Opinion: Keeping the Human in HR

Human Resources Institute of New Zealand CEO Chris Till explains why engagement without well-being can lead to a burned-out workforce.

The last academic paper written by the great thinker, Sumantra Ghoshal, before his untimely and tragic death, was titled Bad Management Theories are destroying good management practices.

Way back in 2005, Ghoshal saw the disillusion with companies and managers as the fault of bad, unfounded 1970s management theories - in particular, the narrowly economic assumptions about "selfish" human nature and the nature of companies that in practice cause managers to subvert themselves and their companies. The core, neo-liberal idea seemed to be that people were opportunistic and needed to be controlled, monitored and directed. Think Thatcherism, Reaganism and Rogernomics.

Management theory, he summarised, was under-socialised and one-dimensional, a parody of the human condition more appropriate to a prison or a madhouse than an institution which should be a force for good.

In my role as chief executive of the Human Resources Institute, I get to "feel" the pulse of what is happening in the New Zealand world of work by meeting institute members across New Zealand, business and union leaders, other CEOs, conference and summit attendees, board directors, politicians, government officials and people from all walks of life. Ghoshal's views are even more compelling and enlightening 10 years on.

That "felt pulse" points clearly to a very great and growing tension.

On the one hand, we now have a 24/7, "always on/more with less" world that is full of demographic changes, urbanisation, climate change, resource scarcity or over- abundance, economic power shifts, technology breakthrough, computerisation, cultural shifts, disruption, distraction, digitisation, globalisation, global connectedness, social media frenzy, volatility, uncertainty, complexity and ambiguity.

Exhausting, eh! Stop the world - I want to get off!

This is a world that is rapidly resulting in an unsustainable mix of factors that combine to make contemporary working life very arduous and difficult for many people. Employers are feeling the strain, too.

So what is happening in the real world of work as a result of this unfortunate combination of these simplistic, somewhat cynical neo-liberal views and practices of management and the turbulent, insidiously relentless world of 2015 into which these are pitched?

In simplistic terms, the pattern of damage to people at work is changing fundamentally - many modern economies are seeing mental ill-health increasing. In the UK (and we have very good reason to believe that New Zealand will not be substantially different), over a third of sickness is for mild to moderate mental health disorders. Mental ill-health is now the most common reason for absence from work.

And the symptoms of these conditions are often an expression of, or reaction to, poor work, poor workplaces and/or poor managers.

One of the band-aids being used by HR departments and organisations is to focus on "employee engagement". This is all well and good, but engagement without well-being can lead to a burned-out workforce. In short, high levels of staff engagement are not sustainable without well-being.

And here we return to the supposition of Ghoshal's final paper - the biggest driver for genuine employee engagement and happiness in work is the "extent to which employees believe that their senior management has a sincere interest in their well-being".

A cynical view of leading people does not sit at all well with "a sincere interest in their well-being".

So on the other hand, we can see that leadership at work needs to move away from a command, control, directive and autocratic style to one where senior leaders are visible, managers are well trained, well-being and engagement are both highly present and in harmonic balance. The work that is provided is stable and safe, workers have individual control, mutual trust is abundantly present, fairness and flexibility prevail, people are developed to reach their potential and organisations work hard to prevent worker isolation and discrimination while sharing information and encouraging people to care for their own health.

To me this sounds like being human, empathetic and compassionate - and not about a neoliberal focus on money, power, control and opportunism.

So - a much brighter, progressive view of the human condition around people's much deeper desires for autonomy, mastery, meaning and even joy at work.

And all this against a sobering background, as espoused by Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford University: "We are on human sustainability where we were 40 years ago on environmental sustainability."

But not all is doom and gloom - I see that many thought leaders are positively getting into this space and pointing to a very positive, potential route ahead.

I would really encourage you to experience them all - Dame Carol Black, Professor Jeffrey Pfeffer, Dave Ulrich, Dana Wilkie, Nick Petrie, John Seddon, Stephen Bevan, Simon Sinek, Peter Docker and Lynda Gratton - and many others.

All advocate that we need to return to a leadership land where we put people - and the meaningful reasons why people are here on our planet - ahead of money, short-term opportunism and pure shareholder interest.

In other words - really put the human into HR.

Chris Till is the CEO of HRINZ.

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