Monday, 25 June 2012

Fan Mail

The longer I work the more convinced I become that the roots of almost all employee related issues come down to communication.  There are always two sides to every argument and frequently each side has failed to appreciate the point that the other side was making, until it is too late and an area of conflict has developed.  Sometimes poor communication and misunderstanding come about as a result of unconscious bias.  We make decisions every day that favour one group to the detriment of others and often we don’t even realise that we are doing it. (Did you know that, according to the research findings published by Timothy Judge and Daniel Cable in “The Effect of Physical Height on Workplace Success and Income” in the “Journal of Applied Psychology, less than 15% of American men are over six foot tall, yet almost 60% of corporate CEOs are over six foot tall and that less than 4% of American men are over six foot, two inches tall, yet more than 36% of corporate CEOs are over six foot, two inches tall? I am sure that the job description for almost all these CEOs did not specify their needing to be above a certain height.)

We will never fully eradicate bias (it’s a fundamental part of human nature and necessary to enable us to make choices – all recruitment is a form of discrimination, provided that there is a selection of candidates to choose from) - but we can take measures to try to avoid unconscious and inappropriate bias, that might adversely impact on our futures, as there is often little point in accepting the status quo and expecting permanent growth.  

In my opinion, successful individuals and organisations are the ones that actively seek people’s opinions, rather than simply relying on their own perceptions.  Take Griffin Health Services (Griffin), as hospital and healthcare provider/consultancy in the USA, as an example.  It might have been easy for the hospital to accept the fact that it was destined to be “an also ran”, as it is surrounded by six successful, larger and better funded hospitals that, on the surface, appeared to have the advantages that would attract the majority of patients.  However, Patrick Charmel, the CEO of Griffin made the best of what many would have perceived as a bad situation.  He appreciated that Griffin’s survival depended on the hospital’s ability to differentiate itself from these other neighbouring health providers.  In an attempt to better understand patient requirements, he and his team went out and spoke with expectant mothers to find out what they actually wanted from a hospital.  Their market research told them that “they did not want giving birth to be treated like a medical emergency or illness care event.  Mothers did not want to be exposed to sick patients or the traditional hospital environment.  They did not want the visitation rules that were standard protocol in hospitals.”  Armed with this knowledge, Charmel and his team oversaw the transformation of Griffin - they built a special entrance solely for mothers and their families and changed the d├ęcor of the maternity area to make it feel more like a home than an institution; they introduced queen-size beds and Jacuzzis (to ease during early labour) and changed the way that doctors interacted and cared for patients, rejecting the conventional one-size-fits-all approach and involving the broader family, to enhance the patient experience.  By Charmel’s own admission, the changes did not suit everyone – a number of traditionally minded medical professionals chose to leave.  However, Griffin is now recognized for having industry leading patient satisfaction ratings and has branched out into being a specialist advisor for other medical and healthcare institutions that wish to enhance understanding and their relationships with patients.  Communication has proved the foundation of Griffin’s lauded success, as Charmel says:

“At the outset of my career, I knew intuitively what I now know empirically: talk to the consumer.  The consumer is the inspiration for innovation.  If you probe, and if you listen, the consumer will tell you what she likes, dislikes, her concerns.  The consumer usually won’t give you the answers.  Getting the answer is the job of the problem solver, not the problem of the sufferer.” 

Charmel is right, but I know from my own experience that it is unwise to always take statements at face value.  When I was still a student, my mother lived in a beautiful little cottage on the outskirts of a village in Oxfordshire.  She invited me to spend some of one summer with her and my sisters and I brought a couple of friends from university along to join us.  During the time that we were there, the village had decided to hold a dinner and dance in one of the local barns, to raise money for charity.  My mother bought tickets for the six of us and was told that it was going to be a themed evening - everyone was going to turn up in 1970’s attire.  My mother’s cottage was slightly out of the village, surrounded by fields and, as she grew her own vegetables and had a well-stocked freezer, she was quite self-sufficient.  Time passed and we had no need to go into the village to buy things and hence we did not hear the local news. 

