Leadership & Productivity

Nourishing your workplace: 6 hidden ingredients that create “umami”

8 min read

11 September 2018

Umami is that magical, almost mythical, fifth taste beyond sweet, salty, sour and bitter. In gastronomy, this Japanese word is associated with balance and savoury delectability. In business, it’s the difference between good and exceptional.

Many leaders strive for this distinction but all too frequently come up short of achieving it. Finding umami, or that extra dimension that goes beyond the obvious, means utilising our most precious resources – our people – to create an elevated workplace that is the absolute best it can be.

I have always abhorred the term “human resources” because it makes it feel like employees are a commodity. In a way, people are just that. But we need to feel and treat people like a precious resource, one that delivers “the umami to business” – those hidden ingredients that take an endeavour (or meal) to the next level.

When I first started to write this piece, I thought I would write about democratisation, which sounds like a wonderful thing to enact. But umami should not be confused with utopia, which does not bear much truth in the hard cut and thrust of business.

In reality, cash in the bank, a great product, and profitable clients who pay on time and share your excellence are what define whether you live as a business and thrive as a community. If starved of the above essentials, the business perishes – whether you are democratic or not at all.

We all have the potential to give that extra 5% and make a world of difference; this umami can be reached through the following hidden ingredients that any thoughtful leader can activate if they follow the right course of action.

Cultivating genuine respect

Instead of lofty idealism, businesses can and should foster genuine respect to bring out their workforce’s strongest flavours. The feeling and sharing of genuine respect continuously confirms that what you are working on deserves your time and absolute energy. Discretionary potential means taking whatever it is you are doing and wanting to make it so much better.

How is genuine respect lived? It can be exemplified by the following actions:

  • When your people are listened to, not just heard;
  • When they are seen, not just looked at;
  • When they are shared with, not spoken at;
  • When they are believed alike, but encouraged to think differently;
  • When you act this way consistently, every time.

In other words, listening to, seeing and sharing with, believing in, and encouraging your people every time you have the opportunity to do so will foster the kind of respect that alone can elevate the foundational strength of a business.

Emphasising values

Reputation and relevant resources are the absolute of all and any business. Moreover, businesses that excel are ones that stay strong on resources, long on the power of people, and short on compromising intrinsic values.

There it is: values. Values cannot be created, curated, cared for, lived and executed without the power and will of a workforce that is proud, willing and able. No leader in any free economy has power over the will nor underlying discretionary ability of any well-intentioned employee. Values inspire and motivate and are upheld by people that are motivated and inspired.

Preparing for war

An underlying, material truth to most businesses is well-exemplified in the current TV series, Succession.

When asked for his loyalty in support of a pending board takeover, a key executive says “yes,” then caveats this with the following provision: “I am 100 % committed, spiritually, professionally, emotionally and morally… but to whoever it is that looks like they will win.”

The romantics amongst you will find this abhorrent.

Those who know the real essence of success will know that, whilst abhorrent and deeply cynical, longevity in business,  harmony, and values come at a price.

That price is this: If you want peace, be prepared for war.

Leaning into change

How people work, where they work and when they work is no longer 9 to 5. The corner office can be the park bench and increasingly open spaces, hot desking, and work at will as long as the results come. These new modes of work are no longer revolutionary, but a way of working and indeed a way of life.

In  2007, Holacracy was invented in a quest to help companies work better together – and by so doing uncoupling the management hierarchy. All at once this appears to be amazing and terrifying.

The war against micromanagement is a healthy one, especially in this fast-paced, unforgiving commercial world. Forward-thinking business leaders must understand the nature of these changes and find out where their people fit into the new and innovative landscape of work.

Empowering the right way

Empowerment is merely permission with parameters. It simply means that you are permitting another to feel emboldened and with it a specific license to do certain things quickly and reasonably but within parameters. So don’t give it frills. What you are agreeing to are “parameters of permission”..’

Permission is a good thing. Taking away unrequired layers so that people may use their initiative is crucial. But it is always within context. There are still rules and guidelines; there are still obligations. Call it out for what it is; be humanistic, forward-looking and fast-paced. But don’t pretend empowerment means a free and open democracy.

Being quick to empathy, slow to action

In business, an unguided or unguarded action, too fast, may result in consequences that can cause unbelievable hardship. Conversely, a lack of humanness and an inability to empathise in the moment that matters can turn an easy fix into a storm.

Remember,  because we have so much choice today, brands and businesses need people more than people need them. This is why being quick to empathy is a good thing. It means treating your people like the precious resources they are instead of disposable parts. But if you don’t take the necessary time to think your actions through you will likely be sorry.

I have thrown a lot down before you. It feels like a gauntlet, but actually, I am trying to deliver something akin to umami – something that goes beyond the basic norm. With these ingredients, this taste can be drawn out of the realm of myth into the daylight to nourish your workplace and all those it serves.

Alexei Orlov is the founder and global CEO of mtm choice worldwide.