Organisational Culture Revisited

Yikes, I’ve been a HR practitioner for nearly 25 years now! ):

During this time, an ever-present theme in my work is the notion of organisational culture and how to change it. culture While I don’t disagree with any of the classical definitions of organisational culture, I have found the systemic approach the most compelling. As conversational beings, members of organisations co-create meaning through social interaction, in particular through language. From this dialogical perspective, organisational culture is simply the domain of understanding that has been created in a given workplace context.

Beautiful Consequences

Last week, my friend Chris Blantern, told me about Dr Stephen Brookfield and I’ve been learning more about his work online. I am finding his views about critical theory and pragmatism fascinating!

Brookfield believes that the Western education system is one of the primary contributors of the modernist way of thinking called logical rationalism, i.e., a sbdeductive way of seeing and knowing the world. He refers to this a scientific hypothetical-deductive way of thinking, where what counts as knowledge involves the generation of hypotheses and then trying to disprove these. In this paradigm, whatever we can’t disprove through scientific means, is knowledge that we can have confidence in.

Brookfield encourages us to widen our perspective (and indeed subvert this worldview) through critical thinking and pragmatism. I love his explanation of these terms and I’m very interested to see how I can incorporate them as research methodologies in my doctorate research.

For Brookfield, a critical thinker is someone who is able to discern that our ‘taken-for-granted assumptions’ of how the world works, not only shapes but also reinforces what we believe to be normative.

For change to happen, therefore, we need to be alert to how power works in society as well as in the micro realities of family, peer groups, communities and workplaces.

He really struck a chord with his assertion that critical research has the potential to illuminate social processes that make inequality seem normal. For me, this is the starting point for the co-creation of better social worlds.

Brookfield’s view of a pragmatist is someone who sees knowledge as something that is constantly emerging, re-invented and re-interpreted. Someone who is open to new and creative ways of thinking, and to changing what we do (and believe) based on new information. He famously said,

“Pragmatism is the pursuit of beautiful consequences, such as democracy, inclusion and connections”.

Check him out for yourself. This clip is an hour long but well worth it!

 

 

A great cameo of ‘modernist v post modernist’ thinking

Its been a long time since I actually laughed out loud (as opposed to texting the letters LOL on my iphone). But the following scene from the US Office really cracked me up:

Backstory: Angela just realised that her Senator husband was having an affair with Oscar. She’s being comforted by Dwight.

Angela: “I feel so stupid! I sit next to him (Oscar) every day!”

Dwight: “You’re not stupid… Jazz is stupid”.

Angela: “Yes Jazz is stupid! Why can’t they just play the right notes?”

piano

Appraisal as “entertainment”

Do not neglect hospitality, because through it some have entertained angels without knowing it. Hebrews 13:2

hospitality-1The Greek word for hospitality is philoxenia, which means loving others by establishing a relationship with them. In this context, this is an invitation to re-imagine the annual performance appraisal meeting as “entertainment”. By this I mean being hospitable to the person you are appraising as if he or she were a guest in your home or office, or if you were “entertaining angels unawares”.

I probably won’t be far wrong if I were to guess that your initial reaction to this is intrigue… tinged with a large dose of scepticism. That’s probably because we’ve all been conditioned to think that there is a “right” way of conducting appraisals based on management science which is rigorous and professional, in which case, this suggestion probably sounds like new age thinking gone mad!

As a HR practitioner for over 25 years, I have learnt that, in essence, there is really only one criterion for a successful appraisal meeting – that it is a meaningful conversation for those involved. If you’ve always run appraisal meetings that have been so inspirational to people that they have always gone on to accomplish much more, then you probably don’t need to read on. If however, you have found these sessions dry and unsatisfying, you might like to give this a try.

The beauty of this metaphor is that we all know how to be good hosts. The idea is that we simply behave as we do when someone comes to visit – be welcoming, polite, attentive but most of all, curious to learn from your guests. You’d be surprised at how much more you can learn even if you have known your colleagues for a long time, by asking questions and listening.

