Thursday, 27 February 2014

Bringing Some Romance To Corporate Culture

Sometimes it can be hard to explain the importance of culture in the workplace. There are many great quotes and literature that prove it's effectiveness, from the ever brilliant Edgar Shein "Culture Eats Strategy For Breakfast" to my own research into how pipeline development and deal closure are predicted by culture fit.

But sometimes it's easier to step out of the business world and look at things from a different viewpoint.

(If you just want to read the work bit, scroll to the bottom)


Earlier this month, during the annual festival of roses and chocolates, my Wife and I were watching "100 Greatest Love Songs" and both having the 'generation' discussion - that the old songs were so much better than new. 

Many years ago I stood in front of my university class and gave a lecture on how the music industry was changing to reflect the needs of the film industry. Instead of music being picked for movie soundtracks, often the reverse was true - I set out the economic case for an industry change that led to multiple hits being written specifically for film. 

That trend came and went, although there are still some examples (Christina Perri with her song for Twilight),  but now it's more common for film directors to use songs from the 80's and 90's in their movies (see the resurgence of AC/DC from the Iron Man movies, Percy Jackson and Battleship) rather than commission new material.

Industry culture has changed, but can genres of music be affected by other cultural shifts?

A little statistical analysis shows that 80% the love song list were recorded over 10 years ago, when the internet was available to less then 5% of the global population.

Video killed the radio star, but the internet seems to have killed romantic love songs, and possibly romance too.....

Looking at the top ten of our televised list, five represent signature movie songs, with only one that wasn't written specifically for the movie (just reimagined for it). The lyrics are gentle, the videos contain plenty of hugs and kisses, there is very little flesh on display, and none of the stars look like they learned their dances in a strip club.

Now stop and think about current 'romantic' songs on the radio. I'll save you the trouble, because according to Buzzfeed, the top 22 romantic (heart melting) songs for 2013 include those below. 

There is certainly more skin on display than clothing, more simulated sex, and more emulation of the sex trade than the earlier sample. And now the lyrics are about bitches, 'niggas', drowning, and direct demands for sex.

Other facets of the same problem are internet porn, parental controls and unrestricted social media, all of which desensitise people to all kinds of sexual behaviour and encourage unrealistic expectations. I've written two blogs on the subject based on my own experiences as a parent and a friend

(You should also read this excellent blog from Joani Geltman about an 11 year old boy and porn peer pressure).

My Wife was recently listening to Rachel Morris (the Cosmopolitan sex therapist) talking about sexual expectations of teenage boys and girls. The detail was too explicit to discuss on national television, but she was clearly horrified at the data collected.

The conclusion, bluntly, is that for a large number of teenagers romance is dead (and I don't mean the type of romantic encounter that involves vampires).

We have evolved a culture that reinforces explicit, selfish sexual behaviour. The adage 'sex sells' has been extended to younger and younger audiences through music, film and the internet - and what we're seeing are the unintended consequences.

Nobody set out to achieve this, this is the end result of multiple decisions to improve profit, gain publicity, create unique features and push the boundaries of what's acceptable. Industry reaction to market forces without consideration for moral or ethical responsibilities. Sadly this is not going to change.

How does this apply to workplace culture? 

Please be aware of what you deem 'acceptable' for managers, for employees, for contractors, for all of those that work within your organisation.

For example, profanity in the workplace is often seen as 'acceptable'. It's not. 

Somebody will be offended by it, and you'll see it in employee surveys if you ask the right questions. The profanity is not the problem, the offence caused to another employee is.

If you overlook it, then it will escalate, and before you know it there are words that should never be uttered emerging in client meetings - and valued staff who don't like it will find ways to leave for pastures new.

Sexual jokes? You may think that the threat of litigation has stamped it out. Not so. If you hear one at work, and you don't respectfully draw attention to it, you are encouraging it.

Your corporate culture is the result of a large, complicated cycle of events. Behaviours that you allow will escalate.....

The good news is that this works for both positive and negative aspects of your culture - rewarding positive behaviours will reinforce them. So look for the good, and promote it.

