Be Courageous, Be Human, #WorkHuman

Do the internal systems and structures within your company work against people reporting harassment or bullying, or are there ‘safe spaces’ or non-judgmental support for those who need to tell their story? Can HR create these? And if not, then is the hard truth that HR are complicit in the pain of people who are subjected to this in the workplace?

I’ve just come back from Globoforce’s 2018 WorkHuman conference, and these  were some of the many questions raised during the #MeToo panel, chaired by Adam Grant, in which Ashley Judd, Tarana Burke and Ronan Farrow were very moving as they shared stories and talked about their various experiences, calling for courage, respect, equality, and dignity in the workplace.

If there is someone in the organisation who is found to be harassing or bullying, then do we ever ask how we came to hire (and probably promote) someone who felt this behaviour was OK? Would an incident such as this trigger a review and overhaul of selection processes?

Some tough questions, but as Ronan Farrow put it “HR professionals are in an incredibly powerful position. You are a formal part of the chain of command. If you say something, it creates an opportunity for others to speak up. Don’t forget how powerful and important your role is

You can’t change policies after the fact. You have to create a culture where that behaviour is not ok” said Tarana Burke

You may have gathered that WorkHuman isn’t your average HR conference, in fact I’m not sure I would call it an HR conference. Its about humanity. Feelings and perceptions, and many personal qualities that aren’t often discussed at business conferences. Sure the attendees, and many speakers, were from the wider HR sector, but the many themes including courage, vulnerability, diversity, unacceptable behaviour, recognition, performance, humanising, happiness and creativity, were of more personal, and human concerns, even if they clearly they fall under the remit of most HR professionals.

Your ego is not your amigo

Leadership was to the fore and opening keynote Cy Wakeman was in no doubt that ego wasn’t part of it. “A leaders role isn’t to change the reality for employees – it is to change the negative energy focused on why we can’t on to how we can”. And as for ego? “Your ego is a filter on reality and corrupts your data. You’re making decisions based on corruptive data. Your ego is like wearing a pair of prescriptive glasses that are the wrong prescription

Ego leads to drama, and drama can be draining and demotivating, taking up too much time in the workplace.

Brene Brown spoke of vulnerability and the need for leaders to embrace it “There is zero evidence that vulnerability is a weakness. It is the courage to show up and be seen when you can’t control the outcome”. She also warned that “If you set up a culture within your organisation where there’s no tolerance for vulnerability, no tolerance for failure, then there’s no room for innovation, productivity, or creativity

She spoke of the importance of leaders showing accountability, which resonated with me – I’ve recently been involved with research conducted amongst 14,000 European jobseekers (published soon) and accountability came out as the top quality they look for in leaders. Maybe Brene knew why when she said “The opposite of accountability is blame. Accountability is a vulnerable process that takes courage and time. Blame is faster

Stop giving feedback, start encouraging people to ask for feedback

David Rock ran two sessions on feedback, particularly in relation to performance management. “Performance management becomes feedback management” he told us. We don’t like receiving feedback when its unsolicited, which too much is. Its also often negative. We need to start getting our people to ask for feedback, when it will be less threatening and more welcome. Ensure people have conversations and make them future focused. Manager capability is key here. They need to minimise the feeling of threat around candid and honest conversations, and help facilitate insights to help people positively embrace change.

In another session, author Shawn Achor said “most praise is just comparison”. And he had a point. When we praise people by comparison to their peers and colleagues, or competitors, we are linking their potential, and their happiness, to others. This can create competition, rather than support and enable personal growth and development. Which I know from my research mentioned earlier, is the main thing people look for when searching for a new role. Maybe there’s a link back here to David Rock’s sessions on feedback – with managers using comparisons (even if unwittingly) rather than focus on each individual’s potential and contribution.

Shawn Achor also talked about his research amongst Harvard students that found social connections were the best predictors of happiness, success, future job roles. The relationship people have to the ecosystem around them. We are often the product of formal and informal networks of relationships and connections. The original Star Wars manuscript showed the famous line as ‘May The Force of Others Be With You’ although this was changed. This flags up a big concern to me though, as it underlines the problems we face with social mobility and finding ways to understand and develop the potential in everyone, irrespective of background, trajectory and networks.

You can’t incentivise performance. You can only incentivise/reward/encourage behaviour

Simon Sinek has spoken before of how the way to influence human behaviour is to inspire it rather than trying to manipulate it. In his keynote session at Workhuman he was looking at business being an ‘infinite game’. He drew the parallel between sport – which is a finite game with a beginning, an end, and rules – and business which is infinite.

