This is article Number Three in what I am tempted to call “why do people do what they do and what would it take to make them re-evaluate what they are focusing their energy on?”
So, today, I would like to ask you… do you have Stockholm Syndrome for capitalism?
First of all, don’t get triggered by my use of the C-word. This isn’t going to be a Trotskyite polemic about the power of the workers and the oppression of the bourgeoisie. Unless you are reading this in North Korea – and I am fairly certain you’re not – I think we can all agree that we all are operating under an economic and political system that has held sway over people’s lives in one form or another since the fifteenth century. I am going to suggest that it has changed the way that people think, operate and interact, and has permeated many life and lifestyle choices that influence you and the way you run your business. But, as we are very fond of pointing out, “just because it is, doesn’t mean it has to be.”
Now that I have hopefully stopped some of you from foaming at the mouth in fear of me wiping the value off your share portfolio, I should explain Stockholm Syndrome. It was coined in 1973 after a botched bank raid in… guess where… yep, that’s right… Stockholm when, over the course of a six-day stand-off the hostages that had been taken developed a close bond with their captors, to the point that they became concerned for their welfare.
My suggestion is that many of you, reading this at work, while you perform the tasks that you need to do to live, might, possibly, be in a similar situation. I’m not suggesting that you are being held against your will, but I contend that you might be making excuses for what you do and how you justify it that are, well… curious… and deeply ingrained. I suspect that the beliefs wrapped up in them may be affecting how you interact with your teams. And if there’s one thing that we want to do, it’s to make teams feel more valued, more listened to, more seen – and perhaps the dominant force behind all of our lives has a bearing on things in ways that you might never have considered.
Let’s have a quick crash through western European history seen through the lens of the United Kingdom. I apologise for being so UK-centric here, but It’s what I know. I would love to hear how things developed in other countries, and to hear the differences and similarities. It’s rough, but here are the broad strokes.
A long time ago people worked in small, self-supporting communities, based on agriculture and predominantly organised into small settlements. The community worked to produce what it needed to live, with any surpluses being used to buy things that the community could not produce for itself. As farming techniques improved fewer people were needed to work the land and this freed people up to provide ancillary occupations and services. People could move from just surviving, to creating things.
Having things became a measure of how successful you were. Bigger house, nicer clothes, better food. It was always thus, but with the rise of a powerful mercantile class in the sixteenth century the marks of success became more apparent and extreme and made status symbols open to people other than monarchs and the nobility. As the Industrial Revolution increased the ability to create a wider range of products and the number of roles that began to make up increasingly urban societies grew, so people stratified along layers that were defined by what they had acquired through their roles.
Fast forward this to the 1970s and 1980s. By this time, in the UK, success had become delineated by home ownership, the car you drove and where you went on holiday. Increasingly it became necessary for households to have two incomes to support these important badges of lifestyle. At this point I should pause and emphasise that I am not advocating a gendered split in work-work and home-work. I don’t care who does what – all I am pointing out is that one income became increasingly insufficient to keep-up-with-the-Joneses.
So far, so what? People want nice things and they are prepared to work for them. What’s wrong with that?
Nothing, but look at what develops beyond that if you pause and consider what this entails.
In a previous “what the hell?” post I questioned the chimera of measuring Employee Engagement and how that wiggly line of how much people like their work bumbles along at 70-80%. People want to be somewhere else at least some of the time while they’re at work. I’ve also considered how businesses occasionally try to infer a familial bond with their employees to ameliorate the time they spend away from their real families.
Both of these factors could be seen as manifestations of a desire to mask that very human trait of work-as-necessary-chore. Generally speaking, if they didn’t need the money, people would rather not be at work than be at work. To make up for this people reward themselves with things that they can only get by putting up with work. New clothes, new gadgets, holidays… the list goes on.
Ask yourself… how much do you look forward to and enjoy your weekends? (The weekend of course, like the beginning of the four-day working week, is a relatively recent development, so things can, and do change if you question the logic that claims to underpin the behemoth that is The Way Things Are.) How much do you look forward to Monday and getting back to work?
But there’s more to it than an exchange of time and freedom for money to buy things, hence my contention that many make excuses for the thing that holds them in its grasp. As an example, I give you the personalised number plate.
