told by governments that they’re essential, now coming back into the workplace asking: Do I feel essential in policy, in pay, in culture? We have job insecurity plus health insecurity. And we have rising calls for social justice, which are all coming together in this moment for this need… for leadership that creates meaningfulness, creates mattering, and creates purpose in work to propel organizations forward and fill that collective mattering deficit.

 

Lucy: So, what advice would you share to employers who are either fearful of or who are currently losing talented employees?

Zach: Try to resist the knee-jerk reaction to just pay people more and give them more things. If you give people a pay increase or give people benefits, they’ll be motivated until the next one. But if you show people that they matter, they’ll be motivated for a long time. 

And this is the big problem. We try to look for the easy fixes. And one of the things I love about the OLPC program is that it inherently acknowledges that change is complex, and spiraling, and not always linear. Anytime you have human beings with complex lives who are organizing, change is complex. There’s usually no simple solution to real change. You know… doing hard things is hard, right? So, resist the urge to just simply apply: Let’s pay them more… let’s give them more benefits… because that’s what everybody’s going to do. 

The ultimate differentiator for an organization is how it treats its people – authentically treats its people. And so, everybody is going to give them the raise, right? And then you’ll just be in a never-ending cycle. You’ll just be giving raises. And when people, again, are motivated by pay increases, they’ll just be motivated to the next one. But we do know, through the research, there are four things that predict work motivation and reduce turnover. 

One is relationships. People want to inherently feel like they belong. The second is that people want autonomy. This does not just mean that everybody needs to work whenever they want to work. It means that they have a voice in what they’re doing, some sort of agency over how they’re doing something, where they’re doing it, and when they’re doing the work. 

Now, say you’re a supervisor of a line manufacturing… a manufacturing company that has line workers, and you’re saying, well, that’s impossible. But it is still possible to give them a voice over how their work gets done, you know? Create the space for feedback. 

Third is mastery. So, making sure people have a learning and development pathway that you, as an organization, know and honor their unique strengths. You honor their unique skills, and you give them a pathway to use those strengths in challenging situations. 

And then finally, what we’ve been talking about, is purpose. Right. And that is essential for all of the other things, because when people don’t feel like they matter, it’s easy for nothing to matter. So, relationships, autonomy, mastery, and purpose. Those are the ultimate benefits that you can give an employee that will be your ultimate differentiator.

 

Lucy: So, we’ve reached the two-year mark and the pandemic. Many employees are desiring a deeper connection in their communities and in their work. What’s the best way – and you touched on this a bit in the previous question – but what’s the best way for companies to address this both immediately and long term?

Zach: I think often, when it comes to leadership, we think that it’s just something natural that people are born with, or just some people get. But the problem with intuition is it doesn’t scale. So, if you just rely on people to go and be good leaders because they’ve had experience working, that usually doesn’t scale well. Just because someone’s a good worker doesn’t mean they’re a great leader. So, I think what the last two years has shown us is that there’s not just a demand for, you know, it’s not just a great resignation, it has to be a great reskilling of leaders … anybody in your organization who supervises anybody… think of this as the ultimate responsibility of any leader, really, is to be responsible for where people spend 35% of their waking lives – people with lives as vivid and complex and important as yours. And so being able to reskill leaders so they can create moments of mattering is essential. And what we know is that, when people feel like they matter, there’s three things happening. 

One: They feel noticed. They feel seen. People take an interest… leaders take an interest in their personal lives and what’s going on outside of work. The old notion of work and life [being] separate is not realistic anymore. People are realizing that, wherever they live and they breathe and they think, they’re alive. So, this whole work-life boundary is artificial. 

The second is making sure people feel affirmed, making sure that you know people’s unique gifts, and that you’re showing them how those gifts make a difference. So, before you tell someone what to do, make sure your leaders know how to show them why it matters. What’s the human significance of the work? How does the work make bigger products possible – a bigger whole possible? And how can they use their strengths to do it?

And the last one is making sure people feel needed. When people feel replaceable, they will act replaceable. When people feel irreplaceable, they will act irreplaceable. So, if your people feel like they can be replaced, and they’ll be replaced in the next quarter if they don’t meet their performance goals, then they’re going to act that way. They’re not going to show up. They’re not going to commit. They’re going to leave at the first chance.

But when people feel needed, they show up, and they commit. So, making sure that every human being feels irreplaceable… and those three things… I think, if leaders are reskilled to do those things, you can cultivate more motivation and wellbeing. And an outcome of wellbeing is resilience. Resilience, organizationally and personally, is not key to wellbeing. Wellbeing is key to resilience.

So, if you want a resilient organization, you have to start investing in holistic wellbeing now, before you need resilience… for the next pandemic. 

