Pious indignation and false promises

Running an organisation of any size is tricky. There is an assumption that simply because of your position that you must know the correct answer for everything.  Not only must your actions be without criticism, but your intentions too. And we will be the judges and juries of both.

Our intolerance of imperfection and propensity for cynicism serves us badly.

I’m in no way trying to absolve genuinely corrupt, immoral and (let’s be honest) bad organisations. Merely to make an argument for encouragement for improvement, rather than blanket judgment. It should also be said that this isn’t a factor of business alone, you could run the same slide rule over politics and other parts of society too.

Last week Tortoise published their assessment of the FTSE100 against the UN  sustainable development goals, you can see the full report here. What I think is fascinating about the approach is that it looks at both actions and PR, the walk and the talk. Of the top 20 companies overall, only 4 were “guilty” of overselling their actions and many quite significantly undersold their performance. Probably not what you’d think from big business, right?

Compare and contrast with the annual vacuous press release from the CIPD and High Pay Centre which talks about FTSE100 pay, high on moral indignation and low on understanding and intellectual rigour. Frothing at the mouth and screaming into the abyss on a topic of significant complexity without any intention to encourage or support change.

We say that we want change and then we right off progress as “washing”. Pinkwashing, purpose washing, vegan washing, even woke washing. We will be the judges of whether you really mean what you say, not you.

If we wanted to develop an organisational culture of positive strength, would we start by doubting individual intentions, blanket criticism, reinforcing stereotypes? Or would we praise and recognise, reinforce positive behaviours, encourage?

There is a lot wrong in the world, that goes without saying.  Business, politics, society, sport, media, take your pick. Whilst we should always call out the abuse of power and serious malpractice, I also believe you get the culture you deserve. Maybe we should spend a little more time celebrating and encouraging change, supporting and championing progress?

It might not make for the most exciting headlines, “Organisations do what they say they’re going to do”, or help us absolve our own consciences, but it would sure make for a more pleasant world.

Beliefs, behaviours and systems

The beginning of any year always coincides with commitments to do things differently. Whether in our personal lives or in the workplace, there is something about the reflection caused by a change in year that leads to a desire to change. You only have to ask gyms and health clubs to know this is true.

You also only need to check back in with the same gyms and health clubs one or two month later to know that so many of the commitments just don’t stick.

Anyone that has worked in a team for any period of time will have been through a similar inflection point, with a desire to make a change, make things different, to sort things out. And similarly, most will have seen them fail.

There are three things that are likely to make a change more effective, whether that’s a personal fitness goal, or a work based initiative. Beliefs, behaviours and systems. Unless all of these three are present in some form or another, you’re likely to be disappointed.

Beliefs – Do people really understand and want to make the change that you’re trying to achieve? Do they believe that the steps you’re outlining will actually make the difference? Do they really want a new, different, reality?

Behaviours – Are people really willing to take their personal responsibility to do something differently? Do they recognise the way that they behave supports and reinforces the way things are right now?

Systems – Are the structures and processes that we have in place reinforcing where we are now? Do we need to add something new in, or take something away? Does the environment support the different outcomes we want to see?

(NB. I’ve used the plural, but the singular equally applies if you’re making personal change)

Whether we are applying this to the desire to get fit, stop drinking or stop smoking. Or whether we are applying this to the desire to have better team meetings, better decision making, or simpler governance. Essentially the same three criteria apply.

Whatever change you’re tackling in the new year, whatever outcome you want to achieve, spending a few minutes evaluating these three component parts is  more likely to lead to sustained success and less likely to lead to the February blues.

Why most management change fails

Let’s face it, change doesn’t fail or succeed, it just is. When we try to do something and it doesn’t work, that doesn’t mean that change hasn’t happened, it just means the outcomes that we want haven’t been achieved. We need to understand the difference.

If I decide I want to get fit I might buy a pair of running shoes and commit to go jogging every morning before work.  After three weeks when I’m demotivated, tired and laying in bed longer than ever before, a change has occurred, just not the one that I intended. In my head I’d imagined this svelte, athletic new me who absolutely loved this new habit. In reality I developed a belief I couldn’t run, confirmed I didn’t like early mornings and chafed in places I didn’t know existed. If someone was in the future to suggest a run, I’d make my excuses and leave.

