Lucy dhr
Lucy Adams
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We can really over-engineer things in HR and Internal Comms can’t we? The jargon, the models of engagement, the diagnostics …. Do you ever worry that we are creating a veneer of complexity to make ourselves believe we are actually changing things? Maybe it’s the cynicism of my advancing years or the frustrations of 20 years in corporate leadership roles, but I do. Plus all the research I come across would seem to warrant some concern at least, telling us that even with billions being spent on employee engagement in its various forms, levels remain depressingly low and stagnant.

The CEOs, HRDs and Comms Directors I speak to are crying out for some fresh approaches to engaging their employees and I’ve become increasingly convinced that the answers might just be a bit simpler than we’ve made them? Through leading and experiencing numerous change and engagement initiatives – I’ve come to believe passionately that we need to do three things.

  • We need to treat our people like adults.
  • We need to think of them as customers.
  • We need to engage with them as human beings.

Let me run them past you and see what you think.

Treat me as an adult

Most employer/employee relationships start with the assumption that employees are like children and need to be either protected or controlled. A few months into my stint as HR Director at the BBC I was told, one snowy afternoon that “It was time to write THE email” by which my team meant the email that told BBC staff that they should try and make their way home due to bad weather. I wondered at the time whether this wasn’t a bit infantilising – but duly sent the email. From our paternalistic benefits schemes, through treats like “dress-down Fridays” to our instructive notices to “wash your hands” when visiting the loos, we too often assume the role of in loco parentis to our employees. On the other hand we also make them sign employment contracts with dozens of rules, the contravention of which could lead to their dismissal, we give them their end of term report (appraisal) and make them do the same mandatory training course regardless of their current understanding and ability. We also adopt a lowest common denominator approach, ie: we take the worst possible behaviour and to ensure we protect the organisation, we create a rule or policy that means no-one, anywhere, will repeat the behaviour ever again. We therefore alienate the 99.9% of people who had no intention of behaving badly to protect against the tiny minority. The sad truth about this approach is that there are not enough rules in the world to protect you from someone who wants to take the Mickey and by creating countless rules you both infantilise your people and render an adult to adult relationship almost impossible. I applaud Netflix with their desire to appeal to their people’s good nature and sense of responsibility and they claim the results are excellent. We work with our clients at Firehouse to experiment safely with adult to adult approaches. For example, which policies could you take away that annoy people most? Try and share bad news as well as good. Stop broadcasting and find ways of helping your people talk to each other – without veto. We are not talking anarchy or chaos here, just small things you can do to develop an adult to adult dynamic. How much more creativity, innovative thinking, extra energy, conscientiousness and enjoyment could we engender by treating people like adults?

Think of me as your customer

I am amazed at the insights consumer organisations now have about me as their sophisticated algorithms assess my buying patterns and demographic profile and predict my next likely purchase or tap into my psyche to suggest one I hadn’t even though of yet. Isn’t it the Target department store in the States who is supposed to be able to tell that you’re pregnant if you buy a number of 25 products? There is a bank we work with who tells me they have hundreds of different risk models they can apply to every single lending decision. What do we have to help us understand our employees? The annual engagement survey. The survey that we take three months to finalise as departments wrangle over the questions. The survey that is never at “quite the right time” due to re-structures and pay reviews. The survey that we plead, coax and coerce to get a miserable 60% completion rate. The survey that takes another three months to provide us with data that we then argue about as our leaders become statistical experts overnight. The survey that tells us exactly the same things it tells every company – we want better comms, better leaders, better pay and better careers. And let’s not even start on the cascade action plans ….

If we were to think about our employees as customers (and for many of our B to C clients, they are), then we would do things differently. We would insist on better analysis, better predictive data, better granularity of understanding. We would recognise that surveys can only provide the most superficial of snapshots and we would employ qualitative research and harness line managers as the means to get to a much richer appreciation of our people. We would recognise that shoe-horning employees into one size fits all processes can’t possibly work and we would throw out some of those tired old approaches such as the annual appraisal and the bonus scheme. We would accept that our people are sophisticated, messy and complex entities that need to be engaged in a variety of ways, with multiple channels and with a coherent internal brand that is consistent in terms of its manifestation through HR processes.

Engage me as a human being

The so-called VUCA world means we need our people to follow us to work in new ways, with different people, with different technology in new locations. A scary enough ask when you trust the person who’s asking you to do it and yet trust in our leaders is at its lowest at the very point we need it most . The antidote to this seems to be the current annual conference craze for business leaders to have an emotional breakdown on stage in front of their slightly anxious employees! It’s not really about that is it? It is the simple, human stuff in my experience that is the most powerful. Like a leader I worked with at Eversheds who having just announced a major re-structure went round to every person’s desk and made himself available all afternoon to take their angst and anger. How different this is to the game of “hunt the executive” I’ve had to play in other organisations when the going gets tough.

It’s also the language we use as leaders that mark us out as either human or corporate automatons. I once got a call from a sub-editor in the newsroom at the BBC who rang to tell me my recent all-staff email was “crap”. (This was not, sadly, an infrequent occurrence …) I re-read it and he was right. By the time it had been made accurate and press-proof by my colleagues in Comms, Legal and HR, it had been stripped of any humanity or personality. We work with our clients at Firehouse to rediscover their own “human” language. It can be harder than you’d think. Try and not say words like “dialogue” or “interaction” for a week and you’ll realise that we adopt a language that defines us as corporate and detached – not “real”.

I made a decision when I started taking speaking engagements that I would never use Powerpoint. I wanted to challenge myself to focus on the story, the relationship and the message and I have seen too many conference keynote speeches ruined by an illegible and data filled deck. I am still amazed at how many people say “thank you so much for not using slides” afterwards. Our people aren’t moved by a slide and they can’t engage with a speaker who is looking backwards at the wall trying to remember what he wrote. We know that stories move us and they help us transcend sceptical analysis as we co-create with the story teller. That’s how we talk to our friends and our families and yet as leaders we feel we need to have data. We do sometimes, but in my experience, a story is so much more effective at creating a human interaction (damn!) er, a human connection (help!), a human relationship (phew).

So, if you’ve stayed the distance and have got to this point, what do you think? Adult to adult. Employees as Customers. Human beings talking and listening to each other. They may not be original concepts but I think they could work.

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