To do this, we need to shed the notion that leadership is about providing answers because you know it all; and, that it is possible to objectively evaluate and judge others from a partial perspective. Instead, the leaders’ role should be about facilitating mutual learning and co-creating meaningful action. The best way to do this is to be curious, to ask questions. As curiosity is contagious, you will find that eventually the conversation becomes a process of mutual inquiry!

Theoretically, this idea is drawn from two social constructionist sources, ie, the work of Miller and Katz[i] on the use of language to co-construct collaborative practice[1]; and, a seminar on “with’ness” by Dr Harlene Anderson[ii] in which she suggests a way of co-constructing local knowledge with others through role reversal.

Theologically, it stems from two biblical ideas:

  • That as part of a Trinitarian fellowship, the unique distinctiveness of Christian communities are that we are relational and conversational; and,
  • As with evangelism, genuine collaboration is only possible if it is invitational, ie, pull not push. I’ve heard it said that evangelism based on the ‘push model’ is basically just pestering people.  The same can be said about the push model of appraisal.

Start in a way you mean to go on

We know that what we do at the start of the meeting often sets the tone for the whole conversation. So it is important to show that you are genuinely interested in your guest from the first hello. As soon as they arrive, make them feel that you have been looking forward to seeing them, and genuinely interested in hearing what they have to say about their accomplishments and challenges of the past year.

If someone were visiting you for the first time, you would normally ask them to feel at home. You’d probably do this by demystifying the layout of your home by showing them around. You can do something similar for the appraisal session. People tend to be nervous because of the unknown, so start by demystifying the conversation. Other conversational starters might include:

  • Agreeing a time frame.
  • Suggesting that the session be conversational and about learning together.
  • Urging your guest to treat the conversation (your home) as if it were his or her own (in other words to speak freely).
  • Encouraging them to explore and ponder upon new insights in a way that’s most meaningful for them; and,
  • Inviting them to jointly agree the next steps as you go along.

Be a gracious host: Judging versus Joining

 In their paper about creating collaboration, Miller and Katz observed that most people approach social interaction from a standpoint of “judging”. According to them “in judging mode, we size people up, compare them with others and ourselves or see them as competitors or less knowledgeable subordinates, find fault, and engage with them cautiously…” For them judging “places distance between us and others, and it puts a limit on the people being judged – we put them in a box”… in this context, people feel “small”.

This has serious implications on appraisal processes/systems that are predicated on evaluating and assessing employees’ performance from a unitary perspective because when people feel judged by others, they often become guarded, uncooperative and mistrustful.

On the other hand, as in the case of hosting a guest, we can start the interaction by what the authors’ call “joining” mode, where the stance is welcoming, open, supportive, and interacting in a way that is intentionally about connecting. Joining invites listening, trust, valuing and challenging (but as friends), without which there can be no genuine collaboration.

Without “joining”, there can be no collaboration. The diagram below succinctly illustrates their hypothesis:

joining

Have “joining” conversations

Firstly, frame your meeting as a “valuation” (ie, appreciating and learning) conversation, rather than an evaluation process.

Based on the notion that your staff are capable and knowledgeable (after all, they are the ones with first-hand knowledge and insights of their jobs/professions), you might want to try a bit of role reversal. This is a great way to learn from their local knowledge, which in turn, will help you to become a better leader. This is because knowledge that is formulated from within your organisation will often be more relevant, more practical and more sustainable.

In this context, position yourself as the learner and the person you are appraising as the teacher. Ask questions. Be curious. Listen. Pay attention to what’s being said, the words and the story. Notice (and point to) insightful comments. Respond to show that you are understanding what’s being shared. Do this through body language, as well as in words. Nod, smile, say… “Yes”. “Say more”. “That’s interesting”. “What do you mean by that?” “What’s the lesson from that?” “Will that work in other situations and contexts?”, etc.

A helpful conversational guide:

  • Don’t tell, ask.
  • Ensure good turn taking in the conversation.
  • Make the conversation interactive.
  • Show curiosity.
  • Offer what you are noticing for the accounts/stories.
  • Be ready to identify and affirm new understanding.
  • Explore what new possibilities have been or can be created.
  • Don’t be nervous when there are silences. These are the spaces where reflection happens.

