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How to be the Best Boss (2)

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Incorporate more autonomy and fluidity into every role

People often believe that providing job control is possible only for some jobs, and for some people. But that is not the case—all people can be given more decision-making discretion in their jobs and latitude to control their work.

San Francisco–based Collective Health designed the jobs of its “patient advocates”—who answer the phones to resolve customer issues that aren’t readily solved—with a simple goal in mind: create a more empowered, highly skilled call-center staff, drawing graduates from top universities. As Andrew Halpert, senior director of clinical and network solutions, explains, “The typical profile is someone who majored in human biology and maybe wants to pursue a medical career, but meanwhile wants a job and to work for an interesting start-up. Then you say, ‘How are you going to keep smart people engaged and happy and not burnt out and dissatisfied?’”

Collective Health trains its hires thoroughly on key technical tools, while regularly rotating their physical locations and assigned tasks: one week they may be coordinating benefit issues, and the next solving larger issues outside their department, giving them an overall picture of how everything works. They are continually empowered to solve problems on the floor as they discover them, connecting with other teams in the company. The system has not only increased employee retention by providing people with more interesting and impactful work, it has also proven more efficient at resolving problems. Halpert says the benefits outweigh the extra costs for the company and the customer: “On the ‘how much did I pay?’ criterion, it looks more expensive. . . . The Collective Health call costs more because it’s being handled by someone who is better qualified and better paid who is also spending more time resolving the issue. But we solve problems, unlike other systems where claims and problems just go on with a life of their own.”

The Collective Health experience shows how roles can be designed both to improve people’s health and increase effectiveness for the benefit of employers—in fact, the two can be mutually reinforcing. Jobs that provide individuals more autonomy and control serve to increase their motivation, job satisfaction, and performance—while at the same time making employees healthier and helping them to live longer.

Social support

If job control is one important aspect of a healthy workplace, social support is another. Research going back to the 1970s consistently demonstrates a connection between social support and health. Having friends protects “your health as much as quitting smoking and a great deal more than exercising,” even though survey evidence suggests that the “number of Americans who say they have no close friends has roughly tripled in recent decades.”

The evidence shows that social support—family and friends you can count on, as well as close relationships—can have a direct effect on health and buffers the effects of various psycho-social stresses, including workplace stress, that can compromise health. For instance, one review noted that “people who were less socially integrated” and “people with low levels of social support” had higher mortality rates.

Unfortunately, workplaces sometimes have characteristics that make it harder to build relationships and provide support. Consider, for example, practices that foster internal competition such as forced curve ranking, which reduces collaboration and teamwork. In fact, anything that pits people against one another weakens social ties among employees and reduces the social support that produces healthier workplaces. Equally destructive are transactional workplace approaches in which people are seen as factors of production and where the emphasis is on trading money for work, without much emotional connection between people and their place of work.

Rooting out practices like these is a good starting point for leaders seeking to build environments with stronger social support. Also invaluable are actions such as the ones described below. These sound straightforward and are already practiced by a number of companies, but nonetheless are easy to overlook.

Demonstrate commitment to offering help

SAS Institute, often found near the top of “best places to work” lists, is a company whose business strategy is premised on long-term relationships with its customers—and its employees. The company signals in ways large and small that it cares about its employees’ well-being. For instance, when a SAS employee died in a boating accident one weekend, a question arose: What would happen to his children, currently enrolled in company-subsidized day care? How long would they be permitted to stay? The answer: as long as they wanted to and were age-eligible, regardless of the fact that they no longer had a parent employed by the company. And perhaps nothing signifies SAS’s commitment to its employees’ well-being more than its investment in a chief health officer whose job entails not just running the on-site health facility but ensuring that SAS employees can access the medical care they need to remain healthy and to be fully cared for if they get sick.

Encourage people to care for one another

The large healthcare and dialysis company DaVita created the DaVita Village Network to give employees the opportunity, through optional payroll contributions, to help each other during times of crisis—such as a natural disaster, an accident, or an illness. The company provides funding to match employee contributions of up to $250,000 per year. When southwest Florida was hit by a series of hurricanes in 2004, a dialysis administrator noted, “The DaVita Village Network provided our housing while our homes were uninhabitable, and provided funding for food until we were able to get back on our feet.”

Fix the language

People are more likely to like and help others with whom they share some sort of unit relationship, to whom they feel similar, and with whom they feel connected. Language in the workplace that emphasizes divisions between leadership and employees can further alienate people and erode any sense of shared community or identity. Ensure that people are less separated by title, and use language that is consistent with the idea of community. DaVita sometimes refers to itself as a “village.” The company’s CEO often calls himself the “mayor.” Employees are constantly referred to as “teammates” and certainly never as “workers,” a term that denotes both a somewhat lower status and also people who are distinct from the “managers” and “leaders.”

Support shared connections

Almost anything that brings people into contact in a pleasant and meaningful context—from holidays to community service to events that celebrate employee tenure or shared successes such as product launches—helps build a sense of common identity and strengthens social bonds. Southwest Airlines is famous for its Halloween parties. Other organizations offer their employees volunteer opportunities to help local nonprofits. A 2013 UnitedHealth survey found that 81 percent of employees who volunteered through their workplace “agreed that volunteering together strengthens relationships among colleagues.”


Giving people more control over their work life and providing them with social support fosters higher levels of physical and mental health. A culture of social support also reinforces for employees that they are valued, and thus helps in a company’s efforts to attract and retain people. Job control, meanwhile, has a positive impact on individual performance and is one of the most important predictors of job satisfaction and work motivation, frequently ranking as more important even than pay. Management practices that strengthen job control and social support are often overlooked but relatively straightforward—and they provide a payoff to employees and employers alike.

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