Pious indignation and false promises

Running an organisation of any size is tricky. There is an assumption that simply because of your position that you must know the correct answer for everything.  Not only must your actions be without criticism, but your intentions too. And we will be the judges and juries of both.

Our intolerance of imperfection and propensity for cynicism serves us badly.

I’m in no way trying to absolve genuinely corrupt, immoral and (let’s be honest) bad organisations. Merely to make an argument for encouragement for improvement, rather than blanket judgment. It should also be said that this isn’t a factor of business alone, you could run the same slide rule over politics and other parts of society too.

Last week Tortoise published their assessment of the FTSE100 against the UN  sustainable development goals, you can see the full report here. What I think is fascinating about the approach is that it looks at both actions and PR, the walk and the talk. Of the top 20 companies overall, only 4 were “guilty” of overselling their actions and many quite significantly undersold their performance. Probably not what you’d think from big business, right?

Compare and contrast with the annual vacuous press release from the CIPD and High Pay Centre which talks about FTSE100 pay, high on moral indignation and low on understanding and intellectual rigour. Frothing at the mouth and screaming into the abyss on a topic of significant complexity without any intention to encourage or support change.

We say that we want change and then we right off progress as “washing”. Pinkwashing, purpose washing, vegan washing, even woke washing. We will be the judges of whether you really mean what you say, not you.

If we wanted to develop an organisational culture of positive strength, would we start by doubting individual intentions, blanket criticism, reinforcing stereotypes? Or would we praise and recognise, reinforce positive behaviours, encourage?

There is a lot wrong in the world, that goes without saying.  Business, politics, society, sport, media, take your pick. Whilst we should always call out the abuse of power and serious malpractice, I also believe you get the culture you deserve. Maybe we should spend a little more time celebrating and encouraging change, supporting and championing progress?

It might not make for the most exciting headlines, “Organisations do what they say they’re going to do”, or help us absolve our own consciences, but it would sure make for a more pleasant world.

Beliefs, behaviours and systems

The beginning of any year always coincides with commitments to do things differently. Whether in our personal lives or in the workplace, there is something about the reflection caused by a change in year that leads to a desire to change. You only have to ask gyms and health clubs to know this is true.

You also only need to check back in with the same gyms and health clubs one or two month later to know that so many of the commitments just don’t stick.

Anyone that has worked in a team for any period of time will have been through a similar inflection point, with a desire to make a change, make things different, to sort things out. And similarly, most will have seen them fail.

There are three things that are likely to make a change more effective, whether that’s a personal fitness goal, or a work based initiative. Beliefs, behaviours and systems. Unless all of these three are present in some form or another, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Beliefs – Do people really understand and want to make the change that you’re trying to achieve? Do they believe that the steps you’re outlining will actually make the difference? Do they really want a new, different, reality?

Behaviours – Are people really willing to take their personal responsibility to do something differently? Do they recognise the way that they behave supports and reinforces the way things are right now?

Systems – Are the structures and processes that we have in place reinforcing where we are now? Do we need to add something new in, or take something away? Does the environment support the different outcomes we want to see?

(NB. I’ve used the plural, but the singular equally applies if you’re making personal change)

Whether we are applying this to the desire to get fit, stop drinking or stop smoking. Or whether we are applying this to the desire to have better team meetings, better decision making, or simpler governance. Essentially the same three criteria apply.

Whatever change you’re tackling in the new year, whatever outcome you want to achieve, spending a few minutes evaluating these three component parts is  more likely to lead to sustained success and less likely to lead to the February blues.