But don't let your unwillingness to confront bad behaviours hijack your efforts.

Monday, 24 February 2014

Lego Movie Culture Lessons

I love Lego, so the fact that we enjoyed the movie so much was hardly a shock. Although one of the occupational hazards of working with organisational culture is looking at how things could be improved or replicated (even in fictional worlds)......

In the opening scene of the film we are introduced to the bad guy, Lord Business, who divides the all the Lego worlds and locks them away for eight and a half years.

President (Lord) Business wants to glue everything down, stop it moving, make it perfect and prevent changes and chaos. He even creates micro-managers and robots to help him restore order and process. 

He makes himself bigger before meetings, shouts a lot, doesn't listen, sends his chair kicking minion to terrorise the protagonists, and misunderstands things (especially new stuff he hasn't encountered before).

Then near the end of the movie, we see the the 'real world view' as Dad marches down into the basement to prevent his son playing with the perfect Lego models. He stops him creating new models, acting out new stories and building more fun. He wants his perfect models in their perfect dioramas to remain untouched and unchanged forever.

(I would add that I've come close to gluing some models together in the past, just to stop the kids breaking them. I received several jabs in the ribs from my Wife during the film).

What happens when Dad finally looks at the work he hasn't micromanaged? He sees some pretty impressive stuff - much more exciting than the original designs. 



I've seen managers (and entire companies) with the same problems.

The bad guy eventually fails because of the overwhelming passion of the heroes to make things different. No amount of chair kicking, glue spraying, control freak megalomania stops the inevitable march of progress.

Sometimes we all need to face up to the fact that the people you manage (or parent in this case) know more than you do, and getting them engaged will create the innovation you need to succeed and grow.

In the real world Lego already know this - they set the gold standard for engagement with their Japanese partner CUUSOO (which charmingly translates to 'wish something into existence'). 

When enough people vote for a community model, then Lego make it. Add this to their incredible design and marketing team and you find huge levels of constructive competition keeping a largely unchanged concept from 1958 at the leading edge of the toy market.

So please, take some advice.

If you only do one thing today, then listen to someones idea. Listen properly. Don't interrupt, thank them when they're done, then engage in some dialogue with them about it.

Everyone at your company has good ideas. Some of them may improve process, some may lead to new products. One of them is likely to be the thing that sets you apart from your competition and lets you retire early.

It's a good idea to build an engaged, healthy culture in your company if you want to survive. Doing that starts with you, and it starts today.

PS Don't kick chairs around. This happens a lot in the movie, and a lot in real life too (trust me on this, I've seen it happen, and I've seen it many, many times in employee surveys). It makes you look like an ass and undermines your authority. If you have to throw your toys out of the pram to get your message across you need to work on your dialogue skills.

Monday, 17 February 2014

Changing A Culture Of Avoidance

I've been noticing an increasing trend of issue avoidance at some of the companies I work with. Not just an inability to discuss the elephant in the room - but a genuine fear of confrontation that we are having to spend way too much time fixing.

Although more prevalent at lower levels of management, on the executive floor it often manifests as passive non-compliance (where people say "yes" and then don't actually do what they have committed too, instead choosing to pursue their own agendas). This then spreads through the ranks.

I was fortunate enough to attend a dinner with Professor Adrian Furnham last week, a hugely insightful (and entertaining) speaker, author, columnist for the Sunday Times - and he had some observations about the root causes.

Adrian made the general observation that modern western culture no longer sees feedback as a positive thing. In fact, the opposite is true - feedback (unless wholly positive) is seen as criticism. When suggestions are made, they are often not seen as routes to improvement, but rather a criticism of the work already done.

So I've been experimenting on my Wife and children (which is safer than experimenting on clients, and has the advantage of being free, fun and hugely entertaining)

On valentines day, my Wife and I went out for a nice breakfast to a newly opened cafe. She'd been there a few weeks ago with some friends for coffee, and wanted to introduce me to the place. 

After we'd placed our order I pointed out that some minor changes would greatly improve the place - some gentle music to create atmosphere, a wi-fi hotspot to encourage more passing business, a couple of additions to the menu and a few more comfortable chairs.

