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?

You can’t hurry love. And you can’t measure it either.

Most of us are familiar with the Drucker assertion, “what gets measured gets managed”. It is a rare year in my business life when this isn’t rolled out at some point or other in a conversation about how to improve some area of performance. It goes without saying that measurement is a hugely important part of delivering a change in performance, but it isn’t the only important part.

The risk of adherence to statements like this is that there is an inherent acceptance that if you can’t measure it, it can’t be managed and therefore isn’t important to focus on. This is particularly problematic when we start to look at the management of people in the workplace and the push for HR analytics. I should say, before we go on, that I’m a big fan of using data to better understand people’s experience of work and the workplace and I’m a fan of using it to better understand the way in which we can improve performance at work. But I don’t believe that everything important for leaders to focus on can and should be measured.

If we are looking to lose weight, run a marathon or swim the channel then measurement and performance data becomes important. I need to know the weight that I’m starting at, I need to know the target that I want to achieve and when. I need to measure the amount of calories that I’m taking in and those that I’m expending and it probably helps if I check my progress as I go along. But what if you want to know how much you’re loved?

Is it how many presents you’re given or their value? How long or often you hold hands? How many times you think about that person during the day? Or how many times they think about you? For anyone with two or more children, answer the question which one you love the most. In the vast majority of cases I’m sure you’d say that you love them all equally, but I wouldn’t mind betting that on quantifiable measures there would be differences. I’m not doubting that you do love them the same by the way, the point is more that measurement is incapable of dealing with the complexity of some areas.

Why is this important? Well it matters when we start to talk about topics such as culture and employee experience. It matters because there are two potential traps that we can fall into – firstly that we say that it can’t be measured and therefore isn’t important, secondly to avoid this first argument we create meaningless measures (the organisational equivalent of the number of times you hold hands) that drive the wrong behaviour.

There are whole load of really important things in our workplaces that can’t properly be measured but they can be managed. The answer is not to look for one, two or three killer measures but instead recognise that there are a myriad of tell tale signs that might help you understand how you’re doing. As human beings we’re hugely adept at processing enormous amounts of small data points and drawing sense of them, we should be encouraging that in leaders as much as a focus on data and measurement.

If you’re working in a crap culture, you probably know it even if you can’t measure it. Just like if you’re in love.

We need to stand for something more

Cast your mind back to April 2020, let’s be more specific, 2 April 2020. You might not remember what you were doing, I’m not sure I do, but I guarantee that even amongst the steeliest of you there was a growing sense of anxiety. In the UK we were in lockdown, lockdown 1. It was, and I think this is the absolutely perfect application of the word, discombobulating. And whilst I don’t know what you were doing that day, I can have a bet on what you were doing that evening at around 8pm and I reckon I’ll have a 1 in 2 chance of getting it right.

2 April 2020 was the first clap for key workers, in recognition of the “healthcare workers, emergency services, armed services, delivery drivers, people who work in shops, teachers, waste collectors, manufacturers, postal workers, cleaners, vets and engineers”, who were keeping the country going as many of us were confined to our houses. As the founder of the movement in the UK wrote at the time, “tonight we will show our appreciation again! For ALL that go out to work so that we can stay in!”

Fast forward less than 18 months and we are in a situation where mile long queues are forming outside of petrol stations, with many limiting the supply and many others closed. And whilst there is absolutely enough fuel to go around, whilst there is no need for panic, it has become a complete and utter free for all. Meanwhile the warnings are growing that the individual actions of many of us are likely to put those very people that we clapped for at risk of being unable to get to fulfil their essential roles in society.

It didn’t take long for us to forget.

If you’ve read anything I’ve written over the last year or so, then you’ve either a sucker for punishment or you’ll have noted that this is becoming something of a familiar refrain, but I’m not one to let a good argument go. The moment the worst of the pandemic was seemingly passed, we collectively dropped all focus on those essential workers and went back to our fetishisation of the white collar knowledge worker. From the mainstream press to our professional bodies, we dropped them like an embarrassing fat friend and are once again pretending that the only people that exist in our economy work in multi-storey offices in Central London or cool converted warehouses on the outskirts. And quite frankly, the HR profession missed a fundamental opportunity to shift the debate about good and meaningful work, because they were caught up in the rainbows and unicorns and blinded by vested self-interest.

Work, and therefore by definition organisations, has a fundamental role to play in the fabric of society. That stretches beyond our own employee base and our workforce, it stretches into the role and influence that we can play in shaping our communities and making a better and fairer world for all. To give an environmental parallel, when you’re making decisions as an organisation you’re not just interested in the physical environment directly around your workplaces, but you take a broader global view. So why when it comes to society do we think our obligations stop at funding a local football team and painting a school?

So, I hear you ask, what the hell do petrol queues and HR practices have in common? As I’ve written before, it is the increasing, pernicious presence of neo-liberalism in our workplaces, driven by the desire for HR departments and leadership teams to be popular rather than thoughtful, to serve rather than lead. It is the very same logic that leads a person wants to work from wherever they want and to fill up multiple jerry cans of petrol with little or no concern for others. They are putting their needs and their desires beyond those of society. And we, in our desperate search to be wanted, are willingly facilitating that shift.

We have to stand for something bigger and better than just giving people what they think they want. We have to believe that we can play a more important role than just appeasing the short term needs of our employees. We should do better, we must do better. But the track record of the last 18 months suggests we have a long long way to go.

Give a man a fish

It was many years ago, probably around 2002, that I was introduce to Fish! and if I’m absolutely honest, I was hugely sceptical. I think it was the giant cuddly toy fish and other paraphernalia that accompanied the book that put me off. In those days, we didn’t have video on demand, or indeed a widespread functioning internet so everything was accompanied by a physical prop or tool. But 20 years later, the main lessons still stick with me and form a central part of my personal philosophy towards work.

For those of you that are unfamiliar, there are four main tenets – Be There, Play, Make Their Day and Choose Your Attitude. You can read a bit more about them via the link at the top of the post, or by a simple Google search, but the one I want to talk about is the last of the four, choosing your attitude.

As a leader you will, time and time again, come across someone who is stuck, a victim of their circumstances and who will take every opportunity to share their role as malcontent with anyone who will give them the time to do so. They’re the one in the team meeting who waits until everyone is excited about something, before bringing them all down. They are the one who has seen everything fail before, so knows it will this time too.

I’m the first to highlight that there are workplaces practices that are terrible and just for absolute clarity, I’m not talking about situations where people are bullied, harassed, discriminated against or victimised. We can all agree that these situations are unacceptable and never the fault of the individual.

I’m talking about those colleagues where, at the back of your head, you’ll be thinking, “if this is so terrible, why don’t you just leave?” We will all have encountered someone like this, we may even have been in that space ourselves, waiting for a meeting to end and then complaining to our colleagues in quiet corridor conversations, or via private WhatsApp groups.

Perhaps now, given everything we’ve been through, recognising we can choose our attitude is one of the most caring gifts we can give to ourselves and to others. With so much adversity all around us, coming into work and choosing to complain, be negative, to hate what we do just adds to the external pressures on our mental wellbeing and those around us.

We cannot choose the circumstances we find ourselves in, no matter what our role or seniority, there will always be external factors that we can’t control. Be we absolutely can choose the attitude with which we turn up everyday and how we are with ourselves and with those around us. We will all have experienced the benefit of working with someone who is positive and can-do, even in the toughest times, and we will also have experienced working with someone who we know will find problems and fault, but without helping to find improvements or solutions. Whilst we know the effect this has on us, I wonder whether we always stop to reflect which role we are playing for others?