The bubble of employee opinion

A few years ago now (the ‘rona years makes time a little confused) I read a fabulous book called The Disruption Dilemma by Joshua Gans. I’m not a huge fan of the over use of the word disruption and Gans does a great job of separating out the wheat from the chaff in this respect and focussing on two key types of disruption, demand side and supply side. And most memorably for me was the proper telling of the Blockbuster story, away from the simplistic neanderthal versus agile competitor false narrative. Blockbuster had trialled a more “on demand” service, but their customers didn’t like it. One of their errors being that they didn’t think about the needs of those people that weren’t customers.

There are clear and distinct parallels with the way in which we shape and evolve our organisations, as if they were a private members club which, once the door is closed, is hermetically sealed from the realities of the wider world. I see comment after comment of leaders who say, “we listened to our staff and they said they wanted…”. And then in the same breath bemoaning the “war for talent” (vomit) and “the great resignation” (poke eyes out). Maybe the better question to ask is, “what to do the people who don’t work for us want?”.

Because when we talk to the people within our organisations they’ve already bagged the stuff we do, that is by nature their starting point. In the same way your older child might bemoan the fact that they don’t want to grow up and your younger one might want nothing more than to be a big girl or boy – there is no criticism or judgment in this but just an understanding of our starting point of reference. And if we only ask the people with a relatively shared sense of collective experience, we shouldn’t be surprised if the diversity of response is limited.

In a previous post I referred to the statistic that 41% of working adults in the UK don’t earn enough to pay income tax (incidentally, by comparison, 61% of US adults paid no income tax in 2020). If we were to ask this population what they wanted from work, what do we think they’d say? What about the 700,000 16-24 year olds who are not in employment, education or training? And what about the 47% of people with disabilities who are out of the workplace?

If you asked them what their priorities, what would be top of the list? And would it be the same as the agenda that we are pushing in our organisations, or are we creating a slightly narcissistic view of the world of work? Constantly creating betterment for those who already have, without looking to spread the opportunity to those who have not? My guess is, that if you’re holding down several insecure jobs to not earn enough to live on, whilst purpose and values may be somewhere on your list of wants it isn’t going to be top 5. You’re less likely to be focused on the choice of where you work and more focused on the certainty of hours and a decent starting rate. When we call ourselves an “employer of choice”, to whom do we mean?

As companies that focus solely on their customer base and overlook those people further afield are mostly destined to decline. Those organisations that fail to take into account the needs of the broader community will surely go the same way. Of course we should look after our employees, that goes without saying, but we should build a world of work that extends far beyond that base and understand and meet the needs of those that could, would and should form part of the labour force – but at the moment our world does not accept.

Who is your compass?

The UK news was awash last week with contestants for media villain of the week – almost as if there was a competition to outdo one another. And without commenting on any of the specific stories or individuals, the question that came to mind when reading each of the stories was, “who let you get there?”

My genuine belief is that most people aren’t inherently bad, whether in the world of work, politics or sport. In the same way that I believe that most people come to work to do a good job, I don’t think that is any different for those in leadership positions in their respective fields. It is convenient for the media to portray it differently and it often suits the public zeitgeist to have someone to blame. But it strikes me that often the issue is more that people have lost their way, rather than intentionally set out on a particular course.

So why does this happen? Well it might not be the only factor, but there is no doubt that the failure to surround ourselves with people who are willing to speak up when they think we are heading off course and our willingness to listen to them plays a significant contribution. There is a weird dynamic that arises as a result of organisational power, where those around think that their success and progress is based on their ability to tell those in power what they think they want to hear. We all remember the story of the Emperor’s New Clothes from our childhood and probably laughed at the vanity, the pride and the ultimate stupidity. In our adult lives, do we consider which character we best represent?

Everybody needs at least one compass, the person that holds them true to who they are and what they are trying to achieve. We need someone who has little to lose, or is not afraid of losing what they have and is willing to hold up the mirror, to speak the unspoken truth and to bring us gently back onto course. Not in order to point out our failures, but to make us more successful. And we need to open our arms and our minds to those voices and trust that they want the best for us, no matter how hard the truth.

So my question is, who is your compass?

Know when to hold back

There’s one thing I observe in successful leaders, they know how to find the balance between support and stretch for their teams. They know how to allow their team to feel the discomfort of challenge and adversity, but also when to step in and provide coaching, guidance and support.

Most learning happens in the more challenging moments, we need to understand how to navigate and find a way through. We will all have encountered moments when we have felt out of our depth, when the task at hand was impossible, unmanageable or immovable. And we will all have experienced moments when we have proved those emotions to be wrong.

At the same time, we will have had times when a quiet coaching word, a piece of advice, some guidance or counsel has helped us unlock the answer to a situation we were struggling to face into.  The moments we look back on and reflect on a guiding hand and influence.

Neither is right or wrong. This is an also-and, not a either-or. A successful leader can observe, take time and intervene at the appropriate moment. They don’t need to molly-coddle, interfere, undermine or distract. Neither do they need to leave others to struggle and fail through lack of guidance and direction.

The skill of leadership is situational awareness, emotional intelligence and a willingness to hold back long enough to observe whether intervention is needed or required. As anyone who has ever learnt to ride a bike will tell you, the person with the most fear is not the child without stabilisers, but the parent that pushes them, wobbling, on their way.