Redundancy Thoughts : Empathy

We HR folks are always running into extreme personality types, at one point or another. That’s the lot of a change agent. A CEO might view an organisation and see a group of people, with the ones he or she knows best in clearer definition that the rest. In HR, we don’t get the luxury of a selective view. When we bring change, we encounter each individual as an individual, and its our responsibility to find that persons tipping point and bring them on board for the change journey. The challenge of course, is when it is the change leader themselves that could use some input 🙂

We stand outside the process, and view each participant as a person undergoing change. The CEO will view everyone as either being “affected by change” or not “affected by change”. The employees do the same from the their own point of view of the person being affected, or not. Generally the line managers are both implementing change as per instructions, and being affected by it, so they are the ones caught in the change management “sandwich”. What is true is that everyone is affected, regardless. There are actually no “unaffected” people in a workplace restructure (unless they are sociopaths of a sort). How this process is worked out will affect everybody in the organisation.

Following on from the previous post about dignity and hope, I would like to offer further thoughts around that topic, focussing on the matter of empathy.

When a person is affected by change, it is entirely natural for that person to see the change process from a positive or negative view, based on how it is affecting them personally. It is very important to say at this point that the most insulting thing a change leader can say to an affected employee is “Nothing personal, this is just business”. For the employee affected, what the company is proposing is not business. It is entirely, completely, absolutely and incontrovertibly, very, very, very, VERY personal.

Two things have just happened to that employee:

Firstly, the skies have darkened and a financial nightmare is approaching really fast. Time lines and personal plans that might have been relaxed, have condensed into a NOW. Urgency and fear have arrived without warning.

Secondly, you have communicated to that employee that “Actually, now that we think about it, you are useless to us. Go home and tell your family. By the way, sorry, its not personal, its just business. You understand.”

An absolutely devastating one-two.

“It’s not personal, it’s just business” is the rehearsed – and may I say worse than pathetic – line of a leader incapable of empathy. Empathy is not sympathy. Sympathy is easy, and it is cheap. It makes the sympathiser feel better, but it usually does absolutely nothing for the affected person. Empathy is deeper, richer, and far more substantial. It can actually cross the emotional divide between the empathiser and the affected person. It connects through shared experience and pain.

“Sympathy” is “I’m sorry for your pain”. “Empathy” is “May I share your pain”.

This is where change leaders run into difficulties. The same way a general on the front line is required to sends troops to their deaths, a change leader can make decisions that end peoples employment, which is a figurative “death”. Their heart is exposed, whether they like it or not. And employees are looking for the “heart” of the leader. The difference is always found in the leader whose heart grows heavy with each decision; each interaction, as opposed to the leader who says “Right. That’s done, lets move on now”. The one where writing the letters is done slowly, personally and with great care, as opposed to a mail-merge.

Restructuring makes employees tired and can quickly lead to demotivation. Their world has been shaken and the illusion of stability and security has made way for uncertainty. In companies that regularly restructure (and in Australia/NZ there are many; this is a cowardly way of managing poor performance, solving personality issues, political manipulation etc.) this can be exacerbated. Employees know their jobs are only as secure as management’s next “clever” idea or the next hidden agenda.

There is a “Sword of Damocles” over people’s jobs and lives, which arrives suddenly but does not disappear nearly as fast. As Cicero said: there can be nothing happy for the person over whom some fear always looms”. Restructuring, especially where it is not well defined, communicated, executed as communicated, and then clearly ENDED, creates a sustained fearfulness that eats away at the heart of employee’s commitment.

Here is where empathy comes in:

The people that are affected by the the CEO’s next clever idea, mostly live their whole lives paycheck to paycheck; knowing just how many trips a tank of fuel will get them; how much food they can eat each day to have food at the end of the fortnight; scared of the financial impact of sudden doctors visits, sick or injured pets; car trouble, and broken household implements. House maintenance, holidays, car maintenance are all carefully budgeted for and planned, in terms of cash flow.

Often, families sail close to the wind and can be caught in a cash flow crisis not of their own making. They can enter such a devastating process already stressed, fearful, unable to cope with the new workplace stress because financially, the precipice was already near. There is no backlog of savings or a nest egg. It takes a certain earning capacity to easily create those resources, and not everyone has both that, and the discipline required. These are people naturally and rightly concerned about sudden unavoidable expenses. Insecure and dependent on you as the CEO for their security.

The sudden news of restructuring and redundancy does not bring the shadow of financial pressure nearer, with time to prepare… it darkens it immediately into night!

