Workplace communications and rules are thick with statements about what it’s like, or should be like, to work there; rafts of policies with all their associated lists of principles, beliefs and values around mutual respect, teamworking, pride, inclusion, honesty.
But they too often stay as ambitions and ideals — part of the employer brand — and not something employees recognise from their everyday reality. Even with the growing importance and impact of the diversity, equality and inclusion agenda within organisations, the day-to-day experience of people is mixed up with all kinds of feelings of doubt, mistrust, pretence, of not being listened to or understood.
Research among employees keeps on backing up this idea of an awkward and damaging mismatch between HR messages and lived experience.
A survey among 1,000 UK employees by HR software provider Ciphr has found that around 25% didn’t believe they ‘had a voice’, just a basic sense that their views and opinions as an employee mattered to their organisation; another 22% were ‘uncertain’ whether they had a voice or not — a signal of confusion, or maybe lack of interest. There is a lack of belief in the implementation of DE&I principles, particularly among younger staff. 25% of 18- to 24-year-olds said they didn’t feel they could ‘be themselves’ at work.
This finding is backed up by another specific piece of research, this time looking at one of the groups which should have most benefited from the rise of DE&I. TapIn surveyed more than 2,300 Black generation Z workers. 47% said they had needed to ‘change parts of their personality’ to suit their workplace (what’s known as ‘code switching’). 86% of the professionals with an African heritage changed their names on job applications, because they believed it would help their chances.
All the good work and good intentions of HR teams is only having an impact on the surface of things — it’s not reaching down into root issues, into the actual workings of relationships and behaviours. There’s been no new sense of freedom, the chance for people to be more themselves, and all the advantages that come from employees in terms of feeling comfortable, motivated, wanting to give more. Instead, the usual pressures and codes of working life continue to dominate work routines and relationships.
Hierarchies and norms and meeting expectations of performance come first, the honesty and individuality only happen when employees are convinced it’s safe.
A ‘Clear Air’ culture works better for both employees and their organisation. As the Ciphr research suggested: only 26% of those who didn’t believe they were being listened to felt engaged and motivated; 51% planned to stay in their job (while 81% of those who did think they were being heard felt engaged, and 82% planned to stay).
Behaviours over policies
HR need to be more focused on actual behaviours over mission, values, even policies. What really makes a difference to people’s time at work? What can make working in teams such a rewarding thing? The main goal of HR must be bringing skilled people together to create the kind of culture that’s good for the organisation and its business.
That means recognising and defining what makes a workplace culture in more real, living terms — and accept that with a diverse working population and in different teams there are going to be many different cultures, not one. In other words, a better way of developing the best kind of culture is by clearly stating behaviours the organisation wants people to exhibit.
At the heart of the issue is how employees interact with each other, how they share and understand and appreciate each other. In other words, good behaviours are rooted in conversations, the kinds of conversations that lead to a Clear Air culture. Every output from an organisation at some point started with a conversation, it’s the quality of those conversations that improve the quality of the output.
This is what we call having ‘Conversational Integrity’, made up of five capacities: empathy, curiosity, self-awareness, reflective listening, and situational awareness. These capacities or skills are all fundamental to human interaction, the real levers for what make an organisation or business perform better. If you 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.
Image by Florian Pircher from Pixabay