Pictured above: When HR goes native.
Leaders of small or mid-sized companies dreaming of growing into big players, I have a warning: that path ends in nothing but nightmares. I’ve worked for and coached in businesses of all types and sizes, from less than a dozen employees to more than 80,000. I’ve come to realize that the smaller the company, the more enthusiastic and fulfilled the employees are.
In smaller companies, people’s personal and business missions tend to be much more aligned than they are in larger corporations, and, to put it simply, when home and the office are collaborators instead of at odds, people are happier. Bigger corporations just can’t pull that kind of peaceful coexistence off.
A fundamental principle applies to all human organizations: when people form an organization, be it a business, community group, government, or other entity, they intend for the organization to serve them. As long as they limit the growth of that enterprise, it will. Small organizations exist to serve their members.
But time and time again, I’ve seen members who haven’t limited the growth of their organization watch them swell to a tipping point at which their roles flip, and people find they are now servants of the organization instead of vice versa.
The people in a large company become captive to its wishes.
It gets worse: once this tipping point is reached, there’s no going back. The only way for members to free themselves from their self-induced enslavement is to destroy the organization they’ve worked so hard to create and grow.
At this point, the organization is best understood as a living entity who, like all other living things, prioritizes survival above all else. The organization will fight back against anyone who tries to reduce its power and will try to destroy anyone who attempts to terminate it.
A prime example of this phenomenon is the U.S. Federal Government. Think I’m exaggerating? When is the last time your government served you? How often do you feel like your purpose is to serve and sustain it? How many of your fellow citizens are dependent on your government for their survival, and is this number diminishing or growing? How would your government respond if you attempted to abolish it?
The 30th U.S. President, Calvin Coolidge, understood this well. He said, “A government which lays taxes on the people not required by urgent public necessity and sound public policy is not a protector of liberty, but an instrument of tyranny. It condemns the citizen to servitude.”
The U.S. government reached the tipping point nearly a century ago, and each of us is living with the ramifications of our inability or unwillingness to limit its growth.
The same is true for businesses. Visit the “human” resources department in just about any large corporation, and you’ll hear statements like, “I’m here to protect the company, not the employee.” Sit in on any executive meeting in a major company, and it won’t be long before someone asserts, “We have to put the company first, regardless of the pain that will cause our staff.” There are rare exceptions, but they are very rare. Bottom line: if you work for a large corporation, it probably does not work for you.
So, leaders of mid-size and small businesses, take care. Stay vigilant. Do not allow you and your people to become slaves to a heartless, soulless, self-interested entity by allowing your firm to grow beyond its tipping point.
It may not be as sexy or ego-nourishing to lead a small player, but you and your people will experience life, liberty, and happiness that cannot be found in the halls of corporate behemoths.