When Rallying Cries go Wrong: What the”Pity City” CEO can Learn from my Favorite Book

I don’t know MillerKnoll CEO Andi Owen. As a Michigander, I know her company and its brands – well, one in particular – Herman Miller. Also, I’m not an analyst, but it looks as though even with Herman Miller’s acquisition of Knoll, retail only accounts for about 1/4 of their revenue. With commercial real estate about to potentially implode, supply chain issues and inflation plaguing us, I can only imagine how daunting it must be to navigate the potentially choppy waters that await.

As someone with an ear constantly listening to the zeitgeist, I saw the first viral wave of Owen’s Zoom video rant on Reddit and knew it would create a not-so-kind viral moment for the company. It was too good not to spark outrage in a world of quiet quitting, tech layoffs, and spotlights on topsy-turvy executive compensation. A few days later, the ripple effect of the video made the front page of virtually every global publication, leaving most with a bad taste in their mouth for Owen and the company.

As I mentioned, I don’t know Andi Owen and have never worked for or with MillerKnoll. However, if I were her counsel, I’d immediately hand her a copy of Chip Conley‘s book “Peak“.

Why Peak and what can be learned?

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Peak had a profound influence on my approach to managing people. Taking inspiration from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs and applying them to business practices, Conley shares insights on creating successful companies by focusing on the well-being of employees, customers, and investors.

So take the “Pity City” scenario that Andi Owen is probably still replaying in her head. In a scenario where employees are concerned about not receiving an annual bonus, here are a few ways I’d suggest responding, using the principles learned from “Peak”:

1. Communicate transparently: Openly address the employees’ concerns regarding the annual bonus. While the company’s official statement claims no decisions on bonuses have been made, Andi knew, based on the number of messages she was receiving, how important of a topic this was to her staff. Clearly explain what would factor into the decision, and if possible, provide information about the company’s financial situation and any external factors that may have contributed to what should be acknowledged as an incredibly difficult decision.

2. Acknowledge and validate emotions: Recognize that employees might feel disappointed or upset about not receiving an expected bonus. Validate their emotions by showing empathy and understanding, which can help foster a sense of belonging and support within the organization.

3. Reinforce the company’s purpose: Reiterate to employees the company’s mission, vision, and values, highlighting the significance of their contributions in realizing these objectives. Although MillerKnoll asserts that the 3-minute video was misrepresented, I don’t remember hearing Owen acknowledge her employees’ worth to the company. Losing an annual bonus is unfortunate and potentially financially devastating for employees who were counting on it. Recognizing the positive impact of their staff’s efforts and working towards a mutually agreeable resolution may help alleviate the disappointment.

4. Seek employee input and feedback: Invite employees to share their thoughts, feelings, and ideas about the situation. Involving them in the decision-making process or problem-solving can help promote a sense of ownership and engagement.

5. Collaborate on future plans: Work with employees to create a plan for the future, identifying potential improvements and strategies to help the company perform better financially. This collaboration can increase the likelihood of annual bonuses being reinstated in the future.

6. Practice servant leadership: Continue to support and serve employees by remaining approachable, empathetic, and focused on their well-being. Show that you care about their concerns and are committed to finding solutions that benefit both the company and its employees.

Final Thoughts

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MillerKnoll’s brand slogan, “Design for the Good of Humankind,” boasts their collective of brands’ contribution of over a century of design research for humanity’s benefit. With today’s challenges such as inflation, wage loss, and limited opportunities affecting many, it’s clear that humanity is struggling. For those who remain employed and collaborate with or for MillerKnoll, the controversy surrounding Owen’s words has certainly been heard and acknowledged.

Transcendence is at the pinnacle of Maslow’s hierarchy. It is my hope that this adverse experience has provided Andi Owen with an opportunity for introspection and reevaluation. Rather than relying on well-crafted, corporate-style apologies, Owen’s future behavior will reveal if Pity City is merely an ill-conceived anecdote or an apt moniker for MillerKnoll’s headquarters. I sincerely hope it is the former.

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