My mother is a hoarder - she has copies of magazines from the 1950’s, dubious jars and cans of food collected over the past five decades  (many of which I suspect could be used as explosive devises, should the need ever arise for a self-armed Home Guard) and wardrobes full of wonderful clothes.  We all spent a blissful afternoon on the day of the village party riffling through kaftans and vibrant floral shirts.  Eventually, dressed in clashing colours, with flowers in our hair, we set off to stroll over the fields to the barn.  1970’s footwear is not ideal for traipsing across rough farmland; the walk took us longer than expected.  By the time we arrived the other attendees had already gone into the barn for supper.  We made an unavoidably dramatic entrance in our outlandish clothes and were greeted by a stunned silence.  All heads turned to towards us, some mouths agape.  Word had not got to us that there had been a change of heart and that it was now a normal community party with no 1970s theme.  If we had made an effort to confirm details, rather than simply relying on what had been said, we could have avoided our embarrassment.  Mind you – I suspect the party would have been less memorable - we all had a wonderful time, even if we were viewed as part of the evening’s entertainment.

It is worth remembering that things are not always as they seem and that a bit of research and confirmation often pays dividends.  Mind you, even when accurately noted, comments and signals can be confusing.  When Richard Nixon’s mother said to him “Dick, don’t you ever give up?!”, shortly after the  Watergate scandal broke, what did she mean?  Was she encouraging him or condemning?  Words can be confusing.  So can signals.  Many of us are familiar with body language, indeed there is a lot written on the subject – I don’t deny that it can prove a good indicator, but visible signs need to be used with caution, as the reason a person has their arms folded when talking with you may not be because they are defensive, it might be because they are cold or are embarrassed by a stain on their shirt.  I have a mortifying memory from when I was a lactating mother that proves my point.  An effective communicator should be able to “read between the lines” to appreciate what a person really means.  I am sure that we are all familiar with people who make comments such as “I hear what you are saying” that seem to imply agreement (and are often interpreted as such by a person who wants to hear affirmation), but could be a polite way of expressing disagreement.  Words are often ambiguous.

I sometimes wonder if our lives would be easier if we used pre-agreed phrases or actions with mutually confirmed and unambiguous meanings.  In the centuries before air-conditioning, when polite ladies in society were considered unsuitably dressed unless they carried a fan, women were able to communicate secretly using their fans.  Depending on which hand the fan was held in, whether it was open or closed and where it was touched, a person could communicate a multitude of messages without speaking a word, for example:

Waving the fan with the left hand
They are watching us
Touching the edge of the fan with your fingers
I want to talk to you
Opening fan and then fanning using left hand
Come and talk to me
Holding it closed against the right cheek
Holding it closed against the left cheek
Opening and closing fan several times
You are cruel

It must have been fun, although many a message could have been conveyed in error, by those simply holding their fans whilst others presumed that they were saying something significant. As stated earlier, to be effective communication needs two parties to understand what is being said.  Last night I went to see some amazing dance, by Tanztheater Wuppertal Pina Bausch, at Sadler’s Wells.  The performance is part of the Festival 2012 - an artistic precursor to the Olympics – and is one of a number of pieces about World Cities to celebrate the people and countries coming to London.  Last night’s presentation was called “Nefes” and depicted Istanbul.  It was a mesmerising and evocative performance, with cascades and pools of water and extraordinary lighting.  One image has stuck with me in relation to this post: a dancer continuously leapt, to exchange kisses with a girl on a high platform on wheels.  As he jumped, the platform was slowly pulled across the stage, whilst he continued springing up and down where he was.  Eventually, he was left leaping and kissing the air where the kiss had been.  Don’t let your communication fall into the same trap.  Be careful to ensure that your message is received and that you appreciate the stance of your counter parties.  If you don’t the world will pass you by...

Sunday, 17 June 2012

Painting Over The Cracks

When I was a little girl I lived in Wimbledon.  We had a modern house with a wonderful garden.  My cousins and I spent hours building camps in the rough scrub and climbing the cedar tree – its branches were easy to scale, almost like a ladder, and wide enough to lie on (provided that you didn’t wriggle too much).  Nothing grew under the cedar, its aromatic scent filled the air and the ground was covered in its fine pine needles which produced a crumbly soil, easy to dig into.  One year, when my sisters were very young, a delightful Swiss au pair girl came to stay; she was with us to help my mother, whilst improving her English.   I liked her a lot - she was fun and caring and we soon developed a strong bond, playing hide and seek in the garden, making things together and I even helped her with the housework. 