A quick but revealing question – does the change leader/proponent even begin understand what that kind of life is like? I am fairly confident they do not. Does it affect how the chess pieces are moved about? I have worked in more than one company where the CEO’s unclaimed traveling expenses are equal to two employee’s annual salaries. Can that person really understand? I am not confident they can.

So my challenge to change agents, and change leaders, is to find a way to do what you must do, with empathy. With shared feeling, shared understanding, and deep caring. It doesn’t change WHAT you do, but it changes HOW you do it.

In my next post, I will consider the “How”.

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Thoughts on Accountability

Every time I read about accountability in the media, its about someone holding someone else accountable for the bad/naughty/inconsiderate thing they have done. We have a watchdog mentality, where someone, or some group of people, seems to be designated to be the conscience of society. They have the “right” – nay, the “obligation” it seems – to make a noise about something perceived to be “not right” and to help steer the ship towards the collective ideal. No doubt, this is generally a good thing.

So we have government ministers being exposed for poor management of public funds. We have doctors exposed for medical errors. We have corrupt police officers discovered and exposed. Cheating spouses being found out by private investigators. We have politicians with dirty secrets being exposed. We have sting operations that uncover fraud, or drug smuggling, or whatever. And we have the media in its self appointed role of watcher, under the banner “The people have the right to know”.

This has become what we call “accountability”. Self appointed watchers, out to catch transgressors. And people trying to keep secrets from being exposed, in a weird game of cat and mouse.

But what if that is not what accountability really is? What if we have lost the core meaning? What if a transcendent value has become a mere shadow of what it should be, as values shift from “I shouldn’t do …” to “I shouldn’t get caught doing …”.

“Accountability” is defined as the fact or condition of being accountable; responsibility.”

It has nothing to do with who is watching, and everything to do with the humility to be governed, overseen and protected by the insight and care of others.

In fact, making accountability about “being caught” cheapens the whole concept completely. Accountability is about being of such character and humility that one avoids even the appearance of evil, the appearance of wrong-doing, by deliberately creating a witness, or even a counsel of witnesses, to one’s life. Its about seeking out the protection of wise guidance and good friends. And the benefits of being fully known by another. Submitting openly and willingly to inspection, for the purpose of standing on a foundation of complete integrity.

Anyone being “held accountable” by someone else, simply has no idea. We do it, ourselves, so that nobody else has to do it.

THAT is accountability.

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Redundancy Thoughts: Dignity and Hope

So, after an emotionally wrenching end of year, I stand in 2016 looking forward with excitement and interest. Last December, my employer declared their intention to relocate the Company HR service to Brisbane, Australia. That meant my leadership position in New Zealand was redundant. After a month and a bit of the usual discussions we parted company and I am in the job market again! A little unexpected, a little painful, but that is more or less natural. Also, very exciting, but more on that later.

So the whole situation got me thinking about times in the past I have overseen redundancies, and how they could be done better.

Leaving a position you love in a company you love because of a restructure, is hard; not least because there is no fault involved. Having someone or something to blame can give a (false) direction to frustration and context to any fear about the future. That’s the kind of place that if we go there, we should visit only briefly, and then move on from without a backward glance. Settling down there; mentally or emotionally taking up residence there, is a very bad idea.

With any kind of loss, comes a grieving process. For example, I lost colleagues, and a very nice job! When it makes business sense, and the process is respectful and dignified, and communications have been open and honest then I think the grieving process can be easier. When that doesn’t happen, or when it is even maliciously done, grieving can be a harder process.

As someone who has spend a great deal of time making others redundant in the course of my work, and seeking to meaningfully and positively assist with their transition out of employment, I have discovered that what employees need more than anything in such situations is their dignity, and to be treated with respect. More than anything – more than the reasons why, more than the opportunity to try change the company’s mind and possibly rescue their employment, people need their dignity. And with dignity and respect, in an amazing transaction, comes hope. When making people redundant, I have sought always to protect dignity and hope – both very fragile in clumsy corporate hands (its not personal, its business…) , and at the same time so powerful for the individual.

A person’s dignity is deeply fundamental to their self worth and as employers, moving those chess pieces about; restructuring and redeploying largely on the whim of executive management; we owe our employees at least that. We are tossing them out into the market place, after all, usually on 4 week’s notice, in a world where it can take anywhere from 8 weeks to 6 months or more to find work again. So we are guaranteeing most victims of a redundancy, at least a period of extreme financial hardship. Dignity and self worth can be the make or break factors in working through that, and be the difference between being the overcomer or the victim. Yes, its actually up to the individual, but stripping away their dignity and disrespecting them in the process is very unhelpful, even perhaps cynical, when it is in the company’s power to do either.

