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Great Workplaces

Fortune magazine publishes an annual list of great places to work, and this year, as in many others, Goldman Sachs took first prize. Many people are surprised by that considering the hours and workload, but there are other elements to consider besides hours.

Fortune measures a wide variety of organizational elements including things like salary, potential for advancement, gender equity, benefits, etc. At Goldman Sachs, one of the key aspects of its being a great place to work is the quality of the people who work there. Goldman Sachs receives more applications for employment than Harvard does for admissions, double the numbers, so really great, creative, motivated people work there.

At the end of the “great workplaces” issue, their columnist, Stanley Bing, has some other ideas for what makes a great workplace, too.

“First of all,” he writes, “there’s nobody yelling at us. Being yelled at really sucks. Eliminate that and you have at least 60% of the job done.
“Then there are no insulting emails. The occasional one-on-one communication with some berating message is marginally tolerable. But the kind where you look like a nincompoop and a dozen people are copied? Get rid of those and you have another big chunk of what makes a company a great place to work. . . .
“ . . . Solid, stable corporate government, predictable into the three- to five-year term and beyond? Ten points.” (The beginning of that observation includes getting rid of consultants, so I’m less sure about this point.) He also mentions the lunchroom, one with real food where “we can go and get food and sit with other weird people we never see except in the lunchroom.”

His priorities are about respect, communications, and a stable environment. The work is different from one place to another, the product and the markets are different, but these elements are always consistent: respect, communications and stability. (I’ll stay off my soapbox today, but not getting yelled at or insulted and berated is a function of good conflict resolution training. It’s an obvious corollary that mean and insulting workplaces lose good people.)

And I’d add challenging work to that list.

How would you rate your organization on these elements? Draw five horizontal lines, indicate a scale of 1-10 on each line, and mark the place on the line for each element where you think your organization lies for respect, communications, stability, challenging work, and really interesting people. Then decide which is the most important for you, and consider your current job in the context of your evaluation on that scale.

For me, the most important element is being able to work with extraordinary people doing challenging work. In my favorite jobs I worked with international leaders in business, neuroscience, and biomedicine. I hosted a conference that included the CEOs of the largest Japanese companies, organized an early conference on HIV/AIDS, and worked with two Nobel Laureates on an advisory committee. Talk about great training! Listening to them evaluate options and make decisions was a graduate degree in leadership. Of course I loved working at those places no matter the downsides of management craziness.

There might be one other element to consider: the effect of your work on others. I know that in those jobs the work probably changed lives, especially in the areas of biomedicine and neuroscience. But it wasn’t work I personally did; that work was done by the experts. However, in another area, teaching, I know that my work has had some direct impact on people when they send emails and tell me about events they have handled better because of something they learned in class, or when I see people I’ve worked with achieve success in their professional lives. And that sense of personal accomplishment or satisfaction is just as important as the other elements no matter what kind of specific work you do. I am not an artist, so I can only imagine, for example, the satisfaction an artisan feels when a beautiful piece is finished.

Maybe another line representing personal satisfaction should be added to that evaluation.

As I write this, it’s Labor Day, and we are celebrating the contributions of labor to this country’s success. Maybe we should also be thinking about our own success and how we can get the most satisfaction out of our own workplaces, and our own work, and not necessarily based only on compensation, or maybe we need to re-examine compensation. But first, pass the hot dogs, please.


Maria Simpson

Maria Simpson, Ph.D. is an executive coach, consultant, trainer and mediator who has worked extensively with the corporate, non-profit and conflict resolution communities to promote incorporating conflict resolution into organizational systems and training people in the skills and approaches of mediation. MORE >

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