This was definitely received as criticism rather than feedback.

I know that starting the sentence with "This coffee is great, and I love that oak breakfast bar, although you know what would make this place even better........" would have changed that perception - but it shouldn't really be necessary.

Same thing with my children. Homework on the space program for my 12 year old son, I suggest some additions (to what is already  fabulous piece of work), and it can easily cause friction. Suggest another way of looking at fractions for my 9 year old daughter - easy to 'mis-phrase' the comment.


There are two methods of dealing with this issue in the workplace. Firstly you can teach everyone to interact with each other (at a conversational level) in a more constructive fashion. Your best people will already be doing that, those social skills and the ability to have difficult conversations effectively are one of the key defining traits for highly successful people. 

Or you can build a better culture in your organisation. One where those in your organisation hear things differently. Where people assume positive intent, where suggestions made are perceived as opportunities to improve, where people start to listen to others and react positively to criticism.

After all, people don't come into work to spread dissent and make others miserable. It's all too easy to blame the dialogue skills of others for their failure to communicate effectively - but it is equally your responsibility to hear positivity and suggestions, rather than negativity and criticism.

So I would encourage you to try it for a week, no matter what you hear, see it as an opportunity to improve - how hard can it be?

Wednesday, 12 February 2014

Keep Your Children Away From Twitter

This blog is a little off topic for me - but back in May last year I wrote an article on parental controls that is still getting plenty of attention, and I wanted to share a recent experience.

I consider myself to be well versed in tech and social media, I've been working with computers since I was nine years old, and worked in the technology industry most of my life. With four children it pays to keep up with what's going on in the world. But a few weeks ago, I learned something very new.

Twitter is the new home of easily accessible hard core porn for all.

It really is - if you need a hooker, stripper or dominatrix this evening - just take a look. Feel in the need for some hardcore sexual imagery? - It's only a click away, living side by side with all the business and celebrity chatter.

I couldn't have been more surprised if I'd seen One Direction smoking pot at the top of my LinkedIn headlines.

So please, please, please be aware of this before allowing your kids to use Twitter. They may not want to (my children think that Facebook is something old people do) - but be aware that access to Twitter is access to interactive pornography.


Brief back story......

I came upon this enlightening discovery while trying to help a friend who was being bullied online. This is a fellow parent I might add, not some naive teenager.

The abuse started out when somebody opened a fake Facebook account, then started hurling insults her way. They then tried to friend people she knew and draw their attention too the abuse. 

This became more and more personal and abusive, before turning into a game of virtual stalking and the posting of pornographic imagery with further lewd commentary. Then pictures started to show of her up taken at various locations nearby. 

Creepy, weird and sick.

Facebook (to their credit) allow you to report this kind of thing easily, just right click on any image - and after three complaints have now shut down the account. It took them only a few hours to respond each time.

But before he left Facebook, the abuser started a Twitter account, and shared his Twitter name. 

He then set about adding the same kind of imagery, abuse and offensive behaviour - and started to follow a number of accounts whose prostitution or pornography business is clearly very much at home in Twitters ecosystem. 

Then he starting to use the names of my friends employer and professional contacts in his abusive tweets, drawing attention to his newly posted (faked) nude pictures of her.

Twitter say that this is all perfectly OK, and allowed - freedom is their mantra. 

Multiple complaints received no reply - and it was only when my friend approached her employer about it (who have a large advertising contract with Twitter) that the offending account was removed.

I love Twitter - I really do, and enjoy using it to learn from others, keep in touch with friends and follow the antics of a few celebrities I admire. But I do wonder how many businesses know about the dark underbelly......and how that might affect advertising revenue in the future.

Monday, 10 February 2014

Five Reasons Performance Management Processes Suck

OK - let me tone down that title a little. All performance management processes don't suck, but most do - if you don't believe me, just ask some of your employees.

Managing and improving performance is essentially about developing people - these are management and leadership skills that require continuous communication, coaching and feedback.

