Hipster HR

Hipster HR

One of my favourite stories of last year was of someone complaining of their photo (from a stock gallery) being used in an article about hipsters. The claim was that their photo being used portrayed them in a negative light. The article was on group conformity and on how, whilst trying to show they don’t conform, all hipsters end up looking alike.

The kicker was that it transpired that the person complaining proved that point by mistakenly thinking it was an image of them – when in fact it was just another hipster. You can read a thread about it here. The overall contention of the article (based on a paper here with maths I don’t pretend to understand) is that “people who oppose mainstream culture all end up looking the same”.

It is rare to find people who don’t seek out a tribe/group identity – even if sometimes that is joining forces with other people who boldly say they don’t want to be part of a group. The kids at school who agree that everything sucks except people who agree that everything sucks – and the same people who turn up in organisations. I think we see the same in HR and it’s interesting to witness. Jane Watson has written this excellent piece on normative vs descriptive theories of HR and – over time – you can almost see multiple camps form, disband and reform.

There’s a group ‘doing the do’ – and a group saying ‘this is how the do should be done’. And they have their own languages and signifiers and champions. And it’s really, really interesting to watch. Of course the real win lies in the best of both. It lies in the desire for better being married with ways of delivering that. It lies in endeavouring for a higher standard whilst understanding the constraints that prevent things from being perfect. It lies in people bringing energy into shared ambtion, not just revelling in points of difference. Most of the goals are shared – we shouldn’t define ourselves simply by degrees of fanaticism. We should solve together.

One of the most fascinating things I’ve seen in my role is the constant desire of groups to define their boundaries exclusively to then claim a space as an out group. ‘Nobody gets us, that’s all your fault’. If you take a step back and just observe it’s intriguing, it’s understandable but arguably ultimately unproductive. Don’t be the hipster not wanting to be a hipster. Or the hipster saying everyone else is wrong.

Be whatever you want to be and find others happy enough to be what they want to be too. Find your learning and challenge wherever you can. It’s too precious not to take everything available.

Please note: the author has absolutely nothing against hipsters. I just liked the story.

A Year Without Work

A Year Without Work

Early in my career I took a job in a department that was supposed to be delivering a major new product for one of our business partners. It seemed like a great opportunity. What happened next was that the deal was delayed and the delayed again. But we were already in training and so the organisation decided to leave us in this new area until we were needed. So after training was completed I was earning the most money I ever had (low bar at that point, we aren’t talking Jeff Bezos money) but had no work to do.

Technically there was some work to do, but I am an early riser and a quick worker which meant that most days I had finished my allotted work by the time I was actually supposed to start work. Leaving me a whole day of… Well, what?

It turned out pretty quickly that the team of 8 were part of something that should have been monitored and evaluated as part of a social experiment. We all reacted in different ways.

  • One person (low level of driveā€¦) simply kicked back and relaxed so much they could often be found asleep at their desk with earphones in. Other teams complained and he didn’t care
  • Another took to professional gambling through their phone
  • Several of us started Fantasy sport leagues with multiple teams and competed against each other there. Or played the stock markets with imaginary money
  • One person was so bored they would get everyone else cups of tea or do favours for them… if the other team members would leave extra work for them. Yes, they actually worked for work to avoid having no work
  • I read everything that I could on the area of expertise so that subsequent training courses became a bit redundant because I’d put in such intense study that nothing was new to me
  • Tempers would flare and people would shout at each other – not because of the pressure of work but because of the lack of it
  • Other colleagues in the business hated us for the lack of work and we hated them for having work

I guess it taught me very early that for some getting out of work is bliss. Yet after a short period of excitement for most people there was a hunger to do something that had a value or was valued. We wanted to be productive. We weren’t saving lives, but whatever we did was going to be better than things we knew had no worth.

So whenever someone tells me that someone is lazy I’m tempted to suggest that you give that person no work for a year. There’s nothing more strangely useful in helping us see the perverse value we place on it. It’s also worth remembering that you can place 8 people in an identical situation and get 8 completely different reactions. We are curious beasts.

