Redundancy Thoughts: The Communication Stuff

I remember once I had a property that I was renting out, and a friend was in need of temporary lodgings. He was a bit cash-strapped, so we agreed a rental rate that was well, well below market value. Then after a long while, circumstances changed and I simply had to recoup better rental rates or be seriously “in the dwang” myself. Firstly, I did my own homework to see if I could still honour our arrangement. Independently of him, my situation was none of his business. But where the solution to my problem impacted him, I felt that that was different.

Then, when I knew I could not manage without it affecting him, we chatted. To treat him with respect, as a friend, I revealed my finances to him as far as the property was concerned. Maintenance costs, interest rates, repayments, shortfalls etc. That way, he could see my dilemma for himself, clearly, and could understand my reasoning fully as we discussed both his situation and mine. My options did not suit him very well, and there were some painful, but honest, moments. Eventually, he moved out, but a situation that could have strained a friendship did not – in fact, our friendship grew closer.

Maybe that would be excessive for you, I don’t know. It seemed right, and fair, to me.

One on one, if we are doing something that will have a huge effect on a friend or a family member, we would all (hopefully) operate with a great deal of respect and care in how we arrived in that situation, communicated it, and executed it. Because of the fact that we will remain in contact with the person afterwards, see them socially or at family functions, we take care to pay a great deal of attention to respecting them and preserving their dignity, don’t we? It makes life after the event, much more bearable. Its just common decency! Its what every good person would do… Isn’t it?

But I think the restraint that is created by having to see a family member or friend again and again after the event, is not there for employers, who can close the door on that chapter, and forget. After all, “out of sight, out of mind”?

But WHY do we treat those in the workplace any different?

A redundancy is very similar to this, in many many ways. Communication is at the core of treating employees with respect and giving them dignity. Its pretty simple really. Employees are not children. Redundancy is huge, and it impacts massively on the employee, their family and their commitments. It can affect credit ratings, and if it results in relocation to find new work, it can mean complete and utter upheaval both socially and financially. A discussion with these implications should be conducted respectfully on an adult-adult level, not an adult-child level.

When one adult decides what another adult can know or not know, or when they can be told it, then, largely, the first adult is forcing the second adult into the role of a “child”. Of course, some information is rightly confidential, but in reality, Mr CEO, we all know there is not too much of that going on. I guess some employers like to think of themselves as being at a “military” level of secrecy, but in reality, very little of a specific situation is THAT much of a secret and would be an issue if discussed with an affected individual.

What is actually happening, where there is poor communication and non-disclosure, is that the change leader is either ignoring, or not getting, competent ER advice. Perhaps it’s a power play; perhaps its immaturity. Hopefully its not ignorance, that would be inexcusable.  Perhaps, its an unwillingness to take advice and get these important people decisions right… because, “CEO”. Who knows. In my experience its quite a complicated thing, and can be quite a Sisyphean challenge for the HR guy.

What it usually is, I have found, is the lack of empathy, and lack of humility that can easily come with the rarified air of a C-suite office. There are “important” things to do, goals to achieve, and reports to write. And “I’m the CEO so this must happen, I have decreed it”. People are complicated and people issues are messy. They clog up the inbox, and they take up time. It is rare that a CEO will say “There, but for the grace of God, go I” and bend his knee to truly understand issues on the same level as the affected employees. I have met one such man, in 20 years of working and travelling. And what a man he was! (John Havinga, I salute you).

So, what would an ideal communication look and feel like (again, this is not definitive as jurisdictional requirements may differ widely)?

  • It would be well prepared, and contain an abundance of resource material for the affected employee to consider. It would be open, and honest. Consider this list as an idea:
    • Org charts, old and proposed.
    • Business case for the new structure.
    • List of affected positions.
    • Reasons why they are affected.
    • What the company has done to avoid the loss of employment
    • What other employment options might be available

Why so exhaustive, you ask? Well, as a change leader, these factors have been considered in depth, and the proposal you have come up with is at least a summary of this information. Where it creates a redundancy situation for someone, it is at the very least fair that the employee be shown HOW you arrived at your decision, and what factors influenced you. (Remember, we are aiming for adult to adult, not adult to child)

I would prepare this as an information pack, with suitable confidentiality requirements, of course.

  • An employee would know why they were called to a meeting, and legal requirements would be respected as a bare minimum! And employees who are similarly affected should be seen together.

