HR guru Henry Mintzberg tells the story of how his daughter had once left him a puzzling note about her shoes: “Souls need fixing”. The simple misspelling was a reminder to Mintzberg of the much bigger problem being faced by modern organisations and their managers. A soulless form of management had taken over, suffocating people’s engagement with work. Some souls really did need fixing.
He has pointed to the influence of MBAs in encouraging a distorted form of management, taught to believe they can manage anything by being equipped with a generic kind of formula: detached, technocratic, fixated with numbers and their own personal performance. People management itself comes low on the agenda. Numbers first. And the result, says Mintzberg, is often just mean-spirited, playing people off against each other to get better results. What he calls “kiss up and kick down” managers, just trying to impress their “superiors” while denigrating “subordinates”.
An Organisational Culture with “Soul”
We all know the difference, instinctively, when we experience an organisational culture “with soul”. Mintzberg himself talks about a healthcare manager who joined one of his management programs. “He and his colleagues ‘loved working’ in one of them. It was a happy place, thanks to a head nurse who cared. She was understanding, respectful of everyone, intent on promoting collaboration between doctors and nurses. The place had soul.
Then she retired, and was replaced by someone qualified in nursing, with a master’s degree in management. Without any conversation the new manager started questioning everything. Where there used to be chatting and laughing at the start of shifts, ‘it became normal for us to see one nurse crying’”. Within the space of a few months, the family culture had been destroyed.
The conclusion is that both people and organisations have souls. People at all levels in an organisation want to care, they want to feel committed, engaged and part of something important. They want to feel positive about their workplace and give more back. But often they’re just not given the chance, they’re being deflated and alienated by a modern management style that continues to consider human relationships to be low priority compared with meeting quarterly numbers targets.
The Importance of People Skills
The first wave of the Covid-19 emergency forced the NHS to put many formal HR processes on hold, including those for conflict and grievances. But despite the enormous pressures the NHS also saw improved employment relations, more effective working with trade unions, better handling of conflict and better relationships.
This was happening essentially because disputes were being dealt with informally and flexibly: people skills rather than formal processes. The crisis made staff go back to basics, be more human.
In other words, the ability to have good conversations — to simply be able to talk through issues and difficult situations, to treat people like individual human beings — is a hugely positive force. But even after so many years when Emotional Intelligence and soft skills in general have been perceived as being a priority, the quality of conversations in workplaces appears to fall into decline. Managers are promoted based on their technical know-how and not their abilities with people.
If workplaces want innovative people, then they need to be curious and listen to others, they need to feel able to take risks and trust their colleagues. Better conversations are the basis of allowing people to be themselves and a means of harnessing the value of people’s human qualities and differences, rather than being seen as the source of problems.
Managers need what we call ‘Conversational Integrity’ (CI), which is made up of five capacities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening, and situational awareness. These capacities or skills are the real levers for making an organisation perform better — and for encouraging a real sense of soul.
Image by Tina Koehler from Pixabay