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?

Culture Misfit

We like people that are like us. And we like to recruit people that are like us. People that will ‘fit in’.

The recruiters will have heard it a hundred times.

It’s all about the cultural fit.
It’s really important that they can fit in here.
The culture fit is as important as the experience

I’ve heard this said and I have said it myself.

But let’s just revisit this notion, for a moment. When we take this approach we are often really saying is that we want people that are all the same. That we want someone like the last person. That we want someone like the rest of the team. Because that is how they will fit in, get on, around here.

The theory on culture fit says that it is a good thing. That it means the individual and the organisation are aligned, that their values correspond. Then people are more productive, engaged, motivated, satisfied. I get that.

But when we use the term ‘culture fit’ we aren’t always thinking about values. We are not thinking about the long term, the strategic angle. Instead we think of personality, we think of people. We think about whether the person has worked in a similar environment with similar challenges. We think about whether we will get on with them, day to day. Whether they will slot into the existing team just fine.

You know that quote ‘you do what you have always done and you will get what you have always got’? Well this applies here too.

If you recruit what you have always recruited, then you will organisationally probably get what you have always got. Recruiting for culture fit may make it nice and harmonious in the team. Recruiting for culture fit might mean that the new starter slots straight in. It might mean that retention levels are good. But there are less positive aspects too. Homogeneity. Monotony. Groupthink. A lack of diversity.

And do we even know what we mean by cultural fit anyway? It is all a little bit fuzzy, fluffy, vague. We think we will know it when we see it. But maybe that just isn’t good enough.

Maybe what we really need is to recruit someone else, someone different, someone who won’t just fit into the way we do things around here. Hire for culture misfit. Because what we need is some new thinking. Some diversity. Some challenge. Someone to mix it up.

We don’t need some more of the same old.

This suggestion isn’t easy. I’ve blogged before about applying for a role somewhere outside of your cultural comfort zone. And I’ve worked somewhere too that I didn’t really fit. Somewhere that I was out of step. It was like wearing a badly fitting pair of shoes every single day. Hiring someone without any consideration of how they will fit in, settle in, get on, feel okay, won’t work. But if you want change, innovation, a little disruption, maybe try hiring for cultural misfit.

Culture Shocking

I blogged a little while ago about the need for individuals and leaders to carefully look at their role in those aspects of their organisational culture that they don’t like or feel needs to change. About how we need to check that we are not part of the problem.

When it comes to culture, you are either part of it or you oppose it. In the middle of it, going along with it, following the flow of it, aware or unaware. Or you are fighting against it, trying to change it, standing up against it. There is no middle ground. If you work there, you are part of the system, somewhere, somehow. I usually try and avoid false dichotomies. But I genuinely cannot see a third option in this space.

When you go somewhere new, there is often a period of culture shock. It is easy, in those early days to see what needs to change, how to make a difference. Culture is seen in all its nakedness; the good, the bad, and the organisationally ugly. We look with fresh eyes. We can spot the gaps and the opportunities. But here’s the thing. It doesn’t last. Because we get used to the culture. We become accustomed to the language, the situation, the people, the way things are done around here. We cease to see what is in front of us. Develop a blind spot. Unknown becomes know. And comfortable.

And then, slowly, without noticing, we may just become that thing that we dislike the most. Because it is easier to go with the system, than it is to fight against it.

Changing a culture is hard. The perceived wisdom is that it takes years. Culture is strong, resistant. And when one voice stands alone, the system tries to pull you back.

Standing for change, creating the conditions, being the dissenting voice, is usually the difficult choice.

But if not you, then who?

If only.

My early HR roles were in industrial relations. Or employee relations, as it came to be called. It was often said then, that you get the employee relations that you deserve; a phrase I always felt held much truth.

Today, employee relations is a term we use less and less. Instead we talk of engagement and of culture. Today, it would be more apt to say that you get the organisational culture that you deserve, the employee engagement that you deserve. There are of course always some external factors that you cannot control or influence, but in the main I believe that this is also true.

We have a blame culture
We have a culture of presenteeism
We have a bureaucratic culture
It is very hierarchical here
It’s not the sort of place that….

