ASK Blog

Truth matters

Truth Matters
I wrote recently on this blog about Radical Candor (sic). I’m still as English as I was when I wrote the original, where a degree of sarcasm may not have escaped your attention. But a lack of not just candour, but something closely related – honesty – is really not a laughing matter.

You may have noticed a strapline on this website. Truth matters. Without truth, there is no credibility, no trust, no faith. Lies are quick, cheap and easy, but the bill can be pretty big when it does arrive. And it will. Have a read of a recent article from the US press, and ponder for a few seconds the impact on the credibility of Kellyanne Conway. If you’ve not glazed over yet, bear in mind her job title. Counselor to President of The United States. Her job is to speak on his behalf. And if she’s not credible…

We may live and work in an era when examples or allegations of ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ – a phrase that Ms Conway herself ‘popularised’ recently – seem to be everywhere, and where echo chambers digitally amplify them at the speed of whatever it is the Internet travels at. (The extent to which people may believe fictional news stories has led Facebook to introduce revised software in Germany ahead of this year’s elections.) But we are also in the age of the camera-phone, the server log, the CCTV camera, key capture software and many other little technological wonders that track and monitor a remarkably percentage of everything we do. If it happened – or if it didn’t happen (the size of President Trump’s inauguration crowd, anyone?) – there’s a very high chance the evidence exists to prove or disprove it.

Dishonesty has never been the best policy: in 2017, it’s also very stupid. With such a high chance of evidence being available, there is only so far that truth can be stretched before it not only becomes dishonest but transparently so. Remember the Emperor’s New Clothes? You might think you’ve got everything covered so to speak, but other people’s view could be pretty off-putting.


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The antidote to a toxic culture is better behaviour

They say culture eats strategy for breakfast, and they may have a point. But, like breakfast, culture has ingredients: the behaviours that create the atmosphere and patterns that everyone works within. Think for a moment about your morning muesli, and contemplate that old adage – “One bad apple…” It seems the staff at Business Grapevine might be thinking along similar lines, judging by their recent article, 5 warning signs of a TOXIC company culture.

For those that might be concerned, here’s the summary checklist:

  • A lack of employee motivation
  • Inauthentic leadershipHigh turnover rates
  • Absenteeism
  • Lack of communication

While culture can – indeed, should – be managed, it’s only reasonable to assume that the decision to create a culture with these characteristics is rarely that any intelligent organisation would take, but how many are mindful that these symptoms can arise surprisingly swiftly when behaviour goes either awry or unchecked?

No matter what our staff handbooks and codes of conduct might say, organisations are composed of people, and a degree of irrationality comes with the turf. But that does not mean all is lost. A recent Strategy & Business article profiling Maryam Kouchaki, an expert in the causes of unethical behavioural, included an important reminder:

[…] although we humans may be hardwired to react and behave in certain ways that may not always make us proud, we are by no means a lost cause.

This is just as well, given some of the findings of a recent McKinsey article, The hidden toll of workplace incivility, which charted some of the impact of toxic behaviours:   […]

Peak trust: is it ahead, or is it behind us?

Peak Trust
In findings that may dampen spirits in the C-Suites of the kingdom (and more than a few republics), CEOs are – with the exception of media spokespeople – currently the least trusted sources of information, according to the 2017 Edelman Trust Barometer. As Management Today reported:

“Trust in businesses and business leaders is on the wane, the report found, but the group the public does trust to tell them the truth about a company is its employees”

The Edelman report’s introductory section pulls few punches, even in its sub-title: “An Implosion of Trust”. After what it acknowledges as being a year of ‘unprecedented upheaval’, the report seems little surprised by human reaction to a world where heads of state have rolled, the Panama papers were released, elections and referendums brought widespread shock and a combination of rising fake news and falling advertising revenue undermined mainstream media.

The ‘news’ – although that doesn’t feel like exactly the right word – is that the sense that the world is heading in the wrong direction is increasingly widespread. In finding that 53% judged that ‘the system is not working’, Edelman is not the only organisation to feel the pulse of the global public mood. In a worldwide a October 2016 Ipsos survey, What Worries the World, 61% of respondents said their country was on the ‘wrong track’ – 60% of Britons agreed. The main worries varied between the 25 profiled countries (the most frequently raised was not – as it is uniquely in the UK – immigration, but unemployment, with poverty and inequality also frequently highly ranked.)


“Senior business leaders unequipped to manage and develop people”

Senior business leaders unequipped to manage and develop people
Those blunt words were how the CIPD announced the findings of its HR Outlook: Winter 2016-17 survey.  While organisations voted performance management and people management as the two most important behaviours and skills for organisations over the next three years, senior leaders’ current performance in these areas were considered ineffective by 53% of respondents for the former, and 44% for the latter.

Dr Jill Miller, CIPD Research Adviser, was similarly plain spoken, drawing a series of pretty unavoidable conclusions and arguing that organisations need to:

  • make ‘targeted investment in their leadership’s people management capability’
  • review ‘outdated career development models’ to create pathways for progression for those with a technical bias that does not oblige them to take on people management responsibilities
  • provide formal training and greater support for line managers, who are increasingly being expected to take on people management responsibilities that were previously handled by HR functions.

We can only agree with another of her comments: a business really is its people. The senior leadership may call the tune, but the workforce are the band that actually play it. They are the people that deliver its vision, mission and strategy, that live its customer relationships and provide the productivity that generates success.

Yet the detailed results in the Winter 2016-17 survey (which you can download as PDF) don’t provide a great deal of comfort:

  • The only current organisational priority reported by a majority of respondents was Cost Management
  • 70% of HR staff believe their team’s activities are at best ‘somewhat aligned’ with organisational priorities
  • Senior leaders are rated least effective in relation to conflict management, inspiring trust, communicating strategy, performance management, engagement/motivation and empowering others
  • 17% of line managers get neither formal training nor ‘tailored support’: only 25% currently receive both.
  • Where analytics are used within the business, line managers are less likely to have access to HR dashboards and reports than Finance managers.

We have always argued the importance of the ‘people’ aspect of business – whether it is referred to as ‘soft skills’, ‘people management capability’ or any other phrase. If leadership is largely meaningless without the capacity to engage and inspire others, that management is similarly lacking in impact without a focus on communication, understanding and an ability to motivate. A manager’s team is not yet another task to tackle, but the means to accomplish aims and objectives.


Can I speak with candour?

Can I speak with candour
Silicon Valley – where else? – has a new ‘thing’, apparently. It’s called Radical Candor. We’re English, so we won’t be mean and quibble about the spelling. After all, there’s an important point here. (And a book and a website. And a company and a TED Talk…)

Helen Rumbelow interviewed its co-founder, Kim Scott for The Times recently to find out more about what it means, and where it draws the line between showing complete honesty rather a form that might – if we’re being frank – be called ‘brutal’. The company’s website provides a handy matrix, with axes labelled ‘Care Personally’ and ‘Challenge Directly’. Radical Candor represents the apex of both, trumping ‘Ruinous Empathy’ and ‘Obnoxious Aggression’ and leaving ‘Manipulative Insincerity’ in a dark corner, presumably crying into its hankie or pulling the legs off insects.

As The Times observed, this sounds terribly un-British. We are, after all, the country that has been the subject of a long-running web meme that helps non-Brits to understand that what we say to them is neither what we meant, nor what they thought we meant. When, for example, we say “That’s a very brave proposal”, others might think we mean “He thinks I have courage”. What we actually meant, of course, is “You are insane.”


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