“People are our greatest asset”. Really?

So many organisations explicitly state that their employees are their “greatest asset”. But what does it actually mean?  In practice.  In terms of vision, organisational structure, how work is undertaken and roles defined, how people are managed and do their jobs?

Employee engagement and retention is one of the core leadership challenges facing Australian organisations.   Attracting and developing talent to leverage customer relationships, create enduring value and maximise productivity and profitability has never been more important post-GFC as Australia attempts to restructure its economy to rely less on declining industries like traditional manufacturing and mining.

The significant challenge for many organisations is in translating the sentiment around attraction, retention, and ‘human capital’ derived from senior management to action by middle managers. In practice, too many Managers are afraid to manage.  If the company is small, then Managers tend to avoid difficult conversations with staff around workplace behaviour and performance.  This leads to entrenched poor performance, employee malaise, micro-managing and reduced morale.  In larger organisations, the HR function tends to be given employee problems to “fix” well past the time the horse has bolted through the gate with an associated increase in formal conflict resolution, WorkCover claims, absenteeism and fractured team spirit.

Managers are afraid to manage for complex and multifactorial reasons: they have been promoted for their technical expertise and skills but are then not given the necessary skills to manage. They fear being accused of bullying and harassment or of saying the wrong thing to under-performing staff and making a bad situation even worse. They feel unsupported by senior management and worry they will not be supported if they initiate difficult conversations. They do not see it as their job. They have personality traits that make initiating difficult conversations problematic. They are part of the problem.

One of the hardest transitions to make in a career is from ‘doing the job’ to managing those doing the job.  Letting go of the familiarity and reward of completing “hands on” tasks with predictable outcomes and control is difficult.  Asking “should I be doing this this task?” is confronting and staff development can often feel like certain short-term pain for uncertain long-term gain.  This makes many back away from addressing problems as they arise, from talking with teams to understand their motivations and personalities and tailoring our management approach to the individual.

Legally and ethically, addressing staff issues is a core leadership task.  Employees crave timely constructive feedback and want to feel a sense of meaning and purpose in what they do at work.  If people really are our greatest asset, then we need to treat them as such; because not all of our people are great assets and some need to be managed.  And great people need to feel appreciated, motivated and challenged.  Great managers make it easy for their team to do their jobs.  This requires having difficult conversations on a regular basis if workplace behaviours don’t align with expectation.

Difficult conversations with staff are just that – difficult.  You might feel out of your depth, uncomfortable, afraid of repercussions, all sorts of negative emotions.  And that is OK.  Over time, it will get easier.  Use your own words and common sense, combined with behavioural evidence, empathy and commitment.  There is no script for a difficult conversation but fundamentally, they are about two people interacting in a meaningful way to improve.  Manage your own emotional reaction and be brave.  Courage is taking convicted action despite feeling scared.  Feeling scared is fine, it is just an emotion and don’t confuse emotion with behaviour.  We will be judged by what we do, not what we feel or think.

When engaging in a difficult conversation, plan, have back-up and follow-up. You need to know what behaviours impact a theme around performance (defined by both job description and code of conduct). That is, consistent behaviours such as yelling, swearing, talking over the top of someone will need to be defined over several events of the behaviour, and under the theme of “respectful workplace behaviours’. Check with your manager, HR or colleague; lay out the examples and gain support that it is reasonable for you to engage a discussion with the person given the impact of their behaviour on others/their ability to do their job. Plan exactly what you are going to say; when you get nervous (and you will), you will be glad of having rehearsed.

Engage the person with empathy, but not acceptance around their behaviour. There may be many understandable reasons for their behaviour; while you can agree with the background, stand your ground and let them know that while you understand the situation their behaviour was not acceptable. Any attempts to minimise the impact of their behaviour (“it wasn’t that bad”) or blame others (“It wasn’t my fault”), should be met with the same “I understand, however…” reaction.

Most importantly, the individual is not a bad person, but a normal person who in these situations has behaved in an inappropriate manner. Don’t let it get personal; you are not picking on them or being unfair, but rather asking them to stop behaving in a manner which impacts the psychological safety and/or productivity of those in the workplace.

And remember, if you are going to insist on behavioural standards in the workplace, you need to ‘walk the talk’ to truly make your people great assets.

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