Winning and losing is the wrong language in business. It works in sports because you are playing a finite game, but business is an infinite one. Companies that last aren’t the ones that play to win, they’re the ones that play to keep playing”.

Great organisations have a have a fixed just cause and flexible strategy. But he told us that “too many don’t focus enough on the cause, and have an inflexible strategy. So many organisations have a new Just Cause after every offsite meeting.”  Worse yet, they have a fixed strategy.

Leaders ask ‘How do we get the best out of our people’. It sounds like they’re wringing out a towel. The question should beHow do we help our people to do their natural best

Courageous leadership is what business needs. But too often we promote leaders because they deliver on results, even if they are untrustworthy or lack respect from their teams. This can destroy the fabric of a company. As Simon put it “Promoting high performance-low trust team members will destroy your organisational culture. But its easy to identify these people. Ask team who the asshole is and everyone will point to the same person, so this is avoidable

The final takeaway from Simon’s session was that HR should be advancers of people, and not the last line of defence between the people and the executives. He suggested they stop being ‘executors of the executives’.

Ultimately it all comes down to culture. Being human, working human, and helping people to be their natural best requires a culture where ego, drama and blame have no place, and honesty, courage, vulnerability and openness can thrive. Where people feel able to speak up, and to be themselves. And can get the support they need to do the best they can.

And the next time you attend an HR conference and hear a series of sporting metaphors…remember…

Some more blogs on WorkHuman that I recommend you read:

What I Learned at WorkHuman 2018Jane Watson

Work Human 2018: A RecapVictorio Milian

Embracing the Ying and Yang of Human Experience at WorkJason Lauritsen

Talking Talent & Potential at #HREvent14


I’ve just returned from an interesting 2 days in Birmingham at the HR Directors summit. It was well run – fast paced, varied and lively with a strong stream of case studies and masterclasses topped and tailed with keynote speakers who were largely from outside the traditional HR sphere. Kudos to Clare Dewhirst, Nicole Dominguez and the rest of the WTG team for organising.

There was some excellent live blogging from Ian Pettigrew and Gemma Reucroft whilst the hashtag #HREvent14 managed to reach number 1 in the trending list once or twice over the two days.

A few observations on some of the things that were talked about….

Talent is an asset

But what is talent? Quite a few sessions looked at this subject, both from the angles of finding it and identifying it, with a focus oh high potential programmes and thinking outside the box. Many key points across the two days:

  • Current top performers are not necessarily the same as your high potentials
  • The key attributes for potential are aspiration, ability and engagement
  • 46% of leaders moving in to new roles fail to meet business objectives through a mixture of wrong promotion criteria and unclear objective setting (CEB research)
  • Strengths based recruitment for those with little or no work experience significantly improves quality (Nestle case study)
  • Don’t just look outside for talent, create from within
  • A lot of talent gets wasted through a mix of poor management, disengagement and lack of proper workforce planning
  • Look beyond certificates and the CV, find people who have overcome obstacles and interference to achieve
  • Putting it another way, we overrate certificates and underrate attitude
  • Recruit for individuality and capability to innovate, don’t just focus on past experience
  • Companies need to transition mindset from owning the talent to the talent being with the individual

Recruitment woes

Much of the talent points arose from recruitment. Certainly many of the breakout discussions were around the folly of hiring to rigid specifications and failing to spot people with attitude and ability who may have been unable to fulfil their potential elsewhere or in difficult circumstances – a failure to assess skills or performance within context.

On the second morning Rasmus Ankersen (by far the most inspiring keynote speaker) produced a slide containing a quote from the CEO of Capital One Bank saying:

“Most companies spend 2% of their time recruiting and 98% of their time managing their recruitment mistakes”

This quote was well received by the auditorium (full of HR Directors and senior practitioners) but was met with dismay from recruiters following online. I don’t know where the figures came from, they may have been a CEO embellishment or just a personal view, but many attendees (the ones who inevitably do some of the 98%) felt a ring of truth, something that became apparent during a panel session later in the morning.

Tellingly the quote was also endorsed by Facebook (no slouches when it comes to finding talent) during their afternoon presentation.

I’m guessing that a lot of the 98% didn’t represent recruiters failing to do their jobs properly, but hiring managers poorly scoping the role or looking for the wrong characteristics and capabilities.

