Monday, 20 October 2014

Defusing the ticking time bomb of corporate values

We’ve all seen plenty of commentary regarding changing workforce demographics and the impact on workplace dynamics. But these developments have even deeper significance for an organisation’s values, which could spark conflict rather than cohesion if they do not keep pace.

Researchers are telling us that generational demarcations within the workplace are now more pronounced than ever. Many organisations have several generations within the same workforce, from ‘baby boomers’ to so-called ‘millennials’, each of whom have different expectations, priorities and desired working practices. Blending such groups into a cohesive team is a major challenge for organisations of many types and sizes.
Yet there has been little discussion of the impact these developments might have on the core values that an organisation espouses.

Values can be powerful for any employer. I am not talking about synthetic sets of words or bullet points on websites or in corporate Receptions, but about clear and compelling summaries of the beliefs that guide an organisation and its people. When these are drawn from within, and developed into practical behaviours that people engage with and live by, they become strong and self-policing tools. But what happens when a workforce changes so much that current values seem archaic?
That is a real risk emerging from the shifts we are seeing. Distilling common values has never been an easy task, but the issue – and its importance – are now even more acute. Different generations sharing the same workplace may believe and feel contrasting things about their company. They may have very different perceptions of what values are or should be, and respond to them in different ways. The upshot is that a set of values that was articulated, say, ten years ago may no longer be fit for purpose. It may have little meaning to people that make up an increasing proportion of the workforce (particularly if those people have been recruited on technical prowess or potential alone). And so those values become an irrelevance to some, or even a trigger for clashes with other employees, rather than the powerful and unifying force they could and should be.

Organisations have to recognise and respond to this risk. The simplest way of doing so is to review the current values, and their associated behaviours, by gaining input from colleagues across the demographic spectrum. Ask them what they think and feel about the company. How they would articulate the beliefs that guide the way it does business. What resonates with them and what seems unrealistic.

Involve employees in a review; it’s good practice from time-to-time in any event, but it is particularly important now.  It could help renew and revitalise the role that values play for a changing workforce, rather than leaving them to become a spark for cultural conflict.  

Monday, 13 October 2014

Helping the ‘squeezed middle’ support social

In a post last week, I highlighted the lack of focus on managers in discussions around enterprise social networks (ESNs). I’d like to follow that post by offering some thoughts on how organisations can address the issue.

Managers form the ‘squeezed middle’ in any organisation. They need to deal with twin – and potentially conflicting – pressures: expectations from leaders that they will deliver business plans in practice and expectations from employees that, whatever the corporate demands, their manager will look after their particular needs and interests. It is, to put it mildly, a tough gig.
But it’s a pivotal one, particularly when an organisation is seeking to introduce new ways of working. And this is, in many cases, exactly what the advent of an ESN is intended to achieve. The aims usually include breaking down silos and inspiring collaborating outside traditional role descriptions. This carries major implications for managers who, in many structures and cultures, have hitherto focused on a confined team, with defined roles and related objectives/performance management processes. Suddenly, employees are being encouraged to look beyond their traditional team(s), to contribute their time and expertise to questions and challenges faced by people in different parts of the company, whom they may never meet nor directly work with. If such collaboration is to become part of day-to-day life, managers need to understand and encourage it, embracing the opportunities rather than fighting against the implications. Yet we may not be doing all we can to engage and equip them for this change.  

With this in mind, I’d like to suggest some simple steps that any organisation can take to better prepare their managers for an ESN:
1.    Engage them – the first step must be to engage managers as a group in themselves. This isn’t an issue associated solely with an ESN, because greater recognition of the need to communicate directly with managers as a discrete group would enhance engagement in many contexts. But in this case, it’s important to help them understand the aims, benefits and implications of an ESN so they can engage with and process what it would mean for themselves and their team(s). This isn’t just about sharing information, it’s also about  seeking their questions, identifying and addressing their concerns, and identifying what additional support (if any) they may need to play their part. This is vital groundwork if you want new ways of working to take root within day-to-day business.

2.     Involve them – as you develop a tool to help spark new ways of working, involve managers to help you identify and address potential issues (for example, desired functionality, or implications for management systems beyond the new tool). Taking some simple and structured soundings at key points in the process could elicit valuable insights that you can use to develop or tailor the changes you’re intending to introduce.

3.    Train them – the way we train (or don’t train) managers has been an issue for years. We all know it (and it’s worth hearing the words on this topic from Peter Cheese, CEO of CIPD, in his recent interview with Engage for Success). Yet we still promote many people based on their technical prowess without giving them a grounding in the communication or engagement skills they’ll need to succeed.  And the introduction of an ESN only exacerbates that need.  Every organisation should be considering what training and support managers will need to aid the introduction and embedding of the tool and its associated ways of working.

