This is a parable taken from early Buddhist, Hindu and Jain texts…

Word got to a group of blind men that a strange animal, called an elephant, had been brought to the village.  Having no clue about its shape or form, one said: "We must inspect and get to know it by touch.  Of this we are capable". When they found it they touched, caressed and groped so that they could each share their findings.  "This being is like a thick snake" when the trunk was touched. For another, it was definitely like a fan (ear). “An elephant is a pillar like a tree-trunk” one claimed.  “No, an elephant is a wall". Another who felt its tail described it as a rope. The last felt its tusk, and suggested that the others must have lost their minds because “it is obviously hard, smooth and like a spear”.

How many of today’s HR buzzwords, terms, solutions and methods can you list that might be the result of creation without context of the full picture?  In this article, I thought I might explore a few that I find really interesting…

Employee Engagement:  A term that has been around for 40 years, yet no-one seems to have found the magic bean to fix it.  How many times have you seen the Gallup research cited about a crisis of disengagement, fueling the activities of Consultants around the world.  But is there a problem of disengagement, or is there a problem of normality?    I have one possible answer for this anomaly, the simple bell curve.  Most of us would already know that generally speaking, the two ends of any distribution of almost anything can be described as most people in the middle, and small percentages at the bottom and top.  Every bit of engagement research I have ever seen fits this curve almost perfectly.  When taking in the overall context, it is a different problem that needs addressing.  Just a thought.

Employee Culture:  Can anyone truly claim to be an expert on Organisational Culture?  Let me explain why I ask. Outside of the world of organisations, culture research is incredibly complex and is often completed by anthropologists who take in all sorts of variables for consideration that are not directly associated with the population yet highly important.  Yet when it comes to organisational culture, it seems possible to look only at the organisational system, and not the entire system within which it operates.  I am just wondering whether this is more to do with convenience than good practice?  For example, someone working in the taxi industry might be highly disengaged because of the effects of Uber, and nothing to do with the Company.  It might explain why so many culture transformations never hit their intended target, very few people look behind the walls of the organisation itself.  

Employee Experience:  This is the latest buzzword following in the footsteps of what is hot in the marketing/customer industry.  Yes, employee experience is a wonderful thing to try to improve, but there is one slight problem.  Who creates an employee’s experience?  Based on my own knowledge of human behaviour (and I would hardly describe myself as an expert), it is an individual that creates their own experience through their perception of the subject/circumstance.  Regardless of what a company does to improve an employee’s experience, it is only the employee themselves who can define and rate it – it’s their experience!  In some cases, just like in the world of customers, unless a Company has an understanding of what truly drives employee behaviour, there is a danger of creating a culture that ONLY responds to extrinsic rewards and conditions.  In isolation, a focus on employee experience can have a dark side if the bigger picture is not carefully considered.

Continuous Feedback:  I have to admit to this being one of my favourites.  There are a growing range of tools out there that claim to improve anything from engagement, to culture, to experience, to profitability.  I know, because I was originally working on building one (which we have since switched to a different focus - measuring what matters in a sensible way).  I can see the appeal – let’s create a way for employees to feel like they are heard and at the same time we can keep our finger on the pulse – Top Glassdoor rating here we come!  And then reality kicks in – what happens to the feedback?  All of a sudden there is an expectation that ‘all’ feedback will be addressed, which in most companies can never happen.  Middle managers (in a typical structure) are stuck in a no-win situation, and phrases like ‘great idea, but we have to stick to the plan’ become familiar responses.  Eventually, the feedback becomes noise, or pointless, and it creates the very problem that it was designed to fix – giving employees a voice to be heard.  Rather than feedback, perhaps the issue is really about how the company communicates, makes decisions and suggests improvements.  This is very different to continuous feedback.

Performance Ratings:  I have watched this debate from afar, and it is to some extent a little amusing.  First we had performance ratings, which were ok until the 'overhwhelming' evidence was that they were detrimental to performance.  Now apparently there is evidence that companies are moving back.  Confusing.  However, is the issue really about ‘performance ratings’?  To me, this is the same as calling an elephant a tree trunk.  Whether performance ratings are right or wrong, or good or bad, surely depends on who the Company wants to be, and how it wants to go about it?  If it wants to be highly data driven, goal oriented and machine-like, then it needs systems in place that are consistent with this.  If it wants to be the opposite of this, then its systems, language and behaviour should reflect this.   There are successful companies that use performance ratings, and successful companies that do not.   It’s when the execution is totally inconsistent with the overall picture that it all starts breaking down.  It’s the reason why an elephant has different legs to a frog – the parts have to be fit for purpose, in the context of the bigger picture.

There are a dozen others I can think of and I bet you can too.  Besides, I am already close to a thousand words for this article!

Please know that it is not my intention to be overly cynical or to speak out against any particular approach.  If I have an axe to grind, it is simply to call out the generalised statements (some might describe these as b/s) suggesting there is a right and wrong approach in all circumstances.  For me, and this is definitely my own opinion, something can only really be evaluated in light of the prevailing circumstances and bigger picture.  Every approach is both right and wrong at the same time.   Crazy I know.   With this in mind, as long as you are considering the bigger picture, make decisions with this in mind, and don't fall prey to myopic views of what you should be doing, you will probably be just fine.

If you enjoyed this article, you might also enjoy https://optimum-direct.com/blog/2017/3/30/are-we-just-playing-a-bus....  And if you are interested in simple ways to improve workplace performance without breaking the budget, visit https://optimum-direct.com

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