What about dealing with under performance?

This is a legitimate question. In my view, however, the annual appraisal meeting is not the occasion to give negative feedback; neither is it the place to deal with poor performance or questionable behaviour.

Organisations should have objective, non-discriminatory and lawful “capability” processes for this purpose. This is where under-performance or incompetence should to be tackled.

Routine feedback about performance, on the other hand, should be done in the moment, on a ‘just-in-time’ basis. The role of a great leader is to inspire people to make course adjustments, to improve or to excel in the moment, not at the annual appraisal meeting at the end of the year. If you do this on daily basis, there should be no need to raise issues of poor performance at the end of the year.

The annual appraisal meetings should be occasions where you and your colleagues make sense of what has happened during the year by reflecting, valuing, learning, affirming, appreciating and celebrating successes. If you do this, especially with people with whom your relationship is not great, your sessions are more likely to be life-giving and potentially transformational.

Acknowledgement

I am grateful to colleagues who have ‘thought’ this through with me, namely Ian Orton, Jennie Marshall, John Martin and Clare Woods and for their assurances that it’s not entirely bonkers!

Hospitality-is-not-about....-682x1024

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[1] NB: In their article, Millar & Katz suggest also suggest a set of words that help to “accelerate” collaboration. I do not elaborate on these but the entire paper is well worth a read (see endnote for reference).

[i] F A Miller, J H Katz, 4 Keys to Accelerating Collaboration, OD Practitioner, Vol 46, No 1, 2014

[ii] H Anderson, D Gehart, Collaborative Therapy: Relationships And Conversations That Make a Difference, Routledge; New Ed edition, 2006

 

 

Question: Is there a way to make people redundant in a Christian manner? Answer: Yes, live out your values.

A friend who was looking for another HR role recently asked me if I knew of any jobs going? She added “…but with as little transactional HR as possible as it saps my energy”. Who can blame her? She wants a more life-giving role.

My heart and prayers go out to all leaders and HR/Personnel people who seem to have been doing nothing but re-structuring and redundancies in the wake of the recession. It has been a life-draining job but I guess somebody has to do it!

Coincidentally, I was asked to write an article, giving advice from my experience of managing redundancies over the years. I thought I’d also publish this here in case it is of interest to my small but loyal blog readers!

Redundancy is the one thing that sends everyone into a spin. For many, only bereavement or divorce is more devastating.  It also puts people who have to manage the process through tremendous stress and pressure.

Conventional Wisdom

Some leaders default to a ‘regulatory’ approach, devising ‘downsizing’ plans based on fairness and legal compliance. This is not very relational. But in many ways feels easier because the formality (often [mis]taken for “professional”) and the reliance on legal process and procedures creates an emotional distance, making it feel less personal.

Others try to be “strategic” by creating financial sustainability plans. In this approach, HR departments are expected to align the redundancy process with this plan by producing a ‘best practice’ checklist for implementation.

Values, values, values

“Your beliefs become your thoughts,  Your thoughts become your words,
Your words become your actions,
Your actions become your habits,
Your habits become your values,
Your values become your destiny.”  ― 
Mahatma Gandhi

My advice is simply… “do not leave your values at the door”.

Redundancy processes have to be organised and indeed agonised through the lens of your values.

It is surprising how many Christian organisations don’t do this. For example, in one setting, staff noticed that the leadership team spent less than 5% of their time praying about the financial predicament, and more than 90% of their time discussing and devising their sustainability plan. For an organisation whose core value is “put prayer first”, this cannot be right.

If we are not working to our own values, whose values are we working to?

Financial management is often represented as neutral and value-free. However, like any other discipline, it is based on a particular set of assumptions – in the case of finance, usually a capitalist worldview.

In response to the current recession many charities have turned to ‘sustainability plans’ devised by their financial practitioners – very often at the expense of people-centred approaches to change management proposed by their HR/OD counterparts or by staff themselves!