9 things that won’t happen in 2020

  1. We close the gender pay gap – Repeat after me, “equal pay and gender pay are not the same thing”. Gender Pay reporting is a good thing and has opened up a much needed debate. The issues are widespread and complex – occupational segregation, education, family and cultural influences – not to mention the media. All need addressing, but can’t be handled by companies alone, so sadly don’t expect significant change soon. (Also: worth checking out the Trade Unions’ pay gaps if you have a minute to spare).
  2. We accept zero hours contracts – When Matthew Taylor wrote one of the best reviews of modern working practices a couple of years back, he was roundly condemned by everyone for being…well, thoughtful and reasonable. Zero hours contracts aren’t wrong, workplace cultures that misuse them are. Fact.
  3. We realise flexible working has failed –  Similarly to executive reward, the ability to have a reasoned and balanced debate on the issue of flexibility seems to elude us. It isn’t working, either for organisations or individuals and the evidence is in the stubbornly low take up. So how do we make it better for all, not just keep banging a broken drum, or inscribing a problem into legislation?
  4. L&D grows up – If I hear another whinging article about why L&D is a separate, strategic function, I’ll beat someone over the head with their Insights profile (no, never done it either, but I bet I’m an orange ). Unless fully integrated, learning and skills development are pointless, self pleasing, momentary activities. Just without the tissues.
  5. HR chills out – There are very few scenarios I can conceive where anybody dies as a result of HR, but millions, daily, where they lose the will to live. That’s all you need to know on this point.
  6. We stop wasting money on leadership – Everyone is disengaged, profits are falling, we are at risk of disintermediation. I know, let’s get a member of the third squad for the British Hockey team that almost won the bronze medal in 1984 to help us figure out why! Frankly, it’s probably that sort of logic that got you where you are in the first place.
  7. We hold CIPD to account – When not spouting Orwellian nonsense, “The future of work is now!” (wide hand gesture and pause obligatory), they’re partnering with the pressure group the High Pay Centre to beat up on their members. More interested in column inches than member representation, chartered membership numbers are consistently  falling and missing target. When even Number 10 are openly criticising you, you know you need to do better.
  8. We have a sensible debate on executive reward – See above. If your own professional body can’t get it’s head around the topic, then who is going to lead a thoughtful debate on the issue, rather than one driven by soundbites on the christian names of CEOs in the FTSE100? Will Hutton might, as ever, be our best bet. Interesting stuff here.
  9. We stop making faddy predictions – Big data, AI, Employee Experience, Generation Y, I could go on. Anyone who writes anything with numbered predictions, based on the time of year, needs to be taken outside, put against the wall and shot. Oh wait.

We are as we act, even at Christmas

Many, many years ago as a young student activist campaigning against the apartheid regime in South Africa I learnt a lesson about consumer politics that has stayed with me to this day. At the time we were handing out leaflets outside of a high street brand that was known to sell jewellery made from South African gold, at time when there was a voluntary boycott in place. The store manager came out and politely but firmly asked whether we knew the provenance of the clothes we were wearing, whether the conditions in the factories were ethical and whether there was any abuse of workers in the supply chain.

1-0 to the store manager.

The fact that almost thirty years later I’m still rehearsing the arguments I should have used is in some way testimony to the massive contradictions and tensions that exist in consumer politics. It is almost impossible to be entirely clean. There is always a trade off. And yet that shouldn’t be an excuse for inaction or used as some moral get out of jail free card.

Every action, every purchase is in some ways a political act. The topic comes to mind as I think about the preparations for the Christmas period. I’ve written before about the treatment of shop workers by angry Christmas shoppers. Young people who are paid minimum wage, not provided with proper training or uniform and then pushed out in front of the masses who are busy, anxious and pressurised. How we choose to act towards them is a reflection on ourselves and not them.

But it also relates to our arguments about the demise of the High Street as we shop on our phones. How we rage against work insecurity and zero hours contract as we wait for the same day delivery. How we worry about single use plastics as we order unnecessary and unneeded presents for people we don’t really like.

Of course no-one can be entirely righteous and one persons actions can’t change the whole, but we can choose to act in line with our own moral compasses, wherever they may point, and challenge ourselves when there are contradictions between our beliefs and our choices. Simply, we are defined not by our words, but by our actions. And at this time of the year too often we act in a way which falls short of our own moral standards.

All in the name of Christmas.

And on that thought I’m going to check out for a couple of weeks and come back at the beginning of the new year and the new decade when I’m sure there will be countless articles on new years resolutions, “look aheads” and “look backs” to rip into. In the meantime, however you choose to celebrate (or not) this Christmas time, I wish you peace, love, kindness and safety.

Peace out.

Neil