Now, being a parent myself, I can sympathise with my mother, who was newly out of hospital after a particularly gruelling caesarean.  She was short tempered and easily roused to extremely vocal outbursts of anger and frustration.  Both the au pair and I were quite nervous of her.  My mother was (and is) a wonderful cook and she had a few unusual kitchen gadgets to help her.  One of these was a “cream maker” – a small hand-plunger operated device that re-amalgamated butter and milk to make cream.  It was made of sky blue and white plastic and my mother was very pleased with it.  After each use it had to be carefully dismantled and washed.  One piece, like a tiny white Enoki mushroom, acted as the lynch pin, connecting the pump handle to the main device.  After lunch one day, the au pair put all the cream maker pieces in a washing up bowl and, when she had finished cleaning them, she tipped the sudsy water down the drain.  It was only when she and I commenced reconstructing the appliance that we discovered that the vital connecting pin had been flushed away.  We were horrified and knew that my mother’s wrath would be fearful.  In panic we placed the remaining pieces in a plastic bag and buried them in the soft soil under the cedar tree. We hoped to buy ourselves some time to source a replacement piece, by ensuring that the Cream Maker was out of sight and hence hopefully out of mind.  We failed to secure a replacement (we had to buy a whole new one) and I suspect that the original cream maker is still in its shallow grave.  With hindsight, we could have created a replacement piece from a paperclip and hence not lost the ability to make cream.  Mind you, my mother would still have been angry, even if we had repaired the cream maker with an ingenious solution.

The au pair and my reactions were very human.  We wanted to avoid having a difficult conversation and we concealed the problem in an attempt to ensure calm.  At work people often adopt a similar approach, either ignoring or concealing undesirable occurrences and behaviours.  In a previous post, just after last year’s English riots, I talked about the impact of the “herd mentality” that discourages individuals from speaking out against the majority view (  I noted that the Challenger Space Shuttle disaster could have been avoided if some individuals had stood their ground against the commercial view.  People not speaking out usually occurs when people desire to conceal an issue that could impact on their own personal gain, despite having a moral duty to do so (as occurred in the Challenger incident and this is also one of the main themes of Arthur Miller’s play “All My Sons”) or out of a reluctance to share something that an individual fears will be ill-received (it took Darwin twenty years to publish “The Origin of Species” and some people say that this is due to a reluctance to upset his wife and/or to face ridicule and criticism from Society).  So called Doubting Thomases can thwart innovation – the inventor of photocopying, Chester Carlson, invented the process in his spare time in 1938, but it took him ten years to find a company prepared to turn his invention into a commercial product.  

Often over the course of the past week, I have contemplated how people respond to errors and things that we find unappealing.  I saw an excellent and moving production of “The Suit” at the Young Vic.  In the dusty heat of a 1950s South African township a husband finds his wife in bed with her lover.  The man escapes leaving behind his suit.  The husband then insists that the suit is treated as an honoured guest and member of their household.  The public humiliation of his wife, their sad attempts to maintain a normal marital facade and the husband’s final remorse, when it is too late to rectify things, is heartbreaking.  As was the backdrop and brutality of apartheid.  Despite the fact that we all learn from making initial mistakes and slowly improving – look at how we learn to walk or read - as we age we become less supportive of experiential learning and hence of potential innovation and resolution.

Earlier this week I took a friend to see the filmed version of National Theatre’s production of Frankenstein with Benedict Cumberbatch as the Creature and Jonny Lee Millar as the Doctor.  Prior to the actual film, there was an introduction in which Cumberbatch explained how he had studied stroke victims to learn how they regained the ability to walk, whilst Lee Miller had learned much from observing his young son becoming mobile and, sponge-like, absorbing information about the world around him.  Both were inspired to create their performances of the Creature’s birth and learning to move and the outcomes were amazing.  I had seen the staged version of Frankenstein at the National Theatre last year and I was nervous about whether it would translate to film – actually in many ways it provided the best from both media to maximise impact.  If you can, I urge you to see it.

One of the themes in “Frankenstein” is the Creature’s desire for companionship and Frankenstein’s aspiration to improve on his prototype, because he is ashamed by the appearance of his Creature.  Why do many adults today, especially in Western society, seem unwilling to show and share something marvellous that they have created?  I suspect it is because they anticipate ridicule or worse, especially if their initial effort is functional but not attractive.  By being scared of disseminating fresh knowledge (and hence seeking to perpetuate the established ways of doing things) we lose out.  Often the initial iterance or the solution produced is quite ugly, but the thought and effort that has gone into its production should be lauded.

In Japan there is the practice of “Kintsugi” (golden joinery) – i.e. mending broken objects and deliberately making a feature of the damage by filling the cracks with gold.  There is a belief that when something has suffered and been damaged it has a history and hence it becomes more beautiful.  According to legend, the practice commenced in the fifteenth century when a shogun tried to repair a Chinese teapot. He wanted a more aesthetically pleasing effect than traditional repairs that tried to conceal what was perceived as unsightly cracks and chips.  The gold celebrates the effort that has gone into the repairs, makes a feature of the history and patterns and increases the value of what were once mundane objects.  We can all learn from this approach and should consider applying it in both our work and private lives – not just to enhance cracked plates but also to acknowledge people.