This prevents the very obvious perception that the company is being secretive and separating/ dividing employees so that they are in a weakened position. Why else would it separate similarly affected employees?

  • Employees would be given time to consider, even to chat amongst themselves and get their heads around the issues. The complex issues that have led to this need to be understood so that intelligent questions can be asked and counter proposals considered, but also, everyone has a personal world that is deeply affected. Also, because EVERYONE is affected, even the “not affected” ones, it is understandable if everyone is permitted to work together to understand the impact and to consider alternatives (Unless of course, only the executive could EVER be clever enough to think of all the possible strategies and solutions…)
  • Once all the ideas from the employees have been considered, they should ALL be fed back to ALL the affected employees, and even to the entire employee body. Without comment, and with gratitude.

This shows that the executive has not filtered the feedback and have honestly taken it all on board, at least to start with. It shows respect to every employee that ALL the ideas are important, that their endangered colleagues are important, and by default that they too are important.

  • Viable proposals from the employees should be adopted. If there is a zero/minimal cost difference from the executive proposal to the employee proposals, and jobs are saved, then the solution that saves jobs is the better one.

Doing this PROVES that ending someone’s employment truly is a last resort, not a badly disguised and premeditated strategy. Anything else is bad faith and demonstrates that the communication process is cynical, not genuine.

  • When employees are made redundant, how the company processes that termination, and how they verbally honour (or do not dishonour) the departing employee, is the best indicator of whether “Our employees are our most valuable asset”. For a while, it is imperative that the corporation have a human face – after all, these are “no fault” terminations, and faceless, mechanical processes are extremely out of place.

In the worst possible scenario, where the process leading up to terminations has been a tough one, with possibly anger, frustration, hurt, and loose words, a CEO would do well to not close out the process “with prejudice”, meaning a quick, blunt, termination and a stony silence. It is an opportunity to take the moral high ground, but sadly some CEO’s I have worked with have not handled those situations as well as they might have. On a few occasions I have watched them destroy their own credibility and reputations by throwing a toddler-like tantrum and tossing their toys out the cot. The opportunity to really take the moral high ground back, was there, but wasted. And everybody saw it…

Treating both remaining and departed people with respect, preserving their legacy, and ensuring that remaining employees have the opportunity to grieve for lost colleagues, reveals high calibre leaders with empathy and insight, and a talent for building sustainable workplaces.

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Redundancy Thoughts: The How

This post kind of takes the last two redundancy-related posts, and regardless of jurisdiction and statutory requirements, offers some thoughts and ideas around what would make such a devastating process a bit more bearable, by offering the affected employees some dignity, hope and empathy, and showing the remaining employees the calibre of their leaders. Since the legal minimum requirements would be different depending on jurisdiction, I have take the best standards that I am aware of and been cognisant of those. This is not procedural advice, these are purely thoughts offered in pursuit of best practice, and to focus on the HEART aspect of leading with “head, heart and hands”.

It is my hope that these things become primary pursuits of a change leader in any change process. With these front and centre it is my hope that change processes can be accomplished with maximum dignity and respect for the affected employees, and as a result, achieve minimum fall out on the work place and employees that remain. Leadership credibility and trustworthiness would be enhanced as the “heart” of a good leader is revealed.

When a restructuring idea is first contemplated, it usually happens that engagement levels BY THE LEADERS start to shift. It is because (largely) of the bad news that they are responsible for creating, and leaders tend to subconsciously begin to disengage from the affected employee as a means of emotional self protection. It is understandable, but it is devastating. I can assure you, as a change agent, that every individual I have worked with can immediately sense this happening, and because it is unexplained, it creates massive fear and doubt.

How does it happen? Emails take longer to get answered, phone conversations get shorter or morph into missed calls and messages. The nature of calls changes. Skype gets used for text more than for voice. Courtesy inclusions change, different people get cc’d in, and generally the pattern of communication and inclusion in business activities undergoes a shift. Invitations to offer strategic input reduce, and in the worst case, critical or sensitive functions begin to be duplicated or distributed elsewhere.

The employee may not suspect a redundancy per se, but they do get the clear message that something is going badly wrong with their workplace relationships. This creates fear, confusion, disengagement, uncertainty, and gossip. That much uncertainty generally results in a need to find security, and employees tend to find it with each other.

So it is definitely not advisable for leaders to begin a personal disengagement process prior to the formal redundancy process. It may even feel difficult or weird, but don’t disengage in any way, until the process is underway formally.