The late Eric Miller from the Tavistock Institute reminded us that any intervention is a political intervention “insofar as it promotes some values and not others. Professional status in finance and accounting does not place the practitioner beyond the realm of values”. So, before we implement any financially-based solutions, we have to ask ourselves “are the values and assumptions behind these solutions congruent with those of our organisation’s values?”

In my experience, when sustainability plans are unilaterally devised and imposed by senior management, the drive for organisational “alignment” and talk about consultation are in reality attempts to get “compliance”.

Holding up a mirror

People generally find it easier to discuss values in good times. However, in my many years working in the Christian sector, I’ve noticed that values, beliefs and ethos are often side lined when leaders are faced with the pressure and stress of making redundancies. Sadly, some leaders have even tried to justify this as good leadership – i.e., recognising the “burning platform” and “quickly making tough decisions”. For me, this does not excuse putting values to one side or on the back burner.

Here are some examples of the consequences of non-reflexive action:

  • Middle managers folding under pressure by their bosses to get rid of people senior managers don’t like or want;
  • Vocal managers fighting to maintain, even extend their ‘empires’ at the expense of others. (e.g. it is not uncommon that fundraising teams actually increased in staffing and funding (as part of the sustainability strategy), while every other department had to make cuts);
  • Teams getting rid of people who are “a bit eccentric” but nevertheless competent;
  • Managers getting rid of people who, in their view, are not ”can do”, or, who are “not a fit”;
  • Quiet or amenable people unfairly targeted;acc
  • Retaining assertive, vocal people (because they are likely to take us to an Employment Tribunal);
  • Victimising overly vocal people (who champion the rights of others);
  • Leaders using the opportunity to implement a ‘pet’ idea/project or to make the restructure they’ve always wanted but couldn’t because of opposition;
  • Laying off people who you have a personality clash with;
  • Getting rid of people whose contracts include benefits that Senior Managers want to do away with (tied housing, cars, etc.);
  • Exiting people who hold different theological view/s;
  • Inappropriate use (e.g., favouring senior staff) of settlement agreements (formerly known as compromise agreements).

going quietly‘Living’ our values during testing times is the only way that we make our values real and authentic. Difficult episodes should be seen as opportunities to live the values.

If organisational cultures are essentially stories people share, how we deal with redundancies will be woven into the organisation’s stories of “who we are” and “how we do things around here”.  These stories play a crucial part in our public identity and consequently our aspiration to be an employer of choice.

No amount of effort or money spent on branding and communication can erase the corporate memory of how critical moments in the life of our organisations are badly handled.

The aftermath: What kind of organisation have we made?

Unlike commercial branding, values cannot be merely window dressing. Every time a staff member experiences a gap between our ‘story told’ and our ‘story lived’, our Christian identity takes a backward step. At worst, this pattern could result in a sense of spiritual malaise.

After each downsizing exercise, it is important to review what we, the organisation, made as a result of the redundancies. By this, I don’t mean a ‘learning review’ about what worked and what didn’t. But rather, a ‘meta’-conversation (i.e., a helicopter view conversation with decision-makers) about whether there are discernible patterns or consequences on our demographics or relationships as a result of the downsizing – e.g. was the outcome older staffinadvertently discriminatory to junior staff, older people, women?

‘Reflexivity’ is a conversation about what we have become as a result of our action/s and a discussion about whether we are happy with what we have made. And, if not, what should we do about it?

Note about ‘self’

Christians continue to struggle with our human nature and sin (self-preservation, competitive streak, fear, ambition, greed, anger, gossip, etc). When under pressure to select people for redundancy, therefore, it is important to be reflexive about how our shadow side works.

For example, in the context of workplace politics, how likely are we to subliminally use the process of downsizing to exert or gain more power and control or to discriminate against, rather than to value difference?

During times of recession, people are normally more pliable because they are afraid to lose their jobs. In this context, Christian leaders have been known to take advantage of this situation to unilaterally make changes they might not have otherwise been able to.