Once I point this out you won’t be able to stop seeing it. (That’s called The Baader-Meinhof Effect if you’re interested… but more of that another day.) Next time you are out and about, just check out how many people are driving very expensive new cars with personalised number plates. Aside from the environmentally damaging and toxic desire to demonstrate how well you are doing by driving the latest car or rocking the newest model of mobile phone, at what point did it not become enough to drive a car that costs more than some people’s homes? I can only conclude that by shelling out several thousand pounds on a registration plate that contains your initials, or a reference to your name, on top of your top-of-the-range Range Rover, you are wanting to show that “you are winning at capitalism.”
I can almost feel the furious typing that is going on from some quarters right now, defending their choices and explaining why they have done it. But isn’t that the essence of Stockholm Syndrome? Defending the thing that has imprisoned you?
I could go further. I live in the sixth richest country in the world. We have homeless people and food banks and children who don’t have enough to eat. We also have people living in vastly over-priced houses and individuals and organisations that try to game the system any way they can to reduce the taxes they have to pay. In between those extremes we have a great swathe of the population who could do something about it, but won’t… because, because, because. Because they might have to give something up. Because they’ve worked hard for it. Because why should I, nobody else will.
Despite what I said earlier, this does sound like I am calling for you to join me on the barricades. I’m not. I’m just putting it out there for debate. As an unanswered question if you like. Why are you doing what you are doing is one aspect of it, but for me, the more important aspect of it is “what are you expecting other people – in your workplace, in your teams, amongst your stakeholders – to do so we can all keep playing this game?”
As with much of the work that we do with teams, it’s only by asking the questions that challenge the accepted norms that you can create something different. Perhaps asking a big question like this will give you pause for thought.
Now, get back to work. Someone else might be winning.
I assume you are reading this at work. How’s your day going? Give it a score out of ten.
Six? Seven? Eight? Sound about right?
Aside from the fact that you may have taken some time away from the pressing business of the job that you love to read this, welcome to the dark arts of Employee Engagement.
I’ll talk about actual surveys later, but I recall something somebody once said to me: “I love my job, but I still hate it 60% of the time.” He was a novelist who worked when he wanted to, for himself, at home. No meetings, no presentations, no client needs analysis. And no “great place to work” survey form to fill in.
Have you ever sat through an Employee Engagement presentation and watched as the wiggly line of How Much People Like Being in Work meanders between 75 and 81% over the preceding ten years? I have, and it struck me that it was the modern equivalent of the medieval philosophical debates about how many angels could dance on the head of a pin.
At the heart of employment is the notion that Company x will pay Individual y the sum of z to stop doing what they want to do and come to work instead. In return, Individual y will sell their time and labour to Company x between the hours of n and n+8 in return for money to live. It was ever thus. In times gone by, no one ever asked a mill worker or a docker or an accountant if they were engaged with their work – and they almost never tried to get them to quantify their feelings about work through a survey – but they just recognised that, implicit in the transaction, there was a sense of frustration arising from not being free to do what you want, when you want. You either enjoyed your work (most of the time) or you didn’t.
Unfortunately, the human itch to measure and account for the vicissitudes of life meant that this ratio of work-based satisfaction to dissatisfaction had to be accommodated, and a whole swathe of what David Graeber termed Bullshit Jobs arose to service it. And what, globally, do they find? Surely “what gets measured gets managed”, right?
Well, in July 2018 ADP Research Institute found that the percentage of "Fully Engaged" employees was only 0.3% different to what it had been in 2015. Are you wondering if it was up or down? I’m not going to tell you, because, in the grand scheme of things, it doesn’t matter. It means that globally approximately 84% of people are just Coming to Work and the number doesn’t change, despite all the surveys and measurements.
So, if we stop obsessing about numbers, and fretting about how we can bump next year’s survey figures up a magical 2% what can we do to make the exchange of time for money more acceptable?
Marcus Buckingham and Ashley Goodall, authors of the fantastic Nine Lies About Work suggest that the thing that makes a difference to team engagement is being on a team. People who said they were on a team were 2.3 times more likely to feel Fully Engaged than those who were not.
“Great! We have teams! Job done!”