What does this mean in an organisational context?

Most of our employees and colleagues have experienced this sensation at work, however, the motivation for the original decision hasn’t been theirs. They’ve been subjected to multiple suggestions over the years that they need to go for the equivalent of a run.  And similar to the runner they start to form beliefs, “it won’t work”, “I don’t like it” or even “what’s the point?”.

Sometimes the most important “changes” that we make are choices to do nothing, rather than to do something. If we litter our organisations with initiatives, if we try to do too much that adds little value we start to create the sort of psychological fatigue that leads to beliefs that ultimately are counter productive to the changes that actually need to achieve. Through our actions we can cause the reaction that we then dub, “resistance to change”.

Nobody is resistant to change, we all make changes every single day. We shop with Amazon, send messages on our phones, we use satellite navigation systems and find love by swiping left or right. We are constantly changing and evolving. Organisations become resistant to change because of the experiences that have happened in the past, because of the belief systems that have developed and because of our inability to keep things simple and clear.

 

Why we need to ban NDAs

Sometimes I think our profession is much like the British weather, we have an obsession in talking about its shortcomings, but yet nothing can be done to change it. My frustration is compounded in the rare moments where we genuinely have an opportunity to act for the betterment of the world of work, but instead choose to hide behind indecision and equivocation. There is no clearer example of this than the ongoing debate on the use of NDAs (non-disclosure agreements) in settlement agreements.

The broad reaction from the legal and HR professions (and their governing bodies) is weak and depressingly similar, “it depends on how they’re used”. Ultimately suggesting that the clauses themselves aren’t bad, it’s just the bad people (their members) who use them. This is akin to asking the National Rifle Association to opine on gun control. Because every NDA included in a settlement agreement will have had a lawyer draft it and another read it on behalf of the employee. 

Let’s just pause there for a second and let this sink in. In every case where a settlement agreement has been used with an NDA to silence a victim of sexual harassment, racial discrimination or bullying, the overwhelming likelihood is that a legal professional has not only acted for the perpetrator, but for the victim as well.  Let’s not let ourselves off the hook here either, the `HR profession is in many, if not most, cases entirely complicit too – they just don’t exist in all organisations. So is it a surprise that we argue for their continued usage?

In the same way that gun control is the only sensible way to ensure that people are protected  from the harm that these weapons can cause, the only way to ensure that NDAs are not incorrectly applied is to ban their use in settlement agreements. When I make this point the familiar riposte is to talk about business interests and confidentiality and make a bold statement that these are in the interests of the employee. This is intentional obfuscation, so let’s take some time to put these myths to bed. 

You can have a confidentiality clause without containing an NDA, in fact the Law Society describes it as follows, “Confidentiality clauses, which may include terms commonly referred to as non-disclosure agreements, within settlement agreements are used to stop commercial information from being shared inappropriately and to avoid reputational damage.” It is this last point that is central to their use, where clauses are inserted to prevent the employee from talking about the incident that led to the use of the agreement or indeed to disclose the existence of the agreement itself. No-one is talking about banning confidentiality clauses that reaffirm those that already exist in a contract of employment, just the use of NDAs to silence.

Now the idea that this is in some way in the interest of the employee. I’ve asked on numerous occasions for someone to give me an example where this is solely the case, where there is no interest in reciprocity from the organisation. Unsurprisingly, I’m still waiting to hear of one.  And of course the logic of this assertion is flawed in itself, because if non-disclosure was generally in the interest the employee, then they wouldn’t be looking to disclose it in the first place. The fact is that this argument is generally uses as a sinister arm twist, “it will be in your best interest if we say nothing about this matter…so you better not either…”.

NDAs are about power, they are about control, they are clauses that are used to silence those that are generally victims of organisations that have gone wrong. There may be the very odd case where they could legitimately be argued for, but their punitive use far outweighs any benefit. Every case of sexual harassment, discrimination, bullying, intimidation and unfair treatment that leads to the use of such a clause is a terrible indictment on the HR profession and our colleagues in the legal profession too. There is only one safe answer and that is an outright ban. Until that comes about, until our professional bodies find their backbones, I ask you to take the lead and to change your practice now.