Culture does not stand alone. It is not owned by an individual. It is not a corporate vision, a mission statement, or a list of values. These things do not create a culture, or change a culture. Culture is history, stories, beliefs, conversations, anecdotes, language, leadership shadow. What is said and what is done. Culture is people.

I’ve often seen people, including senior leaders, bemoan their culture and blame their culture for their organisational ills, as if they are not part of it, standing outside of it, not responsible for any of it. If only our people would take some responsibility and make their own decisions they say, whilst asking to be kept abreast of everything, sign off everything, have the final approval. If only our managers would do their performance reviews and give their teams good feedback they say, when they haven’t bothered to do the same and cancel every 121.

HR can be guilty of this too. If only the managers, the exec team, the employee, the trade unions, would do this, that or the other. Then everything would be just fine. Like we have no part to play in the change we want to see.

If you are a leader, and you see something in your organisational culture that you want to improve or change, it starts with you. And if you don’t like what you see, it is always worth asking yourself, if you are part of the problem.

Holding out for a hero.


Everybody stop! We are having a crisis.

Drop everything.
Run around and do stuff.
Escalate lots of important stuff.
Stuff all your other stuff.
Send emails.
Make calls.
Call meetings.
Call urgent meetings.
Cancel all your other meetings.

Bring out the corporate hero.
Fetch the cape from the cupboard.
Burn the midnight oil.
Let the adrenaline flow.
Work all the hours.

Thank goodness for the hero. They will sort it out.

Occasionally, this is okay. When it is an actual, genuine, customer impacting, bottom line influencing, life and death making, very real crisis. When it is part of the every day, all the time, part of the culture, part of the way it is done here, then it is not okay. Because it is not optimal. Because no one can operate like that all the time. Because you can’t make good decisions, operate effectively. But plenty of organisations operate like this, all the same.

Who makes all the heroes?

We do.

Dreams of the Disengaged

I wish it was Friday.
I wish it was home time, lunchtime, cigarette break time, anytime but work time.
I wish my boss would give me a break, cut me some slack, just leave me be.
I wish I could shut the door.
I wish I had some holidays left.
I wish I could win the lottery.
I wish I could resign, retire, run the hell away from here.
I wish the phone would stop ringing, the email would stop pinging.
I wish I didn’t have to talk to him, sit next to him, listen to him.
I wish I didn’t have to go to this meeting, this conference, this call.
I wish someone would turn down the bloody air conditioning.
I wish someone knew my name, knew something, anything about me.
I wish someone would say thank you, just once.
I wish someone would listen to me, just ocassionally.

I wish, I wish.
I wish, away.

Mirror, mirror on the wall

Today I heard a great presentation from Rob Jones of Crossrail. He was talking about his organisation’s experience with social media, and he said something important for anyone looking to introduce or develop social media within their own company. He said this: social media tools won’t change your culture. It is not a miracle cure all for your organisational ills.

My own experience tells me this is true.

If you have a culture now that doesn’t value team work, social media won’t change this. If you have a culture adverse to risk, inflexible in the face of change or unwilling to share, social media cannot sweep this away overnight.

If you have employees that routinely complain, then they will complain about social media too, or they’ll complain through it. The same people who used to say they haven’t time to read your emails, the monthly newsletter, check out your intranet, won’t see they should make time to be social all of a sudden either. If employees don’t tend to collaborate, then they will exclude themselves from these channels.

Social media cannot solve your culture problems, but it will hold a mirror up to them. Non-adoption of social internally is telling you as much about your culture as those who are actively sharing.

Social media is just a vehicle, a method, a mechanism. A technology that can enable, but not wholeheartedly solve. It is no magic wand.

But it will help you look in the mirror. Understand your organisation. Know how people are thinking and feeling. What they value and what they don’t.

Are you the fairest of them all?


Everything is People

I’ve seen the quote ‘marketing is everything, and everything is marketing’. I disagree. I would argue that everything is people.

Tomorrow, I’m attending the CIPD annual conference, and I’m reflecting on my profession. In HR we are often criticised and much maligned. We get it from others and we do it to ourselves. We worry we don’t have a seat at the table, aren’t respected as a function, and so on, and so on. I stopped listening, long ago.