Not so fast.
Teams are more than just groupings on an Org Design chart. In fact, most work happens outside of these structured boxes. Of people in the survey who said they worked in teams, 65% of them said that they work on more than one team and that this team was not represented in the Org Design chart.
So you probably don’t know how many teams you have, or which are your best and most engaged teams. Quick! Commission a report! Find out! Quantify it! Draw up a survey!
That’s just more pointless busy work. I’ll save you the effort. The same survey found that in teams where the members strongly agreed that they trusted their team leader 45% were Fully Engaged. Put another way, a worker is twelve times more likely to be Fully Engaged if they trust their team leader.
“OK! Let’s send all of our team leaders on a course so they are super trusted!”
Again, I’ll save you the time.
The two factors that create and maintain trust in a leader are encapsulated in these two questions:
Apply your own experience here. I’m sure we’ve all been in work situations where the answers to these two questions were “no” and “absolutely not”. You certainly remember the few occasions where you could answer both in the affirmative.
At this point I could go off on a tangent about the folly of feedback, Personal Improvement Programmes and the chimera that is trying to make everybody great at everything. Or how it is possible to run a business more effectively without a whole swathe of middle managers whose only function is to check on the work of others… but those are topics for another day.
Instead I will repeat the thing that we have found in all the work we have done with a range of organisations in a broad spectrum of industries. Talk to your people. Find out what makes their day better and what makes it worse. Listen to them and help them make the changes that they would like to see. And if you are too close to the matters under consideration to take an unbiased view of things, pay an external facilitator to come in to help you make sense of the stories they tell.
That’s the only Employee Engagement that matters.
Is this the right room for an argument? If it’s not, perhaps it should be.
First of all, where do arguments start? Usually when someone says something that sits at odds with someone else’s values or views of the world and a debate starts. Positions are reinforced, ideas become entrenched… before long it can become heated and things get out of hand. That’s why the diffusing phrases “don’t let’s argue”, or “I don’t want to get into an argument…” feature so prominently when a disagreement surfaces. The very word has become toxic and imbued with negative connotations… but it shouldn’t.
The roots of “argument” lie in the Latin word “arguere”, to make clear, or prove accurate. In Middle English this became a process of reasoning in support of a proposition. So, if you don’t want to argue, you don’t want to accept reasoning and you might be happy with something that is confused, or inaccurate… so let’s argue.
Over the next few articles, I am going to throw out a few contentious statements. I hope they provoke you. I hope you rise to the bait and challenge what I say. Not because I want to get into a row with you. If I wanted to do that I would hop over to Twitter and gladly pick any number of fights with strangers. I just want to question the orthodoxy, because, well, that’s what we like to do.
One of our abiding beliefs is that “just because it’s like this doesn’t mean that that’s how it should be.” There might be a better way – to work, to interact, to speak to people, to organise, to collaborate – and our role is to offer thoughts, ideas and activities that will help you to find that better way.
So here’s my first contention...
Your business isn’t a family.
Thinking it is is duplicitous and manipulative.
There is an oft-quoted observation that, for most organisations, however much they push the “we’re a family” line, if you died you’d be replaced within the month, but for a deeper consideration of the topic you might want to read this HBR article on how the “business-as-family” metaphor can be toxic.
It makes the very good point that you don’t fire a family member or put them through performance improvement plans… however much you might like to.
Nearly as bad is the similar statement that I once saw in a customer service centre: “We treat our Customers as Family.” If that means you don’t speak for months at a time and you moan about each other behind their backs, that’s probably pretty accurate, but I don’t think that’s what they were driving at.
My belief is that using family references is a shorthand to create a non-existent culture of mutual dependability. However much you tussle in your own family dynamics, in most cases, at a time of genuine crisis family members rally round to help. Businesses wish they had that kind of loyalty, so they try to create it by using the same terminology, but there isn’t the same skin in the game.
Who benefits from a manufactured sense of familial bond at work? As a member of a real family, if the individual is having trouble help and support is offered immediately and organically without diverting the matter through the established protocols and procedures of HR. (And don’t get me started on the establishment of a function that sees living, breathing, emotional individuals as “resources”…)
Perhaps the family metaphor is more useful as a lever for the organisation. If you buy into the idea that they care for you and love you like a family member you’re more likely to put up with all the things that upset out of a misplaced sense of guilt.
