People in systems

People performance cycles

People are a particularly dynamic resource. Firstly, they are extremely flexible and adaptable, compared to a machine. Secondly, the individual person has an independent mind, which is sensitive to its environment. People’s abilities, concentrations and commitments vary continually. People need to be equipped with the skills, knowledge, support and motivation necessary to perform their functions within the system well. People also need to be aware of the organisation’s values and objectives, and understand how they themselves contribute to meeting these.

Organisations tend to drift across, or flip, between the cycles of its people declining or improving in performance. Even when things go well, something unplanned can happen that puts pressure onto the system and a switch to the declining cycle can occur. Likewise, when things are going bad, a small success event can help spark a break from the decline. The positive break tends to be initially weak and must be fuelled to take hold. This is a slow process. It is therefore important to maintain awareness and to avoid any drifts into the declining cycle in the first place.

Generally, as long as people’s feeling of success is greater than that of pressure, the organisation will be moving in the right direction. Success is measured by outcomes – e.g. customer satisfaction and the organisations result. Pressure is often linked to the forever increasing productivity demands exerted by the wider organisational context. But it can also arise unexpectedly – for example from a competitor establishing an unmatchable success, or from a sudden unplanned loss of a key employee or supply partner. Assertive control creeps in when leaders lose their composure under the pressure and through lack of confidence resort to micro-managing the situation. As result, people will withdraw their discretionary talent for self-managing and instead replace it with disinterest, risk aversion and political behaviours. The declining cycle represents a pitfall that can be hard to get out of.

Pressure from stretching is not bad, because of its positive effect in enhancing the sense of success. Hard work generally feels more rewarding than light work does – up to a point. Importantly, the pressure must not exceed the sense of success, or else we could end up switching people to the declining cycle. People who are made to feel successful are generally able to absorb more pressure. It is particularly important to take a breather and find something to celebrate, when on occasions we have come through a difficult project.

Stop managing

People naturally want to do well and simply need to be given the space and psychological safety – i.e. no blame if something goes wrong, and an always available and supportive leader on standby in case of need. Leaders will find that the more they make themselves accessible, the less people will actually call on them – which is good. Equipped with the necessary information and backup support, people can easily self-manage.

At times, however, regulatory and standard requirements may demand a necessary degree of governance, which can risk becoming a form of asserted control. Optimising human resources is largely about finding a best way of combining freedom and control – as well as equipping people with skills and knowledge. One way to address mandatory controls is to explain to people what the governance standard requires, and why it therefore becomes important, and then most possible delegate the controlling functions to the people self.

Build cohesion

It is said that the roman empire fell when it for cost-cutting reasons disregarded its army’s otherwise longstanding principle on not hiring “barbarians”, who lacked in altruistic and cohesion characteristics, and at the same time began to tolerate lower skills.

The modern-day equivalent to the Roman Legion, the French Foreign Legion, still functions on many of the principles of its Roman forerunner. It is highly diverse, “uniting all faiths and creeds” (although still men only!). It leaves no-one willing behind and will go through pains to always collect its casualties from the battle field. Lastly, it operates as a ‘block’ that never breaks. The ‘block mentality’ tells the individual that “before you can trust in others, you must first be able to trust in yourself”. It is the individual’s primary duty to train rigorously and to take constant care of own skills. Each individual is focused on fulfilling his own function within the block, which of course includes coordinating with the neighbouring functions. Any Legionnaire that hesitates in showing trust in others, or worse voices a concern about a colleague, is soon discharged from the unit. The strength of the unit depends on an unwavering collective confidence in everyone keeping their place and the block holding together.

block mentality

The 2 smaller images in the centre above show how columns of French army and marine troops, on their annual 14th July parade, divide in front the VIP stand at the Place de la Concorde in Paris. The image to the right shows how the Foreign Legion troop parades in block formation. Their block cannot break, not even to honour the President of the Republic. This is a highly symbolic gesture, which helps to maintain an absolute cohesion between colleagues.

A coherent unit will always beat a lesser coherent competitor. In any workplace, people must stick together, no matter what. The organisation must not behave as a hierarchy, but should instead think of itself as a block of mixed functions that do something together. Everyone should focus on own performance and own skills, within their own positions. Leaders build cohesion by maintaining a policy of praising collaboration and unselfish colleagueship behaviours, while showing disinterest in gossip and negativity amongst colleagues.

Connect individuals to the Corporate values

Values are “inherently worthwhile and important positive qualities to a holder”. They are rooted in personal needs, desires and ethics. Values give meaning to our choices, decisions and feelings. Employee value-based action can never be taken for granted. Lack of a believable connection between the corporate and individual values will create a mental distance, with the individuals not investing their entire discretionary talent and energy in the corporate purpose. What matters most to an individual can end up competing with what is most important to the organisation and, worse, to its customers. A conflict in values can thereby become value-destroying.

Corporate values should be expressed in a language that is easy ‘alignable’ to people’s personal values. Fortunately, most deeply held personal values tend to be rather stable and stay clustered around a few core themes that are compatible with those of any organisation and society in general. However, and often surprisingly, individuals are not always clear about their own personal values and priorities. They may need coaching in becoming clear about them and how they connect with those of the organisation. Day-to-day leadership therefore involves ‘digging out’ the individual’s values, in a friendly and informal way, and then show their important contribution to the overall success picture – and to add a “thank you”.