In a blog post yesterday, the always interesting @flipchartrick said that people management was moving centre stage. I couldn’t agree more. You can find the post, here:

People are engaged or they are not. They give good customer service of they don’t. They innovate or they can’t be bothered. They learn or they ignore. They lead or follow, join in or disconnect. They are your external face, your internal message.

People talk, sell, connect, direct. Manage, teach, fight, write, think, debate, join, communicate.

People do stuff, and we do people.

HR can influence all of this. They can recruit the right people, induct them, train them, engage them. Devise the right policies, the right benefits, create the environment. We can challenge the culture, create the change, lead the way. We can communicate, challenge, connect, guide.

Forget what your values document says. People are your culture. And HR is all about the people.

I love working in HR. There. I’ve said it. I’m proud to be in the profession. Because everything is people, and people are everything.

Let HR lead the way. There is no one better placed.


We offer an excellent benefits package to all employees.
(It’s not really that different from the one that everyone else is offering. But it looks good in our job adverts.)

All employees are provided with a thorough induction programme.
(We will definitely show you the fire exits. You will be given a computer. Then we will take you on a tour of the building introducing you to dozens of people whose names you will immediately forget. And then you are on your own – good luck!)

We have an open door policy.
(To be honest, it is usually shut. Feel free to knock on it. But not too often, we’re busy.)

We offer excellent learning and development opportunities.
(We do run some courses. You are welcome to book on them. But chances are you will end up cancelling them the day before due to your workload.)

All internal opportunities are advertised and appointments are based on aptitude.
(We do advertise them. But we always know who is going to get the job; we are just following the policy to make sure we don’t get sued.)

We have an open and collaborative culture. Communication is key to our success.
(But we block access to social media sites just in case you abuse them. We will regularly(ish) send you a newsletter full of happy, smiling employees. Don’t even think of asking for financial information, that is top secret.)

We passionately believe in providing feedback. All of our employees have regular performance reviews and a personal development plan.
(We do performance reviews, otherwise the HR team get all upset. They will be squeezed in, regularly rescheduled and generic.)

We are a values driven organisation.
(We have some values. On the intranet and our corporate website, oh, and in reception. No one but HR knows what they are.)

Our employees are our greatest asset.
(They aren’t. Our customers are. Some of our employees are a right royal pain in the ass to be honest).

How often do you see something written about organisations, your organisation, or say something yourself that you just know isn’t true? Corporate websites, press releases, job advertisements. Tweets, videos, LinkedIn company pages. Spin. Fluff. White lies and whoppers.

The written word disconnects from our real experience. Reality versus belief. The official story versus the real narrative.

Do you know what the truth is in your organisation? Can you face it, or could you tell it?

Please Sir, can I be empowered?

I attended a networking event recently, where I found myself talking to a business leader who bemoaned to me that his people didn’t take action. Didn’t take the initiative. ‘They just need to be empowered’, he said to me. I asked him what this would look like, how he would know when he had it, when he had been successful in creating this empowered organisation. He looked at me for a while. ‘They’ll just get on and do stuff, without waiting to be asked’, was the reply.

The problem with the conversation was twofold. Firstly, look at his first statement. There is no recognition, that he, as a senior member of staff, has the responsibility for creating this environment, this belief within his team that they can and they should. That it will be okay, and there won’t be any blame, repercussions, liability.

There are some people that will just make the decision for themselves to take the ownership, make the decision, assume the power. To JFDI, if you will. But they are few are far between. Most people need to be told that it is okay. They need reassurance and guidance, a signal. And this is the responsibility of the leaders of the organisation.

When people ask me for permision to do something simple, everyday, straightforward, I see it as a failure. A failure that I have failed to communicate to them previously that it okay for them to make their own decision, just get on and do what they think is best, weigh up the pros and cons and crack on.

Telling people it is okay is just the start. You need to continually show that you mean it. Recognise people for trying, deciding, getting on with it. Encourage those that step forward first. Inspire the rest to do the same. Even if the whatever it is doesn’t work out quite like it would have done if you had done it, made the call, signed some formal approval document, then embrace it just the same.

If you really want empowerment that is. it’s a nice sounding word. Its sounds collaborative, engaging, like the sort of thing a good leader should want. But not everyone is ready for the reality of handing over their power to others.

