Another fad, another failure

Anyone has read my blog over the last decade will know that I have been pretty vocal about the faddism in business management and leadership. We like nothing more than getting behind the latest silver bullet destined to solve all our problems. Employee Engagement, Human Capital Management, Big Data, Disruption, the list is both endless and entirely vacuous.

I’m going to add a new one for you, a term that has been creeping into the marketing descriptions of consultancies across the world like an outbreak of Japanese Knotweed.

Employee Experience.

I’ll be the first to admit that I’ve talked about this in the past, a quick scan through the archives shows a first post back in 2011, but you know that when a once meaningful, philosophical concept becomes the next management buzzword it will turn into first fad and then failure. Why? Simply because it loses sight of the original intent.

There is a significant commonality (and indeed irony) between both Employee Engagement and Employee Experience. Both in, their essence,  are about feeling, emotion and attachment but instead are replaced with systems, processes and measurement as the consultants promise us “sure fire ways” to drive the “performance of organisations” through “unparalleled insights” as a means to monetise our desire for a quick fix.

There is no doubt that leadership and management need to focus more on the working environment, that goes without saying. But ultimately that is about the way in which we see work and our beliefs about the treatment of employees in the workplace, not about systems, apps and fancy branded interventions. Once we’ve got the belief system in place, the rest will follow in due course.

It is too much to ask that we drop our addiction to faddism, but I hope at least we can open our eyes and realise what exactly it is that we’re doing. Change comes from within, it comes from our desire to create something meaningful and different. It seldom comes in a beautifully branded brochure.

And if you want to understand how to make the world of work a little better, start by reading this.

Fads, fashions and the self-confident leader

Hands up if you’ve never looked at a photo from your past and thought, “what was I doing wearing that?”, or looked in the dark recesses of your wardrobe and seen the unworn, unloved item that at the time of purchasing, you were convinced would make you look swathe, sophisticated and downright sexy.

My guess is there’s not many hands in the air (not least because that sort of thing gets you thrown off the train or bus).

The point is that we are all susceptible to following along with a trend, a fashion or fad that we later realise wasn’t perhaps in our best interest. We do this in work and in business all the time – it is no different to any other aspect of life.

The corporate corridors are littered with the failed and reversed decisions made by leaders at all levels, because they read, heard or were advised that “everyone else is doing x”. It happens in HR, it happens across business and it is entirely and completely natural.

But that doesn’t make it right.

Its not hard to understand why we make these decisions, we’re often proposed something that feels simple, easy to implement, is recommended by “experts”, has some sort of resonance with a broader meta-trend within the world and will lead to tangible, measurable improvement.

We’ve seen this with mass outsourcing, TQM, holacracy, management by consensus, management by objective, the Ulrich model. I could go on.

None of these practices are in themselves bad, what is questionable is the wholesale implementation of these across the corporate spectrum without consideration of the best way of implementing change for the specific organisational context.

And that’s where the self confident leader comes in. In the same way that the phrase goes, “no-one ever got fired for hiring Deloitte/McKinsey/IBM” (delete as appropriate to your age and era), there is often reassurance in moving with the homogenous mass. That is part of our psychological makeup.

The role of the leader is to have the confidence, the willingness and the space to be able to call out when this isn’t in the best interests of their organisation, function or team. It is  to push the thinking, the creation of ideas and the solutions beyond the realms of accepted wisdom, to test whether it is really the right way forward.

No-one ever said being a leader is easy, in fact the better you want to be, the harder it can feel. Standing up and not doing the things that others are, can be harder than following. But sometimes the most fertile soil is found in the least worked ground.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.

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.