Compassion, Competence, Consistency

I have been thinking about what is important when it comes to the people stuff.

Thoughts informed by work I have been doing of late. I have been focusing on the practical stuff.  Guidance.  How to guides.  Frequently asked questions.  Enabling people do the everyday basics.   But basic doesn’t mean less important.  It the foundation of everything else.

As Cary Cooper says in his book that I’ve recently read, management matters.

Leadership, visions, missions, purpose. These things are necessary for all organisations to some extent or another.

So too is the day to day, not so glamorous, routine, management stuff.

Management is about the day to day. Responding to a holiday request, promptly.  Delivering an effective induction for a new starter.  Signing off expenses.  Handling a flexible working request.  Conducting a return to work interview.  Talking about under performance.  Setting objectives.  Providing feedback.  Checking on wellbeing.  Communicating.  Conversations.

In a long HR career I have heard all too many stories of incompetence and ignorance. Managers who just don’t deal with this stuff well, or even at all.  Ignoring holiday requests and expenses forms.  Failing to support new starters or returners from sickness.  Doing the policy thing over the right thing.  No sign of a 121, an objective or two, or some performance feedback.

When you are a manager, you are inevitably judged by the people that work for you. They will look to how you treat people, how you deal with the difficult stuff, how you chair a meeting, the fairness of the decisions you make.  Whether it is failing to address poor team dynamics or individual behaviour,

There is oh so much reading material and advice about what makes a great people manager.  So hey, I might as well add my own.  In my experience, there are three things that people look to.

First and foremost, people want their manager to be competent. To know what they are doing.  To be able to do all of that basic but oh so important stuff – and they want them to be able to do it consistently and with compassion.  Occasionally there can be a tension between the latter two; for some consistency means treating everyone the same in every situation, but there are many times where this just isn’t the right thing to do. Following past precedent and compassion are not always easy bed fellows.   Compassion in management is about meeting people where they are, understanding, support for individual needs and circumstances.  It’s about doing the right thing and not the policy thing.  It is above all, taking a human approach.  Asking always, what would I want from my employer, my manager, if this was me.  It is about kindness. And to quote my friend Amanda Arrowsmith, it is about not being a dick.

Consistency isn’t about always following the policy and taking the same approach.  No one wants to be treated like someone else, just their individual self.  Consistency in this context is about being reliable, showing up as the same person every day, being fair in your approach – to everyone.  Not making decisions that are capricious, biased or unpredictable.

Does this sound obvious?  It should.  It is.  But that doesn’t mean that this is what many employees experience in the every day.

Basic, effective, competent everyday people management is the basis and the platform for everything else.  Competence together with consistency and compassion, are the building blocks for truly effective people management that matters.


Mind the gap


MP Jo Swinson has tabled a bill that would require organisations employing more than 250 staff to publish their family leave policies. Jo describes this as a ‘simple and practically effortless change’.  She notes that this isn’t a silver bullet, but argues that better information is part of the answer.

I agree with her. Because the policy is only part of the story.

Once upon a time, I applied for a new job. Flexibility being a necessity for me, I checked out their website.  There, loudly proclaimed was its status as a family friendly employer.  A supporter of flexibility.  There was the policy and the guidance, and even a handy list of the types of flexibility permitted.  As a candidate, relief.  No need for an awkward conversation during the recruitment process, hoping that your experience and your answers to the interview questions outweigh your need for a just little bit of flex. It was a significant contributory factor in accepting the offer.

On starting, I mentioned flexibility to a colleague. In response, a raised eyebrow and a wry smile.

And so I learned the hard way about the gap between the corporate rhetoric and the everyday reality.

I do support the initiative to encourage publication of family policies. Many organisations do this already – even if some of them don’t really mean it.  I support the notion for perhaps a simplistic reason; anything that highlights the importance of this issue is a good thing.  It may force some organisations to rethink their offer and positioning for the better, especially if flexible working starts to (finally) be understood as a talent acquisition opportunity.  Publication would help to prevent candidates from having to decide between asking the questions and the consequences it may bring.  It brings this discussion to the forefront.