Interestingly, the laws in New Zealand (if followed, of course) provide exactly that. Having worked in 5 countries, they are among the better ones out there. The so called restrictions on the company’s freedom to act, are nothing more than the requirement to be decent and protect a vulnerable employee’s dignity. It is strange to me how so many employers, rally against that basic requirement and try ferret their way to a quicker or less consultative outcome.

I guess there are some situations where true colours are revealed, and this is one example. They say that one can measure the degree of civilisation a society has by the way they treat the defenceless in their midst (children, poor, elderly). I guess it is also possible to measure the actual values, the actual decency, the actual level of “civilisation” of an employer by exactly the same standard – how they treat the defenceless in their midst. And no-one is more defenceless – and undeserving of the situation – than the person selected for redundancy.

The true colours of an organisation are also the true colours of their leader/s. No-one in an organisation has a more profound impact on the culture of an organisation, than its decision makers and leaders. In my experience, many leaders don’t realise that when they seek to adjust the culture of their organisation, what they should be doing is adjusting their own behaviour FIRST, and making sure secondly, that the behaviour of every leader also adjusts accordingly.

Therefore, no-one has more of an impact on the dignity and self worth of a redundant employee, than the CEO; his or her behaviours, communications, attitudes and promises. Even if he delegates the redundancy talks and process to others, they will act as they are led to act.

The other thing that affects dignity is, interestingly, the sense of a legacy left behind. Employees work to achieve things, and there is a hope that when we are gone, what we have done will in some shape or form remain, and be valued. It gives meaning to the entire period of our employment. What can damage that, is another aspect of organisational culture; and that is whether departed employees are honoured or denigrated by the words spoken about them after they leave.

There is no need to speak negatively about the departed, in any shape or form, but frequently I have come across organisations that habitually, like the novel 1984, re-write their history so that those who are now gone are recast as being to blame for all sorts of stuff. They usually have a “no blame” culture (because that is the politically correct culture to have) but remaining employees, who are usually friends of the departed and socially still in contact, hear what is said about the ex-employee and can relay it to them. This affects their engagement as well, because they know, what happens to their colleagues, will likely happen to them. And because they then see their leader’s true colours.

Again, this starts and stops with the CEO and the kinds of conversations he or she permits or prevents. I have also worked for CEO’s who are very politically correct in public but rage like chained beasts in private. The problem is that private is never actually private. Office walls are thin, doors are accidentally not properly closed during a tirade, emails are forever, co-leaders may not share the views of the raging beast, and sometimes, last week’s confidant is next weeks departing employee.

The company, by dignifying and respecting its departing and departed employees, improves in the estimation of the remaining employees. They will see integrity, and goodwill, and will see real decency, not just the façade of decency. This creates loyalty. When a corporate owes an ex-employee nothing, but delivers respect and dignity to them in spite of that, they are well on their way to being a great work place. And their employees will say so.

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Employee Engagement – we are doing it all wrong…

I am reading more and more articles beginning to debate the value of employee engagement initiatives, and more recently, the wasted money, time and effort that companies spend on trying to improve employee engagement.

It is an interesting conundrum that a company will get better results from engaged employees, and in seeking better results, companies will try to control and enhance engagement levels of employees; but engagement is an EMPLOYEE thing, not a company thing. But its a “thing” with commercial value, so companies believe it is worth spending time and money to figure it out.

The trouble is, I think it is vastly overcomplicated by consultants and authors alike. Sometimes, simple is best, and easiest to work with. I like simple.

It helps to start with an understanding of what employee engagement is. But its important to realise that nobody really “knows” what it is. It’s a feeling. A commitment, a synergy. A connection, a values fit. A symbiosis. Its the desire of an employee to spend themselves for some reason. And in the dreamy world of corporate strategies, all of these ideas coalesce into high volumes of high quality output.

I think the reality is that when we simplify it as much as possible, we can grab hold of some key understandings. It is easy, after that, to figure out HOW to influence engagement, but keeping things simple is key to not getting horribly confused and wasting a lot of time and energy.

