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STRATEGIC HR
Jan 13, 2014

Different HR dinner conversations

Are we the problematic disengaged staff ourselves?
    

By Dave Crisp

Breaking routine and a new year always provide new insights, but it can be tough to distill those into useful bits. A friend asked about two HR strategists’ high level ideas — that HR should be values based and that it should focus on long and short term organizational health rather than allowing itself to be bogged down in administrivia.

Both noted these describe the vision and, in small ways, the trend for most HR operations, but that they require a receptive senior management team and organization culture to survive.

Earlier this month, I read a pitch directed at executives to convince them to change companies soon. It pointed to statistics showing 57 per cent of all managers wish they were somewhere else, not so much on a beach, though I’m sure that would figure somewhere, but in another company where their talents were more recognized, appreciated and utilized. That’s a startling figure, but a moment’s thought confirms this is what most engagement surveys suggest. Since "all managers" includes lots who are not at the very top of the organizations or divisions, it’s not surprising their feelings aren’t totally different from rank and file employees.

Fifty seven per cent is a pretty scary number. If your leaders are keen to be elsewhere, it’s a fair bet they aren’t doing a great job motivating their staff. It’s hard to believe you’d find as much unhappiness in companies that do their best to adhere to clear values and take steps to maintain a healthy environment. But wait. How many executives do you suppose arrive home to dinner to tell their loved ones what a great day they had, how their colleagues are brilliant, caring, helpful people who eagerly embrace great projects, put their full efforts into them and share credit will all involved?

I’m sure this sounds like the conversations you have at home, right? But do all those other execs you work with tell their family and friends such positive stories?

I’m kidding of course. I may be in a minority, but I found the best and most common stories I’d bring to dinner often started with comments like, "You won’t believe the stupidity I encountered at the office today... I can’t believe how selfish (naive, unco-operative, mean, resistant to logic, good manners, supportive behavior — you fill in the words) this or that person was."

Now, I’m a nice guy. Really. I don’t just say that, other people often do, too. (Especially my mom, when she was alive.) It’s just somehow a story about what went right at the office today just doesn’t sound too interesting. But tales about what went wrong? Oh yeah! That we can all talk about at length only stopping when we’re interrupted by someone else with a story they’re sure tops ours.

So are we prepping ourselves with negative intentions? Are we purposely seeking and amplifying the bad attitudes and behavior of our colleagues just to garner interesting dinner conversation? Are we just a bit disappointed when a coworker does something well or nice? Is it a form of schadenfreude, what some describe as "making me feel glad I'm not you?"

We often measure ourselves against others or become quite aware that others are likely doing this, so it behooves us to discover others’ flaws so we know what we should avoid and how we are ahead in the great race.

More important for HR and strategy, whether or not we have these negative reactions ourselves, is can we help others avoid the pitfall? Can we build organizations in which we’re all in it together, with everyone benefitting when things go well and therefore eager for more? All of a sudden one of the more controversial questions in the Gallup Q12 measure of positive work culture — "Do you have a best friend at work" — doesn’t seem so farfetched. If you enjoy going to work with at least one person, perhaps you can enjoy others... well, maybe not everyone, but lots?

There’s no question this is a sort of upward or downward spiral — a virtuous or vicious cycle — that type of challenge. If you can see the value and appreciate the contributions of one person, perhaps you can focus on what others add, but if you start to feel those you work with are... well, the old poster I hadn’t thought of in years popped to mind and, sure enough, it’s still there all over the Internet these days. It's captioned: “It’s hard to soar with eagles when you’re surrounded by turkeys.” I couldn’t believe it when a coworker actually posted a copy of the poster with turkeys in our office — insisting it was a joke, of course. Right.

So I got to asking myself where this fits in HR strategy? How should we deal with this challenge — ignore it as I did in that former job, even though I was the boss, or accept it as a joke? Or should we make a big case of it to emphasize the right attitude we expect people to bring to work? Either way seems to hold perils. One solution might be get people walking a mile in others’ shoes. I liked this post from Bob Sutton, whose books I’ve reviewed before. Many of his margin-linked lists of "12 Things I Believe" and "15 Posts People Like" are humorous and worth the read.

Ultimately I fell back on an idea I’ve had all along, that the best solution is to build a work team and work environment in which people are truly valued for what they bring, their diverse attitudes and skills. The key seems to me to keep them engaged on projects that stretch and interest them. Surely we have enough real challenges in all we do that we can find people who are energized by the game of trying to find real solutions.

If we keep in touch with people we can figure out what turns them on at work. If nothing does, if the game is no longer fun, it’s time for them to search for something that will be. It’s doing no one any good struggling to keep them. When the conversations they take to dinner, lunch, even breakfast are about dumbness of colleagues, the company, their work, we’ve lost the battle. Instead it should be about what they’re struggling to solve, what possibilities they’re working on that could improve the part of the world it touches and who they’re hoping to meet and learn from.

It’s values like these that HR can bring to the table, which could make a huge difference, but which management teams often overlook as they stick to their often rather poor opinions about staff.

Dave Crisp is a Toronto-based writer and thought leader for Strategic Capability Network with a wealth of experience, including 14 years leading HR at Hudson Bay Co. where he took the 70,000-employee retailer to “best company to work for” status. For more information, visit www.balance-and-results.com.
    
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