Leadership and the people agenda

We had a fair few CEOs amongst the speakers and panellists (pretty good for an HR conference) signalling a shift in the people agenda. Some of it was to do with social, though more was about leadership. Some nuggets:

  • If you want great things to happen don’t worry about getting the credit
  • Leadership isn’t about what we are now but about what we can be, what we can do and where we can go.
  • I need bad news. I don’t shoot the messenger but need to act on what I’m told to put it right.
  • If you deal with people for a living you have a much harder job than those who deal with predictable things. (HR isn’t easy!)
  • Leadership isn’t about a handful of people. It’s about everybody.

Question time!

In a first for an event of this type there was a daily panel to discuss the themes being talked about. Placed in the main exhibition hall, with capacity for 70 attendees, it was a mix of discussion and questions from the floor.

I’m proud to say that I was on the panel both days and really enjoyed it. The reception was good – standing room only on both days – and between myself, Perry Timms, Mark Ellis and Peter Reilly we got some quite lively debates going.

And in true ‘Question Time’ tradition we had a range of topics raised by the delegates to discuss, including Kevin Pietersen’s dropping by the England cricket team and the impending strike by Tax officials!

We got some great feedback and I hope this kind of participation becomes regular at similar events.

Generational myth making and myth busting

When I wrote my preview for the event I observed that this was one conference that seemed to avoid the usual generational stereotyping presentations. Unlike certain others, there had been little of the ‘why Gen Y are different‘ content and when the topic had been touched on it was from a different angle, using research that avoided the usual suspect cliches.

Anyone following my twitter feed over the 2 days will know that, sadly, this year was different. The cliched stereotyping of the attitudes, behaviours and aspirations of people under 30 cropped up in many presentations, culminating in a bullshit bingo full house during the Facebook presentation.

I’ve blogged on this before so will not go into depth on it here – I may deal with it another time. What I would say is that the Facebook session also included many supposed stereotyped traits of Gen X and Boomers and in closing, the speaker Stuart Crabb admitted to (and kind of apologised for) using stereotypes. He also observed that all generations are represented in the Facebook workforce, and all of them embrace the ‘Gen Y‘ culture that the company work so hard to create. Which does make you wonder why he didn’t just describe the culture and approach to work without having to resort to representing it as something designed to appeal to a certain age group.

And as I’ve written many times, the defining of a group of people by perceived personality and behavioural traits is not something that should have any place in HRs thinking. No-one in 2014 would host – or attend – a session entitled ‘How to get the best out of the over 60s‘ or ‘How to manage women‘ so I don’t know why it seems acceptable for consulting firms (it’s always consulting firms) to do this type of research and then present it as insight.

Maybe I should paraphrase (misquote) Mr Einstein – not everything that matters can be researched, and not everything that is researched matters.

The future’s bleak

Unusually for a conference, the opening keynote was a bit like the grim reaper coming for our global labour market. David Arkless, founder of the Future of Work consortium, had few moments of optimism or positivity for us with many global problems of a social, work and financial nature being aired. There was a strange passage in which he seemed to praise dictatorships as they tended to got their workforces productive and operating efficiently whilst democracies hindered talent management (cue blogs on 5 things HR can learn from Kim Jong-un) and then offered a stark visualisation of the world’s inequalities.

It was a downbeat and, frankly, quite worrying message for a conference opener, which may not be a bad thing as it did get people thinking, but overall seemed a bit incongruous with what followed.

HR in the headlines

The final conference session was a Q&A with Lucy Adams – still, just, HR Director at the BBC. Needless to say the questions, put by business TV presenter Juan Señor, were about the media storm that followed her appearance before the Commons select committee last year.

She handled herself well and spoke with humility and honesty, talking of the need for visible leadership when morale is low. The questions weren’t exactly probing (fairly standard TV business interview fare) but the audience did get the opportunity to ask questions. I wanted to ask her if she thought that the reaction she got was worse because she was a woman, and that a male HR Director at the BBC may have got an easier ride. I nearly put my hand up but have to say that after a couple of days of criticising the Gen Y stereotyping I though better of raising something that may have looked sexist.

I did manage to spend a couple of minutes with her at the end though so asked the question one to one. I got the impression that she wished I’d have asked it during the session, and had expected the question to come up at some stage. Next time I won’t be so timid. And yes, needless to say, she did seem to feel that gender played a part in her situation.

Overall messages from the two days? Talent and potential…recognise it and nurture it – use it don’t waste it. And people like to be treated with respect at work…whatever their year of birth…