The Best Place to Work, by Ron Friedman

Why I read it

I read Ron Friedman’s Decoding Greatness a couple of years ago, and found it compelling. I applied many of the principles to my leadership and teaching; for example, the concept of reverse engineering to break down the key components of something successful. Check out my blog for more. I subscribe to Ron’s newsletter, too, which I recommend. Therefore, I was hoping to read The Best Place to Work in 2022, and fortunately received it for my birthday in July – thanks to my bro!

In summary

In the early stages of the book, Friedman writes: ‘studies indicate that happy employees are more productive, more creative, and provide better client service. They’re less likely to quit or call in sick. They are brand ambassadors outside the office. Investing in workplace happiness doesn’t cost the company money, it ensures they stay on top.’

Essentially, Friedman applies an evidence-based approach to true happiness and fulfilment at work. The book is pitched at leaders who want to make a different – first by understanding what people need, and then by providing practical examples of how to make this happen. As with his other work, Ron parks his ego at the door and focuses on research, reflection, and great story telling!

Key Takeaways

  • What did you fail at today? Master performers don’t get to where they are by playing at the same level every day. They do so by risking failure and using the feedback to master new skills. Like Amy Edmondson’s work on Psychological Safety, Friedman proposes that it can’t just be individuals who are willing to grow through failure, but that it must be an organisation-wide ethos to decouple fear and failure. To normalise this, Friedman suggests that leaders ask staff ‘what did you fail at today?’, in an attempt to discuss how people overcame challenges or mistakes – to own and share them, to focus on the growth beyond them. ‘If you’re not failing, you’re not growing’.
  • Motivation and avoidance mindset: if we are motivated by fear of failing, or ‘avoidance mindset’, we will work hard to produce good results so that we don’t fail. The trouble is, this doesn’t tend to lead to creative or innovative thinking; if it does in the short term, the chances are we’ll be feeling stressed and unhappy. In short, when avoiding failure is the primary focus, work is more stressful, and is, studies show, harder. In the long run, that takes its toll. So leaders, don’t motivate or goal-set by what could go wrong – don’t have a deficit model for your work, but sow positivity and celebrate the bumps along the road. Reward the attempts, not just the outcomes.
  • Work friendships are effective – I’ve always been a critic of a work-based team-building activity. The bowling trip. Yoga in the gym. But mainly because some workplaces put those sort of events as their flagship wellbeing provision. Friedman quotes studies, though, that show that workplaces where colleagues are friendly, or friends, outperform the work of acquaintances. There is more on the line when working with friends, which means we tend to work harder for each other, while employees tend to stay in their workplace longer when they work with friends. He also highlights research into workplaces with a lack of friendships, and the negative impact that this ‘process loss’ can have. Friedman explores the science of making friends, specifically proximity, familiarity, similarity, and how workplaces can utilise this knowledge.
  • Superordinate goals: to achieve a sense of togetherness, teams should have superordinate goals – that is, goals that require multiple members to work on together. This goes back to previous blogs I have written: does your team have goals for the group to achieve together? If members only have individual goals to work towards, they have no incentive to be team players or support one another. During the pursuit of these superordinate goals, it’s important for teams to share moments of negativity, celebrate the wins, and to support each other relentlessly.
  • Mimicry and conforming: Friedman quotes many fascinating studies about how we mimic the actions and behaviours of others in an attempt to conform. We even tend to mimic and adopt the emotions of those around us. Mirror neurons are used to reflect what we see from others, meaning that our brain is always scanning for a chance to be safe by replicating what it sees. This is, in essence, how culture at work is formed. It’s why defining core values, and then living by them, is vital for a workplace. But it’s also why leaders have such responsibility for what goes on around them. Staff mimic leaders in particular – the way they respond to others, deal with a crisis, or overcome setbacks. The leader’s behaviour, and the behaviour they accept around the organisation, will become the norm.
  • Concluding ideas: Self Determination Theory: the pillars of Ryan & Deci’s psychological needs model, Self Determination Theory, are Competence, Relatedness, and Autonomy. If these primary needs are met, they argue, people will be fulfilled. This model has a lot of empirical research behind it, and I’ve been a proponent of it since I read (and blogged) about it in 2019. Friedman puts SDT at the heart of his concluding comments, urging leaders to reflect on the competence, relatedness and autonomy of their staff. Hear hear!

Favourite Moment

I haven’t quoted many of the studies in depth as the book reflection would be unreadably long. Trust me, though, there are so many fascinating pieces of research to uncover in The Best Place to Work, as well as a lot of anecdotal experiences.

My favourite, though, linked to the takeaway on mimicking and conforming. Friedman set up an experiment for two groups, who would complete a puzzle.

Group one, in the waiting area, would be exposed to someone talking loudly about how they’d done a similar puzzle to this before, and how it was boring, a waste of time, and that they were only doing it for the reward being offered. The other group overheard someone talking about how energised they had been doing tasks like this before, and how they’d overcome the challenges with enthusiasm.

Group one performed much less effectively than group two in the puzzles; interestingly, they couldn’t pinpoint the reason why, and had no recollection of the ‘bad apple’ they’d overheard in the waiting area.

This study really hit home for me. We are, unwittingly, a source of motivation or demotivation for those around us every day. The way we frame our work and our feelings can have a huge impact on how others approach their work or lives.

Read this if:

  • You want to improve workplace culture
  • You are a leader who wants to understand people and behaviour

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