Smart Leadership


Workplace Currency: It’s More Than Money

Workplace Currency: It’s More Than Money

Why do we care about titles and positions? Why do we care about recognition and acknowledgment? Is it just because of the potential for more money? I don’t think so.

Money is certainly important, it gets us out of bed every day (or maybe it’s the bills).  If the money is too low it certainly becomes a distraction and can impact our motivation and engagement levels. Let us look at the case of the controversial actions of CEO Dan Price of Gravity Payments who took a pay cut in order to raise the salary of all his employees to $70,000. Everyone was happy, right? Not completely, two of Mr. Price’s most valued employees resigned their position because they thought it unfair to double the pay of some new hires while those with longer tenures (like themselves) received a small or no raise at all. I think their feelings are noteworthy but what’s the real issue here. In terms of money, it didn’t take anything away from their paycheck.  The real issue is it has an impact on another type of currency, a non-monetary one. I have coined it as workplace currency.

By definition what is currency? In essence it is an exchange of value. We typically think about it in terms of goods and services in which we exchange those for a monetary value usually the dollar. For those of us in the corporate world, we exchange our services for a paycheck. But is there something far deeper that motivates us beyond the monetary value of a paycheck?  Let’s take a closer look at the two valued employees who resigned their positions at Gravity Payments.

As we have already noted there was no loss of monetary currency. Their pay either remained the same or was raised. What loss then did they feel? A loss of workplace currency. They felt diminished because those with shorter tenures were now making the same money and therefore they felt they were no longer distinguished in value. They felt their tenure no longer held currency. For them, it was an assault on their value in the workplace.

But let’s get back to the original question. Why do we care about titles and positions? Because we believe they elevate our workplace currency. Sure they come with more money but the money itself is not enough if the non-monetary currency doesn’t follow. We can get that title or position and the money that goes with it and still find ourselves dissatisfied.  Why? The new position failed to raise our workplace currency level, it failed to raise our sense of value to the organization. No matter who you are, how high up or how low down you are you are after one primary thing, workplace currency. Because the higher the non-monetary currency the more certain and secure is our future. .

As leaders why do we care about workplace currency? The only reason we care about anything else its impact on performance. The higher the workplace currency levels of any individual the higher the performance. Take a look at the dynamics that feed into this relationship?

  • Ownership – People with higher workplace currency levels take ownership over their work. Those who take ownership always produce at higher levels.
  • Confidence – Higher workplace currency levels elevate confidence. Because they feel they are valued by leadership their belief in themselves is stronger.
  • Loyalty – Higher workplace currency levels means greater loyalty. People are more loyal to a place where they feel they have a strong sense of value.

Overall the goal of leadership would be to raise the workplace currency levels of every employee. This would contribute to overall higher performance levels. In the case of CEO Dan Price, he made his decision based on a Princeton study that stated an employee’s emotional well-being was higher when their salary hit the benchmark of $70,000. Emotional wellbeing would qualify for improving currency levels because it would contribute to stronger performance. My interpretation of his actions is that it was his intent to raise the workplace currency level of his entire staff based on the Princeton study with the goal of raising productivity levels across the company. Perhaps he didn’t consider the impact on certain individuals.

Right decision or not there are some other practical ways you can immediately provide for your people to increase their workplace currency.

  • Developmental opportunities are one of the best ways to raise currency levels. Having the opportunity to increase knowledge and skill levels is a big shot in the arm for an employee’s professional growth and in establishing their long-term value.
  • Enlarge the circle for employee ideas and feedback. You don’t necessarily have to be as extreme as Google but I bet you could do a lot more than you currently doing. When people see that you care about what they think currency goes through the roof.
  • Make more information available and accessible to the whole company. Everyone becomes more valuable when they have the opportunity to see the bigger picture of the business.
  • Broaden the assignment of special projects outside of select people. People with higher currency levels tend to have greater access to special projects. But the reverse can be true— when people are involved in special projects it raises their workplace currency.

On a final note, I can trace the majority of workplace conflicts to this one thing—the fight for currency. Because it is based in our sense of personal value, when it is threatened we will do everything in our power to defend it, preserve it and protect it. Without it we feel inferior, insecure and uncertain. If you have ever been in company under the threat of layoffs you will find people who think they will be the first to go and those who think they will be the last to go and it’s all based on their assessment of their own currency (value) in the workplace.

As leaders we can broaden workplace currency across the company at all levels. Put it to the test and you will see that performance levels will rise proportionately across the board.