But the policy is only part of the story. The rest of it takes place in the everyday.

And we must focus here, too.

5 steps to managing in a heat wave


It’s hot. You might have noticed.  Unusual weather often provokes a range of advice on how to manage people, just in case common sense fails along with the air-conditioning.

  1. Tear up your dress code if you have one. Replace it with a notice that says ‘no swimwear’ and be done with it.
  2. Give all your staff free ice-cream. Fancy employee engagement strategies can work well, but in my experience food always works better.
  3. Be flexible. Commuting is mostly horrible in the heat, especially for those who use public transport BO boxes. Strongly consider allowing people to work from home or commute outside the sweat hour.
  4. Have outdoor meetings (sunscreen is advisable). No one says you have to sit indoors in a hot, airless office in order to get stuff done.  Better still, have your meeting in a pub beer garden (should there be no health and safety implications of course).
  5. Enjoy it. It will probably be raining this time next week.


Minutes, meetings and minutiae

Have you ever been in a meeting room when the buffet lunch has arrived? It’s a universal kind of thing.

There will be a knock at the door, and in will come mixed trays of sandwiches, all covered in several layers of cling film. Someone will inevitably have ordered tuna, the remains of which will, during the course of the afternoon, warm and fill then room with a questionable odour.  There will most likely be a plastic bowl full of crisps, also adorned with cling film.  Maybe some cake, or, for those organisations hoping to support their wellbeing agenda, a plate of fruit.  A jug of water, or maybe orange juice.  That too, might be covered with the ubiquitous cling film.  A stack of plates, each with an individual napkin in between.


I know you’ve been there.

Eventually, someone will find themselves unable to face any more PowerPoint without sustenance, and will call for a break, much to the delight of everyone else who just didn’t want to the one to say how hungry they were. The trays and the bowls and the plates will be shuffled to the meeting table and the working lunch ritual begins.

And there is my point.  Who gets up?  To move the trays of sandwiches to the meeting table?  To hand out the plates and peel off the cling film and ask who wants juice or who wants water and pass the glasses?

The women in the room.

All too often, in my experience at least.

This article from HBR caught my eye today.

It resonated because earlier this week I’d been asked to attend a meeting to talk about wellbeing. I was the stranger in the room.  Someone barked at me (without any introduction or acknowledgement) ‘are you here to take the minutes?’.  I wasn’t.  The person who was, soon arrived.  It was, unsurprisingly, another woman.

The idea discussed in HRB was something I noticed early in my career, and I have seen a variant of it in every workplace since. White men get the glamour work.  Women and people of colour get the office housework.

The female in the room attending to the domestics. The female in the office washing up the coffee cups.  The female in the office remembering that you are nearly out of sugar and stopping to grab some on her commute.  Filling up the printer with paper.  Doing the stationery order.  Sorting the birthday collection.  Booking the office Christmas party.

Office housework.

Maybe we are so used to this domestic, emotional labour outside of work that we unthinkingly accept it at work too. Or even when we do notice it, we just don’t say anything.

I have for many years, personally and quietly stood against the assumption I will do this type of work. If someone asks at the beginning of a meeting, who is taking the minutes, I never respond.  When the lunch comes through the door, I won’t be the one to get up and do the cling film duty or pass the plates.  I won’t be the first one to fetch the coffee.

I do my bit and I take my turn. I just refuse to be first.  I refuse to make it easy for people to assume that I can and I will.

This stuff isn’t too hard to change.

If you must have minutes, rotate who does them. Do the same for who is chairing or pulling together the agenda.  If there is coffee to be made, rotate that too.  Notice who is doing the routine stuff.  If it isn’t you, get out of your chair.  As the HBR article notes, don’t ask for volunteers for these tasks, because we already know who will and who won’t. Allocate them instead.  The next time you are figuring out who to ask to do a particular piece of work, and a name pops into your head, stop and ask yourself why them. If you see this stuff happening in your workplace, be the one to call it and do something different.