 

Lucy: I was just going to say, I think we can all relate to that in so many ways, with the way that the pandemic has impacted everybody’s life. So… What’s something companies don’t understand about organizational development?

Zach: I think that… I think I mentioned this earlier… I think one of the things is that a lot of times, companies think it’s linear, and they try to get a simple solution to complex spiraling problems. And that almost all solutions are multifaceted and very deep. And that organizational development is about optimizing the ways in which people organize with one another in an organization. And I think that those processes are as complex as the people that comprise those processes. The other thing… The other myth is that organizational change is hard. So, everybody says, oh, you know, organizational change is hard because people are resistant to change. People are not resistant to change. People change with every breath they take – They’re chemically different than the one before. People are resistant to prescribed to change when they don’t trust the prescriber. So, in OLPC, for example, we focus on generative change, change that brings in the voices, the beliefs, the perspectives of various stakeholders. Because when you’re engaged in change, it becomes natural to you, because we do it as human beings every single day, every single moment. But when we get prescribed change, when we don’t trust who’s prescribing it, that’s where the resistance comes in. So, I think that’s another misconception. The type of change is hard when it’s prescribed. But when we make it generative, and we give people the opportunity to use their inherent expertise in change – because they’re humans – we unleash human potential and possibility.

 

Lucy: What advice do you have for someone who is stepping into a leadership role in their workplace or community?

Zach: My ultimate advice is to understand what your outputs are and that your desired outputs will determine your actions. If your desired outputs are efficiency and productivity, then you’re going to treat people as tools to get there. And whenever you treat a human being as a means to an end, they cease to become human to you. And you treat them accordingly. Once you treat someone as a tool, that’s how they’ll feel, right? 

But I think that shifting your output to the human being who’s doing the work as an end in itself is important. Because, once you see your outcomes as human beings thriving and flourishing in work, you treat people as human beings. And, ironically, they become better at doing the things you need them to do! I also think one of the key things to think about is not to create new initiatives or to add more meaning into the work so that people won’t leave – do it because it’s the right thing to do. If you need a business case to care about people, then you probably shouldn’t be in a leadership position. Right? And so, when it comes to leading well, thinking about people as outputs and ends in themselves… and you’ll cultivate the energy to do all those things as byproducts… the revenue, the profit, the productivity, creativity, etc. [But] those are all lagging indicators of how people feel.

 

Lucy: You’ve mentioned OLPC, the organizational learning, performance, and change doctoral program… And we know that your journey has taken you through research consulting and now teaching in the OLPC program. So, in what ways did the program change your perspective and impact your work?

Zach: Yeah. What I love about the OLPC program is that it’s interdisciplinary. For example, you get to bring in psychology, sociology, anthropology, [etc.] into the processes of organizing, which is very important. Right? Because human beings are psychological. They’re social. They’re cultural. So, to understand how human beings change, you need all those perspectives. So, I would say that interdisciplinary approach to understanding how humans perform, how they operate, [and] how they organize together is invaluable. You don’t just get one perspective. 

The other element of OLPC that’s especially powerful is the focus on practice. Most everybody in the cohort, for example, will be a practitioner. So, [they are] out there having worked in an organization. And the faculty have all done work in organizations, doing this work in practice. And I love that theory to practice back to theory cycle, right? Because it’s a very pragmatic approach to changing organizations. And then, I would say, how it impacted my work is… What’s great about OLPC being interdisciplinary is [that] I got to work with positive psychologists on my doctoral committee to do a dissertation on meaningful work, which is inherently an organizational psychological topic. It’s what a lot of people in organizational psychology Ph.D. programs are studying. 

But my advisor, you know, gave me the freedom to bring in experts onto my committee and to do work that was really meaningful to me, which is to study meaningful work and study something that’s in the psychology domain. And so, I think having that freedom to really explore organizations from these various perspectives is what separates this program from most organizational psychology or other doctoral programs out there.

 

Lucy: Lastly, what’s something I haven’t asked you that you’d like to talk about.

Zach: I think you’ve asked me everything. And we talked for a while, so this was good. I mean, I think… Why [would] someone spend all of their time getting a Ph.D.? Why would you do this? You’re a working person. You’re busy. Why the heck would you do this?

One of the best parts about getting a Ph.D. is that it reveals to you what you don’t know you don’t even know yet. And it allows you to ask questions. It allows you to not take anything for granted. It allows you to critically think. It allows you to look for evidence to support your claims. It allows you to understand how you come to see knowledge and truth as truth. 

And, I mean, in the current environment that we’re in, I can’t think of any skills that are more needed than those. So, that’s why I think every leader should do it.

Lucy: That’s great. Perfect. Well, thank you for being here today. We really appreciate your time and expertise, and this was so much fun.

 
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