Back to the burial of the cream maker...we hid it because we were afraid of the reaction the loss of the little pin would provoke.  Much in the same way that employees will try to disguise mistakes when they work in a “fear and blame culture”.  If we had anticipated a different response from my mother it is probable that our behaviour would have been different, to the benefit of all.  She might have been understanding and have praised us for providing an innovative solution - the cream maker would have been that bit more valued in all of our eyes because, by mending it, we would have shown that we cared and that we knew how much she appreciated it.  Perhaps I should go and dig it up...

Sunday, 10 June 2012

Pretty Little Heads

HR has been getting quite a bad press recently – mainly due to the Beecroft report (a report commissioned by the Department for Business Innovation and Skills (BIS) in response to a UK government request for areas of red tape, such as employment law, to be simplified in order to encourage job creation and growth).  Other than stating that I am not convinced that the proposals will achieve the aim of stimulating growth and enabling increased employment, I am not going to go into the pros and cons of Beecroft’s proposals; others better than I have already written some excellent comments (see Laura Chamberlain’s summary for the CIPD in Personnel Today or the admirable amalgamation of observations produced by Michael Carty of xperthr  The thing that interests me is that Beecroft was allegedly inspired by a former HR Director, whom he fired from his venture capital business, who then raised a claim via the UK employment tribunal and received significant compensation for unfair dismissal.

It is often said that it is unwise to fire HR professionals as they, better than most, know employee rights as well as “where the bodies are buried” in the organisations that they work for and hence are well placed to fight their corner.  Certainly, it is HR’s role to understand employment legislation and to ensure that their employer conducts itself in an appropriate manner.  However, is that it?  What is HR’s role?  Is it simply a function to ensure good order?  Even in today’s challenging business environment, HR is viewed by many as a necessary overhead whose purpose is to monitor and control.  A number of senior leaders, primarily outside HR, believe that the function has little direct ability to contribute towards the bottom line and should not even try. 

Rather like a Georgian wife or a Southern Belle, senior leaders at times state that in effect HR should not “trouble it’s pretty little head with complex business issues, but should focus on maintaining order and discipline within the home”.  By this, presumably they mean the:

  • production and maintaining of appropriate policies and procedures to protect and support the company;
  • undertaking of efficient, cost effective recruitment;
  • ensuring that remuneration is appropriate – sufficient to attract, retain and motivate without being overly generous; and
  • communicating with employees to ensure that management’s objectives are achieved.  

It appears that HR is not viewed as capable of understanding the commercial aspects of business.

I had my knuckles rapped on Friday by a fellow Exec who felt that I was getting involved in areas that should not concern HR (the accurate production of business performance and productivity figures, by area and individual within each area).  In some ways he is right, I have more than enough challenges without unnecessarily taking more onto my plate and I should produce significant improvements in my area before wading into other people’s troughs.  It would be so easy simply to obey and get my snout out.  However, I am a firm believer that HR cannot support a business without genuinely understanding the commercial drivers.  I see HR as being responsible for enhancing business performance through the most effective use of people.  I also believe that HR is a crucial part of the business, and will remain so for as long as most organisations rely on individuals to enable their success.

HR is often the eyes and ears of a business, picking up on issues before they are commonly aired and is well placed to bring potential concerns to the table.  HR needs to be brave and feel comfortable speaking out when certain matters that could impede the business are brought to its attention.  Employees often turn to HR when they are concerned and a good HR professional should be able to sense when things are not quite as they should be.  I once took a phone call from a distressed relative whose son was in hospital.  She explained that he was near suicidal due to what had happened to him and wanted to know what we “his employer” were going to do to redress matters.  I knew that we did not have, nor had ever had, an employee with the name she gave me but, instead of simply telling her that she had the wrong number, I listened to her complaint.  It became clear that, even though her son was not an employee, he had significant knowledge about a number of our employees and the business.  Following the “there’s no smoke without a fire” principal, I undertook some investigations.  What came to light was a significant fraud involving a number of individuals.  Due to my ability to read between the lines in that initial telephone conversation, I exposed a multimillion pound embezzlement scam and managed both to prevent it and thereby to save my employer a significant sum of money.