Example. A man builds model aeroplanes. He starts with nothing but an idea, and he learns. He takes precious time and allocates it to this. Takes precious money and spends it. He learns how to build one. He learns aerodynamics. He learns balance. He learns precision. He learns electronics, and engines. He learns about wind, and weather. He spends hundreds, if not thousands of hours and hard earned dollars. He crashes his beautiful creation, and rebuilds it carefully. And then, now that he has mastered take offs, he has to figure out how to land. So he crashes again and rebuilds carefully all over again. And after many weeks and months, he can fly his beautiful model aeroplane safely.

All this, why?

It is so simple. Too simple, I fear, to make a lot of money from, which is why the consultants have to complicate it all up. A person does this, for pretty much one thing only.

For joy. For sheer, uncomplicated joy.

I believe that the pursuit of joy is what drives all of us. Let’s be clear though – Joy is not “happiness”. Joy is not “jollies” or “good times”. Joy is not a feeling. Its easy to misunderstand joy and call it something ephemeral, and light. Real “joy” is so much deeper than that.

Joy is a state of being, a deep sense of fulfilment, a contentment. Contentment that “who I am”, “what I am doing” and “what I want to become” are in harmony. But let’s not confuse contentment with satisfaction. Personally, I would MUCH rather be content, than satisfied. A content person is at peace, but not at rest. A content person is never satisfied. A satisfied person is at rest. They have achieved. They are done. But a contented person has not achieved, is not done. They are simply in harmony, at peace, and without internal dissonance.

Imagine a sailor. The sails are set, the wind is blowing, the sky is blue, the water is wide, and the vessel is underway. Everything is just as it should be. But the journey has only just begun. Is the sailor at peace? Of course. Is he there yet? No. Content, but not satisfied.

So in pursuit of joy, a person will spend themselves happily, feeling and knowing deep down, that their effort will be rewarded with contentment. Peace. Fulfilment. Resonance. Joy.

Companies focus on a few standard things. Money. Recognition. Reward. Environment. Flexibility.  Etcetera.

I believe what they really need to realise, is that people want to find joy.  People want to find harmonic resonance between what they do and who they deep down, really, really believe they are.

We choose our vocations, our careers, our skills based on a connection between our identity and the contentment that that vocation beings us. Somewhere, deep down, what we do is who we are (remember my earlier post on values?), and who we are becomes what we do. An engineer, a journalist, a lawyer, a doctor, a mechanic, a sailor, a pilot, an accountant. No matter what we do, we do it because of a connection with our deeply held identity and sense of who we are.

So the connection is there already; the capacity for resonance and joy is always there in the workplace. An employee chooses to do what they do, in a particular company, because of a few important things. And a company that understands this, and realises that it is simply a means for an employee to find joy, can influence engagement positively:

  1. A connection between the perceived corporate values and personal values. (Who I am and who I work for are sufficiently aligned that it feels good associating myself with them)
  2. A belief that the results they achieve (not the work they do) will bring them a sense of joy, of fulfilment, and a belief that efforts are not wasted.

So what a company needs to do, is, I believe, remarkably simple. Three things:

  1. Live its values, and
  2. Connect a person’s expected results, with their deeply held beliefs about who they are.
  3. Get out of the way.
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Values and Behaviour – a reflection on the Volkswagen tragedy.

