Start somewhere

Here’s a bet…

I reckon I could ask anyone in your workplace, or mine, to name one thing that would improve their work or working lives and they’d be able to tell me within an hour maximum.

And of course, if I asked you the same question, you’d be able to tell me too.

Yet we all sit on all of these ideas every day, because;

  • we don’t have permission
  • it’s complicated
  • we don’t have the time
  • they wouldn’t like it

All of those good ideas going to waste and instead we do a whole series of things that we don’t understand the purpose of, can’t define the value of, do because we’ve always done. We knowingly reduce our potential value.

As leaders our fundamental responsibility is to help teams to deliver the value that they hold, to allow them to contribute to the best of their ability and to fulfil their potential. To do this, we need to remove those things that prevent and get in the way.

Whilst changing cultures and refocusing teams isn’t easy, it is the reason we exist and the duty we have. We should ask ourselves, what other better purpose we could serve? Every transformation had a first step, everyone needs to start somewhere.

 

The importance of being (a little less) earnest

All around us there are signs that we are changing the way in which we want to spend our existence on earth not least the rise of the experience economy. Some will argue about the use of the term millennials, but frankly that misses the point.  And the human race is adapting and changing to its circumstances in work as much as anywhere else. Societies evolve and change and we have to ask ourselves what we need to do to follow suit in the way we run our organisations?

Immediately we jump to solutions, whether that’s flexible benefits, flexible working, our approaches to pay, learning or careers. But in many ways the answer starts well before the baubles and trappings of vendor led “solutions”. It starts with who we are, how we are and they way we choose to be.

I’ll give you an example from my own profession, but it is equally as true for every single one of us that works inside an organisations. In the world of HR, about 10% of the things we have to deal with require a level of seriousness and sobriety. There are moments in our days and weeks where we need to bring deep and meaningful thought and focus.

But there are 90% of moments where we don’t. We can choose exactly how we want to show up and the experience that we want others to have of us. My career has been full of disapproving looks from HR professionals who somehow feel that they are the standard bearer for the earnest and serious profession of Human Resource Management. Jokes are met with with comments about “appropriateness” and any suggestion of light heartedness met with a steely, and deeply underwhelmed, air.

Our experience at work isn’t driven just by the processes and systems that we put in place, in fact I’d argue that these are absolutely secondary, it is driven by the atmosphere and interactions that we have with those around us. If we are having a great time with our colleagues we can put up with all sorts of suboptimal situations, and we do. Who we are and how we are will always trump what we have to do.

So as you start your working week, just have a think about the levity and light you can bring to situations, the way in which you can change the experience for everyone around you and for yourself. Life is too short to stuff a mushroom, but it is also too short to listen to the cardigan wearing, tissue up the sleeve brigade. Let’s create an experience at work that people want to invest time and effort in and let’s do it by being a little lest earnest and having a little more fun.

 

The power of language

The power of language to engage is nothing new to us. It’s why corporations spend millions each year on their advertising and marketing, testing the ways in which certain words resonate or repel their target audiences. A shift of one word in a sentence can move us from neutrality to engagement, from loathe to love. It’s also why political parties spend hours testing slogans and statements with focus groups, ensuring that the approved words are dropped into speeches and leaflets, time and time again.

Language is powerful, it has the power to change the way in which we think, believe. live and even dream. It can bring us together, or it can push us apart.

Whilst we spend so much time in organisations thinking about the language we use to appeal to consumers, service users or members, we spend so little time focussing on the language that we use with our colleagues internally. In so many organisations I’ve worked in, people who could write an email to their mother which would be warm, engaging and clear suddenly start to write missives to the masses which are almost indecipherable. We use jargon and language which is overly complex and unnecessary, often out of habit rather than intent. You particularly get to see this when you join a new organisation and start to learn the lexicon of the group.

Too often though, when we extend these phrases beyond our “group” they fail to land properly, be understood or to have the desired effect. Either because they’re simply incomprehensible, or because the language that we use does not connect. We write as if we are a business writing to a business, not a human being writing to a fellow human being.

When we talk about making the workplace more human, when we talk about engagement, when we make commitments to inclusion and allowing people to be themselves, we would be wise to start with words. The language that we use sets a tone for who we are, but more importantly it allows others to come along with us. If I understand, if I connect, if I feel, then believing becomes much easier to achieve.

Sometimes it isn’t how clever the message is, it’s how simply you can convey it.

I already know who you are

A couple of events last week made me reflect on the assumptions that we so often make of others and how in doing so we build narratives that skew our perspective on the world. Every day is filled with multiple interactions that we evaluate with the aim of creating meaning.

Let me give you a most basic example. On Friday, driving home, there was an accident involving four cars. Inevitably with an accident that size in rush hour traffic, things got snarled up and slow and the journey took substantially longer than normal. As I passed the accident and moved into more free-flowing traffic I was aware of a driver behind a few cars behind me who seemed to be in a rush. She pulled out to overtake a car behind me and then I could see her gesticulating in the rear view mirror, unhappy with my speed.

The narrative commenced;

What’s her problem?

Why does she think she needs to be somewhere quicker than someone else?

Who the hell does she think she is?

By the time that she’d flashed her lights at me and driven off in a tail of smoke, I pretty much knew who she was and what she was about. But of course, I had no idea.

Was she trying to get to a sick or unwell relative? Was there a work or domestic emergency? Could she have been a surgeon trying to get to an operation? All of these thoughts were as entirely plausible as the reassuring answer that I’d come to…a Friday night nutter.

And of course at work we do the same, but once the narratives are built they’re maintained. People become, the moody one, the difficult one, the obstinate one, the quiet one with nothing to say. We create the stories that help us to justify our own behaviour, because it just makes things easier.

In the same way that I can tell you I intentionally slowed down by a few miles per hour to really hack the unknown driver off, I wonder what actions we take in the workplace to slow down the people that we’ve created a negative narrative about.

And I wonder how much more productive we could be if we entertained alternative possibilities?

If you want a much more articulate and thoughtful discussion of the same topic, then check out this by David Foster Wallace.