The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

The Surprising Truth About Obvious Truths

I regularly talk and write about the need for a more evidence based approach to creating work that works better for more people. Less guff. There is too much faddishness and too many poorly thought out and poorly joined up initiatives. I’m therefore naturally grumpy when people attempt to sell solutions packaged with overclaims or rubbish evidence to back it up (‘Our product has used neuroscience to improve 107% of orgs we worked with’). I’m the one that says ‘prove it’ because not enough time is spent really reflecting on what is most likely to work. We rush to action.

That said… It’s worth making sure that we don’t throw the baby out with the bathwater when taking this approach and I’ve seen some of that recently. In an effort to, rightfully, avoid overclaims it is easy to undermine legitimate claims in the same space. Or maybe more obvious truths just become collateral damage. I thought I’d share a couple of examples

1. Growth mindset

Carol Dweck’s work on growth mindset (the need for a belief in possible improvement being central to performance, expanded on in Bounce by Matthew Syed) has come in for criticism. Some criticism centres around falsifiability (if you say something must not have been done properly if it doesn’t work then it’s hard to prove it doesn’t work) and some applicability (a lot of the work in this area has been done with children, not in work environments). And there is absolutely validity in the criticism. The challenge however is that it would be absolutely perverse to believe that a willingness to persevere and practice isn’t strongly linked to the ability to improve. If you remove the research and just think it through it must to some extent be true. It would be theoretically possible to fundamentally disagree with research (methodology or conclusions) and still hold that practice makes perfect (or at least better) and that people who give up aren’t likely to get better at things. It’s a surprisingly obvious truth.

2. Engagement

For years we’ve been told that better levels of engagement guarantee business success. Or are inescapably linked to business success. But the academic evidence for this is weak. Rob Briner provides an excellent overview here and was commissioned by Engage For Success to do an evidence review which concluded… There isn’t a lot of credible evidence for what are some quite often incredible claims (made by a host of providers). Yet having said that… if you ignore all of overclaims and pseudoscience and reduced the engagement case from something akin to organisational magic to something more mundane then… the claim is simply that ‘People who want your organisation to succeed are more likely to contribute than people who really don’t care’. That seems relatively uncontroversial. To what extent it makes a difference might be debatable, but not that a difference exists. The packaging is the problem, not the potential mundane but important truth.

Where people are making claims we should examine them, but we should also remember that our own experiences and those of others are a type of evidence. And a valid type of evidence. A little more joined up common sense and a little less ‘studies show organisations that do one thing succeed’ might get us a long way.

If you are interested in taking a more evidence based approach then I’d recommend

Dirty Rotten Bloggers and Thought Leechership

Last week I had the opportunity to go and see F.W. De Klerk speak about the end of apartheid and the importance of leadership – something that Kate Griffiths-Lambeth covers in wonderful detail here. I then went to see Dirty Rotten Scoundrels at the weekend. 

De Klerk spoke at some length about how the requirement of leadership is to stand for something, – not to just play back to the people what they want to hear in order to get yourself elected. It is an important distinction and a complicated one – is it arrogant to suggest that sometimes the leader will be in the best position to see what is best for the people? Is the essence of democracy enshrining of choice – or the enshrining of the choice of a leader? Since principles seem to shift over time how do you stand up for them?

Dirty Rotten Scoundrels was great fun and one of the songs elaborated on what it took to be a great con man

“Give them want they want. Smooth and easy.”

So much of the content that we read is so similar to other content that it is hard to pick out

  • who is trying to make a point
  • who thinks in the same way as other people
  • who is just trying to sound ‘on message’ and give the people what they want

I’m pretty sure someone who has never worked in HR could read a few blogs/’thought leadership’ pieces and cobble them together into something that would get a good reception.

Top topics seem to be

  • Isn’t the recruitment experience a bit pants?
  • Aren’t performance reviews a bit pants?
  • Isn’t HR a bit pants?
  • Isn’t classroom training a bit pants?
  • Don’t we have too much policy?
  • Shouldn’t we have more diversity? 
  • Is x dead? (where x = engagement/thought leadership/ROI as required)
  • Shouldn’t we all use technology more?
  • Remote working is a good thing isn’t it?
  • Isn’t command and control a bit too commanding and controlling?
  • Isn’t Big Data an opportunity/a pathway to a dystopian future?

