We need to embrace the truths that hurt

I’ll start off by explaining why I do the job I do. Simply, I want people to have a better experience of work, to feel safe at work, to be fairly rewarded in exchange for their efforts. You can call it making work better, making work human or any other nomenclature that is in the current vogue.

One of the downsides of my role is that no matter how hard I work, no matter what improvements and changes we make, there will always be challenges and questions about where we could have done more. That’s just the nature of the work we do in the society that we currently live in. The challenges will be different, but we have to accept that no matter what we do, it will never be enough.

One of the downsides of this is that we can homogenise criticism of our practice as always being unfair. “That’s employees for you, never happy” or, “If managers just did their jobs, we wouldn’t have to deal with any of this”. And the danger of this is we fail to see the truths that we need to embrace.

Just because we will always be the focus of challenge doesn’t mean that some of it isn’t justified. Just because we are doing our best and trying our hardest, doesn’t mean we don’t get things wrong. Just because we want to do good, doesn’t mean we sometimes don’t wrong.

Knowing how to separate out the noise from the real issues is critically important and incredibly hard. Listening to the truths that hurt is at the heart of exceptional practice. If we want to be better, if we strive to be the best, if we believe in creating something that can be called a legacy, then we need to recognise that sometimes we get things wrong.

Ours is a profession that has the ability to transform lives and bring out the best in people, it has the ability to make society a little bit better and to impact on generations to come. But with that power comes the potential to do the absolute opposite – and that is the truth that we should always hold close to our heart when we evaluate our impact and work.

Is trust a term and condition?

I was struck by the news this morning of the deal between courier firm Hermes and the GMB Union on employment status. The latest in a line of challenges to self employment and the so called gig economy.

Employees will now be able to opt to have 28 days paid holiday and a guaranteed hourly rate above the minimum wage, in return they will have to accept to follow the delivery route set out by the company rather than choosing the order in which they deliver their parcels.

The logic presented by the company is that if they’re going to guarantee an hourly rate then they need to ensure that couriers take the most efficient route. Which on first reading makes sense, but also raises an underlying question.

Is the suggestion that people are less likely to seek the most productive route if they are paid by the hour, that they’re more likely to (for want of a better word) slack? Or is it that the company don’t care about lack of productivity if they’re not paying for it, that’s the courier’s (and subsequently the customer’s) problem?

Whichever way you look at it, it points to an interesting interpretation of the contract of employment – that “terms” trump the psychological aspects of the employment relationship between worker and employer. It suggests issues of trust.

My guess is that the company is trying to distinguish between the self employed and employed by taking away a freedom that their current couriers appreciate and enjoy. If you want the good stuff (holidays and guaranteed wage rates) then there’s a cost to you too – the deal is on the back of losing an earlier employment tribunal.

But regardless of the specifics of the case it raises questions for us all. What assumptions do we make about the behaviours of people that work for us? And do those assumptions help or hinder what we are collectively trying to achieve?

Events have become stale and boring

Last week whilst on holiday, I found myself unexpectedly observing my own profession. I’d call it a busman’s holiday, but to be honest it wasn’t as bad as that sounds. The hotel I was staying in was hosting a leadership event for a company that will remain unnamed.

I was curious to start with, I was in a different continent these were different cultures and customs. How would it play out? The answer was depressingly like every leadership event I’ve ever attended.

Over the last 25 years I’ve seen and participated in hundreds of these. The locations change, the companies are different, the participants come and go. But the structure, the content and the general formula remain boringly static. I’d love to think this was because of the high success rate, but I think it has more to do with our collective lack of imagination.

Key note

Speed dating

Break out groups

“Fun” session

Plenary

Jiggle around, rename, reshape, but don’t alter a winning formula.

It makes me wonder how much business plc. invests in these sessions per year, what the value is and whether there is anything but a placebo effect to be achieved. There must be examples out there of doing things really differently (and NO paint balling doesn’t qualify, nor does using a quirky venue).

There’s a dearth of talent and thinking in this whole space, rather than excitement and creative thinking it feels more like the inevitability of new year’s eve. We talk about it with excitement and hope, we believe everyone else is having an amazing time, but the reality is an expensive version of an ordinary event, which we could and should do without.

Deal or No Deal?

When I started work, I don’t remember thinking I was due anything other than a pay cheque at the end of the month. I’d received my contract and terms and conditions and I accepted the deal  – the amount of holiday, the level of pension and the protection for sickness. That is about all there was in those days.

I figured that if I worked hard, put in the hours, managed to show a bit of intelligence and initiative that it would help me. Not to get a promotion, but to get experience and ultimately a good reference. Because when I started the job, my director had been very clear – I wasn’t going to stay.

It wasn’t that he was a hire and fire them character – far from it – but he had taken a policy to hire young, eager, recently qualified professionals and to give them a chance in the world of work. In return he realised that he got good quality people, but one’s that would want to move on pretty quickly – and he was ok with that. That was the deal.

Throughout my career, I’ve heard reference to “entitlement” more and more. It really wasn’t a term I was familiar with back in the mid 90s. And whilst I’ve worked with some people who truly believe they were the most entitled on the planet, “we’re unicorns, Neil, that’s what you need to do if you want to hire unicorns”, I’ve met more who’ve been disappointed that a promise they were led to believe, hasn’t materialised.

The thing about a deal is that it has to work for both sides, and yet as organisations too often we want to pretend we have something greater than the reality, in the belief that what we actually have wouldn’t be appetising. The implication of this is we don’t believe that job applicants and employees are capable of making an assessment based on facts and acting in accordance with their best judgment.

So instead we talk about nebulous concepts such as career enhancement, progression, development opportunities and stretch, which are easily misinterpreted and can be unintentionally disingenuous. Frustrations normally kick in at about two years into the employee journey, when people start to realise that their interpretation of the phrase wasn’t the same as the organisation’s.

There’s nothing wrong about a straightforward deal at work, in fact I’d argue there is something pretty refreshing. “If you come here, you’ll be working with good people to do your job, we will look after your health, safety and wellbeing, we will pay you x and give you y on top. You’ll learn and hopefully enjoy yourself and in the future, who knows, you might find something else here you like or you might choose to move on. And we understand and respect that”.

Deal, or no deal?