As an HR practitioner, I have watched with interest not so much the media frenzy surrounding the Volkswagen debacle (although that has itself been instructive) but rather the company itself. It’s behaviour as an organization at this time is a starting point for yet another chapter in the discussion that is often held around corporate “values”. I think, though, this presents really clear lessons.
We in HR are often called the guardians of culture; the change champions. It’s important to remember that these responsibilities are delegated to us by the CEO. No officer in any organization had any authority that is not delegated first from its board, then from its CEO.
We in HR are co-labourers with the CEO to firstly nurture and then embed the desired culture, skills, and behaviours of the organization. But let’s take a step back first. The primary stakeholders in any company are those who have invested money in it. They have done so, in order to make MORE money.  Specifically, they are willing to assume some level of business risk, in order to make a return on their money that is above what can be generated by simply putting safely it in a bank. That is the primary purpose of a business: overcome the risks in a lucrative opportunity, in order to make a high return for shareholders.
The authority delegated to the CEO by the board is the same. Create a significant return on shareholder funds and minimise risk to those same investments.
We have not yet mentioned the environment, culture, products, services, values, health and safety, etc. There is a reason for that. They are not the goals of business. They are either enablers or constraints on the primary goal, or the method of achieving that goal, but they are not THE goal.
Volkswagen demonstrated unequivocally to the entire world that it’s goal, above everything, is to make money by selling cars. It also demonstrated unequivocally to the entire world that in order to maximise sales and make the maximum profit possible, it is willing to do anything when it thinks it won’t get caught. Its pursuit of money supersedes everything, and self restraint was completely abandoned in that pursuit. It knew that the combination of engine power, and fuel economy, was incompatible with environmental standards, so it faked the development of technology that appeared to give environmental agencies what they wanted, and consumers what THEY wanted.
That brings us to the concept of corporate behaviour and corporate values. Values are intrinsic qualities. Theoretically, they are long term and core to an identity. When we talk about an individual, perhaps values are easier to understand than for an organisation. There is no artificial statement of values adopted once we commence our existence. We get our values as we grow, and as we participate in family and society. Our values are made, not chosen. We grow to believe in what is truly important. Values are why we do what we do, and they govern what we do. Why we choose work over family, or family over work. Stability over risk and risk over stability. Entrepreneur over employee or employee over entrepreneur. Each of life’s choices is made on the foundation of our values. And every behaviour we exhibit is also, not surprisingly, a product of values. In fact, it is possible to say that our behaviour is the best (and perhaps only) indicator of what we truly value!
A wise man once said “Where your treasure is, there is your heart”. I love that inversion of concepts, where we normally talk of our desire and our priorities (heart) leading to results (treasure), Jesus Christ said that our treasure (results) reveals our heart (priorities, desires). So we can see a persons values not from what they SAY they value, but by looking back on their life and seeing what they have ACTUALLY prioritised. from this perspective, values are revealed, not predicted. Shown, not proposed. Its a a hindsight thing. Aspirations can be stated in advance, values can only be recognised in hindsight.
Volkswagen has shown us it’s true values. Not its corporate values. Well, lets be honest and call them what they were –  marketing tools. Their websites talk at length of sustainability, responsibility, partnership. It says these are it’s true values.
Lets look back, and we know that their real values, as revealed by their behaviour, are not sustainability. Or responsibility. Or partnership. Their real values, as demonstrated by their ACTIONS, are Money. Gaming the system. Appearances. Deceit. Environment be damned. Integrity be damned. Responsibility be damned. Give us sales. At, clearly, ANY cost. Honestly, even if their cars were exceptional, would you want a car from a company like that? If there is a comparable alternative, thats where I am shopping for sure. If I were to spend a single dollar on Volkswagen, I would be endorsing and embracing the values and the behaviour that built the lie.
The values they subscribe to on their website, are clearly simply the enunciation of things that they think will make people buy their cars. Things that will not alienate customers. Given how deliberate their actions were, it is feasible to say they do not even ASPIRE to those values. They had no intention at all of acting in accordance with those values. Only of APPEARING to act in accordance with those values, because, if they didn’t, people would buy cars from some company whose website said they DID value those things.
Thats the real problem. Companies CHOOSE values, they don’t “grow” them into their DNA. Corporations don’t even HAVE DNA. They have people who have DNA. And because values are adopted, chosen from a  list,  they are therefore flexible, malleable and sadly, sometimes negotiable. They are not the product of a lifetime of experiences, they are a marketing device to draw in the consumers (and in the case of Volkswagen, cynically so), or an aspiration. Aspirations are good, laudable and respectable, but lets not confuse them with actual values. Unless of course, a company is willing to be ruthless in pursuing their aspirations until they are forged into their employees DNA as values. But there are precious few of THOSE companies out there. Do you know of any willing to fire the cash cow salesman because of a values fit?
So what does this discussion mean in the HR space? We are often delegated the responsibility of governing culture. Clearly in Volkswagen, the responsibility came with no authority whatsoever, and I think, this is more common than we like to concede. Those of us who have the KPI of Culture in our Position Descriptions, do we have the authority to direct change and to challenge behaviour not in accordance with stated corporate values? If we do not, then the KPI of governing culture is a fiction. We cannot be responsible for culture unless we are empowered to read, lead and govern culture.
That means participating in decisions, conversations, debates, strategy formulation, in a way that gives us visibility on the connection between corporate values, and the behaviour of the senior team that are the primary drivers of behaviour in the organisation. An HR manager far away from those environments cannot and should not permit, the inclusion of a KPI on culture in their position description. And most CEO’s should not kid themselves. THEY drive the culture of the organisation. their behaviour is by far the most influential. Their approval the most inspirational. Their disapproval the most powerful. Their priorities, the most contagious. Unless the CEO is a recluse, their values become the actual, real, practised and practical values of their senior leadership team. They cannot and should not be allowed to abdicate or avoid this truth.
The senior leadership team. They lead large teams, and drive deliverables for the CEO and shareholders. They get their cues from the CEO, but they then step away from the EXCO meeting and work away from the CEO’s direct line of sight. So their own values become hugely relevant to their teams. A CEO can insist on integrity, for example, but a senior manager can work the system and in so doing, teach their team to do likewise.
I was a consultant for a time, and saw many things. I worked for a company that prohibited bribes and unethical behaviour in their home country, but had a specific fund for exactly that when working internationally. I worked for another company that valued integrity, but allowed documents to be falsified and profits to be misreported. One that embraced racism and gender inequality as a way to increase profits. All their value statements were excellent. Integrity, fairness, diversity, you name it, they had subscribed to it. But when it came down to brass tacks, the pursuit of money ruled everything.
Volkswagen’s corrupt value system is sadly not uncommon. Its not so common, though, to get caught, as they did, and many companies rely on the short term win of profit, to excuse behaviour that is discordant with their values. We as HR practitioners, need to make ourselves credible activists on behalf of a great company culture. yes, we need to be commercially valuable to the business, and we need to drive many initiatives on behalf of building a great team.
If our companies have a value statement, it is our responsibility to work those values into conversations, into performance appraisals, into mentoring and coaching, and into leadership development. We need to hire for the right values, and fire for the wrong ones. Creating the best possible culture is a deliberate act. A deliberate series of acts, hour by hour, day by day, and week by week. If those values area convenience, and not a commitment that sticks, we have a  choice. Become the change agent that will bring about that cultural transformation, or move on.
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Incompetent and unaware…

