This Is Heart Science

This Is Heart Science

16.8 min read

Greg L. Thomas

Homer Hickam probably isn’t a name very many will recognize, but early in his life he knew what he loved and wanted for a career. He wanted to be a rocket scientist. Mr. Hickman is the author of many books including Rocket Boys, the memoir about his boyhood adventures building rockets and growing up in the mining town of Coalwood, West Virginia 1.  Rocket Boys was made into an award-winning 1999 motion picture titled October Sky.  The author had a boyhood dream of becoming a rocket scientist, and eventually became an engineer at NASA.  What he did for a living was real rocket science!

Rocket scientists are viewed by society as having a great deal of intelligence.  What they do is considered difficult.  Air Force Lt. Gen. Ronald Kadish, head of the Defense Department’s missile-defense, in recently referring to ABM missile-defense research said, “This is rocket science, and it is difficult...” 2

Because of widespread acknowledgement that rocket science is complex and difficult, we often hear politicians and business leaders saying, “This is not rocket science.”  This means that what they are talking about is not that difficult to understand.

For example, Gary Ruskin, the director of the Congressional Accountability Project (an organization founded by Ralph Nader), in arguing for more disclosure of public documents on the Internet, recently said, “None of this is rocket science. A perfectly competent 12-year-old could write this database.” 3

Pete Stark (D-Calif.), the ranking Democrat on the House Ways and Means Committee recently said, “Mr. Bush, let’s not waste time on this proposal…This is not rocket science. The outlines for a compromise are pretty clear.” 4

Finally, John F. “Jack” Welch, 5 20 year Chairman and CEO of General Electric, gave this advice to the MBA class of 2001 at Harvard Business School:

“Business isn’t rocket science…Your job as a manager is to give people confidence.” 6

Business may not be rocket science, but it should be what I call “heart science!”  Rocket science is difficult to understand and difficult to do.  Heart science is simple to understand but difficult to do.  Heart science is what it takes to build and maintain an organizational “culture of the heart.”

Three of the companies at the top of Fortune magazine’s 7 annual listing of “the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America”—Southwest Airlines 8, Synovus Financial 9, and The Container Store 10—have all created and sustained such a culture of the heart.  It is based on the premise that if you take care of people, the profit will take care of itself. It’s people caring for people.  It is putting people first.

Synovus corporate values include applying the Golden Rule.  Their corporate web site contains this message:

“It all starts with treating people right—the way you want to be treated. It’s an old cliché’, but it makes a lot of sense to us.” 11

In a Synovus produced video entitled “A Culture of the Heart” these values are further explained:

“Take care of your people. Take care of your customers.  Treat them like you want to be treated. That’s the key.”  (Spoken by Stephen T. Butler, President and CEO of W.C. Bradley Company, a company established by the same family that established Synovus.)

Treating people like you want to be treated is known as the Golden Rule.  Southwest Airlines’ philosophy includes eleven primary attitudes.  One of these is “always practice the Golden Rule, internally and externally.” (Freiberg, 1996)

At The Container Store the maxim “treat people as you want to be treated” is granted policy status. 12

All three of these companies make practicing the Golden Rule an important part of their corporate philosophy.  Is it a mere coincidence that all three of these companies have also been recognized as the #1 company to work for in America in Fortune magazine’s annual listing of “the 100 Best Companies to Work for in America?”

Habitually practicing the Golden Rule creates and maintains a healthy culture with a family atmosphere.  This is true in an actual family, a church “family,” or a business “family.”

Synovus companies are referred to as the “Synovus family.” The personnel within the Synovus family of companies are referred to as “team members” rather than employees. Taking care of the 12,000 people within the Synovus family means being sure that team members don’t feel a need to separate their job from the rest of their life.  Life should be one indivisible whole.  The centerpiece of the Synovus culture of the heart is making sure people know they are cared for, above and beyond the work they happen to do on the job in daylight hours.

Synovus and the W. C. Bradley Co. are two separate companies that have similar cultures. This is because the same family established both of them.  In fact, several directors serve on the boards of both companies. This has been true virtually for the entire existence of Synovus.  A few years ago an employee at W. C Bradley Co. lost a child, and in a letter of appreciation to the company for the support she received she wrote, “The beauty of this company is that when one person cries, everyone tastes the tears.”

Some writers say that practicing the Golden Rule is not good. Buckingham and Coffman, authors of First Break All The Rules: What the World’s Greatest Managers Do Differently (Simon & Schuster, 1999) say that great managers should ignore the Golden Rule–“Do unto others as you would have done to you”–and instead treat your employees as they would like to be treated. (Schwartz, 2000)

Unfortunately, there is a widespread misconception of what the Golden Rule actually teaches.  To illustrate, it is not saying that if I like peanuts, then I should give peanuts to others, even if they are allergic to peanuts!  That is focusing on a particular personal preference.  One must look beyond the specific practice to the underlying principles!  The Golden Rule is not about specific practices, or imposing your personal tastes, likes, or dislikes on others.  It is about practicing timeless universal principles that build and maintain sound human relationships.  The Golden Rule is about treating others by the same principles that you want to be treated.

