Managing Work Over Managing People: Ethos

ChrisM
Written by
- 7 min read

What is ethos? Where does it come from? Why does it matter? Behind your strategy, purpose, brand and even your culture is something even more enduring. Foundational DNA that your business is built on. That something is your ethos.

article photo

What is your organisation’s ethos?

We hear a lot about purpose and vision, mission and goals, values and differentiators. Enlightened organisations invest time and energy understanding and cementing these into the day-to-day culture. We think of ethos as being in this mix somewhere, but how does it fit in?

A company’s ethos is the foundation on which all those other things are built. From the Greek word meaning “moral character”, ethos establishes the attitude of mind that is present at the genesis of a business, and influences everything else that follows.

It encompasses a set of beliefs about how the world works, or should work. Primarily, ethos is the underlying belief system about people - employees, customers and stakeholders - what role they play in the life of the business, and how they relate to each other.

The nature of a company’s ethos is an important question to answer, because it feeds right through to the values and culture, and ultimately the brand; how the organisation is perceived. Ethos is not culture but instead underpins it, providing the moral backbone on which the culture is built.

Mayden is known for working differently - a way that we sum up as: managing the work over managing the people.

We have kept the people hierarchy to an absolute minimum, evolving organisational systems, processes and practices for getting the right things done well other than through middle managers.

Why have we gone down this path?

It serves our purpose and goals in creating a culture where everyone has permission to innovate and do what needs doing for the customer. But also because it is consistent with our underlying belief system about the world - our ethos - in a way that hierarchies of line managers and subordinates do not.

We believe our ethos has seven distinguishing facets:

1. The golden rule

"Do unto others as you would have them do unto you".

This foundational ethic is found in some form in most religions and cultures, and today is regarded as basic morality. The problem is, it is conspicuously absent from many workplaces.

At Mayden, our underlying belief is that people are purpose-driven, value autonomy, want to master their role, care about each other, and do not need to be managed. By adopting this core maxim, and treating individuals accordingly, it turns out to be mostly true. After all, isn’t that what we want?

2. Trust

Trust, or rather a lack of it, is the primary reason why most organisations have ended up where they are - leaders not trusting and therefore seeking to control subordinates, likewise subordinates not trusting their leaders. For both parties, trust is built on the consistent demonstration of integrity and capability.

All too often it is the integrity of highly capable leaders - those who are supposed to represent our role models - that lets them down.

Capability, on the other hand, is not in short supply. Most people have the potential to be excellent at their roles if given the freedom and responsibility. So how do people like to be treated? Mostly, they like to be trusted, and everything that follows from that. Trusted to be conscientious, trusted to be competent, trusted to organise themselves.

3. Organise for the majority

That’s all very well, but life has taught us that this is not how everyone behaves. In fact, much of employment law seems to be designed around an assumption that people, both managers and employees, are the worst versions of themselves. The truth, however, is very different.

The human resource agenda is geared towards protecting organisations from the minority who misbehave, or minorities from organisations that don’t respect them. Our employment laws are part of the contract of doing business. They are needed because we are human and we sometimes have to be reminded to do the right thing. But that doesn’t mean we have to design our culture around the exceptions .

4. No-blame

As a company we cannot afford to stifle innovation. We need to be able to try things and make mistakes. Then we analyse what went wrong and learn from it. What we never do is apportion blame. As long as mistakes are not intentional, or occur repeatedly, there are no reprisals. No one gets sacked.

If you are afraid you will be blamed for an error leading to career limiting reprisals, and if you sense your peers may even be waiting for you to make a mistake as you compete with each other for progression, then you will naturally play safe and the world will not benefit from your creative brilliance.

5. Everyone should share in the rewards of success

Summarise our culture in one phrase? We want people to behave like they own the place!

Not in the pejorative sense, of course, but rather to have an ownership mindset, because autonomy, responsibility, community, creativity and risk management naturally follow.

Organisations reward staff for their time and effort through their salaries. Some may add in performance bonuses. It is still uncommon for employees to hold shares in the company they work for. At Mayden, a combination of stock options and profit share seeks to distribute the rewards of success to everyone.

6. Abundance mindset

Act as if the success has been achieved before it has actually happened. It is an attitude of mind and generosity of spirit that allows us to think big and not be constrained in our ambition. Our horizons are far away. We are focusing on the big picture, not getting bogged down in minutiae that adds no value. We act as if we believe the rewards from our efforts will come. It is about optimism.

The presence or absence of an abundance mindset directly affects our customers' perceptions of us too. Do we have a can-do attitude? Are we willing to go the extra mile? Do we exceed their expectations?

In short, do we act as if the world is full of opportunity, and there is more than enough to go round? Or do we harbour a perception of scarcity, where my win is your loss - and vice versa - such that our behaviour is modified in attempting to gain the biggest slice of an ever shrinking pie?

7. Flexibility & reciprocity

There are lots of ways flexibility can be built into the culture of an organisation. Working patterns are the biggest area, and a willingness to consider variations in this regard is key to recruiting and retaining many staff, especially those with children or other carer responsibilities. If we need an employee to occasionally stay late, we should also allow them occasionally to arrive late or to leave early.

Flexibility around inclusion and engagement is another. Some staff are perfectly comfortable expressing their ideas or views in meetings, others prefer in writing. Providing options that allow for all preferences will achieve the highest levels of contribution and inclusion.

Organisations perform best when there is give and take on both sides. Flexibility that is all one-sided runs the risk of building resentment. Ultimately, offering flexibility only really works if there is a willingness to reciprocate. Flexibility and reciprocity are two sides of the same coin.

These are cornerstones of our ethos that we have discovered so far. No doubt, there are others. Mayden’s ethos can probably be summarised as trying to make the company work for the employees and the work they are trying to do, rather than against them.

We believe organisations in the future will increasingly be modelled on similar principles, that this needs to become the norm and not the exception. But this can’t happen until organisations start being honest with themselves about their ethos - their fundamental beliefs about people and organisations.


This is a guest post from Chris May, founder director of Mayden, a digital healthcare company, creating digital technology that changes what's possible for clinicians and patients. For more information on Chris and the company, check out his rebel page.

Subscribe to our newsletter

Share