Relationship matters

Have you ever had a relationship at work? When you think about the amount of time that people spend in work, the role that it plays in our lives, it would seem almost inevitable that relationships would occur. Yet for decades, organisations have been uncomfortable with the idea.

Early in my career, when a relationship occurred between two people in the same unit or team, one was required to move to a different part of the business and if no alternative job was found they were dismissed for “some other substantial reason”. It always seemed slightly perverse to me and had the added consequence of disproportionately impacting on female employees (invariably the junior employee and therefore the one most frequently easier to redeploy). A few years later I was in a position to remove the policy.

Like many of the aspects of our work, a seemingly simple solutions papers over a world of complexity and, I’d argue, potential opportunity. I was quite surprised recently to learn that many organisations still had policies and procedures for managing relationships in the workplace. Which feels slightly arcane and counter to our drive to connect workplaces with human emotion and behaviour.

(Now at this point, I should be clear that I’m talking about consensual relationships – I am not talking about abuses of power, harassment or any other untoward behaviour, which are a completely different topic and one for another day).

Let’s assume that two people fall in love whilst happening to be employed in the same workplace. Are they really going to not fall in love because of a policy? It seems highly unlikely. So we have to assume that this will happen. Now, let’s assume that we say that they can’t be employed together whilst in a relationship. Well there you are either forcing them to lie, or for one or both of them to leave – which means potentially the two people YOU hired as being necessary for the organisation are now gone.

So we go for the middle ground and we say that you have to tell us if you’re having a relationship, but that it is ok. Which feels convenient, but what about if you don’t want to talk about your relationship status, because you’re a highly private individual, you’re lesbian, gay or bi and uncomfortably about this being known at work, or you’re having an “additional relationship”. Are you really going to declare that?

The argument goes that we need to know so that we can be aware of conflicts of interest or potential abuse of power. But do they only happen in sexual relationships? Have friendships never led to anything untoward? So should we have a policy on friendships in the workplace too? That would put an end to the Gallup Q12 for a start.

Like most things in the world of work and culture the solution starts with an “it depends”. And we know that “it depends” makes for bad policy making. My personal view is you’re better off accepting that these things happen, develop a strong and effective approach to “dignity at work”, build trust, transparency and openness and manage problems by exception.

I discussed this recently with others for The Bottom Line. You can hear the recording here.

Barrels of water & impenetrable cultures

In Tours in France, there is a beautiful medieval square called the Place Plumereau, now the home to multiple bars and restaurants. As a thriving spot, it offers employment opportunities, pouring drinks, serving tables, preparing food. The employees get to know one another, many of them working there for years and forming tight bonds. It is also the place a lot of young, and often needy, people go to get their first job.

Anyone who has ever learnt to work behind a bar knows that, regardless of how much time you’ve spent on the other side, it takes a little time to get to know the ropes. The disorientation, vulnerability and willingness that comes with learning , allows the experienced to test the new comers.

As the bars start to fill in the early evening and the customers start to line up, one of the experienced staff will turn to a new starter and declare that they’re all going to be in trouble, there’s a real problem, they’ve run out of water. Could they go and see whether one of the other bars will loan them a barrel of water?

The quickly go to the first bar, but unfortunately they’ve also run out, they suggest the next one to try. But again, no luck, they have just enough for the evening. The poor new employee, getting increasingly panicked and red in the face is sent from pillar to post, from bar to bar with a promise that if they just try one more, they’ll surely find the answer there.

And of course, there are no barrels of water. The water comes out of the taps in the same way that it does in their home. The victim is part of an initiation, a joke that is played, in one variation or another, on countless employees trying to show willing just to “fit in”.

This is a simple manifestation of the impenetrable culture that exists in so many of our organisations. Where we challenge people to complete pointless tasks to demonstrate their commitment to and compatibility with the organisation. At the worst extremes it is expressed by borderline discriminatory behaviour, but more usually by more benign, but equally thoughtless behaviour designed to test “fit”.

