Getting real about being real

As published on Switch & Shift on June 11, 2014. In an ever digitalized world, there is increasingly less room for all things analog. Glued to our digital devices, we now spend more time on our smartphones than with our partner. With smart robots, drones and self-driving cars soon roaming our skies and streets, Oxford University predicts machines to take over 45% of Americans’ jobs in the next 20 years.
And with IBM’s Watson supercomputer being able to make a delicious and healthy BBQ sauce, human reasoning and creativity is clearing the path for artificial intelligence. This shift to an increasingly virtual and artificial world goes so fast that the well-known physicist Stephen Hawking recently expressed his concern:

“Whereas the short-term impact of artificial intelligence depends on who controls it, the long-term impact depends on whether it can be controlled at all.”

With real human contact getting scarcer, it is also becoming more valuable. As spending time with each other has become harder to come by, we attach more value to anything perishable: people looking at us, talking to us, understanding us and moving us. While we can consume exactly the same content at a marginal cost and in real time online, executives still pay $8,500 to attend their annual TED conference, elite colleges apply rejection rates that are at an all-time high and Bruce Springsteen concert tickets sell for as much as $1,800.
Similarly, companies can supercharge workplace energy and resulting productivity from embracing realness. Being real is especially important to the younger Generation Y, currently representing about one third of the U.S. working population and expecting to take up 75% of the global workforce by 2025. Being digital natives, they expect companies to be open and transparent and to behave in line with their personal values and belief systems. Using REAL as an acronym, I would like to touch upon 4 ways for companies to drive more realness in their workplaces: Relational, Existential, Authentic and Life-enhancing.


Humans derive energy and happiness from real and meaningful interactions with others. Yet, many organizations suffer from relationship-phobia, with silo structures keeping people from working with each other, company cultures promoting internal competitiveness and friendships at work being perceived as a risk rather than a benefit. Luckily things are improving, the top 3 skills Fortune 500 companies demand from employees having evolved from ‘reading, writing and arithmetic’ in 1970 to today’s ‘communication, collaboration and ability to function as part of the team’. As opposed to relationship-phobic companies, relationship-centric companies understand the value of creating powerful and positive connections between people based on harmony, respect and equality.

Warm feelings towards each other do not only make work seem easier, they also increase one’s self-esteem and offer support through tough times. South West Airlines does a great job when it comes to building strong interpersonal relationships, starting at the top with their CEO and being pervasive throughout the whole organization. Capitalizing on every person’s inherent sense of humor, they stimulate their collaborators to bring their funny side to work. Their hiring policy is to look for persons who are similar when it comes to having a warrior spirit, servant’s heart and fun-loving attitude, thereby maximizing the chance that people will act amicably with each other. And on the busiest travel days of the year, South West Airlines’ executives work alongside baggage handlers and gate agents to ease their workload, creating positive spill-over effects to all South West Airlines workers.


Henry Ford stated that “a business that makes nothing but money is a poor business”, referring to the near-infinite well of energy called ‘purpose’. Purpose is what separates great companies from good ones, making their work important instead of banal and boosting passion from people contributing to it. Great leaders are dealers in hopes and dreams, passing on their enthusiasm to others, whether it is Sony “making Japan the number 1 technology country in the world”, Apple “making a dent in the universe” or Facebook “giving people the power to share and make the world more open and connected”. But also less cool companies such as Procter & Gamble stress the strategic role of purpose, as stated by CEO Bob McDonald:

“Purpose is what has made this company successful for 175 years.”

The more explicit companies are about their purpose, the easier it is for them to boast the energy people get from contributing to that specific purpose.

Just compare PayPal with Square. With Square being more clear on its purpose to the outside world, it benefits from having 81% of their employees willing to recommend the company to friends versus just 63% for PayPal. By making its people part of its purpose ‘to make commerce easy’, Square is praised for the way it makes coming to work every day a pleasure. By doing so, the company is able to transform negative energy from spending time on micromanagement into positive energy from hooking into a greater cause on the level that fits people best.


Companies are becoming increasingly naked by the day, either unintentionally with whistle-blowers leaking information that has been kept a secret or intentionally with values and integrity as an integral part of their business models. The great ones realize that people and people only show the world their real identity, whether they are employees or customers. Or, to put it in the words of Don Tapscott:

“Sunlight is the best disinfectant.”

Authentic companies act as humans and allow people to act on their behalf. They say sorry when they mess things up, have their top managers interact directly with customers and empower their employees to make a true difference for customers. With their inside being the same as their outside, they create a context without masks, pretext or hats to wear. By allowing people to be themselves, they create the liberating conditions for competitive advantage no one else can copy.

A groundbreaking experimental study by Arthur Aron, social psychologist and director of the Interpersonal Relationships Lab at Stony Brook University, supports this. He demonstrated that, when students opened up to each other on a more personal level for just 45 minutes, the resulting intensity of their bonds rated closer than the closest relationships in the lives of 30% of peer students. In other words, when organizations manage to create a culture allowing people to show who they really are underneath instead of their more idealized version, they build deeper connections.


Great employers understand that there is more to life than work and that people’s real world is far bigger and richer. That is why they do not look at their people as economic value contributors, but as holistic human beings. They devote specific energy to understanding people’s needs, goals, behaviors and personality outside of the work context. With the lines between our work and private lives blurring increasingly, they create a work environment that feels like home and they positively integrate work in the home environment.
A great story here is the one by Frank Van Massenhove, Head of the Social Security Department of the Belgian government and employing 1,200 people. He radically transformed an old-school, dull and bureaucratic working culture into a modern, vibrant and energetic one by rethinking everything from the perspective of how Millennials live their lives. Self-determination is at the core of his philosophy, creating a home-like working context and promoting home office working. Co-workers determine themselves if, when and where they work, executives no longer determine when meetings are taking place and any kind of status symbol is banned from the office environment. Frank cannot only count on a 99% employee satisfaction rating, he also does more with less: with 40% less meetings and 30% less office space, his team members typically realize up to 120% of their personal objectives.

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