Do what you’ve always done

Performance reviews don’t work.
Engagement survey’s don’t either.
Money doesn’t motivate.
Lots of training doesn’t deliver lasting change, because half of it is forgotten as people walk out of the room.
Corporate values are rarely lived and breathed but instead stuck on walls and websites.
[Add your own known known here].

I saw yet another article recently, about the perils of the performance review. It repeated plenty of similar articles I’ve read before, and even written myself. And what started to rattle around my head was this question. How come we know the theory, but don’t or can’t make the change we want to see?

We talk about it, blog about it, even joke about it. The problems with a lot of the people stuff that we usually do are well defined and understood. Often, we even know the solution too.

But instead of actually making change, we just do what we have always done and get what we have always got. And sometimes when it doesn’t work we just do more of it only harder. And repeat.

What is it exactly, about people and organisations, that keeps us stuck in old patterns of thinking and behaviour? What keeps us doing the same old same old even when we have the choice and the power? What is really stopping us? For every Zappos and Netflix that is ignoring or down right stomping on all people things traditional, there is a whole bunch of us sitting in our offices, doing stuff that we don’t really believe in and know doesn’t work. Even when we secretly know how to do it differently. Better.

It might be the definition of insanity to keep doing the same things over and over again and expecting different results. But I’d say it is the standard default setting for many organisations, and a fair few HR departments too.

So what stops us taking action? There are plenty of possible reasons.

Someone said that we should so we did.
We don’t know what else to do.
It’s too hard.
We don’t have the ability to influence the decision to change.
If it ain’t all that broke, why fix it?
Everyone else is doing it.
It is still accepted best practice.
We are the lone voice, at our place.

Cognitive inertia explains much. Beliefs are sticky. They endure. We rely on the familiar assumptions, the familiar ways of doing things, even when the evidence to support them no longer exists. We find it hard to update our thinking, to do something new, even when the situation or the context changes.

Sometimes, in HR, we have fought so hard for this people stuff, fought to get them on the agenda or taken seriously, we just can’t give them up. The emotion, the effort, has all been invested. We have sunk the cost so we might as well carry on regardless.

In his book Predictably Irrational, Dan Ariely talks about loss aversion. He argues that we naturally focus more on what we lose than what we gain in any bargain. We would rather avoid a loss than make a gain, because losses are painful. He calls it the pain of paying; it arises when you must give up anything you own, no matter what the value. He ran experiments that showed how people sometimes took an illogical decision to avoid the hurt of a loss. According to Ariely, this is why we finish a book that we’ve paid for even if we are not enjoying it, or rarely get up and leave a film in the middle even if it we are finding it boring.

Whether we are big fans of any particular process or policy or people stuff, we own it. So maybe this is part of why we can’t or don’t give it up, even when we know that we should.

Or maybe we just don’t know what to do instead of the thing that we’ve always done.

I know that some people are working hard to make changes at their place, and are trying really hard to break patterns. This post is not intended to be a criticism of anyone, just a reflection of how hard it can be to break through, to change the accepted so called best practice. How strong the ties are that bind us to the accepted ways of doing things.

When a company does throw away the rule book, we all get a little excited. We read about them, debate about them, listen to them speak at conferences. Sometimes we jump on their bandwagon, use them to get a different conversation started.

Doing something different demands much of us. To be brave. To take a small step. To break a rule, challenge a convention. To give something up. To be prepared to fail. To move beyond acknowledging the problem to taking action. Or, as I read recently, someone to put on their big girl (or boy) pants and lead.

Could that be you?

13 thoughts on “Do what you’ve always done

  1. Interesting post and your sense of frustration comes across. I do a lot of interim and contract work and so often get to be the ‘fresh pair of eyes’ in an Organisation. Only last week I had a discussion with a Dept Head who said they were not alone in wanting pragmatic, focused advice, but weren’t getting it. I couldn’t deliver to them either, as I’ve been instructed not to do so, as it’s not ‘in line’ with ‘how HR should be delivered’. So the wants and needs of the business are being ignored in favour of those in this HR Dept who think they know better than the people operating the business. It needs to be much more cohesive, but sadly, the dialogue to agree what is necessary/required is often sadly lacking between HR and the Business, in my experience. It’s annoying and unfortunately, as the ‘temp’, I obviously don’t know what I’m talking about…

    • Thanks for commenting Amanda. It is interesting that disconnect between what the HR department want and what the business wants. Can that ever be reconciled? And to what extent can that be balanced? I wonder if people think that about me and my type of HR…..

      That might prompt a blog post all of its own.