And for goodness sake, next time you are in a meeting and a buffet lunch arrives, eat the bloody tuna.


The most successful people I’ve met….

You might have seen it in your timeline. The original post or the subsequent take-downs.

‘The most successful people I’ve met…..’ and so on.

I can’t remember the specifics of the list.  It all blurs into a vacuous fog.

As meaningless as these sound bites of content are, they just won’t seem to go away. Maybe there is something inherently appealing in the idea that we can reduce this complex life stuff to a simple list that we can all do.  A magic get your shit together potion.

The idea of success is often tied up with money, status and power. If we follow this notion through to its conclusion, Donald Trump is one of the most successful people on the planet.  Indicative perhaps, that you can be both highly successful (as some would define it at least) and still be a deeply terrible human being.

If there was a success spell, a simple way to have it all, we would have to start with understanding the answer to the question. Just what is success anyway?

For me, the answer to this question has shifted over time. How I defined it as a teenager, a young adult, and onwards, has naturally changed. There was a time for me when success meant having my seat at the table.  There was a time when it meant how far I could run.  Another, when I could wear a size eight dress.  More latterly, simply living the life that I want to lead.

Success is of course, contextual and deeply personal.  For some, it is a job title or a qualification or money in the bank.  It might be material stuff; the car, the house, the shoes, the handbags and all of the fancy holidays.  For others, success means a life well lived, a child well raised, a fine wine well drunk.  Success might just mean getting up every day and facing it and surviving it.

My own definition of success, for what is it worth, is this. Success is to love and to be loved.  To have health and fitness, and to wish the same for those around you.  To be able to pay the bills at the end of the month with a little left over for some fun on the journey.  Good friends.  Laughter.  To make a difference at work, even in a small way.  That one person might read this blog and enjoy it.

Because despite all the content clickbait and the likes and the shares and even the mockery of the same, I do know this.

The only person who can really define success, is yourself.


Commuting Woes

If you follow my Twitter feed, you will know I spend a fair bit of time complaining about the trains.   I live in a large City, and commute to another one not all that far away.  If you look at the timetable, it should be straightforward.  Only it isn’t.

The train station car park cannot cope with the volume of vehicles, meaning that parking spills over into the local streets where cars are sometimes vandalised. The walk from car to platform adds 15 minutes to an already long journey.  Sometimes the train is on time, sometimes it is not.  When it is on time, it is often over crowded, sometimes dangerously so.  I have lost count of the number of times I have travelled much closer to a stranger’s body than I would like.  Tempers often fray.  Even when the train does leave on time, it rarely arrives the same, congestion on the lines leaving you to queue to get into your chosen station.  Often, I do get to work okay.  Getting home again can be something else.  Often, you will find me standing on a platform wondering when, if, a train will come to get me home at anything like a reasonable hour.  And don’t even get me started on the cost of this daily nightmare.

My woes are far from unusual. They are not limited to my train line, my city, my workplace, my life.


My Twitter timeline talks of people who are on warnings at work. Examples of those who have actually lost their jobs due to continued lateness.  Parents who cannot collect their children from childcare.  Stress.

Only the train that runs an hour or so later, will be mostly empty.

There are some roles that require an individual to be in place at a particular time, and flexibility isn’t an option. For them, the misery will endure, for now at least.  But all too often, those who are cramming themselves onto over –priced, over crowed public transport systems, could do something different.  I have lost count of the number of stories I have heard where a role can be undertaken with greater flexibility, but there are too many barriers put in the way.  Technology isn’t utilised to best effect.  Managers just don’t like it – their personal beliefs and opinions overriding possibilities  Inflexible working practices.  Just doing what we have always done.  A refusal to experiment.