The Golden Rule must be practiced within a principle-centered culture.  The Golden Rule teaches us that the way to treat others should be based on the very same principles that we hold dear, such as respect, human dignity, kindness, cooperation, generosity, commitment, discipline, sacrifice, due process, humility, honesty, fairness, and service.  A culture that is not aligned with these and other principles will be a culture that is politicized, devoid of genuine service, and probably will behave unethically under pressure.  These principles serve as a moral compass to guide decision-making.  Personal character is irrevocably related to these timeless principles, and is the starting point to building a culture of the heart.

Being principle-centered is not simply an intellectual exercise.  Knowing about principles is not the same as living by them.  Knowledge alone does not change behavior. There must be a connection made between the head and the heart.  Before behavior changes, a desire to change must be present.  We must desire to align our hearts to these principles.  That is part of heart science.  It is simple to comprehend but difficult to do.  However, if enough individuals within an organization do this, the culture will begin to shift toward a culture of the heart.  Companies with a culture of the heart try to hire new employees that are principle-centered and demonstrate a genuine attitude of service.

Max DePree, in his book Leadership Jazz, says, “Above all, leadership is a position of servanthood. Leadership is also a posture of debt; it is a forfeiture of rights.”

This is a critical point. I have encountered some who claim they want to be servant leaders, yet constantly exercise and guard “their rights” rather than forfeiting them as a humble servant. They lack a heart of submission to those they serve.  They do not understand you can’t serve both the master of control and the master of service! Eventually such a leader will hold to one master, and despise the other.

I have watched some, who thought they wanted to be servant leaders, struggle between these two masters.  When they finally discovered the reality of servant leadership— a forfeiture of rights—some actually turned and began to despise the concept! They had finally realized that a servant leader is often treated as a servant!

Max DePree said it so well:

“Vulnerability is the opposite of self-expression.  Vulnerable leaders trust in the abilities of others; vulnerable leaders allow the people who follow them to do their best.”

Managers who desire predictability through high control crush creativity, initiative, and commitment.  They may talk participation, but it is only surface deep.  Their real desires ultimately result in producing cynicism within the culture.  When employees genuinely know that they come first, the result is trust in the organization and love for their leaders.  Leaders who feel they are not trusted and loved might do well to examine their own heart and motives.  Is predictability and control more important to you than the growth of your people?

Max DePree reminds us, “There is no such thing as safe vulnerability.”

Peter Block wrote:

“If our organizations are to survive, the redistribution of purpose, power, and privilege will have to take place with the involvement and consent of those who in some ways stand to lose the most[emphasis mine], the managerial class.  And this is basically what choosing service requires.”

That is how you move toward a culture of the heart.  You choose service over self-interest.  Not a patriarchal (parenting) kind of service, where “father knows best,” but a true servant leadership kind of service.  There is a difference!  A true servant leader listens first!  He doesn’t just decide what is best for you.  He doesn’t do it his way.  He is governed by principles and governs by principles. We show respect when we really listen to others. That is how people in a culture of the heart GROW.

When people talk to one another, there are often two meanings to what they say.  The first is the meaning of what is actually stated.  The second is the metamessage.  It is meaning that is not stated—at least not in words—but is gleaned from every aspect of context: the way something is said, who is saying it, or the fact that it is said at all. The metamessage is the “heart meaning”—the meaning we react to most strongly, that triggers emotion. (Tannen, 2001)  In a culture of the heart the message and metamessage should complement, not contradict each other.  There should be no need to “read the tea leaves” to find out what is really being said.

A culture of the heart rewards such open, honest expressions of concern and questions.  Responses to such questions are also honest and devoid of duplicity. When people sense duplicity, they are guarded in their communication and trust evaporates.

Dr. Stephen Covey says:

“Many executives say they value capitalism, but they reward feudalism…They say they value openness…but they behave in ways that value closeness, hidden agendas, and politicking.” (Covey, 1991)

One other important characteristic of a culture of the heart needs to be mentioned.  A culture of the heart encourages everyone to keep promises and honor commitments.  Violating commitments when “conditions change” is a major emotional withdrawal.  Heart science requires being very careful about what we promise, and then making sure we honor all our promises.

If conditions change, don’t renege on your commitments through the exercise of positional power.  Instead, go to the person or persons you made your promise to and ask to be released from the promise.  Usually they will release you.  However, be prepared to honor your promise to your own hurt when necessary.  This is what it means to live by the principle of integrity.  In the long run such actions will build trust.  Trust is essential to a culture of the heart.