Perhaps if more people had listened and been prepared to voice their concerns, many of the much worse issues and subsequent losses, due to the Global Economic Crisis of the past five years, could have been averted.  We have a similar situation within Europe at the moment.  Many of us have said for a while that it was only a matter of time before Spain would need financial assistance.  It was clear that, like in Ireland, huge sums of money had been borrowed to finance unnecessary construction projects and mad-cap ventures.  Even as a tourist visiting Spain I could see that there was unnecessary building developments – such as airports, housing and golf complexes – that would be impossible for local businesses and authorities to sustain.  What possessed the Spanish banks to lend money for these projects?  Presumably the same blind desire for profit that infected the Irish banking system.  People in Barcelona have spent the past three days demonstrating against the predatory practices of banks.

One of the best and funniest bits of this week’s topical listening was “The Now Show” on BBC Radio 4, commenting on the current Eurozone issues – it is an excellent, humorous parody, explaining what has gone wrong and why, as well as producing some witty thumbnail sketches of the main players in the drama.  If you missed it here is the podcast  the sketch I am referring to starts at 08.51 or else you can listen via iplayer, the URL is but be warned – like  a James Bond briefing tape, the iplayer version will self destruct in six days.  We in Europe have clearly been making a meal of it!

Perhaps the waiter or the chef should have voiced concerns, before the diners had become too extravagant.  In the same way, perhaps HR should be encouraged to voice its unease.  We live in a complex and constantly changing world.  None of us has all the answers but if the “pretty heads” are comfortable speaking out, perhaps some future problems can be averted.

Tuesday, 5 June 2012

Diamonds Are Forever

As I sit at the computer this late Tuesday afternoon, typing these words for you, I can hear the rain drumming, like impatient fingers on a biscuit tin, on the roof outside.  As you are probably aware, the last four days have been a time of festivity in the UK and across the Commonwealth.  It is the Diamond Jubilee celebrations for Queen Elizabeth II.  Judging from my personal experiences, the long weekend has been a happy time with families, neighbours and friends getting together and numerous events organised to mark the occasion.  I am supposed to be attending a Jubilee Scottish dance in our church hall later this evening...a final fling before returning to work in the morning. 

There are lots of things that have amazed and amused over the past four days – the number and diversity of boats in the flotilla, the sight of a War Horse puppet rearing in salute above the National Theatre  (and the Queen’s evident delight), a water-borne belfry ringing a passage for the craft on the Thames as they made their way to Tower Bridge before being moved to its own resting place in St James’ church (“Wren’s Lantern”) at Garlickhythe in The City of London , the amazing line-up at the concert outside Buckingham Palace, Grace Jones wishing the Queen “happy birthday” after hula-hooping for what seemed an age, the people drawn from across the Commonwealth singing “Sing”, the sight of 70,000 concert attendees stretching along the Mall to Trafalgar Square, the amazing fireworks, Madness on the Palace roof with the brilliant animations projected onto the facade below them, the beacons, the carriage cavalcade, the historic flypast, the feu de joie (only the second time it has occurred in the UK) and the daftness of the busbies being raised in salute, the street parties, the fetes, the services and celebrations.   Few can do pomp and circumstance better than the British. 

However, one of the things that struck me most (must be because I’m British) was the weather.  After the luxurious heat wave of last weekend, the UK was predicted to suffer an almost constant deluge, with the worst of the weather centred on London.  Regardless of the threat, people carried on – admittedly, it was a little damp waiting on the riverbank for the flotilla, but, after a harsh downpour shortly before the start, it held off until The Spirit of Chartwell and the majority of the smaller boats had safely reached the end of their journey.  For all of the major events the weather seemed to hold off from giving us its worst - the concert evening was near perfect, the rain did not commence until after the carriage parade and flypast.  It is June in England and we as a nation would probably have been disappointed if there were no weather glitches, however it would have been worse if the weather forecasts had proved right.  Despite the threat the organisers carried out their plans and their efforts paid off.

One of the main learnings I have taken from this long weekend is that it is worth persevering and seeing things through.  Even when things look bleak, there is always hope and you should not give up.  The Queen herself has been exemplary in her determination in fulfilling her Public Duty.  I wouldn’t want her life, but there is no doubt that she has touched the lives of millions and, in her own way, has helped to make the world a better place.  Earlier today my family and I took time out to watch The Shawshank Redemption.  It is a powerful film about helping others and living life to the full.  Today is a brief post as I can hear the drone of bagpipes from the top of the road and need to draw this to a close.  I will leave you with a quote from the film that seems to summarise much of the past four days as well as recommending the best approach for the future:

“Get busy living or get busy dying”.

The choice is yours...