The Nature of Your Jobs

The Nature of Your Jobs

For long time readers (that’s both of you) my aversion to Apple as an organisation and the near cult of Steve Jobs is well documented. However, I’m also pretty ‘whole of market’ about where I get my wisdom – because I think learning is so precious that you should try and grab it wherever you find it.

It would be ridiculous to say I didn’t like Apple so there are no lessons to be learned from that organisation or its history.

The other day I passed an ice cream stand that had a Steve Jobs (attributed) quote written on a board.

‘If you want to make everybody happy all the time then don’t become a leader… go sell ice creams’

I think at the heart of that is something really important. That helping people and organisations get better – and helping them achieve – isn’t the same as making people happy.

It certainly isn’t about making people unhappy (that’s toxic), but most of us have benefitted from tough but necessary lessons at some point in our careers. Most of us have recognised our luck in having people who are prepared to have the uncomfortable conversations with us which prompted us to reflect and grow. Once the conversation is over most of us were thankful that our manager/boss/colleague cared. Most of us – longer term – were happier.

I think it’s largely a false choice to ask people to pick between being respected and being liked. They aren’t mutually exclusive. But don’t ever lose sight of the fact that leaders get paid to do the stuff you respect them for, not to enhance their own popularity. My caveat to this is that once you accept you can’t make an omelette without breaking eggs then it gives some people with a predilection for breaking eggs a nice excuse for poor behaviour. As with many things the truth lies somewhere in between.

If you are leading people then what they need and what they want aren’t always aligned. It’s your job to support those conversations to reconcile those things even if you are unpopular for a bit.

If you are leading people then their standards and those of the organisation might need to get a bit closer. It’s your job to step towards those conversations as quickly as possible for their benefit.

If you are leading people then sometimes the conversations with one person about their impact on the broader group fall may in your lap – it’s your job to handle them with grace and care.

If you don’t fancy that job or if you just want to be liked…

Well, you can always go and sell ice cream.

(please note if you work as a leader in the ice cream industry then you’ve got all angles covered. Kudos)

Leaders: Is that how you want to be seen?

I wrote some time ago about the fact that senior teams on organisations are people too. I was chatting to a group a few weeks ago about influencing organisational strategy and that sometimes the aspirational influencing techniques and the ROI figures from research won’t hit the spot. That’s because evidence helps – but people still make decisions based on emotional reactions.

I’ve seen perfectly reasonable business cases rejected because, despite compelling evidence, people just didn’t ‘believe in them’ and less compelling cases termed as ‘worth a punt’ or ‘feeling like what we should be doing’. Quite often it has depended on who is presenting and how it is presented.

The idea of the completely rational senior team is as implausible as that of the rational consumer in economics. They are a group of smart people with the same prejudices, biases and ego challenges as the rest of us. They care about how they are viewed, not just numbers.


Don’t plan around what should happen in those hallowed rooms, plan around what we know does happen.

So I think the following are valid influencing tactics

– Not doing this is inconsistent with the values that you/we keep talking about

– I’ve heard you talk about how you want to be seen as a leader who cares about x and I think that’s really important; and this would be a really good way to bring that to life for people.

– Not doing this undermines your personal credibility and ability to get other things done and I know how hard you have worked to change impressions of this team after the last x left

– What do you want your legacy to be? What type of company are you trying to create? I think this could be a key step to achieving that…

– Doing this will buy you the goodwill to do x or repair the damage caused by y

– It’s not commercially imperative but it sends a clear signal about how to approach other work/how much you as a team care about y

– I’m confident it might be award winning (Note: don’t use this too often unless you regularly land awards)

It’s not nice and fluffy, it may be slightly manipulative and it isn’t all you should rely on. It certainly wouldn’t work with all senior teams, but it should be in the toolkit.

Don’t be afraid to treat people as people – because there is opportunity to do better for people and organisations by knowing which buttons to push. A whole of market approach to influencing to get the right things done.