Resilience and mental wellbeing

I’m fascinated by the topic of resilience and the interplay with mental wellbeing. Both have been at the centre of a much discussion in the world of work over the last few years and whilst I’m by no means an expert on the specific topics, I wonder whether both are two sides of the very same coin.

The archives are full of books and articles telling us how to build resilience at work, we talk about grit and determination and we have developed models and assessments to determine the level of resilience of employees and candidates. Meanwhile at the same time, we’ve raised the importance of understanding mental wellbeing in the workplace, identified means of supporting and analysed the impact that mental health related absences are having on productivity.

I can’t help thinking that we are missing something much deeper that lies at the root cause between the two issues. Something that is changing our relationship between human being and work, or indeed human being and life itself.

As I write this at the moment I have two children waiting exam results, one for GCSEs, one for A-levels. Already the amount of institutional pressure that is placed on them is enormous. “Unless you get x, you won’t get y”. At the same time, they’re bombarded with images and messages of societal perfection, of friends and lovers and situations which have no resemblance to the reality of most ordinary people.

All before they enter into the world of work, where will tell them that they will need to work until they’re 70 or older. Where we will resist providing them with stability of employment, savings for the future, career paths or development and we will constantly tell them that the jobs they are doing now will no longer exist in the future.

And then we will inform them that they need to build resilience, and we will show them how through a model and share a TED lecture from an expert on it. Have a lunch and learn too. Before reminding them of our mental health awareness week and the fact that they need to look after themselves, because they’re our most important asset. And it’s ok to talk.

I don’t know, but it all seems a bit confused to me. We have the power to change the root cause as well as treat the symptoms, but somehow we divert less energy time and focus there. Wouldn’t it be great if we lived in a world where our natural resilience was good enough and we created the environment that nurtured mental well-being?

Just a thought.

7 tips for better HR practice

  1. Express a view – don’t fall into the trap of, “it’s my position to advise, you make the choice”. Not only does this annoy managers, it also disempowers you and makes you inessential. Why bother asking you if that’s all you do? Don’t be afraid to express a view and explain why you feel that way, even if others don’t agree no-one will ever disrespect you for having an opinion.
  2. See the person – its easy to get into the view that you need to be commercial, tough and driving the agenda of “the business” and forget about the primary aspect of your role. You can be all of these things and still see the human impact. Never forget to see the person in all choices and decisions, that is your unique lens.
  3. Don’t hide behind policy – similarly to “only advising”, hiding behind policy disempowers you. We know that there are good reasons to have policies, but you need to be able to explain why they’re appropriate and useful, not just quote them. Most decisions will always lie in the margins.
  4. Avoid the gossip – you will be party to important, confidential information throughout your career and how you use it and react to it will determine your professionalism. Avoid gossip at all costs, lead with integrity and dignity and never ever use knowledge as power.
  5. Write for your mum – when you commit anything into writing, ask yourself how you would feel if your mum or dad, or significant other were to receive the letter. Is it clear, does it show the tone and warmth you want it to? Could someone understand it who had no technical knowledge or background? Does it make sense?
  6. Seek to understand – in pretty much any situation there will be information and then THE information. Seeking to understand, to explore and asking good questions will help you to better lead a situation. Assume not only makes an ass out of u and me, it also leads to poor decisions.
  7. Language matters – You are not HR and they are not THE BUSINESS. End of.

Gauging the speed of change

We’ve all been there, the conversation where the speed of change is, “just not quick enough”. I’ve probably uttered the words myself. One of the biggest tricks for any leader in this circumstance is being able to differentiate between the input activity and the desired output. Or, the things we need to do in order to get the results we want to see.

It’s a wonderfully alluring concept to equate the speed of delivering the first with the achievement of the second, but sadly there is no direct line between the two. Regardless of their experience, leaders will be told to reduce the time to implement, to condense the programme of activities to realise results much more quickly.  And many will happily comply to demonstrate the activities have been done, ahead of schedule. Which is good, right?

Except the desired change doesn’t happen as we wanted.

But that’s ok, because it must be the fault of someone else, somewhere else. We absolutely nailed our contribution – they just didn’t do what we needed.

The inescapable issue is that there is an optimum rate of change in any organisation and in any situation and it won’t always be the same, dependent on context. The key to successful change is twofold –

  • Understanding the contextual climate for change
  • Measuring success on outputs and inputs

To give a simple example, let’s imagine a bottle of organisational goodness (aka water) which we trying to unlock and set free into a new organisational design (aka a bowl). On one end of the spectrum, we could hold the bottle upside down and shake it frantically, the water will probably come out pretty quickly, the chance of splashing, missing the bowl and causing a mess though are high. At the other end the spectrum, we could tip it slightly below horizontal, place the neck against the lip of the bowl and transfer all the water. It will be super slow, but highly effective.

The reality is that somewhere between the two is the most effective spot, based on the deign of the bottle and the bowl.

Ultimately, the answer to success lies in the name itself – “change”. If all we were interested in was the activity, we’d probably call it “stuff”. One of the key skills of any leader is to be able to articulate the importance of the embedding and sustaining of change and not get caught into the organisational pressure to do some stuff quickly. It won’t always be the answer people want to hear, it won’t always make you the most popular, but if you’re genuinely keen on delivering success, you need to be sure everyone knows and agree what it actually looks like.

Note: Having researched the optimum way to extract water from a bottle at speed, I’m led to believe that in principle it is to swirl the bottle in a circular motion, creating a vortex through the centre that allows water to extract via the sides whilst air rises through the vortex. Sounds complicated.

SMART objectives are stupid

I don’t think there are many employees, managers or people professionals in business that won’t, at some point in time, have been told to make their objectives SMART.  It’s the 101 of management training and something that has spread through organisations like Japanese bindweed.

If you’ve just landed from another planet, have been having a particularly long snooze, or are just very lucky and haven’t had the pleasure yet, SMART stands for:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable/Attainable

Realistic

Time-bound/Timely

The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things – which is cute, but wrong.

My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better. The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.

Next, they’re entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.

Finally, they’re linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.

Let me tell you what works better – a shared and understood vision of success, empowered teams and individuals who are committed to creating that vision and leaders that coach, develop and support their teams. And whilst in one sense achieving this may not be SMART, it is sure to be the cleverest thing you could possibly do.