By creating a 'performance management' process (or worse an 'annual appraisal process') you are absolving management from a key part of their role. Essentially you are saying "Don't think too hard, we'll create a process that you can follow, and magical things will happen to performance when you're done"

No good ever came out of a performance management system. What did you personally get out of your last performance review? Do you think HR rigorously go through each one and develop organisational development plans? Was your last promotion based on your review? Do you believe that organisational decisions are made based on your review? How much time was spent on the process?  Did it help YOU at all?

The process actively discourages tough conversations. Many new managers learn to rely on reviews as a 'formal' methods of giving feedback - instead of learning to deal with issues head on as they happen, respectfully and constructively. It becomes easier to make a note and bring it up during the next review cycle. This helps nobody, and eventually leads to a form of 'incompetence paralysis' in any company.

Eventually this builds a culture where managers only share the review with the employee during the meeting, an evil bullying trick designed to put the recipient on the defensive.

Invariably, the more process that get's placed around performance, the closer you get to  the 'happy hippy' system - where everyone is doing just GREAT. I've worked with several companies recently who have less than 1% of their staff in the lowest bracket for overall performance.

Two points on solving this one - firstly don't put a forced ranking in place, that will cause more problems than it solves. You might as well just start beating your employees with sticks - it's kinder, and at least illustrates your intent in a more obvious way.

Secondly don't under any circumstances add a 'super duper brilliant' achievement level above your top ranking because too many people are getting 'excellent' in their reviews. 

(You may be laughing at that idea, but I've seen it done many times)

Reviews are individually subjective. If you have a personality clash with your manager, that is going to reflect in your review - in most cases, because nobody takes any notice of the results anyway, it won't matter. But it will make you feel unhappy, and if you decide to 'appeal', it will draw HR attention to the matter and use lots of time that could otherwise be constructively spent.  This works equally with the managers 'favourites' and is even more damaging. 


Want to measure how badly your systems suck? Try these three simple tests:

Check out the percentage of your managers who complete their reviews in the last 48 hours of the process window. Plot the number of completions per day on a chart and you'll see a pretty curve. The steeper the curve, the more the system sucks.

(If you're feeling a little more bold, you can also look at how many managers started their reviews AFTER getting the employees self appraisal........there is nothing wrong with making edits based on submissions, but waiting for it before you start is a bad sign.....)

Look at how the overall performance rankings spread out (across the whole company) - you should see a normal distribution curve, low at the bottom, low at the top, and high in the middle brackets. It's OK to see some positive leanings here - but you know you're in trouble if you see this:

Check out how closely aligned your rankings lie with other factors - such as quota achievement, employee attrition, high potential leadership programs, training completion and so on. You should see a close match, if not, then consider that an alarm bell.


If you've made it this far, then let me offer some advice on some stretch goals for handling this problem (I'll check back on progress in a year and hope you've done something about it - that's our next scheduled review)......

Get rid of the whole thing. Teach your managers to continuously communicate, educate them on how to have uncomfortable conversations (try "Crucial Conversations" - Patterson et al), promote a more open and constructive culture within your organisation. 

Lose the idea of annual merit increases. This is where the whole mess began - higher performance should absolutely be rewarded, but lumping everyone together in a monolithic process and adding 'other stuff' just screwed it up. Either determine increases on career service anniversaries, or deliver them every quarter to 25% of your employees. 

You may not think this will work, your sales may 'hockey stick' at the end of the year and provide funding, your budget process is annual, it's never been done that way etc. etc. But your employees will understand it, you'll find it easier to plan for, and your shareholders will respect the predictability of the expense.

Finally have employees rate their managers performance. 

Yes, you read that correctly - reverse the process. The best feedback a manager can get is from those who work for them - you may have to make the process anonymous at first, but it will develop and grow your leaders like nothing else. 

I am not advocating universal 360 degree assessments (they don't work organisation wide, though I'll bet you use them occasionally for with your high potential leaders). Try something like this instead.

Friday, 7 February 2014

HR Hunger Games

I was lucky enough to participate in the HR Directors Business Summit in Birmingham earlier this week, and I had a great time learning from the many speakers and interacting with the delegates - if you didn't make it this year, here are a few of my takeaways from the event.....

