We’re stuck inside our own debate (again)

When you think the biggest contribution you have to make to your organisation is a debate on how many days office workers should be in the office, you know you’ve failed as a profession. Sorry, I want to find a nicer way of saying that, but I just can’t.

This isn’t a new thing, just the latest of a long history of internally focused, self obsessed initiatives that have failed to add little value to organisations, society or the communities we serve. Remember when everything was about “disruption”? As I said at the time, nobody wants to be disrupted and the last two years have proved that to be the case. Can’t get on a plane for your holiday because there are no ground staff? Can’t get a train to get to work because of industrial action? Welcome to disruption.

And then of course we were going to blow up performance management and appraisals. Remember that? Because of course, the most existential challenge and issue your organisation faces right now is the number of performance categories you have and the best way to change behaviour is always to change the form…

When I wrote a ten point agenda for change four or five years ago it was more a cathartic reaction to another pointless news story about the profession that came about because of our singular ability to stand for anything other than the protection of our own working practices and self interest. And whilst I come across more and more HR professionals that “get it”, the majority of the profession is still well and truly sucked into it’s own navel.

The instinct of most in the face of criticism is to try to do stuff to be popular, but if our fundamental drive is to be liked we are destined to fail like anyone in a leadership position. One of the confusions we have about our political system is we think politicians are there to do what we want them to do, democracy is about listening to views and opinions not simply doing the thing that most people say they want. When you do that you become insular and so focused on the internal zeitgeist that you lose sight of the greater purpose – such is the case in many organisations too.

And that is where too many HR functions are right now, with not a single eye on the outside, the big macro changes in the economy, in society, that will provide challenges for our organisations tomorrow, next year and for many years to come. Those are the debates we should be raising with our executive teams and boards, those are the things that demonstrate our true value as a profession, those are the things that will fundamentally make a difference to the long term organisational success.

I saw a stat this weekend that really shook me. In the UK, only 59% of the adult population have incomes high enough to pay tax. Ask yourself a question. What is your organisation doing to tackle that?

Your latest fad isn’t your culture

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.

The battle for attention

If there is a parallel between business and politics, it is about the ability to win the narrative argument. In many ways, we are running constant campaign within our organisations seeking to win over new supporters and retain those that we have. And in business, like politics, we often make this whole process sound harder than it is. In essence, it boils down to a few core approaches.

  • Clear and simple – if you want people to buy into your organisational vision, then you need to keep it clear and simple. It needs to make sense to others and not just to those that came up with it. The vast majority of people, whether they’re consumers or employees, aren’t going to spend hours and hours trying to diagnose your messaging they need it delivered to them on a plate. It doesn’t matter whether that’s your overall vision, or one of a change programme or piece of work. Same rules apply, always,
  • Listen to feedback – people will tell you if you’ve got it wrong, listen to them. The instinctive reaction is to justify, to tell people that they’re a little bit stupid for not understanding, to tell them that it is all really clear and written down. But if they’ve haven’t understood it, then whose fault is that really? How many change programmes or product launches have died because the message simply didn’t resonate. I guarantee the telltale signs were there way before.
  • Don’t drink the Kool Aid – or perhaps, more importantly, if you have then step out of the way. The problem with the converted is they only see the benefits, they are by definition biased and therefore they won’t be able to understand the pitfalls. If everyone on the team thinks the plan is “the best idea ever”, then you’ve got a problem. Hire someone who sees the downsides and listen to them.
  • Appeal to the right thing – Sometimes people don’t “get you” and sometimes they don’t “feel you”, recognising which one you’re up against and tailoring your messaging is key. Have a think about the consumer brands you love the most, whether it is a product, a service or an experience. My guess is that you’ll be able to explain why it works for you, but you’ll also be able to explain how it makes you feel. Do people understand why what you’re doing makes sense and do they feel it will make things better for them?
  • Campaign every day – ok so we’re not running an election here, but the principle is exactly the same. There will always be other narratives at play, either inside your organisation or outside, telling people messages that might contradict with the ones you want to get across. As it was put to me a number of years ago, “every day you don’t land your narrative, someone else does”. It really is that simple.

You don’t need to be “HR correct”

I’ve written many times before about our love for a good fad in the world of management. Nothing appeals more than the chance to relaunch something of old under a new moniker and pretend that this version makes you faster, better, more competitive and more appealing to employees.

There is absolutely no doubt that language matters at work, but so does intent. Perhaps even more. The reality is that we already have a whole lexicon of terms that, from a purely linguistic perspective, are hardly appealing:

Redundant. Disciplinary. Grievance. Outplacement.

We will happily use these in our everyday work whilst at the same time mocking other people’s intent to soften the tone. And of course, if we are simply changing a label in order to improve perception then that is style over substance, but if we are doing it in order to help reposition how we do things, does that really matter? If talking about on boarding makes us focus more on the period of time between a hire being made and an employee starting, should we really care?

Debating labels can all be a little bit “HR correct” and ultimately adds little value to the way in which employees and candidates experience our organisations. Let their experience be the judge of our practice, they’re better placed to sense the authenticity and reality of our work, not social media bubbles.

If practitioners are genuinely striving to improve the work place then the language will be accepted, if not it will be rejected as insincere. After all, who in the UK can honestly tell me that they used the term furlough 6 months ago? Yeah, I thought not.