It is as inevitable as night follows day, spring follows winter and England bore you at rugby that at some point in your career you’ll screw up. Most of us will push ourselves, try different things, take on new and different challenges and the result of that is that at some point something important will go wrong. And that, is absolutely ok.
Of course, it doesn’t feel it at the time and most of us will have experienced the physiological reaction as well as the emotional rollercoaster that comes with realising that you’ve done something wrong – or not done something at all! The large part of my career is littered with “oh sh*t” moments and I know from talking to others that I’m not alone. As, I say it is just the way that it is.
Whilst we might not have a choice about whether things go wrong or not, how we react when they do is the thing that can set us apart. And that starts with owning it and taking responsibility. It is amazing how reassuring and even disarming it is when someone says, “yep, I know that’s not right and that’s down to me”. We can probably all think about a situation when the opposite has occurred and someone has started to explain exactly why it isn’t their fault, “the thing is…”. And of course the more senior you get, the less opportunity there is to deflect responsibility.
Next comes a willingness to make things better or take steps to rectify the issue. Sometimes you won’t know how to sort it out and that’s ok too. A simple, “what can I do to help make this better?”. And whilst it might be seen as being neanderthal by some, that might mean pulling an extra shift, staying late, putting other stuff on hold. Showing you’re willing to take the pain and consequences goes a long way to showing your colleagues and your boss that you really mean what you say.
And finally there’s the value of showing that you want to learn and reflect on why things went wrong and how you could handle the situation differently in the future. To be honest, the right time for that isn’t in the heat of the moment, but a few days afterwards when the dust has settled. Taking a moment for self reflection and seeking feedback from others, “What would I do differently next time?”
Rarely a week goes by without a headline or story about a particular skills shortage, last week in the UK it was the film industry but you can add to that IT skills, freight drivers and even lawyers – heaven forbid. And whilst, like most of our news stories these days, there is an element of hyperbole and “story making”, there is also a common link. That is organisations’ collective inability to properly invest in future skills.
With the exception of an extreme event – pandemic, ash cloud, insurrection to name but a few – businesses would be deemed to be negligent if they failed to build resilience into their supply chain and as a result were unable to deliver their core product or service. Supermarket supply chains were such a big story exactly because we are so used to turning up in our local shop and finding everything that we have on our shopping list. The planning and thought that goes into the supply chain far outweighs anything that organisations commit to the workforce planning. And yet “people are [their] greatest asset”.
The abundance of routes into qualification now have never been better or of a higher standard. Add to that that organisations in the UK are already paying into the apprenticeship levy, it begs the question what stands in the way of better, more thoughtful planning and resilience in the workforce planning? When HR teams (in particular) talk about wanting to be more strategic and having more influence at the “top table”, then you have to ask why they aren’t championing this more successfully? How many really understand the broader skills horizon versus just hoping that their latest recruitment campaign or family friendly policy will solve their current issues?
Our job should not only be to meet the current needs, but to anticipate and protect the supply for the future. That means we need to understand not only future needs, but likely supply, the demographic and geographical challenges of our markets and look to build the interventions now that may not serve us, but will be gratefully received by those that follow. That’s the proper work, the strategic work that we want to do and yet, when there is the opportunity, too often fail to take up. But what if we did?
I’ve written before about why language matters and the power of language in our workplaces, but more broadly it also matters in how seriously people think organisations are about solving the issues that matter to them. When we spout corporate nonsense about work and working lives it not only makes us sound vacuous, but more importantly it makes us sound like we don’t care. Our focus should be on making work better for all and yet our debate so often focuses on the few, because there are more soundbites to be had from fads than there are from the real work that we need to address.
So in the spirit of trying to move us on, here are some of the phrases that we need to send to the management speak Room 101.
New normal – Where to start on this one? Normally uttered by people who are trying to make a sweeping generalisation without any data or evidence and therefore needing to convince their audience that it is obvious and doesn’t need proving. And at the same time entirely alienating to people who don’t recognise the assertion, because clearly they’re not normal…
The future is now – No. It isn’t. The king of vacuous statements. Both linguistically stupid and failing to grasp the base concept of time. Anyone who says this should take a trip back to primary school to learn what it means when the big hand is on the twelve an the little hand is on the three.
Any phrase that includes “employees/job seekers won’t accept…” – Normally referring to highly privileged office workers based in London and the Home Counties and why any employer that doesn’t offer complementary Hygge and star fruit is out of touch. Have you seen the conditions that the delivery drivers that bring you your chai latte are working in?
The Great Resignation – Or indeed any “thing” that becomes quoted more than researched or thought through. Disruption was another one, remember that? Anyone want to be disrupted any more after the last two years? No I thought not. And when it comes to the Great Resignation, just jog on.
The serious point here, is that every hour spent talking about topics that really don’t matter is an hour that we aren’t discussing the real issues in organisations and the labour market. Insecure work, low paid jobs, discrimination, bullying and crap corporate cultures. Those are things that we should be spending sensible, reflective, thoughtful time on, not the guff and nonsense that matters little or not at all. Far be it from me to call it out but if we want to properly change work and society, the debate around it needs a paradigm shift.
I’ve written many times about the love of a fad in leadership and management, we like nothing more than a new thing. Over the years I’ve been asked numerous times what it is about the particular organisation that I’m working in that I think makes it so great. And whilst I know the expectation is that I succinctly outline two or three things that are widely replicable and can be quoted under the heading, “How xxx created their xxx”, my answers tend to be a bit more shambolic – “it’s complicated, it’s a million small things, there’s no silver bullet”.
I was listening to the radio last week when Monzo announced that they were introducing a new sabbatical policy. Tara Ryan (their People Experience Director) was being interviewed on the topic and made the point perfectly, and I paraphrase here, that the challenge wasn’t that other organisations should copy what they’re doing but instead should think about what they can do to support colleague wellbeing. And yet, I’m sure we will now see countless organisations launch their own new sabbatical policies over the next few months in the traditional corporate dick-swinging response to a headline.
We’ve seen it so many times over the years, unlimited annual leave, duvet days, learning accounts, total flexible benefits and of course (whisper it) hybrid working. And I’ll put it bluntly, if you think these things are going to fix your culture you are both wrong and a little bit stupid. That isn’t to say that each in their own doesn’t have some merit, in some organisations and some point in time. But if you are serious about improving your organisational culture then you are better off spending your time focussing on the million small pieces of feedback, looking at the trends and focusing on how you can make every working hour of every working day just a tiny bit better for the majority of your colleagues.
Organisations are different with different needs and different experiences. And so our focus needs to be on doing what we can to make them better, not mindlessly copying others. The reality is that most of the drivers of culture our outside the hands of HR or people teams, they can’t be fixed with a thing. But they can be moved on by constantly having the conversation, keeping it at the front of peoples minds, doing the hard and often unglamorous work. But therein lies the heart of true change.