There is a popular Internet meme out there nowadays:

“The thing with death, is that no one knows they are dead. Everyone else knows, but the dead person has no idea… It is the same… with stupid”.

I have just finished reading a very interesting research article entitled “Unskilled and Unaware of it: How Difficulties in Recognising Ones Own Incompetence Lead to Inflated Self-Assessments” by Justin Kruger and David Dunning, from Cornell University.

The research postulates and then proves via experimentation, the following 4 statements:

1. Incompetent individuals, compared with their more competent peers, will dramatically overestimate their ability and performance relative to objective criteria. (Put simply – incompetent people think they are more skilled than they are)

2. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers, to recognise competence when they see it – be it their own or anyone else’s. (Put simply – incompetent people don’t know what excellence looks like)

3. Incompetent individuals will be less able than their more competent peers to gain insight into their true level of performance by means of comparison with others (Put simply – incompetent people are less likely to self-diagnose and therefore less likely to self-improve, just by looking around them)

4. Incompetent people can gain insight about their shortcomings, but this comes by making them more competent. (Put simply – incompetent people need outside help to overcome their own shortcomings)

The article was challenging for me, as an HR professional. We are the capability planners, the people strategists and the performance enhancers, through our unique skillset. We are called upon to develop employees, to enhance their skills through training, mentorship, coaching and work experience. And in reality, I would say that most training achieves something of what we want it to, but perhaps not nearly enough? It would be hard to evaluate, but I have long wondered if it ever earns back its dollar investment or time commitment. Mentorship and coaching are better strategies by far, but they still fall short of the mark most times, I fear. Our capability improvement strategies are not always as effective as we hope they will be!

I think this article helps to shine a light on why this might be. When someone has a skills gap or a performance gap, as managers or employers we often focus directly on improving the skills and the behaviour. But this is nothing more than the band-aid on the problem, unless we can take it far deeper. If we take the bigger picture as discussed here, we are seeking to bring personal change to an individual who probably cannot even see the need for change, and for whom denial of the need for change is almost instinctive.

We are asking an employee to acknowledge something that is deep at the core of their security and self image – to utter the words to themselves “I am incompetent in this area and I am failing myself and my team” These are hard words to hear let alone say to oneself.

It seems to me that the real problem is that old adage – that “in order for change to occur, it must become far more uncomfortable to stay the same, than it is to change”. Until a tipping point is reached, where staying the same becomes even more uncomfortable than the process of change, people will not be motivated to embrace change. There seems to be a ”push” into change, rather than a “pull” into it. A “Push” driver is a change precipitator born of reluctance, an “ok, then, if I have to” mindset, rather than a “pull” driver which would be more visionary and growth oriented – a “wow, look at the potential” mindset.

It’s probably realistic to say that change is always personal. Even if it is corporate. Because the individual has to choose it, and then change, as an individual. This applies to corporate structural change processes, but even more so to employees where the change is required because of a personal failing such as incompetence.

