By Dave Crisp
As soon as we find simple answers to problems, someone jumps forward to tell us this is just common sense that we should all have known long since.
Yet in workplace after workplace, these simple factors that could improve results are the ones not being addressed in many cases.
Fundamentally, HR is common sense — but not the kind that’s common for a lot of people. If we could think of it from the Golden Rule view or the "platinum" version — treat others as you would have them treat you or as they would like to be treated, things might run more sensibly.
We all like to feel some autonomy and to contribute to a common goal, so setting out a clear, worthwhile purpose in a way that people can aspire to a long range, value-oriented goal and then encouraging, supporting, coaching and giving them the tools to go after it makes a ton of sense.
Removing anything that conflicts with that or makes a mockery of it — harassment, bullying, not walking the talk as a leader, rewards that reward the wrong behaviors, favouritism over competence and not dealing with poor performance — all these and more turn up in dozens of unique, but equally bad forms that kill off faith in fairness, inclusiveness and importance of the mission.
It’s a total environment in which we work. When they say "culture eats strategy for breakfast," that’s what is meant. Aim people in the right direction with the right tools, encouragement and recognition and without dopey impediments and you’ll exceed your goals every time.
Introduce derailers and you quite simply but effectively derail them. People will struggle on because that’s what they’re paid for — coming to work, but with no heart in it, presenteeism, retiring on the job. Call it what you will, but it’s all the stuff of the unending Dilbert cartoons.
Someday in retrospect it’s going to seem foolish that we needed the mountains of research by academics and consultants to tell us these common sense facts about how people behave and when they work best. All these are finally starting to be taken for granted in more and more organizations until finally they will be understood implicitly everywhere around the globe.
Now attention is turning further, to studies about why managers don’t follow these common sense principles in a great many situations and, slowly, we are coming to realize there are very common human characteristics in our thinking brains that we need to work to overcome if we are to apply these principles universally.
But it still won’t be easy. I liked this article from New York Times, but was shocked at the lack of insight in parts of it. I hadn’t read about Adam Grant’s work, renowned because it puts numerical measures on the value of simply setting out a purpose for people’s work. In one study, it found 142 per cent more time on the phones in a call centre brought in 171 per cent more revenue. (If the math is right, that’s nearly three times the original performance, followed by a study that achieved four times more).
I guess it’s being written about because he has a new book out last week, which I haven’t read yet.
Still there were naysayers alluded to who offered situations where this wouldn’t work — telling Chinese factory workers how excited Apple iPhone users were with their product. That might not work well? Duh. And the article implies Grant has no answer to that. Well I do... and anyone with common sense does as well. Call centre work is drudgery, though feelings about it can be improved significantly. Productivity will definitely be low and therefore relatively easy to multiply by a lot.
Giving people a clear example of how it benefits worthwhile results is going to be an ideal situation for driving immediate measurable improvements, as in this case of showing how drumming up more scholarship money helps worthy recipients. Showing the impact on end users wouldn’t work as well if the phone center was pushing a scam or raising money for people who already have everything. You’d have to find some other, truly positive purpose. In less dull work environments, the immediate improvement might not be so visible but, without a purpose, you can be sure results would be less.
In other words, you have to look at the entire situation in each case, case by case. In the Chinese iPhone-maker example, some workers hearing how happy buyers are will likely be more motivated even in the example proposed, but our first impression is that many will feel, "So what? Spoiled American consumers who have everything already, why should we bust ourselves providing even more?"
But that’s hardly the motivational example a great leader would provide. Instead, workers might be highly motivated by the income they generate for family or the improved robustness of their community’s economy by turning out a product people — even if it’s rich people — are happy to pay a lot for.
Where so many discussions of HR strategies fail is in taking a limited view, focusing on just one or two elements or a particular example that isn’t fully examined in a 360 degree assessment. For humans to respond to strategies well, they cannot leave room for cynicism and flaws. They have to make coherent sense taking all aspects together. That is what so many people miss in their critiques – the most fundamental piece of common sense. The greatest bowl in the whole world won’t hold any water at all if you leave a hole in the bottom. Complete the strategy fully or don’t bother.
Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.