In many respects I am lucky. I love my job. I have a degree of flexibility and plenty of trust to work when and where I need to.  But there are still days when I stand on the station platform and wonder… how much longer can I do this for?

It is long overdue time for us to consider the impact on our people of so many of us undertaking stressful, expensive commutes. The wellbeing impact, the financial impact, the inclusion impact, the talent and engagement impact.

Work doesn’t have to be this way.  And if HR don’t lead the way, who will?


I first became interested in the idea of the influence of the workplace itself on feelings about work when I read ‘A Time to Think’ by Nancy Kline, a book that has had a continued influence on my practice as a HR professional.

Kline is of course focusing on place in this context as a space that can, or cannot, influence great thinking. She says that it not just about appearance.  There are some places in which it is hard to think, some places which almost invite good thinking.  She argues that a workplace can reflect back to people; ‘you matter’.  In the book, the chapter dedicated to this particular issue concludes with a question (or perhaps a challenge); ‘what would you have to change about your work space, or even your home, for it to say back to you, ‘you matter’.

This book prompted me to make some changes in a former organisation. I worked in what can best be described as tired.  It has suffered greatly from a lack of maintenance.  At some time in the past, someone had made some terrible decisions around the practical stuff.  The carpet was grey.  The walls were grey.  The filing cabinets, of which there were many and many, were also grey.  Many workstations lacked natural light.  Meeting rooms either boiled or froze.  The furniture was old.  The basics were poor; the toilets, the food provision, the car parking.  No one really seemed to care.  How was that relevant to hitting the financial goals?

I inherited a training room. It was the place that old furniture had gone to die.  Two tables, different in colour and height.  Eight chairs, each a relic from an bygone age.  Broken blinds.  Dirty cream walls, old blue tac marks creating a greasy dot to dot for anyone so inclined.  This was not a place that said ‘you matter’.  It was the funeral of ambition.  It was not a place that leant itself to thinking, to learning, to spending time lingering or talking.

It was a place that said we don’t care much at all.  You don’t matter, and neither does your learning.

So I changed it. I persuaded our facilities team to paint the walls a calming blue. I had the furniture tossed into a skip.  I used my meagre training and development budget to order some new furniture.  Instead of the usual office stuff we went for sofas and comfy chairs.  There were cushions and a coffee machine.  New blinds and fresh water.  The day that the Ikea delivery van arrived, some eyes rolled.  It was that girl in HR again.  I was lucky enough to have a boss that believed in me and the decisions that I made, so I carried on regardless.

It didn’t involve much effort. It cost less than a £1000.  But I believe we created a space that whispered softly to our people, ‘you matter’.

So it is with this backdrop I eagerly awaited the book ‘The Elemental Workplace’ by my Twitter friend Neil Usher, who is also, in my humble opinion, one of the best bloggers out there, writing about this work stuff.  When it landed on my doormat I dove straight in and I was not disappointed.  His usual sharp sense of humour is present throughout, along with his evidently deep knowledge of his subject matter.  I love the book because it is practical.  You don’t have to be building a new office building right from the plans.  You don’t have to have a huge budget. There is always something we can do to create a better place of work for the people that move within it in the every day.

It feels to me that in the ongoing discussions about human resources and employee engagement and better work, this is a piece that we too often miss. We instead focus on leadership and management, and reward and recognition, wellbeing and corporate social responsibility and so and so on.  We survey our people to assess their percentage of engagement, if there is even such a thing.  We ask if they understand the vision, if their manager makes them feel valued, if they have a useful performance review – but do we ask them if their chair works or they can access fresh air or if they are within reasonable distance of a water machine or if they can control the temperature in their office?  Do we create a place that says ‘you matter’ for our people?  Do we even think about it when designing our people strategy and our annual operational plans?

You can buy Neil’s book here.  If you work in HR, if you are a leader in an organisation, you really should.*   If we really believe our people matter, this stuff matters too.


Neil did not pay me to write this blog post. He should however be aware that he can buy me Prosecco if his sales go up as a result.