We create job descriptions so that people know what we’re employing them to do and we sit them in teams of people that are doing similar things at the same time. Then we keep an eye on them to ensure that they do what we’ve told them to. We hire HR experts to help us recruit the right people, control our workforce, deal with people problems (and problem people) and sack people that we no longer want or need without incurring too much cost or risk.

Why we organise work the way we do

What guides our choices about how our organisation will manage people?

As managers, most of us recognise that the way people feel impacts on how they work, but when we think about managing and motivating people, we often think first about the way we talk to members of the team and how we can make them feel or behave differently to get different results. We don’t always think about the way that the wider context in which everyone’s working is making them feel.

As human beings, we all have the same basic psychological needs, such as the need for respect, for meaning, for belonging and understanding. Creating a context in which those needs can be met is a great way to create an organisation that will succeed and an environment in which people will thrive.

It’s not all about the way managers talk to people

So what creates that context, if it’s not all about the way managers talk to people? There are key elements of an organisation’s ‘design’ that impact on people’s motivation and how people get work done. See the diagram below. Decisions that you make about these elements combine to create a unique environment and culture within which your team works.

Design elements of an organisation
Organisation design elements that impact on people’s motivation to get things done – copyright Shift Consultancy Ltd

For each of these elements, decisions are made within an organisation that affect their impact on the workforce. We take many of these decisions unconsciously, falling into doing things in a particular way, sometimes simply because we haven’t considered that there can be other options or perhaps because we don’t recognise the impact that they can have.

Design elements are important

The design elements I’ve identified are of particular importance and this is why:

  • Role definition – Work is usually broken down into individual roles in organisations and often captured in job descriptions. These job descriptions, often long lists of tasks that must be completed, are written and don’t often get changed, whereas most work changes (and changes often) once someone’s in role. People often have no real idea what other people are trying to achieve and this can be a cause of speculation, misunderstanding and conflict.  
  • Communication – Identified as problematic within many organisations, communication is often made more difficult because of the way we organise work. Cascading information leads to the distortion of messages and the way we work can discourage people from sharing (and learning) because knowledge equals power.  
  • Dealing with stuff when it goes wrong – How organisations deal with things when they go wrong can seriously impact on the results they’re able achieve, especially when they’re trying to encourage collaboration and innovation. It doesn’t take much for people to start covering their backs, stop speaking out when mistakes have been made and start brushing stuff under the carpet.
  • Managing performance – Focusing people’s energy on what needs to be achieved is key to effective management, as is providing information and support to enable people to see how they’re doing and how they could do better. Superior performance requires aims to be clear and engaging and individuals and teams to be supported and enabled.     
  • Decision-making – The way decisions are made and who makes them has significant consequences for a business. Decision-making is a big part of leadership, and it’s not something everyone is comfortable in a work environment, but decision-making is a key process in any organisation.
  • Reward and recognition – What a business chooses to reward is an important indicator to people about what matters to the leaders of the organisation. Recognition isn’t just about awards and public praise either, it’s also (and perhaps most importantly) about who is chosen for promotion, why and how. 
  • Recruitment and induction processes – It’s not only who’s recruited, but also how they are recruited that makes a difference, and even how you treat those people that aren’t suitable for the job. The process by which new team members are introduced – to the way you work and the work they’ll do – is then key to help them getting up to speed and maximise their contribution as quickly as possible.

Making better decisions about the way your organisation works

You’ll recognise that there are many choices you have to make. How can you make better decisions about the way your organisation works?

First of all focus on the outcomes you want to achieve, i.e. how you need people to work in order to achieve your aims. Then investigate common human needs. You’ll then be in a much better position to design your business to get the most of your team.