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Hearts & Minds Wins Latest Work Force Battle

Philip Maughan

The results of a ten year research into organisational performance have recently been published by Sheffield University and the London School of Economics. The findings clearly indicate that a happy and contented work force is more productive and more profitable and contradicts the management strategies of many organisations which appear to be based on the reverse assumption - that productivity and profitability will encourage a happy work force.

These two ideologies are easily recognised by the very different strategies, which may be summarised as ‘systems’ or ‘hearts and minds’ approaches. The Systems approach involves building competitive advantage through 'Total Quality', 'World Class' and 'Continuous Improvement' type initiatives. The Hearts and Minds route usually focuses on Culture, Values and Ethics.

The Systems approach is often based around a high profile initiative which is often introduced with a degree of fanfare in the belief that this will energise the work force towards adopting new working practices or attitudes. The reality is that employees all too often feel alienated by the hype and jargon which can accompany such initiatives. The need to adhere to prescribed routines with apparently little concern for its impact on the people can quickly lead to the frustration and cynicism which is at the root of expressions such as ‘Initiative Overload’ and ‘Management Fads’. Business Process Re-engineering was a systems initiative which failed to deliver the anticipated improvements largely because employees felt there was little concern or benefit for them. Far from winning the Hearts and Minds of the employees, BPE alienated them.

The Hearts and Minds approach on the other hand is rooted in changing attitudes, which is a holistic process - there's no quick fix because it treats the underlying issues rather than the symptoms. This makes it unattractive for some organisations precisely because it requires playing a long game. Another perceived disadvantage of the Hearts and Minds approach is its lack of clarity. Unlike the Systems approach which by definition is systematic, the Hearts and Minds route requires a highly responsive approach involving a process of consultation to encourage participation. Typically this might include Attitude Surveys followed up by small group meetings or Open Space type discussions. Clearly it would be unwise to attempt to predict outcomes or to anticipate how one might respond when adopting such a process.

Champions of the Systems approach often stress that improved relationships are a planned outcome of a new initiative. However, such outcomes tend to be implicit. The Hearts and Minds approach on the other hand is explicit in that it states the kind of workplace that is desired as a central rather than a peripheral theme, for example an organisation in the food and drinks industry proclaims in its Mission Statement: 'Our workers will share in the wealth creation and will operate in an innovative, non-hierarchical, customer driven, fun workplace committed to continuous learning’.

Statements of Values can be helpful. One organisation consulted widely with the work force to identify a set of Values or Guiding Principles to encourage the preferred culture which included; "Respect all members" and "Keep Promises" which are printed on plastic cards. The cards are often used like a referee’s yellow card when someone feels they've been treated in a disrespectful way. Some organisations have set out the explicit goal of being the 'Preferred local employer’ on the basis of its reputation for fairness and staff development opportunities. Such approaches are not based on woolly sentiment but have proven business benefits. Those organisations that are devoting energy towards being recognised as a ‘good employer’ for example, recognise the competitive advantage of attracting the best staff while reducing absence and staff turnover.

The point is not to demolish the Systems approach, rather it is that, by focusing on organisational culture, one is more likely to win the Hearts and Minds of the employees and therefore gain buy-in to any Systems deemed necessary. New initiatives are much more likely to be viewed positively in a Hearts and Minds type organisation, because they're in tune with the organisation rather than in conflict with it. The Sheffield University / L.S.E. research indicates that cultural factors are the major contributors to productivity and profit. The report states that a preoccupation with research and development, productivity and quality systems are all much less effective than the creation of a harmonious work environment in which people feel valued.

So in the face of such compelling evidence, why do so many organisations persist with a systems approach to Organisational Development? The main reason would appear to be that managing systems seems a lot simpler than managing an organisation’s culture. As Charles Handy observed, ‘managing people is like herding cats’ The prospect of attempting to change an organisation’s culture can seem daunting, and so a systems approach appears to provide a reassuringly logical progression - do ‘X’ and ‘Y’ will follow.

The Investors in People standard is promoted as a catalyst for Organisational Development. The main thrust of I.I.P. is to encourage a strategic approach to developing people in line with business objectives. As with other initiatives designed to encourage best practice however, there is the potential for I.I.P. to become bogged down in bureaucracy. This is precisely what happened with BS5750, which was designed to encourage high quality but appeared to be better at measuring consistency. The standard was based around an administrative approach to quality - tracking parts through the system, for example. The result of following the procedures was a quality that was consistent, but not necessarily high - it was possible to achieve consistent mediocrity!

The same potential exists with I.I.P.- the ‘systems’ can dominate and paradoxically stifle the very culture that I.I.P. is promoting. The greatest danger to I.I.P. is that it's seen as a bureaucratic exercise and becomes another management fad. For instance I.I.P. has been accused of encouraging investment in training rather than people. In addition I.I.P’s preoccupation with training linked to ‘business objectives’ is unlikely to motivate the work force and is an example of the profit and productivity leads to happy people ideology mentioned earlier rather than the reverse.

So how can these concerns be avoided? Opportunities for real learning and development (through their work) and the ability to positively influence the working environment are key requirements of a happy workforce. I.I.P. accreditation could therefore focus more on the organisational culture - how the organisation evaluates the culture, and crucially the processes for involving and consulting the work force on what changes they think would help to improve productivity. Instead of a structure that encourages organisations to get all the ‘systems’ in place prior to IIP assessment, the emphasis could be more on evaluation, consultation and involvement - in other words process rather than end results. I.I.P. assessors would then simply need to evaluate the measures identified in the Sheffield / L.S.E. study - positive shifts in organisation culture, productivity and profit.The most useful measurements then wouldn't be what Systems the organisation has implemented, but rather to what degree the organisation has succeeded in winning the Hearts and Minds of the employees - get that right according to the Sheffield study and everything else will fall into place.


Articles in this section:

Intellect, Will and Passion: The Art of Facilitating Outdoor Development Training

Putting Fun Into Work

Developing a Learning Organisation

Hearts & Minds Wins Latest Work Force Battle

Principle Centred Leadership

Becoming an Employer of Choice

The Half Hearted Virus: A trainer's tale of despair

Leadership: Death of the Hero?

Engagement: Increasing productivity by gaining the commitment of the workforce