De-constructing a thriving work environment

by Simon Middleton of Watershed 

Recruitment Industry Daniel Burnham

Bernard Marr, author of Enterprise Performance Expert, recently wrote quite a heated blog outlining why he believes Human Resources departments have had their day.

According to Marr, HR departments no longer add value and demean human talent. While his views strongly resonate, there is a sense that he is responding to a view – often perpetuated by HR – that HR has always been the place where the challenge of organisational and personal performance is mediated.

Josh Bersin, founder of Bersin by Deloitte counters, believes HR may be an outdated term in its current conceptualisation. All too often HR focuses on the “averaging out” of life in an organisational setting. HR, in its current incarnation feels like an extension of the Government’s dead hand of employment legislation which focuses on the multiple “fairness/equality” agendas. While the term “HR” is outdated, the deep insight which HR usually has into people and organisational performance remains invaluable. The conceptual trap is that HR is the locus for the solution when it isn’t.

Without a doubt, what both Marr and Bersin are voicing is a frustration brought on by the ‘consultant-speak’ solutions that purport to finding ways to ‘capture’ the discretionary effort of employees – for it is this “discretionary effort” that makes the difference. “Discretionary effort” is up for grabs and it is this apparently elusive “thing” that helps an organisation thrive rather than exist. “Old HR” is vested in “existence management”. “New HR” would not be any different because we would be looking to the wrong place for creating a thriving culture. What is apparent however is that those organisational environments where people really thrive are sadly still in the minority. Even the “consultant speak” solutions fall woefully short. How many of them offer their solutions based on the premise that “it is good for the bottom line”? They fall into precisely the same trap as do the internal HR function – they try and justify their value by adopting the false value of finance as the reason for action.

There is a more deep rooted consideration. The reason is a human one first. What is the point of any organisation – commercial or otherwise – unless it exists as a place of “work” rather than its miserable alternative, “toil”? “Work” is vocational; “toil” is mindless presence. Engaging “discretionary effort” is guaranteed in businesses that refuse to allow “toil” into their systems.

Organisations exist for people and not the other way round. Once this principle is lived then astonishing things happen – and more than often, the economics will follow. Living the aforementioned principle is completely possible and it’s neither difficult nor complicated. It does however require a shift in mindset. This involves a radical transition away from the usual litany of organisational “HR Apps” that are wheeled out as solutions to engagement – the litany of revamped “old system” tools such as incentive pay grades, better performance management forms and all the other systems are death dealing. The focus on these “HR Apps” as organisational talent attractors is vacuous. They are, at best, poor reflections of something that is a far deeper “non-App solution” – namely relational leadership that gives “meaning” to work and makes it mindful rather than mindless.

One of the counterintuitive truths that form the bedrock of a “talent thriving” organisation is that the only responsible person for creating the environment is the Leader – however defined. This leader needs to surround him or herself with good people in whom they invest, not purely with salaries but with time and with passion.

As Daniel Burnham, the Chicago architect whose vision recreated the city after the great fire of 1871 famously said: “make no little plans: they have no magic to stir men’s blood.” The result of his passion and ambition is an extraordinary American city that still has the magic to stir men’s blood. Whilst ambition is sometimes seen as a negative these days, without it we would stagnate – we need drive and passion to energise our creations, no matter how mundane. Likewise, organisations need a culture that knows the difference between “life” and “existence” and refuses to compromise.

It starts with the leader who is the emotional gatekeeper for the whole enterprise. It does not start with HR. When the leader is engaged then HR can be shaped as an invaluable partner in delivering leader-led life into the organisation. So perhaps what Marr should be considering relates more to re-defining exactly who should be responsible for an organisation’s human talent and exactly what they should be aiming to achieve.

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