Let’s think differently

Last year I started some musings about needing a business set of philosophies that help guide and direct behaviour in working environments. I called it Intelligent Behaviours, and my follow up post on behaving intelligently (yes, I know, not very clever post titles). I’d like to venture some further thoughts on this thinking.

In those posts I talked about what it means to think about Intelligent Behaviours, and subsequently how it relates to topics such as Diversity, and managers thinking about absence management differently. So let’s discuss what this could mean for HR. And I include all parts of HR in this.

I should highlight that the idea behind Intelligent Behaviours is to encourage and foster a future way of thinking. This is not an attack on what’s happening now, more a desire to see things done differently. That’s not restricted to HR by any means. Every business area could do well thinking about this. And I’ll get round to discussing every business area. Today, simply, I start with HR.

So, relax for a moment, this isn’t about a new competency framework, engagement strategy, or new fangled policy on performance management. This is about saying – what does thinking intelligently about the situation you are facing tell you? And then how can you behave accordingly to that? My line of thinking is this – we have company policies for pretty much everything, and in honesty, everyone knows a policy is a big pile of nonsense. It’s only purpose is to have some fallback mechanism that says “oh you can’t act in that way because the policy says so”. In other words “you and I are both so infantile, neither of us trusts the other, and here’s the piece of paper that proves it”.

How, with any reason, and with all the will in the world, can we display employee engagement, if your first port of call is to have a policy or process in place? Think about it. Before you’ve even started something exciting, you’re already creating contingencies and thinking of mitigating circumstances. And then when you’ve launched into it, it’s pretty much guaranteed to be ‘effective’ and nothing more. Forget engaging, or even better, ‘social’, it just becomes – standard/best practice.

Why have we allowed ourselves to do this? Well, aside from the fact there’s a horrid litigious culture encouraged by daft no win no fee claim companies, and aside from the fact as a nation we are more concerned with productivity than we are innovation, HR has just become a safe place to be really. Sure, there’s exciting things happening out there like talent management programmes, OD initiatives galore, high fliers programmes and the like, but they’re just the emporer’s clothes dressed up as something new. As a profession, we’ve become too transfixed with policies and process, and don’t think enough about just letting things happen.

Hold on! I’m not advocating a free for all workplace with no guidance. I’m advocating better thinking about why we’re doing the work we’re doing. And I’m certainly not talking changing the rules when it comes to complicated arrangements like Union discussions or redundancies or mergers and acquisitions. Although, I think we can use Intelligent Behaviours to moderate those in different ways too. Let’s take some examples.

Let go of the tendency to say or default to “I know the answer to this, our policy says X.” Instead, encourage discussions on “I know how to solve your problem, and it’s easy”. My take on this is people don’t care about what the policy states, they just want to know a problem can be solved. Also, reject the urge to say “let’s check the policy on that”. You’re only encouraging a culture of deference to a piece of paper. I want confidence in you, not the process or the policy.

Let go of the tendency to follow best practice, or follow the old edict of “it’s what we’ve always done”. Are you so uninspired by your daily routine that the best you can resolve to do is “right, that’s a grievance, let’s pull out the ACAS guidance and ensure we don’t fuck up the process”. Really? Is that what you care about? Or do you care about resolving the situation as amicably as you can? Or better, do you care about leading a discussion where both parties ultimately leave the discussion with better appreciation of what happened, what needs to happen next, and assurances they will carry on?

Let go of the tendency to be critical and shooting down ideas because you think you are politically sensitive to the culture. In others words, you haven’t got the gumption to champion the idea proposed to you, nor the faith in that person to deliver it, and you are just looking for a get out clause “it’s a good idea, but Bob won’t like it because of this, and Bill has had an ulterior motive of that”. Let it happen. See what the result is. Give the right coaching and advice that will produce the desired result.

You can call this common sense, you can call it blue sky thinking, you can call it bollocks thinking. Personally I think we’ve just become too focused on “the way we’ve always done things” and that does not foster intelligence in our thinking, nor in our behaviour. Hungry now, need to go get some lunch.

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>Do you have a policy for that?