4.     Engage with them (again) – you’ve got to keep connecting and communicating with managers to help them play their part. Continue to share information on progress. Invite and respond to further questions or concerns. Celebrate what the new tool and associated ways of working have helped to achieve. This can help you create an informed and engaged group that forms the bedrock for a stronger and more collaborative community across the organisation as a whole

5.     Help them  – the most enthusiastic managers will struggle if their organisation’s systems don’t align with the aims of an ESN. For example, if you are expecting people to collaborate across traditional team boundaries, you have to recognise that desired company behaviours and performance management processes should reflect this. In essence, such systems must show managers they should encourage rather than hold back such activity, and to participate in it themselves.
6.       Show them – last but not least, managers need to see role models, particularly leaders who eagerly embrace and participate in the ESN and associated ways of working. If all the other stars are aligned, but leaders suggest indifference, the changes you are seeking may still simply impact on the surface of corporate culture, rather than taking root within it.
I am sure there are many others, and would love to hear your views or suggestions. But these steps are crucial to helping to engage and equip managers to play their part. Without sufficient focus on them, an organisation only undermines the investment it makes in any new tool and associated ways of working.

Tuesday, 7 October 2014

Under new management: why enterprise social networks require a different approach

With all the fervour over the power and potential of enterprise social networks (ESNs) to improve the way we work and engage with each other, one important issue has been given less attention. What is the impact on managers?

As we empower people more and more to connect with peers in different parts of the organisation, enabling them to develop ideas and resolve issues together, we’re breaking down all kinds of silos but we’re also unpicking more traditional modes of management. Stowe Boyd talks about ‘leanership’: his vision of a situation in which teams organise and manage themselves, with everyone demonstrating elements of leadership on a day-to-day basis. Whilst that might seem a long way off for many organisations, the direction of travel is clear and we should be considering the implications for the way we prepare and support managers to play a changing role.
The issue is particularly acute because we haven’t caught up with the needs of today, let alone tomorrow. The ever-growing canon of literature and commentary regarding employee engagement highlights just how important a more involving and empowering approach to management is within organisations. We know that people will give more if they feel part of their team and their organisation, that they have a voice in it, that they are not just recipients of instructions. Yet survey after survey bemoans the state of our management skills, suggesting we are not equipping or supporting managers to fulfil this role.  And now we want managers to change even more?

Make no mistake about it, if we’re going to make the most of ESNs, we need managers at all levels to grasp and help catalyse change. We need them to re-think what constitutes day-to-day work for their people. We need them to liberate employees to connect and communicate with others in very different areas. We need them to reshape the way they organise people and to nurture behaviours that bust silos for the greater good.  And we will need them to consider implications for the way they evaluate and recognise individual contribution and performance.

This is a big change for managers – and for the organisation as a whole. Leaders will set the tone, and colleagues in Communications or IT will introduce the tools, but managers will hold the key to whether ESNs really change the way companies work or simply impact on the surface of corporate culture. Yet in my view there has not been nearly enough discussion or emphasis on how we can engage and equip them to play their part.

A theme I shall return to in future posts!

Friday, 3 October 2014

Avoiding ‘accidental disengagement’

There’s a lot of wailing and gnashing of teeth about employee disengagement, isn’t there? If I’ve seen that stat from Gallup once I have seen it a thousand times (you know, the one saying c.70% of the workforce is disengaged). But I take issue with some of the commentary around it. Yes, sometimes there will be major structural and/or cultural issues to address. But there are also smaller things that leaders and managers do, without even realising it, that can have a major impact on the people around them. Here are some tips for avoiding ‘accidental disengagement’.

·       Consider communication style sharing information is a starting point. Sharing relevant and timely information is even better. But is the style you are using working for your people? Have you explored whether it is connecting with them and helping them process and respond to the information? If not, you might have the best of intentions, but your execution may be letting you down.     

·       Ask questions – some people avoid asking questions for fear of the answers, but others may be trying to be considerate. For example, they might want to keep time employees spend in a briefing to a minimum. But asking questions shows a willingness to seek and hear opinions, to check understanding and/or to discuss issues. Failing to do so suggests the relationship is one-way traffic.

·       Balance tools – there is an ever-growing array of new tools and products to aid communication and collaboration. But whilst you may want to give employees the latest tools to help engage and equip them, don’t lose sight of those who might prefer existing methods or mechanisms. What is empowering for some can be disengaging for others, so getting the right balance is key.

·       Check support – assuming someone has what they need to deliver what’s expected of them – even if, on the face of it, everything seems all OK – can cause frustration and disengagement, meaning that neither you nor the people you are managing get what they need. You might be giving people space when what they want is more support.

·       Discuss training – there are still many occasions on which leaders appoint managers based purely on their technical competence. This can have an unintended consequence if the new manager lacks grounding in communication skills, and his or her behaviour then undermines rather than strengthens team engagement. Both organisations and individuals should recognise the risk and discuss any support that’s needed.

·       Say thank you – research shows just how powerful a simple “thank you” can be. Recognising the time and effort people put into their work can be motivating. Failing to do so has the opposite effect.  
This is just a handful of steps. I am sure there are many more…