Maybe writing those is giving the people what they want? Maybe some of us are unwitting con artists and some of us are intentional con artists. Plenty of us will say we don’t write for the stats – but I bet not many of us would write if nobody read or responded. 

Maybe being unpopular is a sign of genuine leadership. Maybe the best thought leadership out there is so unpalatable or progressive that it doesn’t register, as it doesn’t fit into one of the categories above.

I’ve written posts on most of the topics above, so this is a reflection rather than a pop at other people. What would leadership in this space look like? Or is ‘social’, by its nature, more about collaboration than genuine creation? 

How can you tell someone exploring a topic from a stats hungry Dirty Rotten Blogger? How can you tell a thought leader from a thought leecher? 

Would it make any difference if you could? 

 

I don’t know who’ll want this post, but thanks to Mervyn Dinnen for the nudge

 

 

Simple things – language and HR

The Official Dilbert Website featuring Scott Adams Dilbert strips, animations and more

It isn’t that hard.

I’m not saying it’s easy, but the things we do actually aren’t rocket science. Unless you are currently a very involved Business Partner for NASA ( in which case, apologies – but it’s hardly brain surgery).

It does seem that s all too often we require the comfort blanket of credibility that is jargon. How can HR become more ‘commercial?’  – is it by asking people to ‘have a bluesky roundtable, lasered in on improving synergistic dialogue that will improve idea socialisation and then to carpark any issues to take them offline’?

Do we really believe that the leadership teams we work with hear something like that and think ‘great idea, team!’ – or are we hoping they will be so confused that it will act in a way similar to Latin in a legal document – to distance understanding to the point where most believe they are reliant on an ‘expert’ to make sense of what is going on.

If we want transparent and inclusive organisations (most people do) then don’t make language a barrier make it an ‘enabler’ – better still, just make it helpful.

So here is my brief list of words that we could probably kill without anybody thinking less of us, feel free to add more

Add value – try just helping. Everyone understands help. ‘Am I helping you?’ is a powerful question. ‘Am I adding value?’ is asking for reassurance

Engagement – if you can’t define engagement  in a way that doesn’t immediately make someone think of a survey – then try another word. Are you scared of people being passionate about working for you and believing in what you do? Does it sound too woolly? Or was that what you wanted in the first place.

Stakeholder management – you have customers, shareholders and colleagues.  Which ones does this impact? Go make them happy. When I think of stakeholders I think of this drawing by the fantastically talented Simon Heath (@Simonheath1)

Contracting – try just agreeing. You are agreeing something with a person, don’t turn them into a transaction – you both lose out.

Big data – you probably don’t know what this means. Have a look http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Big_data Suprised? Stop using it because it is trendy – try doing some basic analysis of your data

Performance management – when you say you are ‘performance managing’ someone do you mean ‘I’m finally accepting I might have to sack them so I’ve started some documentation’? Thought so. What were you doing before? When they are performing you weren’t managing their performance? That’s a bit embarrassing – you only appear to have a role in failure. Awkward

Employee attrition – you made a bad hire or someone found somewhere better to work. It is unlikely that someone ‘attrited’ – it just feels nicer to say it because when we use technical language it loses some of the immediacy. ‘What percentage of our people didn’t want to work here anymore last year?’ is actually a far scarier and useful question than ‘what is our annualised attrition rate YTD?’. People leave, they don’t attrite. At the point you apologise for ‘having to attrite the party early’ it will be acceptable.

Managing expectations effectively – just let them know why you are going to miss the target. They are a grown up, you are – have a chat instead of attempting to manage them

Generation X/Y/Z – imagine how you would feel if you went out for a meal and were allocated your food based on age… How annoyed would you be? Or if the cinema automatically ushered you away from the movie you wanted to watch – because you were 6 months older than their target demographic. Doesn’t feel like a great way to run a business does it? So don’t do it internally, learn about your people and be flexible in how you treat them – not because generations are different, but because people are. Kierkegaard wrote ‘if you label me you negate me’ . If even his generation understood that….

Significant culture change –this appears to be interchangeable with ‘transformation programme’ which in turn seems to involve ‘significant structural change’ which in turn seems to require HR professionals who are ‘experienced in consultation’ which in turn seems to involve people ‘familiar with large scale redundancy programmes and TUPE’.  They aren’t interchangeable terms, I appreciate the interdependency, but changing a culture does not primarily involve needing to be able to sack people with minimal risk

So, that is my list of shame, please feel free to add more in the comments or on Twitter.

Dave