>The World Cup is round the corner. From 11 June – 11 July, the world will literally be focused on one thing and one thing only. The football. Even I, who has zero interest in the sport, will be following it. And why not! Your country’s reputation is on the world stage and it makes life incredibly interesting. Your workforce will be bantering the entire period, more so than normal. National flags will be flying high. Energy levels will be amazingly high and moods will be swinging all over the show. There will be as much frustration as there will excitement.

And here’s what worries me. HR will announce – we have a policy for situations like this. I hate policies. I hate them with all my heart. They are a disease brought about by a litigious culture to cover your back. If something isn’t going right, a policy will be there to say – I Told You So. How truly uninspiring. Policies serve to only stifle and restrict the workforce. And here’s the nub of it all. We need policies like we need to be told the consequences of killing another human being.
The CIPD today have released this article thinking they’re helping the workforce: http://www.cipd.co.uk/subjects/hrpract/absence/_world_cup_absence_management. It doesn’t help at all. If anything it makes staff reticent to bother with following the World Cup at work at all. I’m not advocating staff should only be allowed to watch their matches of choice, but don’t throw down policies to take away any thought of doing it. Let me unpick some of their suggestions. ‘Swap shift’ – nonsense because most shift workers do those hours because it suits them and their lifestyle. If I work from 6-11 it’s because I have other commitments which suit that arrangement. ‘Unpaid leave’ – really? You want your staff to not turn up for work, and dock their pay because you’re not willing to accommodate them within the workplace? ‘Games and alcohol’ – Oh Lord. If staff haven’t realised they shouldn’t be doing these in excess then you’ve clearly got other issues you need to deal with. ‘Flexible hours’ – start work at 6am so you can watch your 1 1/2 hour match and leave at your normal time of 6pm. And still be productive while you’re at it. The only decent suggestion they have is ‘special screenings’. This makes far too much sense and I love they add this disclosure piece: “however, it should be remembered that not everyone will be interested in watching the football so people should not be made to feel excluded if they don’t want to get involved”.
It’s my one bugbear about HR. At a recent workshop by the Training Journal, one of the speakers – Jack Wills (Chair of the British Institute for Learning and Development), explained how when he has bought companies, one of the first departments he gets rid of is the HR department. Controversial? Yes. But it makes sense. If line managers were doing their job right, HR wouldn’t need to exist. It’s a thought I’ve often had about HR privately (although, obviously, publicly now).
It’s not that I don’t believe HR provide value. It does. But only because line managers have so much to do, that doing people things right is often a nice to have rather than a must do. My issue is typically when something doesn’t go right, HR will default and say “we have a policy for that”. That’s not good enough. HR needs a slap across the face and a firm kicking.
My take on what should happen is to defer to people’s best judgement. Have a framework which makes sense for the business. Promote it. Help people understand it. Encourage and incentivise to make it happen. Give the pull factor. People should never need to be pushed. Provide clear and unmistakable guidance about when things are expected to happen. Have review periods and agree timelines. That’s all basic stuff which needs to happen.
If people don’t adhere to the framework then there’s a simple recompense. Discipline them. Allow people to make sensible, grown up decisions. If they fall foul of failing to meet a deadline, be it on their head with no doubt about the consequence of this.
To keep overheads in check, I do think you need to have an L&D function of sorts, recruitment, compensation and benefits and a legal department. But you don’t need someone saying – due to adverse weather here’s our company policy. Due to global recession, here’s our policy. Due to not completing your timesheet, here’s our policy. Due to being absent from work without permission, here’s our policy. Due to not answering your email on time, here’s our policy. Managers should have the training to help them understand how to deal with each and every one of those situations.
Ultimately HR are an information provider. This is how you complete an appraisal form. This is how you report sickness and absence. This is when you are eligible for further benefits. This is what you need to do to work here. This is how you report on your workforce. This is the number of staff we have in the building today.
But those damned policies are the bane of my life. We’re in an age now where the workforce is more savvy about working life. Policies help to give people an understanding of expectations from the business. But that’s where they should stay. The workforce is intelligent enough – and has information feely available enough – to make a sensible decision. If they choose to go against the norm or transgress the rules, there’s penalties to pay (no pun intended). You cannot empower a workforce by restricting them to act according to rules and processes and policies.