I have insisted to sceptical readers in the past that all the stories I tell in this column are true.  I make the same quality guarantee for the following:

A European HR Director of a global organisation was telling me about the unpredictable behaviour of a former boss.  Apparently he once issued an edict that an audit be conducted of bearded high potential managers.  Following the audit, my contact was to ensure that anyone with a beard be removed from the high potential pool – as men with beards couldn’t be trusted (presumably women with beards were a safe bet, though I don’t think this loophole was ever successfully challenged in a tribunal).

You find this hard to believe?  Try a tamer story.  I once ran a series of management programmes for a large organisation.  The regular location was a hotel about 30 miles west of London – relatively handy for the motorway network, close to Heathrow, and at least tolerated by participants from the North.  Following the arrival of a new management development manager, all programmes were transferred to a hotel in Cambridge – not particularly near a major airport and impossible to get to from anywhere other than East London (before I get emails from Eddie Stobart spotters and related infrastructure pedants, this was before the improvements to the A14).  To those participants inclined to whinge about the change of location, a logical rationale was provided to do with cost per head, flexibility over syndicate rooms, and so on.  I’m not sure how many people stopped to ask where the new management development manager lived….

I could go on.  I’ve heard many such tales over the years.  Apart from the fact that they add interest and colour to the otherwise drab world of organisational life, they have an important lesson which few are prepared to acknowledge.  The fact is, however much we pretend that the business world runs along objective and rational lines, for as long as it is run by human beings it will never be logical and rational.

Senior managers tend to operate publicly as if human frailty is the province of the oiks in the admin department photocopying their buttocks and exchanging emails containing links to dancing badger websites (oh go on, you know you want to: http://www.footballbadgers.com/).  Meanwhile the senior managers, with their strategy documents and net present value calculations, have access to an objective, enduring Truth.   Now, post-Blunkett, the secret is out: people in hugely responsible senior positions act in bizarre, illogical and unpredictable ways for no other reason than because they’re human.

Interesting then, isn’t it, that it is at the times when we are at our most human – when we are fearful, uncertain and emotionally vulnerable – that organisations go super-logical?  It’s called Change Management.  It involves flow diagrams, 2x2 matrices, commitment charts, and countless other ways of reducing human behaviour to data which we can manipulate into a milestone plan.  Then we wonder why the ungrateful so and so’s aren’t meeting their new exponential performance targets.

In a logical world, everything makes sense.  Here’s a sentence from the introductory chapter of a recent book on creative thinking: “Without Creativity, there are very few companies in existence today that will be around in a few years’ time.”  A reasonable assertion to make.  Faced with such a robust argument, you would expect everyone to be brandishing mind maps and packs of magnetic hexagons like there’s no tomorrow.  But how do you feel about this one: “Without suffering, there are very few companies in existence today that will be around in a few years’ time.”?

That’s also a reasonable assertion to make, but does it make you want to embrace suffering wholeheartedly? I suspect not.  The fact is that the implications of even such a superficially cuddly discipline as creativity are equally daunting to the typical employee.  Most logical arguments for doing things differently fail to take into account the amount of fear lurking beneath the surface of the average workforce.  The change guru Daryl Conner makes the observation that nobody ever changed their behaviour just because it seemed like a good idea.  Giving up smoking is a valid analogy for any behaviour change: most smokers will tell you it would be a good idea if they stopped, but translating a good idea into action requires overcoming the discomfort of a change of habit.

I wonder what it would take for organisations to break through the pain barrier and change the habit of treating people as if they will do anything just because someone else thinks its a good idea?  There is, of course, no logical answer to this.  (Oh, sorry, actually there is: It’s called Get the HR Department to Sort it Out.)


(c) Phil Lowe, 2005.  All rights reserved.