Managing Your Employees’ Self-Interests

Harvard Business Review

April 15, 2008


by Marshall Goldsmith

In the past, it was never politically correct for an employee to openly demand of management, “What is in this for ME?” Now that the “organization man” is being replaced by the “free agent,” leaders may need to change this attitude to fit a new paradigm.

Help free agents build a win-win relationship with the company.

While organizations err in expecting star performers to neglect their own interests, it is also a mistake to assume that free agents cannot work collaboratively. None of the great professionals that I meet are interested in taking unfair advantage of their companies. Their goal is to establish an honest, win-win relationship with any organization they join. Enlightened free agents realize that today’s hiring organization may be tomorrow’s customer or partner. Their interest is in finding work that is meaningful while creating value for their organization.

As a leader, help your great free agents establish mutually beneficial relationships in the organization that may last beyond the term of employment. Show the long-term value of a positive connection.

Flexibility is key to working with free agents.

Historically human resource departments have used a cookie-cutter approach to dealing with people. A major focus was perceived fairness and treating everyone the same way. In dealing with free agents, this will have to change. Companies offering benefits that can be tailored to individual needs will have a huge competitive advantage.

For example, one of the world’s leading consulting firms tried to promote the company’s value of leading a balanced life as a reason for its professionals to stay put. Unfortunately, the firm learned that several top performers were young and single, and had no desire to “lead a balanced life”! These professionals found the entire pitch paternalistic and offensive. Instead they wanted to work as hard as possible and make as much as possible as soon as possible. They were annoyed that they were being asked to make a personal sacrifice so that others could leave work and spend time with their families.

As a leader, challenge your company to give you the flexibility you need to tailor benefits to meet the unique needs of professionals.

Leading free agents requires candor.

In many ways the new partnership contract between the large organization and the free agent requires refreshing honesty. Both sides must spend less time playing games. Free agents will be straightforward about what they want. Organizations will have to be equally direct in describing their goals, expectations, and rewards. Successful leaders of free agents realize that loyalty and mutual respect will earned – and cannot be taken for granted.

As a leader, be straight with your top professionals. They will not fall for corporate speak. Tell them the truth.

In some ways, dealing with free agents can be a pain for leaders. In other ways, it might be more refreshing than dealing with “organization” people.