Some argue that all this sounds good, but “this soft stuff really doesn’t work.”  However, the facts prove just the opposite!  The Gallup Organization has analyzed 25 years’ worth of interviews with more than 1 million workers.  They have concluded that the single most important variable in employee productivity and loyalty is not pay or benefits.  The single most important factor is thequality of the relationship between the employees and their direct supervisors.  It turns out the greatest sources of satisfaction in the workplace are internal and emotional, not financial. (Schwartz, 2000)

People desire a leader who sets clear and consistent expectations, provides the necessary resources, genuinely cares for them, values and encourages them, and supports their growth and development.  As the saying goes, “I don’t care how much you know until I know how much you care.”

Mother Teresa said, “The greatest disease in the West today is not TB or leprosy; it is being unwanted, unloved, and uncared for.”  This is as true in the corridors of big business as it is in the ghettos. (Freiberg, 1996)  Companies with a culture of the heart understand this need and work diligently to meet it.  They encourage their management to promote and even celebrate the success of their employees.  Most do it because it is good business and the right thing to do!  Intelligent business leaders know there is really no substitute for managing a company with honest and caring people.

This is why Robert Greenleaf, the father of modern servant leadership thinking, said that servant leadership is about making the people around you to grow as persons.

If your people don’t perceive themselves as growing, are you really serving them?  When was the last time you asked them for frank and honest feedback regarding your contribution to their growth?

A recent article in’s “Working Wounded” 13 discussed performance reviews. It compared some performance reviews to having a pit bull sink its teeth into you!  The article said that it seems like some supervisors grow new teeth just for the purpose of performance reviews.  Other supervisors may put off reviews because they dread the process.

Synovus has recognized that it is difficult for most managers and team members to have a frank and constructive conversation about performance if there is money on the line.  So they have separated the evaluation process from salary adjustments.  Synovus has redesigned the whole process and named it Right Steps for Performance Development14

Performance reviews in an organization with a culture of the heart should be very different from traditional reviews.  Reviews in a culture of the heart are seen as a development tool.  Reviews are often held several times a year, not just annually.

Leaders use Right Steps meetings at Synovus to determine (1) what the team member enjoys, (2) what he/she wants to do in the future, and (3) what the company needs him/her to do.  The company then tries to place each team member in a position where the team member can fulfill all three.  They understand that satisfied team members are those whose jobs fulfill each of these criteria.  The manager uses the performance review to help the team member identify future growth options and build a career plan.  The focus is on the growth of people, not sitting in judgment of people.

The bottom line is that companies with a principle-centered culture of the heart have lower turnover, are more productive, and maintain higher customer loyalty than those who don’t.

According to BusinessWeek, TSYS, a payment services company in which Synovus owns an 80.8-percent stake, recently ranked the 75th best overall performer among “The 100 Best Small Companies,” and 10th within the banking industry group.  Synovus also ranked #5 among 128 companies researched in Keefe, Bruyette & Woods, Inc.’s annual Honor Roll, which recognizes those banking companies that have continually reported increases in earnings per share—regardless of the banking environment—over the last decade.  Only 13 have posted a 10-year record worthy of admission to the Honor Roll!

Synovus was also recently named in Working Mother magazine’s 15th annual survey as one of the “100 Best Companies for Working Mothers.”  They received the top score in the category of “Flexibility” afforded to working moms, and additional high marks in the categories of “Leave for New Parents,” “Work/Life” and “Advancing Women.”

Synovus and its family of companies recently ranked 23rd in Training magazine’s annual survey of the “Top 50 Training Organizations.”  They have also been named 10th in the most recent edition of The 100 Best Stocks to Own in America.

These results demonstrate that practicing the Golden Rule and having a culture of the heart is not only a “good idea”, but is also very sound business!

Edwin Markham said: “We have committed the Golden Rule to memory; let us now commit it to life.”

Jack Welch, CEO of GE, one of the most admired companies in the world, knows what he is talking about when he says, “Business isn’t rocket science.”  The Golden Rule is not rocket science, and creating and sustaining a culture of the heart is not rocket science.  It is easy to understand, but hard to practice.  It takes considerable strength of character!  This is heart science!

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Dr. J. Howard Baker is Assistant Professor of Computer Information Systems at the University of Louisiana at Monroe. Dr. Baker has been a Franklin Covey 7 Habits of Highly Effective People certified facilitator for eight years, and has served the University of Texas at Tyler as their facilitator for four years. During the summer he offers a graduate and undergraduate course at U. T. Tyler in personal and organizational leadership. He holds a B.S. in Management from Samford University, a Master of Accounting (MAcc) from the University of Southern California, and a Ph.D. in Information Systems from the University of Texas at Arlington.

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