Generalisations and prejudice are close cousins and should be avoided

It set my teeth on edge every time somebody introduced the idea of 'Millennial' behaviour, as +Mervyn Dinnen remarked during our HRD spotlight with +Perry Timms and Peter Reilly - if we all started making generalisations about women, black people, old people, gay people, muslims or disabled people we'd quite rightly be shouted off the stage - so why is it appropriate to group people into convenient age brackets for HR purposes?

This study is no doubt valid - but trying to fit my family into it would be impossible. My 'maturist' father couldn't care less about his car, sends emails and uses an iPad every day. I'm dead centre of 'Gen X'  and loathe online meetings, use my smartphone as much as my macbook and certainly don't demonstrate disloyalty to my employers. My eldest son 'Gen Z' prefers to use Minecraft and a desktop Mac to communicate with his friends and considers Facebook something 'old' people do. 

People are people. Trying to organise them into convenient groups is the equivalent of herding cats..........

Trust the professionals to do their job

I spent much of my career in the IT and data management world, and it never ceased to amaze me how often people would come and pass judgement on huge IT projects after completing their own home network installation, or first excel data macro.

The HR world is starting to see the same kind of influence occurring, and whilst external perspective is wonderful, and adding those external to HR can strengthen perspective - make sure you walk a mile in those shoes before passing judgement.

This was illustrated to me as my taxi driver took me to the station after the event - "Do you mind if I take a different route, it will save you time, but it will take us down the side streets" - I asked him if people ever refuse his advice...."more often than you think" was the answer.

There were the two hosts for our event. Juan Señor, the Emmy nominated journalist and TV presenter acted as master of ceremonies for the daytime events - and was completely captivating with both his stage presence and ability to summarise and question the keynote speakers. 

I was left however, with the unshakable conviction that the Hunger Games host Caesar Flickerman (played by Stanley Tucci in the movie) was wholly inspired by him. A fact pointed out to me during the second day by a friend who shall remain nameless.....(you know who you are)

During the awards ceremony in the evening, Jon Culshaw was not only master of ceremonies, but kept everyone engaged (and crying with laughter) as he impersonated everyone from Tony Blair to Les Dawson. Having Barak Obama read out the description of one of the HR awards will live with me for ever.

The fact is, if you want the best job done, hire a professional. You'll get better results, gain credibility and learn a great deal. 

Stop using dumb statements to describe people

Undoubtedly the worst phrase I heard during the event was "Human Resource Asset Philosophy" - I literally had to bite my hand to stop myself interrupting the speaker. Nobody likes being described as resource or an asset.

I'm not advocating a global shift towards "Chief People Officer" or "Personnel Director" - but talk about people as people. Never resources, assets, expenses or any other phrase which brings to mind a dehumanised automaton or a machine.

As Pierre Mille of Carlsberg remarked during his presentation "Last time I checked, people were not assets - they need love. Machines just need occasional maintenance"

If you don't have an engagement program in place you are being left behind

Employment engagement, retention and rewards had it's own track this year - but I heard about it in every session and within every keynote. Some selected quotes below:

"Leaders can be the biggest barriers to engagement and bringing yourself to work" Stephen Lehane, HR Director at Alliance Boots

"Engagement and simplicity are the two big issues"
Dr. Graeme Codrington, Futurist

"We have changed to a world of employee engagement" 
David Arkless, former President of Manpower Group

"Engagement success is directly responsible for higher sales, lower absences and greater mystery shopper scores"
Tanith Dodge, Director of HR at Marks & Spencer

"Engaged, enabled or energized - what level of engagement are your employees feeling?" Isabel Collins, Director of Culture & Engagement at Astellas

If you're not taking a long hard look at your own company through the lens of culture and employee engagement, you are ignoring a movement as significant as the introduction of the motor car and the retirement of the horse and cart. Take a look at the government backed Engage For Success movement website if you're looking for inspiration.


It's Friday as I write this blog, so in honour of what I'm sure MUST be a Gen Y behaviour started by Micah Baldwin (oops, my bad - he was born in 1971) I would recommend you 'follow friday' #FF this group of experts and further your HR knowledge.....