Your latest fad isn’t your culture

I’ve written many times about the love of a fad in leadership and management, we like nothing more than a new thing. Over the years I’ve been asked numerous times what it is about the particular organisation that I’m working in that I think makes it so great. And whilst I know the expectation is that I succinctly outline two or three things that are widely replicable and can be quoted under the heading, “How xxx created their xxx”, my answers tend to be a bit more shambolic – “it’s complicated, it’s a million small things, there’s no silver bullet”.

I was listening to the radio last week when Monzo announced that they were introducing a new sabbatical policy. Tara Ryan (their People Experience Director) was being interviewed on the topic and made the point perfectly, and I paraphrase here, that the challenge wasn’t that other organisations should copy what they’re doing but instead should think about what they can do to support colleague wellbeing. And yet, I’m sure we will now see countless organisations launch their own new sabbatical policies over the next few months in the traditional corporate dick-swinging response to a headline.

We’ve seen it so many times over the years, unlimited annual leave, duvet days, learning accounts, total flexible benefits and of course (whisper it) hybrid working. And I’ll put it bluntly, if you think these things are going to fix your culture you are both wrong and a little bit stupid. That isn’t to say that each in their own doesn’t have some merit, in some organisations and some point in time. But if you are serious about improving your organisational culture then you are better off spending your time focussing on the million small pieces of feedback, looking at the trends and focusing on how you can make every working hour of every working day just a tiny bit better for the majority of your colleagues.

Organisations are different with different needs and different experiences. And so our focus needs to be on doing what we can to make them better, not mindlessly copying others. The reality is that most of the drivers of culture our outside the hands of HR or people teams, they can’t be fixed with a thing. But they can be moved on by constantly having the conversation, keeping it at the front of peoples minds, doing the hard and often unglamorous work. But therein lies the heart of true change.

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.

Nobody predicted this

There is nothing we like more in the world of work than a big bold prediction. Throughout my working life I’ve been bombarded with confident assertions about the future – first in print, at conferences and later online. The advent of the echo chamber of social media amplifies the latest fad, creating an almost overwhelming sense of universal confirmation and certainty.

But the reality is that most of these big changes, these bold predictions have been wrong.

One of the major reasons why, is that they tend to be incredibly insular and fail to take into account broader macro economic and societal events. Of course the defenders would say that, ceteris paribus their assertions would have come true. But the idea of all things remaining equal is theoretical nonsense and wholly paradoxical. If anyone had written an article five years ago on how businesses should handle a global pandemic, it would have had a minimal readership and been placed firmly in the “niche” classification. Or how about a global economic crisis driven by a European war? And don’t get me started about BRIC.

Which is why statements about “disruption of the workplace”, or “the future of work” are just farcical and a little bit insulting for the majority of the workforce who are entirely focused on the here and now, dealing with escalating energy prices and feel like they’ve been disrupted enough over the last two years without a bunch of consultants and guns for hire telling them that they want to artificially create more. What they want is stability, security and work that allows them to lead their life.

Far from being harmless theory, the group think that coalesces around these predictions and assertions is a dangerous distraction from the focus that we should be placing on our organisations and the way in which we look after our colleagues and our workforces. We listen to false prophets at our peril when the real source of intelligence and wisdom is all around us if only we choose to recognise it.

In reality, predictions of the future are as old as time and will continue for as long as the human race. But what we can change is our mindless repetition and augmentation of them without reference back to the living realities of the majority of the working population and a large does of pragmatism and, “it depends”. Let’s start by fixing the now, the future will come whether we like it or not and not even the brightest star can predict how that will be.