So, if we aren’t sending subtle messages early, and “accidentally-on-purpose letting the cat out of the bag” how do we break this sudden news with dignity? Personally, I think the main goal must be to create space and time – as well as privacy, if they want it – for individuals to process things, and at the same time manage the rumour mill that will begin to come alive. This can be timing-based, as well as relationship-based.

We create dignity and respect, by when and how we talk to the individual, and by the way we present the big picture to everyone. Personally, I have never seen anything wrong with beginning the formal process privately with an employee, for example, by arranging a meeting off site, and late one afternoon, with due regard for all procedural requirements.

This is where the empathy comes in, and like I said, finding that in an executive level manager can at times be difficult. It is critically important that humility, empathy and concern are blended into the conversation, and I feel that the best way to do this is to have a senior line manager do the conversation. That way, the manager is a (senior) co-employee, a messenger who can actually empathise, not the change leader whose concern may be obviously disingenuous as it was all their idea to start with! Be always kind, and be always real. From the company’s perspective as well, its best not to field the final decision maker in the early stages (otherwise the playing for time strategy of “I’ll have to check that with the exec team” becomes quickly farcical)

The process is easy to comply with if broken up into bite size chunks, but the value of making space and time for contemplation and showing respect is huge. The key component of respect is truth. Full disclosure of all key details is vital. Attempts to be secretive and declaring certain information off limits, is hugely disrespectful; very destructive to trust, as well as usually being in bad faith. Rule of thumb – if there is a sense that relevant information needs to be concealed in a redundancy situation, then the process is definitely in danger of being unfair, disrespectful, and disingenuous.

There will be real pain, real hurt, confusion and fear. Hard questions, and the company representative must be ready for them, and must answer them well. There might even be anger and frustration, and the manager needs to hear those reactions without defensiveness, and without indulging in their own retaliation or reaction.

The group presentations and discussions that happen when general restructuring announcements are made, should be encouraged. Nothing stops the rumour mill like the clarity of communication, and the freedom to talk and the availability of leaders to answer questions! And nothing starts the rumour mill up like attempts to limit it! Again, as full a disclosure as possible should be attempted, erring on the side of more. Why not? Whatever is required by law, don’t skimp at all on that, and go further if you can. Going further is good faith. It makes the company the good guy in a tough situation. Work can stop for a few hours – even a full day – if necessary. Offer that. Be kind. Make space. Empathise.

Delivery is everything, and presenters must plan for and be prepared for hard questions that people want – and need – answers to. The inability to answer questions honestly and straight away, will be devastating to the company’s reputation, and will cause everyone – even those “unaffected” – to distrust the process (remember they are NOT unaffected – its their colleagues getting the chop!).

The company representative must not stand there like a robot and present blandly off the PowerPoint. Figure it out! Sit, stand, lean in, lean out. Slow down, speed up, repeat yourself. Make eye contact, change your tone, express care, express hurt, feel the room and gauge its temperature. Modulate and reengineer your words to meet the needs in the room. But always, have lots of information available and share it freely.

Don’t do these meetings on a clock. Leaders, trust me that on the day of this discussion, you do NOT have anything more important to do than be present. Stay, until the very end, and be available. Don’t be busy, don’t do emails in another room. Don’t go to other meetings. Treat these moments as important as the employee would like them to be treated. Every employee in the room will get your real message and your “real” heart if you “up and off” to a sales meeting or to catch a plane after abruptly ending the discussions. Stay late; stay an extra day if you have to. Finish strong. Create some space and time that you are willing to be in no matter your own personal discomfort. Make it personal for you to be real, don’t make it a business transaction that you can sign off on without a backward glance.

This is where a leader needs to be willing to wear the discomfort of extended silences, hard questions and answer sessions, making eye contact with hurting employees and waiting for people to struggle with hard questions without rushing them. Its called humility. Its called grace. It’s a transcendent thing, and people need it. It will make or break your credibility. Know that as the creators of pain, we leaders have the responsibility to sit with the wounded as much as they need it, and honour the hurting, with care and compassion.

I would want to trust that senior leadership avoid at all costs the “seagull approach” in theses situations… you know, “fly in, drop a load, and fly off”. If you don’t have the stomach for these situations AND the skill to deliver empathy, get someone else to do it. And maybe, to be brutally honest, sit down and question your readiness for your role.

I will continue the “How” with a discussion around clarity and integrity of communication.

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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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