Having had personal experience with employees who are in this situation of unacknowledged incompetence, or wilful blindness, or are actually being prevented by colleagues or seniors from recognising their own incompetence (no, its not you, its the other person…!), I can confirm that the challenge a manager faces in this situation is huge. In a situation where there is no perceived need to change – where discomfort of the status quo has been removed, or dulled, the employee is not required to face the facts. The employee’s denial of their own incompetence, and of the need to change can become absolute and non-negotiable. In fact, the response to their own incompetence being identified and exposed can be actively toxic. Where employees are politically active within the workplace, this can become downright destructive to the office environment.

The problem is, according to this research, is that incompetence itself, is the biggest obstacle to dealing with incompetence. 

Where an employee has a performance or a skills issue the first port of call for a change agent should perhaps not be the skill set or the behaviour, but rather the employee’s unrealistic perception of themselves! Maybe the secret to successful performance management, or any change process, is to focus on the benefit to the employee from the start!

It is insightful to note that the usual approach of a manager is to insist on change that will first and foremost benefit the employer, of course, through improved performance, and only as a secondary outcome do we anticipate it will also benefit the employee in some way. So the chances are fairly good that the need for change is not even the employee’s need – it is the employer’s need, being projected onto the individual from the outside! I’m not disagreeing with this, just pointing it out.

But according to what I have read, not only are the incompetent convinced that they are actually fantastic, despite plenty of obvious evidence to the contrary, they equally are unable to see excellence when it is shown to them or to realise that they are not actually achieving it! So the obvious strategies we all embrace for initiating change in an underperforming employee, are not actually likely to succeed!

In reality, this article proposes that the employee cannot even see the problem, can’t understand what the company/manager wants, can’t fix it themselves and – crucially – needs other people to help them realise this.

So in order to create lasting change in an employee’s performance, increasing competence, is only the 4th of 4 requirements! And paradoxically, increasing competence is the only way to fix problems one, two and three!

Underneath all change strategies aimed at incompetent individuals, must be the unrelenting and unavoidable personal discomfort of not changing. Without this, there will NOT be change. That comes down to recognisable and oncoming personal consequences for a failure to grow. Then, and only then…

Firstly we need to help employees honestly see their own performance accurately. Secondly we need to find a way to show them what excellence looks like directly in comparison to what they currently deliver. Thirdly we need to show them how to self evaluate, and fourthly we need to offer help.

Next post: What kind of manager gets this right?

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The sad sad story of Walter, Floyd, Bill and Rolf.

I am an African. Boldly and unashamedly so, and as I have said, Africa runs in my blood. Deep and unrelenting.

This week the most imperial symbol of my continent has been thrown into the spotlight, not as a source of pride but of anguish. Cecil the Lion is no more. A beautiful, black maned, 13 year old lion, regal and confident, was destroyed in the name of “sport”. In the name of a pitiful man’s ego.

My soul is crushed. Broken. Not for Cecil specifically, although my heart breaks for him and for the ever-decreasing number of lions found in the wild. Ever smaller habitats, ever diminishing gene pools causing lower breeding rates and the deadly spiral continues. And every time a greedy capitalist wants more land, we say OK, and then blame the animals for misbehaving when they no longer fit on their designated postage stamps.

Cecil is a symbol, an image, a figure. And his fate is symbolic. Yes, my African heart weeps for the loss of a single lion. It does. But my African heart also weeps for the loss of self-actualised manhood and the self-respect  that makes it acceptable to search for a sense of manhood outside ourselves in such a destructive manner.

Walter James Palmer, Cecil’s killer, is a product of his time and his place, and his parents. Once he was “private”, but he will never be private gain. A quiet dentist, probably even well liked.

I think trophy hunters share a great deal in common with wife beaters, rapists and paedophiles. That may be regarded as an incendiary comment, but give it some thought. (I have no problems with hunting for the pot, by the way)

Consider these descriptions. A wife beater, rapist and/or a paedophile:

  • Gets their kicks from abusing innocence.
  • Gets their sense of power from abuse. From destroying innocence from a position of power and privilege.
  • Enjoys domination. Rules the world around them with destructive violence
  • Destroys things (others) for selfish and entirely personal gain. Their satisfaction is worth the destruction of other people’s happiness.
  • Hides behind a veneer of compassion and caring
  • Externalises blame or justifies actions with self serving logic. (In the case of the hunters – “Cecil has been done a favour – he has now been immortalised by being killed by a great hunter with a bow”. Yeah, right.)
  • Works in secret, creating ambushes and abusing trust
  • Engages in risky behaviour but always stacks the odds in their favour.
  • Specialises in taking beautiful things away.

