The purpose of work

Over the years I’ve read and heard a lot about meaning in work. Finding purpose in what you do and how happiness can be found in almost anything that we want.

I’ve never completely been convinced about these arguments. In the same way employee engagement wants to make me poke out my own eyes with a rusty nail, the whole premise seems contrived. Because not all work can have meaning and not everyone wants to find meaning in their work. What worries me more about these things is that the argument feels patronising and explores work through a middle class, middle-income, professional lens.

If you’re holding down four temporary, part-time jobs, the last thing on your mind is finding meaning in the organisational vision and strategy. You just don’t want to get shafted by your employer, see your hours reduced, get charged for your uniform or have any losses deducted from your wage. You want to have some level of guarantee that you know how much you’re going to be taking home so that you can pay the bills.

But this isn’t just an economic argument. Even in the seemingly more stable office environment, some people want to come in, be treated like an adult, be allowed to do the job that they are paid for and get that pay and go home. In the same way that for many organisations, employees are faceless and interchangeable, for many employees organisations are similarly homogeneous.

This doesn’t mean that the world of work has to be grey and boring and impersonal. Far from it. By recognising that some people don’t give a flying fig about your company purpose or meaning, you’re recognise that they are individuals in their own right. If they want to get pay from work and meaning from their stamp collection, or saving small baby seals from being clubbed to death, that’s their choice. And choice is individual, and recognising individuality is the first step to creating a healthy organisation.

Instead of trying to deploy some sort of weird, HR Jedi mind control tricks, we should focus instead on making sure that there is a fair deal for all employees within our organisations, allowing them to prosper and enjoy life in whatever (legal) ways they chose to do. To use a favourite phrase of mine, we are there to create the theatre that allows our employees to make the performances of their lives. But we need to recognise that for some of them, that performance will be nothing more than a job.

Because our role is not to help people find purpose in work, our job is to make work better. Finding meaning and happiness is personal choice.

A dignified exit

As sure as night follows day, the one thing I can guarantee in your HR career is that you will need to let someone go, fire them, relieve them of their duties.

Because as much as helping people to join our organisation, helping people to leave is a part of our role and responsibility. And there will be a myriad of reasons for leaving, from performance to conduct, to reorganisations and retirements. But regardless of the reason, one thing remains the same:

You will show your true colours as both a human being and as a professional by how you handle these situations.

Too often, we take the easy option, disassociate ourselves and treat the people who are leaving as the reason. We depersonalise them, process them and rely on the legal framework and organisational procedures to justify our actions. After all, we are just following orders, right?

Well, we know all about that.

The trick, the challenge is to help people to leave with as much dignity and respect as possible. For them to be able to leave, heal, regenerate and become productive again as quickly as possible. Ideally in a job or company to which they are more suited.

There are very few examples, a handful over my twenty years of practice, where I’ve witnessed something so incredibly mean spirited, wrong or illegal that it warranted the full force of organisational justice. And in most of those cases, the authorities were also involved.

In the large majority of circumstances, it is instead the company who hired the wrong person, didn’t train or manage them properly, or just let things slide. It is the company, the organisation, that is responsible.

It might seem easier to blame the individual, to place the onus on them and to avoid any level of empathy or understanding. But ultimately this backfires on you, the organisation and the individual. So next time you come up against a situation, ask yourself this:

“What is it that I can do to make this as least traumatic as possible”

And then do it.

It won’t necessarily change the outcome, but you’ll be doing that person a service, protecting the reputation of your organisation and putting the human back in HR. You’ll also probably sleep better at night too. Trust me. Give it a go.

So what the hell is OD?

One of the first posts that I wrote when I moved to this blog was called, “The real definition of Organisational Development”. To this day it remains one of the most visited posts with the vast majority of visitors coming from a Google search. This, of course, is in no way related to the insight or expertise that I share more to do with the fact that it is a question that people are still asking.

I’ve had cause to talk about this subject again over the past few weeks and it started me reflecting on how my thinking had changed since 2011.

I start with a belief that organisations are systems and that our job as practitioners is to improve organisational performance through an understanding of that system, the tensions, the areas of friction, the opposing forces and, through this, take a cohesive approach to interventions to drive better performance.

That’s the easy part.

The hard part is that the reality is like knitting fog. The role of OD professional is to survive the necessary ambiguity that is inherent in the profession long enough to support the delivery of the interventions that provide the organisation with enough reassurance that they know what they’re doing. I use “support” here on purpose, because the truth is they probably won’t own the areas of intervention themselves. They can’t.

For me, warning signals flag when I hear of OD being associated with other specialisms, “I’m responsible for L&D and OD” tends to fill me with dread. I understand why it’s done, because the L&D becomes a crutch for the ambiguity. An ability to hang your “overhead heavy” hat on something that can be measured or defined. But OD isn’t L&D at all, it’s far bigger than that.

Enough of what I think, let’s look at an example. I’ve picked the definition from the CIPD, which seems as good as any, of OD being the ’planned and systematic approach to enabling sustained organisation performance through the involvement of its people’. In which case the interventions have to range across the organisation, to use all the levers available to us. Including compensation.

And I rarely hear “OD people” talk about reward, data or analytics, preferring instead to focus on “leadership development”, “team solutions” or “engagement”.

Four years later, I’m even more convinced of OD as one of the most important areas of practice within the sphere of HR. In some ways, I think it is another way of defining strategic HR management. But I don’t think we’ve progressed much further as a profession in making it a reality, mainly because we’ve positioned it in many cases as “super sexy learning and development”. Just look at the jobs that are advertised.

It would be a shame if we took an opportunity to play in a different space and reduced it to something comfortable, reassuring and known. If we missed the chance to refocus our efforts, our thinking and our profession. We need to accept that with higher thinking, with pioneering, with genuine strategic thinking comes a level of fogginess or risk of seeming “woolly at the start. But that the potential outcomes and benefits to the organisational system are far greater than anything else that we have ever done.

Diagnose, don’t dream

Our ability to influence and to develop the human agenda within organisations depends on our ability to deliver successful solutions in to our businesses. Yet far too often, I see and hear of interventions that start from the solution and not from the diagnosis.

We have the answer before we know the questions.

Part of the reason for this is our eternal fixation with HR best practice and part of it is a need to feel that we are “delivering”. But I also think there is often a fundamental disconnect between our understanding of why we are in an organisation and the real value that we can add.

I’ve written before about the importance of marketing and also thinking about the impact on the end-user. And these have to be underpinned by a robust approach to diagnosis.

What are we trying to achieve?
How do we know that we need to achieve this?
What is the data that informs this?
What would success deliver?

I have a simple belief that in HR our “value add” is to make the organisation perform better. In order to do this we need to observe, sense and understand the areas of tension or friction, we need to relate these to the organisational system that we operate within. Then we need to be clever and creative in finding ways to drive improvement.

The simple benefit of doing this is that we can clearly articulate the need for the specific piece of work that we are doing, we can provide the context within the organisational system and then we can measure the impact. We base the need in the organisation, not in the HR department.

Influence comes from the ability to articulate our value, and that becomes a whole lot easier if we start with the diagnosis and end with the cure rather than just dreaming up need and repeatedly telling people what’s good for them.

Because none of us need that. Do we?