Leaders. If you want empowerment then it is your job to create it. Create the culture in which people feel that they can. Power is vested within you by virtue of the role you hold, your job title with the important sounding words. Only you can give it away to others. Let them know the parameters in which they can work, and then get the hell out of their way.

Be brave. And let someone else JFDI.

Being the change

I wrote a blog earlier this week, about how one individual, standing up and speaking out, can make all the difference. Can start something, all by themselves. So today, I decided to take my own advice, and start the change I wanted to see.

Like plenty of companies, the building in which I work is fairly bland, uninspiring. It’s grey. We went for the practical carpet (grey). Then we added some practical filing cabinets (also grey). And then some practical furniture (much of it, grey). It wasn’t quite 50 shades, but it wasn’t far off.

I wanted to change it. Inject some colour, some energy, some light. I wanted to make it a nicer place to come to, for everyone.

I could have got some quotes for the work. Written a business case. Requested some Cap Ex. Got the official sign off and engaged a contractor.

I could have waited for all the time that process would have taken. But I didn’t want to. I wanted it done, now. And more importantly, I would rather spend my budget on something less boring instead.

So today, I painted the office. I went off to the DIY store and got some brightly coloured paint. I roped in a dozen other willing people, and for three hours this morning we painted the communal areas in our building. Pink, purple, blue.

I put out an internal comms asking for help. I promised nothing but biscuits, and a sense of doing a good thing. A something for the common good thing. And a willing few answered the call.

For three hours we came together as a team. People that donn’t normally work closely together, came together. We played music, we sang and we laughed while we painted. After three hours of hard work, our offices are a nicer place to be.

And it felt awesome.

Be the change you want to see…
at work
at home
within yourself
as a leader
every day.

Let HR lead the way.

Reasons to do Nothing.

Have you ever seen a messed up, mixed up organisational culture? I’m fairly sure you have. If it’s not your own, there have been a fair few in the news lately. Organisations, or parts thereof, that are unhealthy, unpleasant, ailing, even toxic. Where bad practice or bad behaviour lives and breathes.

When culture is broken, minimisation, metaphors and excuses abound.

It’s always been like this.
It is what it is.
It isn’t that bad.
It’s just how it is here.
It’s their (someone, anyone’s) fault.

When there is something broken within an organisation, it is usually in plain sight. Whether it is leadership, culture, behaviour or just one single individual, it’s rarely hidden. You may not always understand the cause, but you know when something stinks. It is easy to tell ourselves that if we witnessed something wrong we would take action, but research consistently shows that we are actually much more likely to ignore it, look away, minimise it, do absolutely nothing.

Most people, when faced with a challenging situation, become passive observers. Sitting on the side-lines, watching the drama. And then when the shit hits the fan, people queue up to say that they saw it coming, that everyone knew all about it, that it was the way things have always been around here.
So what stops people making changes, speaking out, challenging, changing? What holds people back, what makes them wait for permission, for someone else to take charge?

Some of the answers to these questions lie in social psychology.

You may have heard of the bystander effect. This suggests that the greater the number of people who are present to witness a problem, the less likely it is that any one individual will actually do anything about it. They will simply stand and watch. The effect has been researched many times, particularly in relation to people’s unwillingness to get involved in an emergency situation. There are multiple examples from both research and real life, where bystanders just do nothing, even when others are in severe physical danger. Applying this to an organisational context, employees are more likely to stand at the water cooler and bemoan the problem than help make an improvement, engage in solving a problem.

There are reasons why people don’t act, or don’t feel that they can. One of the key influencing factors is the extent to which people feel that they have a degree of responsibility; is it really up to them? Do they feel sufficiently engaged with an organisation, individual or situation to do so? And won’t someone else just come along and do it anyway? Someone more qualified, suitable, whose job it really is?

They think the issue is Somebody Else’s Problem. This is a psychological effect whereby individuals dissociate themselves from a problem or issue, even when it is in critical need of attention, because they make assumptions that it will be done. But not by them. By the often fabled but rarely seen Somebody Else. The notion that whatever it is, it is Somebody Else’s Problem releases the individual from the need to act. Responsibility is diffused. Somebody Else will do it.

