Actions and consequences

Are we always responsible for the consequences of our actions? It seems that’s the accepted wisdom, but I’m really not so sure. On one hand, it makes for a remarkably neat way of judging others, but it also feels like a convenient “get out of jail card” for absolving others of acting in an appropriate way.

Our social and political landscape is full of judgments on decisions that were made and the unintended consequences;

He should have known…

She should have seen that coming…

And similarly, our organisational rhetoric often places so much onus on individual actions and the subsequent consequences. Particularly the more senior that an individual gets.

I have no doubt that our actions define us, how we choose to be, how we present and behave, how we interact with others. Unless you believe in a higher force, we are all responsible for our actions. But in accepting this, do we throw ourselves open to however the universe responds as entirely fair?

If you choose to go out at night, are you responsible for being mugged?

Or wearing the wrong clothes, accepting of being harassed?

I don’t think anyone would suggest that the individual has to accept these consequences. Yet in the political, social and commercial aspects of life we hold a different burden of proof.

Being able to differentiate responsibility for the choices which we control and the consequences we do not allows us to analyse and interrogate responsibility in a much more balanced way, but it also helps us place responsibility where it really lies.

None of us want to be held to account for events truly out of our control. But whether we set the same bar for others…well that’s a different question.

 

 

 

To choose is to be free

“But I don’t have a choice”

If I had a pound for every time I’ve heard this through my career, I’d be able to buy you all a round of drinks. It is a curious phrase and worth another look,

I don’t have a choice.

As I sit here writing this I”m struggling to think of situations where this is entirely true – hitting the ground when you’ve fallen off a building, growing old, chewing on a fruit pastille. The examples are few and far between.

In most cases people are either saying, “I can’t see the choices that I have” or, “I don’t like the repercussions of the choice that I have”. The implications of either stance is one of impotence. Simply put, when we refuse to see or accept the choices that we have, we deny the very essence of being. And in doing so, we diminish ourselves.

The nub of this human dilemma is often played out in a scenario where a house is on fire and you have the ability to save one of two much loved people. Who would you choose? Who would you save? Of course any choice in these circumstances is unpalatable, but as grotesque as it is, it is undeniably there.

Closer to home we can see it manifest in our organisations, where colleagues, employees and bosses will talk in tricky situations about, “not having a choice”. This is rarely, if ever, true. Or colleagues and friends who become stuck, lost in a self induced mental fug that leaves them static and inert.

In most circumstances where I see people unhappy, demotivated, depressed or disengaged, the root cause is their inability, or unwillingness to engage with the choices in front of them. This is overwhelmingly more common than people who are feeling the same way because of a decision or choice they have made.

As one of my favourite philosophers put it, “freedom is what you do with what’s been done you”. Given it is a Monday morning as we slide towards autumn, I’ll frame it a little more positively; happiness isn’t about the choices that you make in life, but the ability to see those choices exist.

Lead for the many (and not the few)

It is July 14th, 2015 and, despite the generally good weather, there has been a sudden and heavy downpour. I remember it well because I was on foot making my way to speak at a CIPD event at City Hall. Unfortunately I’d understood County Hall, which is in a completely different part of town and ended up arriving late, drenched and grumpy.

The result of this was a rather dark and pessimistic take on the impact of flexibility on the workplace. Speaking alongside Dave Coplin, who was ebullient with the opportunities, I saw a much more dangerous and divisive trend. At the end of the sessions, I left the venue and skulked off to, once again, be late for a drink with a friend.

Four years later, I am more convinced than ever that the way in which we approach flexibility in the workplace is an exemplar of the way in which we are building a two tier workforce, built by the haves for the haves, designed for the few and not the many (to bastardise the current phrase of a certain political party).

In 2014, when Virgin announced that they were allowing employees to take as much holiday as they wanted, an HR policy decision became front page news. They were following the approach taken by Netflix, amongst others. More recently we’ve seen organisations, include the Wellcome Trust, talk about the introduction of a four day week. When the Virgin story was unpicked, it became clear that it wasn’t actually applicable to all staff, as they said themselves, “[it]¬†permits all salaried staff to take off whenever they want for as long as they want”.

What do Virgin, Netflix and Wellcome Trust all have in common? Simply, and I mean this with the deepest respect, if they didn’t exist no-one would notice. But perhaps more importantly, they have a certain workforce segmentation that more easily allows for the introduction of such policies. They don’t represent the workforce experience of the many.

We don’t have to go far to understand that the use of workforce “flexibility” can be a double edged sword – enforced part time hours, rotating shift patterns, annualised hours and of course, our dear friend, zero hours contracts. The point I was making back in 2015 was that whilst flexibility might be the emancipation of the few, it was potentially the shackles of the many. For every one tech wizard working on their laptop in the Bahamas, there are ten delivery drivers working on a “self employed” basis.

Which is why as a profession we have to be super vigilant of not drinking the Kool Aid. If you believe in good work, you believe in it for all. If you want to drive flexibility, then it starts with individual choice. Across western economies we’ve seen an increased polarisation in our economics, in our politics and in our workplaces. We’ve created inequality and now we are looking to reinforce it.

None of these policies are wrong per se, but the application of them, the thinking behind them and the championing of them is shaped by an unhealthy preference to consider only “knowledge workers” (yes I hate the term too) to be worthy of such freedom. Only when we start to design workplaces that treat workers of all types with equality of treatment will we create organisations which we can proud of. Let’s start with the many and not the few.

NB: The Wellcome Trust actually abandoned their plans after a three month trial describing it as too “operationally complex”. Interestingly, they were brave enough to try and do this for the entire workforce, regardless of role.

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.