Lead change with care

I’ve written before about toxic cultures, but I was struck by the story that I read over the weekend about the legal case being brought against former executives of France Telecom. I’m no expert on the case in hand, but the story sets out a culture of harassment  through constant change and disruption as efficiency savings were sought.

There’s a huge spectrum ranging from the extreme cases detailed in this story through to the ordinary change of organisational life and we need to be careful not to conflate the two, but there are reminders in the extreme that can help us in our everyday practice. We can all argue that, “it’s not like that here”, but it never hurts us to check and be sure.

The first check point is when we stop seeing employees as human beings. You can pick this up through the language that is used in organisations, the way that senior leaders talk about people as a collective. Most organisational change will have a human impact, but when we fail to genuinely recognise that, problems are not far away.

When change becomes a thing in itself, you’re facing a second check point. Organisations that become focused on change, but without realising why. The impact on people throughout is disorientation and confusion, neither of which are good for mental wellbeing. Most people can go through significant change and transition when they understand the why, but struggle when they feel constantly done to.

Finally, when leadership teams lose touch with their teams you’ve reached the third checkpoint. As a leader you can only make good decisions if you are well-informed. One of the most important sets of data is the feedback from the people who work in the organisation itself. I’m not talking about the annual survey alone, but about the informal feedback that tells you how things really are.

Put simply, leaders have an overarching responsibility for every single employee in their organisation. That doesn’t mean we should avoid tough choices or decisions, it doesn’t me would should be change adverse, but it does mean that we need to care. Hopefully none of us will ever experience the extremity of the France Telecom situation, however, each day as we go about our work, we should always check in and make sure we are staying true to our responsibility to our people.

The only precedent that matters

Many times throughout my career, I’ve discussed the issue of precedent. I imagine in HR departments up and down the land, people are arguing what might or might not set one.

Pronunciation /ˈprɛsɪd(ə)nt/
An earlier event or action that is regarded as an example or guide to be considered in subsequent similar circumstances.
there are substantial precedents for using interactive media in training’

Law – A previous case or legal decision that may be or (binding precedent) must be followed in subsequent similar cases. ‘we hope to set a legal precedent to protect hundreds of miles of green lanes’

For me, this is one of the examples where the law has strayed too far into the workplace. We quote decisions made as if they are legally binding, when of course they are entirely within the remit of our organisation. The fear of treating people as individuals is one of the reasons that stands in our way of creating really powerful cultures.

“If we allow them xxx, then everyone will want one”
“If they can do xxx, then we will need to allow everyone”

“It will set a precedent”

If you’re making a decision based on the facts of a case or situation, if you’re taking into consideration the various aspects, then there is no need to fear anything. If a similar situation occurs, it either has the same fact and aspects – in which case you can make the same decision again, or it doesn’t – in which case you have the reason and explanation for making a different call.

Too often we use an argument of precedent as a shield to hide behind, that stop us engaging with the human factors of a case or situation. We avoid the need to thoughtfully consider the specific aspects by creating a one size fits all solution, which we refuse to move away from at any cost.

Fairness isn’t about treating everyone identically, it’s about applying the same consideration to every situation. The only precedent that matters, is making good decisions.

Conversation is not enough

In a country still reeling from the largely unforeseen referendum in June, the US election result added a further sense of discombobulation to the many attendees at the CIPD Conference last week, who reacted to the unexpected news on Wednesday morning with a level of predictable hysteria.

A lot of the debate at the conference followed the theme of the future of work and making work more human. Themes that I (and others) have been implementing, writing and talking about for over five years. And whilst it is great to see the mainstream finally adopt the same agenda, it fills me with a deep and profound sense of unease.

Both electoral outcomes were largely unseen by the liberal elite, the same people that talk of making work more human. Both outcomes were partly driven by a sense of societal injustice, unfairness and frustration with the role that the establishment has played. Or perhaps, more accurately, the role the establishment has not played.

If we believe in fairness, if we believe in humanity, if we believe the future of work is indeed human, it is beholden on us to do less talking and more acting. Positive outcomes are not achieved through well meaning dialogue but through the actions we take and the changes we make. Positive outcomes are not achieved in the warm bubble of elitist consensus, but by taking ourselves out of our comfort zones and listening more than we talk.

We have to accept that “we” have got things wrong, not “them” and that “we” can make the change, not “them”. We have to accept that the inequalities in work, housing, education, society come from our hand and from the hands of our like. But that we can also make changes that matter, right here, right now.

In my darker moments, I fear we do not have enough time and that ultimately the change that needs to be made will be provoked by external circumstances out of our control. That the burning platform will not be lit by our hand. But if there is a chance, if there is an opportunity, if we have a moment in which we can change things for the better, it will surely only come from meaningful, visible action, and not well intentioned, but impotent talk.

Leaving the conference I got in to a cab to go back to the station. The driver asked me where I’d been and what sort of things I spoke about. When I explaned, he replied, “Good luck with that! It’s dog eat dog out there. Don’t get me wrong, I agree with the sentiment, I just don’t see how it is ever going to happen”.

Unless we start to act, I think he’s probably right.

Ripping up the writing rules

As human beings we’re conditioned to use “appropriate” language depending on our setting. In the bar, in a shop, when we bump in to someone on the street and, of course, in the workplace. We choose the way in which we speak, the way in which we interact based not on our conscious decisions, but instead on the way in which society has shaped us.

Similarly, our reaction to the language of others is also conditioned by our expectations of situational appropriateness. When something does meet with these expectations, we take note. Sometimes, with shock, surprise and maybe even joy.

If we want to create more human, more humane workforces, we must never forget the power of the words we use. We need to remember that we are conditioned to write, to talk to employees, to present ourselves in certain ways. There is no rule book, no code of conduct that exists that tells us we need to talk in this way. It’s just years and years of conditioning.

See what I mean:

“We are committed to being a flexible employer as a method of helping us to retain valued employees. We recognise that there may be times when you wish to take an extended period of absence in order to pursue personal interests or domestic duties such as caring for a family member.”


“We recognise the potential in all of our employees and that talent exists throughout the organisation. Analysis has already taken place across the organisation to map out current activities that support talent management and to identify strengths,weaknesses, opportunities and threats.”

And my personal favourite,

“Here at xxxx our ambition is to create the best environment for all our colleagues to reach their full potential. In doing so, we build the culture, capability and capacity to help the business meet its multichannel growth ambitions.

We are facilitating a simple, honest and human culture that is inclusive, collaborative and connected. Ensuring we work with the right structures and processes, to enable flexibility and a culture that values individual contribution, builds teams and minimises risk for xxx.”

Who actually talks like this? I doubt the author of any of these pieces would ever actually speak this way, yet when they put their work hat on, something else comes out. And the expectations of the recipients are met.

Changing how we think, how we act and how we speak is hard. We’re wired to be one thing and yet we want to be another. It takes commitment and it takes perseverance. But when we do, people are more likely to take note.

“We know sometimes you’ll need to take extra time off to deal with the things that happen in life, and that’s ok”

“We want to help you to use all of your skills and abilities at work”

“We’re trying to be the best we can be and to help you to do the same”

Here’s the challenge. As you’re writing this week, whether it is a policy, an advert, an email or announcement. Ask yourself whether you’re writing as you, or whether you’re writing as you’ve been conditioned. If it’s the latter, try switching it around. Speak like a human, not a Human Resource and see what the reaction is. You might be pleasantly surprised.