The elusive ingredient in a thriving work environment

In this age of dynamic information technology developments power is being distributed like never before. For example, Andrew Haldane, Executive Director for Financial Stability at the Bank of England, writing in The Spectator (2 November 2013) notes that at the root of banking is market information. Banks have been the middlemen between savers and borrowers. The arrival of the great icons of the peer-to-peer market place, Amazon, Google and eBay have cut out the middleman and it is this disintermediation that marks the revolution of our Age. He notes that in 2007 the collective market capitalisation of these 3 technology firms was around $80 billion or 8 % of the value of the global banks. In 2013 it stands at $310 billion or a whopping 36% of that of global banks. Just as information has disintermediated not only the banks but the music, advertising, publishing, and insurance industries, so to it is disintermediating the power of the manager over the employee, the company over the employee.

The old organisational structures, shaped along command and control military models are struggling to adjust. “Power” no longer has the same mystic or capacity to control. It hasn’t gone away though. Rather, it continues to exist and is a compelling lever to those who know how to work the emerging social reality where individualised preference and energy is easily engaged - as for example in Flash Mobs. This is no more than an example of enormous energy around the exercise of discretionary will. The functional locus for dealing with this topic has typically been HR but social media and the information age is challenging its old ways of functioning.

When Accenture recently undertook research to define key trends in HR most likely to impact on an organisation, they omitted one fundamental issue. They centered on tapping skills anywhere, anytime and managing teams as a workforce of one through to how digital is radically disrupting just about every department. They ignored the importance of reaching beyond ‘consultant-speak’ solutions with the over focus on technology enablement, to find ways of ‘capturing’ the discretionary effort of employees. It is precisely this "discretionary effort" that makes the difference between an organisation thriving or existing. Engaged employees chose to gift their power back into the organisation and it becomes a place where people want to be. When this happens there is little need for expensive interventions to extract engagement. Great technology has its place but it is easily squandered if the organisational culture is miserable. Look at the BBC (Savile scandal), Barclays, The NHS, The Co-Op Bank, Lloyds Bank and the miselling and finally The Royal Bank of Scotland in just about every segment of the organisation. This a roll call of major brand names in the British commercial and business sphere.

HR, in its current conceptualisation, cannot deliver what is needed. All too often it feels more like an extension of Government's bureaucratic hand which focuses on the multiple "fairness/equality" and health and safety agendas. If it isn’t this element then where on earth was or is HR’s voice when it has to confront the abuse of power in the Board Room and refuse to sanction staggering and corrupt payouts to discredited managers in, yes again, the BBC and the NHS to name just two organisations? It may well be that “speaking truth to power” is not HR’s role despite the common desire that there by “someone” who calls the truth in the system and it is often assumed that this is HR’s de facto role.What is clear however is that leadership in HR is well versed with the debilitating and destructive impact that power abuse has on a culture. We can see it, feel it and even cost it!

While HR is often not fit for purpose, the deep insight which HR usually has into the engagement agenda is invaluable. Yet the problem is that HR, as currently practiced, is too much concerned with "existence management". By contrast “New HR” faces the challenge to make the shift from managing an “existence” agenda to enabling the dynamic, “thriving culture”. It is neither difficult nor complicated. It does however require a shift in mindset that starts with the core premise that Organisations exist for people and not the other way round.Once this principle is lived then astonishing things can happen and this, by the way, includes the economics.

Living the aforementioned principle is completely possible. This involves a radical transition away from the reliance on the usual litany of organisational “HR Apps” that are wheeled out as solutions to engagement. The offering of revamped "old system" tools such as incentive pay grades, better performance management forms and all the other tired systems have short shelf-lives. They are, at best, poor substitutes for something that is a far deeper than the realm of "HR App solutions" . It has to do with relationally focused leadership that gives “meaning” to work and transforms their organisations into mindful rather than mindless places that thrive.

What is the point of any organisation - commercial or otherwise - unless it exists as a place of “work” rather than its miserable alternative, “toil”? “Work” is vocational and mindful presence; “toil” is mindless presence. Engaging "discretionary effort" is guaranteed in any organisation that refuse to allow "toil" into their systems. The responsible person for building a mindful presence organisation is without any doubt the Leader. South Africa, thrived, post apartheid, under Mandela’s presence. RBS has been a very unhappy place for years and the stories marking dysfunctional leadership continue to leak. It strated at the top. The Co-Op Bank’s Paul Flowers sadly highlights the truth in the negative.

It starts with the leader who is the emotional gatekeeper for the whole enterprise. It does not start with HR.  When the leader is engaged in this way HR can interpret and become the invaluable partner in delivering leader-led life into the organisation. A small example of this is a family owned business, The Cook Food Company based in Sittingbourne, Kent. Following conversations with the head of HR, Rosie Brown, she read the book, The Dream Manager by Matthew Kelly. It is a story of engagement in an office cleaning company that can theoretically only survive on minimum wages. The food industry has a similar challenge. Rosie interpreted the commitment of the company board to build an organisation that consciously values an engaged workforce. They are now trialling, with great success, the principles of The Dream Manager in their own company. This is a current case study in the principles of a place where “toil” is giving way to thriving without compromise and in the process creating significant Value for all stakeholders.


Simon Middleton

<!--paging_filter--><p>Simon Middleton has had more than 30 years senior HR management experience with multinational companies including Hewlett-Packard, PricewaterhouseCoopers, Philip Morris and the Lufthansa Services Group. In 2012, he co-founded Watershed Entrepreneurs, a UK-based organization established to provide the financial and business knowledge essential for young entrepreneurs to turn their business ideas and innovations into sustainable operations. He continues to work in the multinational corporate arena undertaking consultancy assignments involving leadership and management appraisal. Simon is a graduate of Rhodes University and Sheffield Hallam University.</p> <p> <a href=" "></a></p>