Do these apply to a trophy-hunter? Every time.

But trophy hunters are not vilified like wife-beaters, rapists or paedophiles. Perhaps they should be. What does their “sport” add to our world? Nothing. It only takes away.

There are no “responsible trophy hunters”, like there are no “responsible wife beaters”, “responsible rapists” or “responsible paedophiles”. It’s not a concept that works. “I am a responsible destroyer of beauty. I only destroy innocence and beauty when there is enough to go round, and when other people like me have said it is OK to do it” “I only destroy innocence and beauty for selfish gain, when the paperwork is in order”

If that makes it acceptable then We. Are. All. In. Hell.

He made a mistake, a testosterone driven, arrogant mistake. It would be unwise to consider this a mere slip. This is major league narcissism and arrogance. Not killing Cecil – that was just the consequence of his mistake. His mistake is that he believed that having money gave him privilege. And the right to go to another country and kill what belonged not to him, but to them, because it made him happy. Made him feel more like a man. Or something. As Jimmy Kimmel said “There’s a pill for that, you know”

Now, perhaps he understands, as this firestorm hits, that it is not money that gives privilege. It is us, his fellow humans who give him privilege. We permit, and we deny. And yes, because of capitalism and a warped sense of values, we often permit and deny based on income, means and perceived status. And we should probably work on getting better than that. But it is US who permit or deny.

Now he is experiencing something of denial. The loss of what he treasures most. Recognition, and prestige. Possibly his family’s admiration. Hopefully it is not a temporary loss. Hopefully it is permanent, and becomes a useful lesson to him, his family and others. Hopefully we see this lesson through for him and others, for the good of all of us. Forgiveness can come, but it should not come too easily.

How we punish him without punishing his family and his colleagues, I don’t know. Hopefully he gets fired, and then his colleagues can continue to run a successful business without him. But they seem to be loyal to him. Maybe that is like Stockholm syndrome, I don’t know.  They do not deserve this firestorm… yet. But if they choose to be associated with him then yes, they can by association “carry the can” for his ways too. I’m ok with that.

His wife and kids, well, hopefully they are disgusted by him or are becoming disgusted by him. They will not “disassociate” as easily as an employer can. And that is right. They are family. But if they do not take a stand, then perhaps they also deserve to taste what he is tasting. Has he bred more destroyers and abusers of innocence? Do his children love killing? I don’t know, but I hope not. Has he taught them that all of creation is there to serve their pleasure? Or that they should steward it gratefully and humbly? I don’t know, but I hope the latter.

His mask has been stripped away and he is exposed to be someone that society has said it does not like. Because, coming back to the wife beater/rapist/paedophile comparison, he has done something that society abhors and hopefully will not tolerate. His money gave him the capacity to do this, but it is us who can take away his desire to do it. By rejecting him utterly and making him earn his place back with his OWN blood, his OWN sweat, and his OWN tears. By reengineering his values.

He needs acceptance. We all do. Some of us get it by being nice people. Some by joining clubs, or being good at something. He gets his acceptance and so do all trophy hunters, by substituting their own masculinity with the false masculinity of weapons and parading his victims.

But he forgets that there is only a real accomplishment in an equal battle. And like a wife beater, rapist and paedophile, he chooses only battles he cannot lose, against opponents who cannot defend. In my opinion, he – and all trophy hunters – are absolutely in the same mould as a wife beater, a rapist or a paedophile. A cowardly destroyer of innocence and beauty driven by their own brokenness to destroy the beauty around them.

Destroying him in return is not the answer. Why become like him? We are not that weak, surely? There is a better way. Let’s reject him and his behaviour. Utterly. Let’s ostracise him and all who are like him. Let’s agree that trophy hunting is like wife beating, and rape and paedophilia. Let’s hate trophy hunting. As much as we hate wife beating and rape and paedophilia.

I’m looking at you Floyd Mayweather. And you, Bill Cosby. And you, Rolf Harris.  And you, Walter James Palmer of Minnesota. You are all the same.

It’s the values that are the issue here, and what society permits as acceptable behaviour. He is a broken, selfish, self-engrossed and self-entitled human being. In his case, this works itself out in killing animals for fun. For others, this turns into wife beating, raping, paedophilia.

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