When the going gets tough, leaders and managers need to:

  • be reflexive (rather than reactive);
  • envision how we want to live the values, and
  • to determine how we can live our values courageously.

It is a time for making choices, finding our voice, being real, connecting, and above all, it is a time for enacting our values.

HR/OD: Finding our voice as a profession

One of our challenges is senior leaderships pigeon-holing us as a ‘transactional’ function, i.e. only here to do the legal and best practice bits well.

We need to find a voice beyond the transactional to having a transformative role. We can do this by helping our organisations move away from the dualistic thinking that redundancies boil down to ‘hard’ or ‘soft’ initiatives or it is about making a choice between finance or people strategy.

We need to help our organisations’ integrate financially-based change strategies with an intentional employee engagement initiative. This moves us away from the “either-or’ position (e.g. profits or people; survival today or building for tomorrow) to a more holistic “both-and” position. Ironically, one stated value of many organisations is “people are our greatest assets”.  This cannot be just in good times!

A time of crisis is precisely when organisations need to unleash its greatest asset, i.e., creative, purposeful and knowledgeable people, made in the image of God. It is only through human cooperation, enterprise, innovation, creativity, commitment and hard work that get organisations out of tough times.

A strategic OD/HR approach is about bringing people together. Creating space for listening and sharing the issues/challenges and dilemmas openly – with the view of co-creating actions. The opportunity to hear the voice of the whole system they are a part of, brings out the best in people. This is when dialogue becomes more collaborative, visioning becomes more creative and owned.

I’ve heard it said that “Best Practice”, is a term organisations used to describe the latest or trendiest techniques from the outside, i.e. gurus, academics and other organisations. In my view, “Best Practice” needs to be reframed as effective ways of working that best reflect and embody our values. This can only come from within.

Human or Inhuman Resource Management?

I am old enough to remember hearing the term Human Resource Management for the first time. I was a young personnel practitioner in a blue chip company, sitting in the audience of an in-house Conference. I can still hear the Keynote Speaker say “The time has come for Personnel to decide whether you are here to serve the cats or the cat owners”. He bellowed, “I’m here to tell you that it is a no brainer. It’s the cat owners”.  He went on to say that Human Resource Management (HRM) was a way to maximise human potential by aligning the individual to the organisational goals, which at the end of the day was increasing profits for the shareholders.

HRM brought with it the thinking that employees are not merely overhead costs, but people were ‘resources’ or ‘assets’ that had a value/worth linked to their economic utility. My former tutor at King’s College, London, Tom Keenoy (1990) wrote that HRM’s prime objective was to legitimise the management ideology that strives to intensify work through the use of labour.

I guess this makes sense in the commercial sector where the employment relationship is characterised by employers’ desire to maximise profits. In this context, HRM is about increasing productivity. For me, this is at odds with its claims to be ‘human’, oriented for the good and well being of people. At best, it is an attempt to use psychology in a transactional context where the relationship is intrinsically unequal. Some argue that the move away from regulation to the ‘winning of hearts and minds’ merely masks the fact that the end game is still control and conformity. In this sense, HRM is a means to an end.

Is this too harsh? Judge for yourself.

In your experience, how has HR practices structured social relations in your organisation? How is power used, and by whom and for what purpose… particularly in the way that job analysis, job evaluation, work plans, selection & recruitment, performance appraisals, and disciplinary and grievance procedures are done?

A critical view is that these ‘management tools’ allow individuals to be objectified, classified, measured and ordered in a particular way, creating such things as leaders and followers; and then maintaining this social order?

Many Christian organisations have introduced HRM because this is the self-evident, professional thing to do. Surely it is time that we ask how the ideology of the market place (HRM) is influencing, even changing, our culture, ethos, beliefs and identity in the process?

Needless-to-say, I feel that Christians should be more discerning about what practice we adopt; and be proactive about exploring biblically based forms of organising (and leadership).

Why am I drawing attention to this? Am I biting the hand that feeds me? According to the French philosopher Michel Foucault “by showing that things are not as self-evident as one believed, transformation becomes very urgent, very difficult and quite possible”.