No matter how hard the individual tries, no matter the efforts that they put in, the end only comes when one of the established decides they’ve shown enough to end the game and allow the individual to join the ranks, or instead they become so frustrated and despondent that they decide to leave – regardless of the cost to themselves.

It may not be a barrel of water, it might be “understanding the business”, or “being more part of the team”, it could be the need to be “more vocal, visible or present”. Ultimately we place the same challenges on people, day in and day out, without really understanding the measures of success, other than receiving our acceptance. And although different, they are equally fictitious and pointless, testing nothing but perseverance and willingness to endure. Which of course, has absolutely no relevance to anything meaningful in the context of the organisation. Not even the ability to pour a beer.

Inclusion isn’t passive

The past six months have brought a focus on social and economic divisions that is greater than probably any other period of my lifetime. And with it comes the talk of the need for greater cohesion and the inevitable use of the word inclusion. Every aspect of our life needs to be more “inclusive”.

The joy of the word inclusion is that it has a very personal appeal. Greater inclusivity offers the promise that I, myself, may be better involved, better consulted, better represented in the aspects of life where I feel the outcomes don’t match with my personal agenda.

It is why many business have honed in on the inclusivity tag over and above diversity. The psychological inference of diversity is about others, about difference and about the things that we need to change. Whereas inclusion can be seen to have something in it for me, without an imperative to do anything different.

The value of inclusion starts with understanding your relative position of influence in the system. We all have an inherent desire to be included in things, that’s the constant nagging of our ego, the genuine reason for FOMO. The value only manifests if we understand our role and our contribution and how we can effect change for those that are around us.

With the positive connotations of the use of inclusion, we must not avoid the practical implications, the systemic and structural requirements that are needed to achieve it. Rarely will we view our own “system” as being exclusive, most people believe themselves to be welcoming, to be tolerant and to contribute in a way that allows anyone to prosper and succeed. Instead we look to the actions, the behaviours and beliefs of others.

At the heart of any change is action. If we want to see a different result, we need to do different things, behave in different ways and adopt different beliefs. That is true for all of us, for “them”, for me and for you. And in turn that means that there will be give and take as the system moves and adapts to accommodate a new norm.

Inclusivity isn’t soft, it isn’t passive, it isn’t a polite middle class way of addressing the needs of society. It is real and gritty and challenging and meaningful. It requires us all to assess our own
role and contribution. For more voices to be heard, more people need to listen, for more difference, we need less conformity and for more giving, we need less self. And for all of that, it needs to start with I, not you.

Expectation versus reality

In life, whether  at work or at home, there are expectations and there are realities. One hopes for certain things to occur and then observes how things play out over time. Rarely does life play the hand which we expect to encounter and yet often the reality is, in real terms, no worse than our expectation.

Just different.

Some say that if you hope for nothing, you’ll never be disappointed. But that seems to me to miss the point, you have to question the purpose of life itself if you hope for nothing more than already exists.

Others say that you should make things happen, not wait for chance. But can you make snow fall on the perfect landscape, or engineer a serendipitous meeting of minds? Many of the most valuable moments in life can’t be made to occur.

Things happen that are out of our control. Instead, how we respond to them, how we react to them are the determinants of our happiness and success. Our ability to smile, to carry on, to hope and to dream are the demonstrable outcomes of our resilience as human beings and the key to our meaningful existence.

Seeing the opportunity, the possibility and positivity in circumstances beyond our control is a measure of our ability to progress, to succeed and to survive. Because, in most cases, the gap between our expectations and reality is rarely as significant as it might feel at the time.

The reality is that at repeated points in life we will all be sad, disappointed, let down or hurt. That doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t continue to try, to hope, it doesn’t mean that we shouldn’t care, shouldn’t continue to strive or even love. In many ways, the power of all of those emotions manifests most prominently when they fail to be realised. In adversity we see the true strength and beauty of the essence of being human.

By recognising this, we can choose to be strong when times are hard, we can choose to smile when times are sad and we can choose to see light when all around is dark. No matter how impossible it might seem at the time.