How to fail (as an employer, organisation, government, leader, Prime Minister, etc.)…

A few years ago I wrote a book called ‘Managing People in Organisations’ (Amazon link here) – I like to think that it’s pretty good and, my own trumpet blowing aside, it represents a thorough review of the best practices in keeping people engaged at work (and therefore more likely to be productive, longer-term employees). Since then, I’ve spent a lot of time helping to improve people’s workplace engagement, including a year working for a large consultancy to develop a marketable version of an employee wellbeing and engagement system devised in Finland (called Workability – a way of assessing a person’s risks of dropping out of the workforce prematurely, and reducing those risks).


In other words, I’ve spent quite a lot of time researching and working on ways to help organisations get more (including loyalty, effectiveness, productivity, and wellbeing) out of their employees, without the employee becoming pissed off, withdrawn, or ineffective. That’s why it annoys the crap out of me when I see so many organisations continuing to manage staff in such a piss-poor way, and even more so when they actually believe they’re doing the right thing.

Let’s start with an absolute maxim: When your business relies on human expertise, your primary consideration should be the performance and wellbeing of the humans providing that expertise. Why? Because, in most modern businesses, without the people who provide the knowledge to run that business, the business becomes nothing more than a collection of rented buildings, a pile of leased furniture and computers, and an overinflated sense of its own importance. This is the difference between the tangible and the intangible worth of an organisation; in most modern organisations the intangible worth (i.e., the value of the knowledge provided by the people who work there) outstrips the tangible worth (i.e., the physical value of an organisation’s assets) by at least a factor of 10. Even large multinationals with huge infrastructures are substantially more reliant on their people than their stuff. Put as simply as I can: without the people, nothing gets done (or done well), if nothing gets done (or done well) the organisation is worthless.

So when businesses get confused between a product and a person, they will suffer. And they suffer because their ability to produce whatever it is they produce is lessened. Thus, organisations fail when people are treated as easily replaceable – whether that person is an employee or a customer. An example springs to mind: recently, I received a series of missed calls. After five attempts, I answered to a call-centre employee, with only a basic command of English, who attempted to sell me a new phone package (sell in only the loosest sense of the word, because neither of us seemed to have any idea what was going on). The poor guy had been asked to cold-call people who had no interest in hearing what he had to say, and been given no tools, apart from a telephone, with which to do so (I can’t even begin to imagine the conditions in which he was required to work). The fact that he had to do this in a language he didn’t appear to speak made this exercise guaranteed to fail: an exercise in pointless frustration for both of us, that left me with a conviction that I would never use the services of that particular company. And yet, someone in that organisation actually thought that this was a good idea. I suppose with the pittance the call-centre employee was likely to have been paid, the economics of the exercise are a bit like spam – even if they get one customer in 1000 calls, there’s probably a small measure of profit in it. But the combined lack of respect for both the employee and the company’s prospective customers inherent in this act is appalling. I honestly hope that that organisation fails – it simply doesn’t deserve to continue functioning in the modern world.

I call this type of action the ‘call centre double fail’ – and it’s representative of organisations that refuse to acknowledge human factors. Cost cutting (e.g., outsourcing your sales or customer support) looks nice in the short-term, but when done this poorly it simply disenfranchises everyone (both employees and customers) who might actually provide revenue or support to the organisation.

Actually, it’s the combination of head in the sand thinking about human factors in business that, alongside poorly thought out attempts to make things better (i.e., “Modern” working practices), are the reasons why so many organisations (including governments) fail. It’s also important to note here that “fail” doesn’t necessarily mean poor financial performance (at least in the short-term) – it also means damage to reputation, unethical or unprofessional practices, loss of trust, or harm to others.

There are some basic principles for human engagement that really do work, that aren’t particularly hard to act on, and that result in benefits for pretty much everyone. Let’s start with leadership (because it really does come from the top). Organisational culture isn’t entirely under the control of those who run the organisation, but it’s certainly highly influenced by it. If a leader starts from a position of integrity, honesty, and respect, and then makes sure that he or she acts in line with those values, and works to ensure that those values are enacted throughout the organisation, regularly and consistently, there’s a pretty good chance that it will happen. It’s even more likely to occur if a leader encourages and supports those whom he or she leads to take initiative in the delivery of these values. On the flip side, leaders who allow an organisation to run based on short-term profit at the expense of longer-term sustainability, who have little respect for those who work for or contribute to the organisation, and who support (actively or passively) unethical or harmful actions, are going to screw it up eventually. You can only be evil for so long – eventually you’ll run out of minions.

Carefully tied with leadership is the notion of respect. Humans are pretty resilient creatures overall, but they function best when certain fundamental needs are met. At a basic level we’re talking about shelter, food, safety, etc. But in a work environment, we’re also talking about being able to work without ongoing, excessive pressure; to have time to engage in a life outside of work; to form useful, supportive relationships; to develop skills and knowledge at a useful rate; to have a certain amount of variety and flexibility in ways of working; and to feel connected to work (i.e., that what someone does has some sort of meaning that he or she can relate to). A lot of this stuff comes down to acknowledging that, for most people, work is an important part of their lives, and that, given the choice, most of us will choose to work (whether we need to or not), as long as that work is satisfying or meaningful. In other words, it’s not that hard to engage someone in his or her work, as long as he or she feels connected (read here, here and here for more on wellbeing at work).

Connection really isn’t that hard. A good start is to make sure that an organisation’s values aren’t developed by the marketing department. A pretty much universal way to piss people off is to say one thing and then do another, especially when your stated values actively contradict your actions (look no further than Australia’s current government to understand why most people here aren’t happy with their governance). So making sure that an organisation actually gets its values, and then acts on them in a consistent fashion helps. It also helps to communicate those values clearly to the people who work there (and to customers and other stakeholders) and to help them align their daily actions with those of the organisation.

Connection is closely aligned with engagement – people feel connected when they’re interested and engaged, and it’s not that hard to design a job to make it at least mildly engaging, even in difficult, repetitive, or low-paid or low-skill jobs. Disengagement starts when a job, or an interaction (in the case of a customer or constituent), conflicts with a person’s needs. If I’m not paid enough, if my job consistently conflicts with spending time with my family or stops me from having any leisure time, if I’m constantly bored or underutilised, if I feel threatened by or disconnected from my coworkers, if I’m stagnating, have no support, or have to do the same thing every day, I’m disengaged, disconnected and just not interested in the organisation – no matter how well it likes to tell me it’s doing, or what demands it makes of me. Amazingly, there are actually people with expertise in designing jobs that improve engagement (they’re called psychologists) but, sadly, they’re not often in management. Simply asking a person to give you a hand in improving his or her engagement (within realistic bounds) is a great start. Sadly, the best intentions often do the most harm – rather than asking people how they can help, many managers just assume that doing something is better than nothing, and then proceed to do exactly the wrong thing.

Of course, none of this is a panacea, but making it easier for people to feel engaged with their work is a great start. Likewise, making customers want to come back is seldom about slick advertising campaigns or discounts, it’s about quality of experience. Engaging the electorate is about helping people feel that they are represented rather than governed, respected rather than taken for granted. And all it takes is some attention, some effort, and not being an evil bastard.

And, of course, if you want to really learn about how to manage people in organisations you can always buy my book!

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