      • I hope so, but it appears not, from my rather unfortunate experiences in Contracting so far… 😦

  2. Great post Gemma! Particularly the concept of ‘loss aversion’ (very pertinent to a presentation I’m writing at the moment – and also I imagine, the reason that we nod and smile after getting our hair cut regardless of how satisfied we are)!

    Your list of reasons also reminded me of a little personal mantra:

    Change can only happen when three things are present:
    1) The ultimate vision to work towards
    2) The immediate next step in order to start moving towards the grand vision
    3) A significant degree of discomfort with the current situation

    All too often I see number 3 missing with both individuals and teams. No matter how strong the vision and ‘will to make the next step’ is, if the current reality is perceived as comfortable, we will regularly get stuck. Necessity being the mother of invention and all that…

    • Thanks for commenting Mark. I agree with you on the need for number 3. There have been times in my career where I have tried to instigate change because to me (maybe arrogantly) it looks completely obvious it is required – but everyone else is okay with the way things are. I guess the lesson is just because you think that it is broken, doesn’t mean everyone else does.

  3. …and yet we’ll still see plenty of people buying the book and doing nothing… reading the blog and doing nothing… listening to the news and doing nothing… Because it’s not worth it. Yet. And when “it’s not worth it yet” don’t we just end up with what may seem like the safe, continuity of “doing what you’ve always done”?

    Perhaps the change we should be advocating is to stop. Just stop, gently. Stop and look at what you want to be doing. Stop and look at what will add most value. Stop and look at what will feel like the accomplishment you desire. We don’t ask people to just stop do we? We ask them to do it different, better, my way, his way, the “best” way…

    That’s where 1 in 20 at best may react and take some step towards action. These are the ones that put on their big girl (or boy) pants and lead. Look at any group, team, discussion forum, blog even(!) and you’ll see something like 1 in 20 showing some form of affirmative action or engagement. The remaining 19 in 20 are quietly either nodding their heads, shaking their heads or generally not interested… and carrying on regardless.

    The challenge isn’t get the 1 in 20 to react – it’s recognising that the 19 in 20 are an important population and then getting the 19 in 20 to make some small step(s). Steps that are worth it to them.

    The only way we’ll know what’s going to be worth it is to ask them. Could that be you?

    • Thanks for the comment David, and the challenge.
      Something similar has been going through my mind lately – how do we help people take the action? Practically what can we do? Not more ideas and more conferences but real practical tools. So if you wanted to tear down one of these things at your place but didn’t know where to start of what to replace it with you had some real help, and not just a post on LinkedIn with some hazy notions. I don’t know what the answer is to this but I’m thinking hard about it!

  4. Pingback: Breaking Free | Unlocking Team Potential

  5. One of my kids once said, when stupid people have stupid kids, you’ve started a cycle that’s going to be hard to break. Quite an observation from a 20 year old. This has equivalence in some of the larger organisations.

    In the above analogy, the leadership team being the parents and the children being the aspiring next generation leaders. The well meaning parents sending their children on tailored training courses showing them how to be just like them. So the cycle continues. The person seeking promotion is emulating the person above like a child seeking approval and the reward. This is where the apparent cognitive inertia comes from. People who would or could be different are excluded and worse, considered disruptive. Until a new person at the top is also the open minded thinker, and a real team player, nothing can break the cycle. It’s the cycle being cultivated by design.

    These two layers of management believe they are doing a good job. Edward De Bono calls this tram line thinking. This is a perverse form of Darwinian extension going on. Only people who think the same will survive in this hive. If you don’t think just like the queen bee, you may be removed, you may just be tolerated if you work hard, but you will never get promoted.

    It’s mistake is to think you can tell people what to think. When the notion of a leadership team becomes more like just ‘team’, things tend to work better. Perhaps this is why it can be much more fun to work in a small organisation where people pull together because they see the shared goal and want to make that happen – together. There is always the option of a re-organisation to excuse all previous mistakes and kick some more visionaries out of the hive.

    As people don’t have a voice, HR teams need to explain the deep flaws in current thinking and to lobby for a specific staff motivation function at board level. After all, this performance review idea was once just that. An idea that got badly abused and adopted widely. Time for new ideas, time to make space for a happier more open minded hive.

    • I thought your comments were really interesting, Tom. What really concerns me is that to date, I’ve not come across a progressively minded HR environment as yet that seeks to change the culture and hive mindset you refer to; rather, (as you refer to above) it continues in the same way it has always done. Unless the culture of HR changes, I don’t see how we can cultivate change – an extremely depressing thought 😦

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