The last dozen or so times I walked through a Sears store, I was taking a shortcut from the least-crowded mall parking lot into the rest of the mall. It was empty in there. Too empty. The only thing in shorter supply than employees were shoppers. The store still had that distinctive Sears smell: Tires, perfume, sweat, and a faint whiff of despair.
I couldn’t get outside fast enough.
In fact, CBS News reported today, in a story that read like an obituary: “By 2016, the store that was once America’s favorite retailer was so disliked by women shoppers that they said they preferred to shop at Goodwill” (emphasis added).
Announced October 15, Sears filed for bankruptcy protection. It was a long time coming. (It’s possible the former retail giant may reemerge from chapter 11 one day, but I won’t be holding my breath, unless it’s to avoid the smell of tires.)
The downfall of Sears offers plenty for leaders of 21st-century organizations—about what works, what doesn’t, and most importantly, about when to let go of old ideas and practices that are harmful and when to implement new ones—preferably long before shuttering century-plus-old institutions that employ tens of thousands.
Nobody with a finger on the pulse of management trends can honestly say they didn’t see the Sears debacle coming. Sears’s CEO and primary investor—hedge fund billionaire Eddie Lampert—is a well-known disciple of the philosophy of 20th-century Russian-born novelist Ayn Rand. This mindset (in a nutshell) values extreme self-interest and competition and considers “pro-social” impulses like cooperation and collaboration “unnatural.”
Lampert ran Sears accordingly, pitting managers and divisions against each other, with predictable results. Retail industry warned for years this approach would lead to disaster. Results never improved. In one of the postmortems published in the wake of the company’s bankruptcy filing this week, The Chicago Tribune offered just one of dozens of scathing insider glimpse into the culture of extreme self-interest under Lampert:
…he pitted executives against one another in a battle for scarce resources in a sort of a retail Hunger Games, people who worked for him said. He ruffled feathers by being a micro manager with little interest in heeding the advice of top executives, according to one former high-ranking employee, who…asked not to be named for fear of angering Lampert.”
Thankfully, there’s a much more constructive (and effective) way to lead people, teams, and enterprises. It’s a prerequisite for authentic leadership, and it flows from a fundamental understanding of Maslow’s hierarchy of needs.
Google’s Project Aristotle: The Role of Psychological Safety in Team Performance
In 2016, the New York Times published an in-depth issue on “reimagining the office,” including a lengthy feature on a four-year research project at Google launched in 2012—Project Aristotle.
Beginning with an exhaustive review of academic literature on teamwork and then expanding into analysis of 180 teams at the company, Project Aristotle had a singular goal in mind: Uncover the conditions and traits that characterized the most effective teams. Were there specific, repeatable, predictable factors across the most successful work teams? Demographic similarities or differences?
Some teams were businesslike and no-nonsense; some began meetings with chit-chat and socialization before getting down to the task at hand. Some were mostly engineers; others had not one STEM graduate among members. When it came time to crunch the numbers, the team looking for patterns looked at it in every way they possibly could.
Google, above all others, is a company that does data. And while the researchers crunched that data in every way they possibly could, they found almost no patterns among the stellar teams except one: these teams all shared a feeling of psychological safety, defined by Harvard Business School researcher Amy Edmonson as, “shared belief held by members…that the team is safe for interpersonal risk-taking.’’ Psychological safety is ‘‘a sense of confidence that the team will not embarrass, reject or punish someone for speaking up.’’
In other words…the most successful teams worked together, in pursuit of common goals, because they trust each other and they have each other’s backs.
One Google employee, quoted in the New York Times, put it this way: “…I had separated things in my head into my work life and life life…But the thing is, my work is my life. I spend the majority of my time working. Most of my friends I know through work. If I can’t be open and honest at work, then I’m not really living, am I?” (This dovetails with emerging research that Generation Z—the straightforward, entrepreneurial generation of “digital natives” just entering the workforce, born between 1995 and 2010—value authenticity far more than their elders).
Ultimately, while Project Aristotle didn’t exactly reveal new information, it did validate decades of work within psychology, leadership, and employee engagement. And there is emerging evidence to suggest the very youngest generations will continue to demand connection and collaboration rather than cutthroat competition in the environments where they spend most of their waking hours.
Workplaces, teams, organizations, and enterprises face more than enough uncertainty through external threats and competition; the last thing they need are artificial menaces brought on by dog-eat-dog management.