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January 24, 2011 / W. Stanton Smith

People are our most important asset…kinda…sorta

It’s that time again. The economy appears to be in recovery  at least from a profitabiity view point. Not much of a dent has been made in unemployment but hiring will pick up as will the speeches about people being our most important asset. Which brings me to the old court room climactic moment when the prosecuting attorney intones to a witness who has given conflicting testimony, “So Colonel Mustard, which time were you telling the truth?”

This is the uncomfortable place where business leaders find themselves today. “Mr./Ms. CEO, when were you telling the truth? When you treated employees like commodities by cutting support staffs , not filling open positions, pouring on the workload and minimizing salary adjustments to please the marketplace…or when you said that people were you most important assets and you did very little to back that up?

Meantime the CEO has been advised that transparency is what employees want especially  the younger ones (gen y). So he talks about the turn around in business and increased profitability. His intentions are to let people know that the company is going to be around. Yet the employees won’t be partaking in this largess except at the very highest levels and there are no guarantees that the employees will have jobs even if they do a superior job. So the transparency just leaves them dissatisfied if not annoyed.

Is this just a description of life from now on? It doesn’t have to be. Those of us in leadership positions have to do some soul searching because our employees are suffering from “cognitive dissonance”. This social science term means that the words and music don’t match; there is a gap between what we say and what we do. Our empleoyees feel like they are being treated as commodities while we in leadership say they are assets to be invested in.

I don’t have any solutions to present today. This is just the beginning of a series of postings about how we can change some fundamental ways we think about people…how we can eliminate “cognitive dissonance” and still make plenty of money as a business.



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  1. newbon99 / Jan 25 2011 4:27 am

    Cognotive dissonance, what a great term and one I have not heard before, but I think you have hit the nail on the head in this article. I saw Marcus Buckingham last year and one point he made was that profitability leads to employee engagement by default…everyone enjoys when things are going well, but driving employee engagement and really understanding and communicating with your staff leads to profitability roughly 4 times more than the other way around. The risk is as a leader to ensure that what you say actually comes true and is followed through.

    • W. Stanton Smith / Jan 25 2011 11:01 am

      Thanks for your comment. I’m pleased that you believe that my commentary was on point. When the tide is up by definition everyone’s boat floats and communicating objectives and visibly meeting them is not really much of a challenge. But when the tide goes out, one sees what’s on the bottom and it’s not attractive. To carry on the image, what one sees “on the bottom” is a collection of managers who are not team players; those who are”me first and always”. How to reach this group of skeptics is a genuine challenge to C-Suite leadership. But we must find ways to identify those who drag their feet and help them to see that “reality is not optional” and that they will benefit by embracing reality and engaging in authentic communication with the people who report to them.

  2. prosperityseeker / Apr 12 2011 2:40 pm

    I enjoyed your “kinda sorta” post and those that precede it! I sense a significant corporate culture upheaval on its way as baby boomers pass the Managerial and C-level baton to Jonesers (the late Boomers) and the shooting star Gen Xers.

    Once all of the corporate processes have been improved by the Sig Sigma Black Belts, we will still have to deal with how we blend the work styles and demands of multi-generational teams and companies. Communication is at the core.

    Where do you think that creating a living, breathing strategic plan for corporate culture belongs in an organization’s priorities?

    I am asking many of the same questions as you in my work. I’ll look forward to more insightful posts from you. You have a lifetime of observation to share.

    ~Tess (

    • W. Stanton Smith / Apr 13 2011 8:51 am

      Tess, thanks for your kind words and reinforcement that someone is reading and benefiting from my postings. In my view a strategic plan for corporate culture should be a very high priority because having an attractive culture is key to the profitable continuation of the business. But “here’s the rub”. The necessary actions by the C-suite require: 1) a level of emotional intelligence most don’t have; 2) treating employees with more respect than C-suite occupants were treated when they were coming up the ladder and/or 3) taking actions which many leaders think are contrary to how a business must operate in this difficult environment. And I add another point based on extensive conversations with boomer and traditional executives: those of us who are of the late 60’s and early 70’s college co-hort believed that we were “cool” and that we’d change the workplace for the better. While we may have made things better, the feedback we get from the younger generation is that the organizations we lead demand loyalty but don’t return it, are generally inflexible when it comes to adopting new work practices and are largely insincere when we say “people are our most important asset”. (I have lots of research to support this). It is painful to hear that you are anything but “cool” and that you have become part of the problem, not the solution.

      Having said this, am I discouraged? Only a little bit. We must keep reminding the C-suite of these issues. Ultimately most are too good at what they do to ignore the facts. We shouldn’t expect executives to jump up and shake our hands when we identify for them business issues which they can’t really avoid addressing but which appear intractable to them.

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