Maybe it’s to get round the uncomfortable fact that you spend more time with your work colleagues than you do with your real family. Whichever way you slice that it’s just wrong. Don’t try to make it better by pretending that your “work family” matter as much as your actual family.
So what to do about it? Perhaps stop wasting time on meaningless, performative gestures like claiming that a means to an economic end (for employer and employee) has a mystical interpersonal connection. Instead maybe work on actual connection that recognises the strengths, weaknesses and idiosyncrasies of the individuals that make up the business. You are all people whose only connection in most cases is that you share the same space, at the same time, working on broadly the same stuff. We’re all different – which is brilliant - and as long as you recognise that people will choose not to leave and will feel better while they’re there.
..A bit like a family.
Next time: Stop doing Employee Engagement surveys and do something useful instead.
How would you go about setting a new direction for your business?
Let’s try a little thought experiment.
Imagine, for a moment, that you have invited Colour;Noun into your business to help your teams reconsider how they operate, what they value and how they can make a difference. What would you expect? Probably a packed day that would create lots of energy and enthusiasm and a real sense of drive and ambition to make lasting changes. Sounds good.
With a following wind, the enthusiasm and the drive from that day might last for a month, maybe six weeks tops, and then the rhythms and tropes of “how things get done” would return and it would be “meet the new boss, same as the old boss”. It sounds cynical, but we’ve seen it too many times not to be. If you’re honest, you’ve probably seen it too.
We were recently asked to help a leadership team with just such a challenge. Obviously, we could have sat them down in the conference room of a hotel with a flip chart and asked them to consider all the factors that they could now influence, establish growth projections and funding analysis, develop a new org structure and assign sub-groups to head up teams to implement a new vision for the company.
We could have done that. But we didn’t. We took them out for a walk instead.
This wasn’t just any walk, of course. These were busy people, with responsibilities and commitments, so we made sure that the walk had a purpose and a direction. We just didn’t tell them what it was.
If you want to make a change you have to do something different. Like, really different. And that starts with how you see the world.
The problem is that you are trapped in your own mind, influenced by all the experiences you have had, that create the reality that constrains what you can see as possibilities. The world is confusing, so you look for something to make sense of it based on what has happened before. Noise becomes signal. Once you’ve filtered out lots of things, the signal can become a story and you can fit everything into it. The stories you tell influence your decisions, and the pressure of modern life compels you to act quickly on these decisions.
To make a difference you have to get out of your own head, and to do that you have to step outside of the patterns to which you have become accustomed.
Hence, go for a walk… but don’t just rock along at the pace of everyone else. They’re trapped in their own patterns. They have to get to the shops, and then get back for the kids and make that call, and what time does the car parking run out? Step outside that. Just wander. Slowly. Slower than you would normally and go where your interest takes you. Not to the shops. Or for a coffee. Follow the things that interest you and be curious about why they interest you. Be aware of what you are seeing for the first time… or the things that you are seeing in a different way.
This is not a twenty minute walk either. Twenty minutes is a sop to your busy life. It’s something that you can fit in around everything else. We’re talking about three or four hours here.
What? Three of four hours? I can’t do that! I’m BUSY! I have THINGS TO DO!
Exactly. But if the things you have to do are running your life, they are already making the decisions for you.
Step back. Slow down. Wander. Be curious. With our group, we split them into smaller teams and encouraged them to talk about what they saw and what it made them think about. Don’t talk about the future of the company, unless something crops up in your wander that is suddenly relevant and that offers a new perspective to an old question.
When they got back, we asked them to share their stories and their thoughts and allowed them to draw their own conclusions about how they could operate in the future. We didn’t come out of it with an org chart, or a series of actionable next steps, or anything else that would be abandoned, modified or replaced within six months.
Instead we had a group of people who had opened their minds up to possibilities, who had shared some thoughts, opinions and insights and who had, importantly, spent some good, slow, quality time together to help them make better, more nuanced decisions.
Now, stop reading and go for a walk.
Colour; Noun (Vicky Holding and Howard Karloff)