This all sounds a little negative so far. But there is one big positive. What the research also shows is that if just one person acts, it can have a big impact. Once someone acts, engages in the solution, others will follow. The paralysis is broken. So if you want to see change in your organisation, stop waiting for Someone Else. As the saying goes, be the change you want to see. If you see something broken, wrong, in need of attention, then speak up, speak out, be brave enough.

Take the responsibility. Let HR lead the way.

Rules Rush In

At work, they are everywhere.

Rules. Instructions. Regulations.
Lists of stuff you must do, stuff you can’t do. We write them up in policies and documents and guidelines and procedures and codes of practice.
Instructions. Directives. Rules.

The problem with rules within organisations is that if you are not very careful, they germinate, breed, develop arms and legs, take on a life of their own. They get tweaked, added to, topped up, supplemented.

A rule is invented and suddenly it is part of the organisational fabric, the culture, never to be challenged of changed. It matters not that the person who made the rule is long gone, or no one remembers the reason it was introduced in the first place. The rule, just is. The rule is alive.

Many organisational rules defy common sense. They have the power to amuse, annoy, demotivate, but most damaging, they have the power to get in the way of productive, useful work.

I recently read about a great example in a book called Peopleware, about an organisation that had a clear desk policy. The only thing that employees were allowed to leave on the desk when they went home at night was a 5 X 7 family photo. Who decided this? And more interestingly, how did they determine the size? Was there a meeting, a vote? Was it included in a handbook?

Rules are made when conversations and common sense fails. And when management fails. Consider the organisations that rushed to ban social media, lest there be just one rogue tweet. The company that stops the Christmas celebrations because of one drunken employee. I am sure you have seen examples in your own organisations.

It is time to throw away unnecessary, silly rules. Some rules are of course needed; the organisational will not function without them. But almost every company I have ever seen has too many. Rules that are too complex, too long, too patronising. They reduce employees to children.

Treat your employees like the adults they are. And if they don’t, then just have a conversation. Deal with the individual issue at hand, don’t make a rule that applies to everyone, for ever.

My new law of rules. If you can’t give me a good reason for the rule, I’m not following it.

My challenge to you: if you don’t know why the rule exists, don’t know who made it, can’t articulate the reason for it, then break it. Ask why. Challenge the rule and the rule maker.

Let HR lead the way.

The Culture Tree


‘Culture is a slow growing tree. In the beginning it needs protection. But after a couple of decades the culture will be stronger than you are. You need to work with it, not against it. Culture is a powerful but fragile thing. If you burn down the culture tree, it takes a long time to grown another one’.
Wally Bock

This might be less a blog than an extension of someone else’s metaphor; but a metaphor that creates for me the most vivid image.

Organisational culture is made of up many things. It includes our beliefs, values, behaviour, norms. The history, the narrative, the past and the present. How we do things around here. That which is shared. The way we collectively are.

Just like a tree, culture is strong, deep rooted, slow growing, but always changing. Trees bend, shed leaves, can be healthy or diseased. They may thrive, but even the strongest can be felled by the wind. Or someone can just take an axe to it and chop it down.

Whatever the organisation, most trees will outlast the individual leader.

We talk of the wisdom of the crowd. For me, the culture is the crowd, and the crowd is the culture. Culture is owned and created by everyone in the organisation: each individual leaf on the tree makes up the whole; who the organisation really is.

As leaders, we have a responsibility to tend our culture tree. Fail to look after it, fail to act, and the damage will be long lasting. We must never forget it isn’t about us, the short term decision, the immediate operational priority. Employees have long memories. They will not forget is you cut down your tree, ignore your espoused values, ignore who you say you are. In the challenging business environments that many of us face every day, we may forget that as leaders at the top of own trees we have the power to influence all the way down, through, around. Trees cast long shadows.

Look after your culture tree. Do not water it with fears, distrust, disconnection, poor communication, poor leadership, lest it bear a toxic fruit.

Camera April 13 114

From A Poison Tree by William Blake

And I watered it with fears
Night and morning with my tears
And I sunned it with smiles
And with soft deceitful wiles

And it grew by day and night
Till it bore an apple bright
And my foe beheld it shine
And he knew that it was mine

And into my garden stole
When the night had veiled the pole
In the morning, glad, I see
My foe outstretched beneath the tree.