I remember once bemoaning the state of an organisation that I worked for, to one of my favourite wise old men (well, he’s not that old, but he’s pretty wise), who happened to be my boss at the time: “It’s so broken! This isn’t working, and that person is incompetent, and so-and-so never follows the process! No one’s held accountable for anything that matters, there’s no strategy to speak of, and the lack of leadership is laughable!”
And Yoda sagely destroyed my naive idealism with a blunt response: “This isn’t unusual. Every organisation struggles with some combination of people not doing their job, defunct process, crap technology, or dirty data.”
It took me a while to swallow that pill of truth, mostly because - to someone as idealistic and self-righteous as millennial me - it felt like one of those horrendous golf-ball-sized echinacea monstrosities that causes you to gag before you manage to drown it down your digestive system with a good swig of water (or wine, if it’s a little later in the day).
But once it was down into my metaphorical gut as an unavoidable reality, I started to think a lot about whyit was true - why is it that every organisation wrestles with some form of under-performance?
I think we forget sometimes that organisations are collections of human beings, and, as such, all under-performance can be traced back to decisions driven by distinctly human concerns. It’s easy to blame our tools (that is, our systems and processes and data) and the outputs of our tools, but they exist in the state that they’re in, producing the outcomes that they do, as a result of decisions made by people.
This is the first in a series of articles that explores the question: what is it, precisely, that humans need to receive from organisations, in order to be high performing?
But first, a little bit of relevant Human Nature 101:
Human beings are wired to seek certainty. Right down at our core we recognise the truth of our own smallness in an infinitely vast universe, and that doesn’t make us feel very safe. So, we squish down the potential for existential angst by reducing the size of our world to the scenarios that we understand and, we hope, can control. At its simplest: the illusion of certainty gives us the illusion of control, and the illusion of control makes us feel safe(r).
- Human beings make substandard decisions when they feel uncertain about the environment they’re operating in. When human beings are operating in an uncertain environment, they’re typically alert to potential danger, sub-conciously waiting for the T-Rex to come charging out of the bushes to eat them. That’s not the kind of head-space to make great decisions from. You can’t focus on analysing your data well or having a healthy performance review, if you’re wrestling with an instinctive flight, fight or freeze response that says “I’M NOT SAFE!”. The science says that, in that moment, certain parts of your brain functioning is reduced because your body is getting ready to spring into action.
- Human beings are pack animals. Like all mammals, we are hardwired to care for our young, so we have all of these “connection feels good!” responses built into our bodies. Conversely, disconnection feels very bad - there’s a reason why solitary confinement is a punishment for human beings, and that’s it. As pack animals, we know we would likely die if we got ousted from the tribe, and you see a lot of unconscious instinctive responses that still operate in us to prevent that (for example, that’s why it feels so awful when you get publicly shamed).
When a human being joins an organisation (that is, he joins his new tribe in a new location), he wants to know certain things, namely:
- Where am I?
- Where are we going?
- What’s my role in that?
- Who are all these other people?
- What do they do?
- How does this particular tribe of people behave?
- What’s considered important, here?
That is, he’s trying to make sense of his context - of the environment that he’s operating in. Because work is going to meet some of his base level needs (a pay cheque provides food, shelter, clothing, and perhaps more, for example), he cares about the rules of the game and playing it well. Unless you’re seriously disenchanted with the fact that you were born into an industrialised society that forces you in the hamster wheel of work as opposed to foraging in the forest (most of us unconsciously and graciously accept it as an unavoidable, albeit often annoying, reality), you don’t turn up to a new job thinking, “Yep! I’m going to be seriously average at this. I’m going to do just enough to avoid being fired.” On the contrary, you want to understand where you’ve landed, what your role in the tribe is, and how to be successful in it.
When we feel more certain about the environment that we are operating in, then it becomes possible to direct all of our brain power to the task at hand. So much non-value-adding behaviour that I see from human beings stems from a lack of clarity provided by the organisation, which means that it’s a struggle, then, for people to create certainty.
There are a couple of disclaimers to what I’m talking about:
- I am not saying that people can’t handle any ambiguity. To the contrary, people can handle a great deal of ambiguity as long as their immediate context is clear. For example, you may be working in an extremely volatile market. That won’t matter to the people who work for you, if the company has a clear and credible strategy, that people know how they fit into. Metaphorically, people just need to know that they’re on a stable boat with a competent captain, not what the ocean will do next.
- The benefit of clarity has a tipping point: when things are documented down to the enth degree - to the point that human creativity and ownership is stifled - then it has gone too far. We’ve all probably worked for a huge company where you become convinced that a monkey could do your job because of how little room you have to move. No one wants to feel like a monkey.
So, how can organisations provide us with the clarity that we need to create certainty? By providing us with the answers to each of those earlier questions, typically in the form of documents that are easily accessible:
- Where am I? There should be a clear, one-to-few pager on the company, its history, where it’s going, and how it’s structured at a high level. This gets updated at regular intervals.
- Where are we going? There should be a clearly documented strategy, that has flowed down into clearly documented business unit plans.
- What’s my role in that? The clearly documented business unit plans should have flowed down into clearly documented role descriptions.
- Who are all these other people? There should be an organisation chart! Don’t laugh (or weep, as I felt tempted to do when I first came across this), it’s surprising how many businesses do not make one of these available to its employees.
- What do they do? There should be a role description for each person, which should be accessible to every other employee. See my earlier article on Dipping Down, if you’re interested on a longer statement about the benefits of doing this.
- How does this particular tribe of people behave? There should be a statement of the company’s values… but, as we know, there’s often a disconnect between the espoused values and the reality, so this is typically something I ask about at interviews. “How does this particular tribe of people behave, really, as opposed to what’s written on the wall?”
- What’s considered important, here? You will be able to tell what’s really important by what shows up in the performance review metrics, or by what the short term bonus scheme is based on: that is, on what people are incentivised to prioritise. If you are responsible for these documents in a company, then, please, either get them to align with the company’s espoused values or change those values to own what the company is genuinely about. People can sniff out hypocrisy and misalignment a mile away, and it will make them feel uncertain about their environment.
In addition to providing these documents, internal communications as a discipline is something that I see so many companies under prioritise and, as a result, do badly. If we accept that human beings need clarity in order to create certainty in order to feel safe in order to bring all of their brains to the task at hand (*deep breath!*), then we have to accept that there needs to be structured, strategic communication in the event of change. People aren’t stupid - they can see things changing and if you do not provide them with a credible narrative, then they will create their own and it likely won’t inspire them with confidence about the company.
The highest performing teams that I have worked with knew what their role was, what our function’s role was, and how that all fit into where the company was going. The highest performing companies that I have worked with prioritised keeping their staff genuinely informed. It isn’t hard to get the best out of people, but it does take some time devoted to meeting those more human concerns, such as the need for clarity.