Asset? Really?

When did we start referring to people as assets? It’s clearly better than seeing them as liabilities, but is that really the choice?

A fork lift truck is an asset. A flip chart stand is an asset. Neither of these is likely to think for itself, nor to answer back. And before you suggest it, no, it is not a shame that the same can’t be said for employees. Employees are people. We lose sight of their indviduality at our cost. It is the particular combination of individualities, foibles, talents, that makes your organisation what it is.

Your people aren’t just the most important asset in your business. They are your business. Let’s ban the use of impersonal balance sheet terminology to describe the life-blood of your organisation.

Eliminating misery at work

This is the subject of one of my rants. We spend more of our adult lives working than anything else. What possible justification is there for work to be miserable – or to make us miserable?

I believe that we all have the right to enjoy work. This isn’t an unreasonable expectation. Enjoying work may be much easier to recognise and achieve for someone like me, in a job that gives me great freedom of operation, with a wide range of creative things to do. I’m quite prepared to acknowledge that some tasks are dull and mundane, and some are downright unpleasant. It is still possible for people to enjoy many aspects of their work: their workplaces; the company of their co-workers; the obvious respect that is accorded them; the freedom of operation and self-determination they are given.

The most common reason for people to feel miserable at work is poor management (managers either wrongly selected for the job or poorly trained). This is entirely independent of the type of business or the type of work.

If business leaders were to decide that misery was unacceptable in their workplaces, we could begin to strip away the problems, and create workplaces bursting with enjoyment.

Work life balance denounced

What a rotten idea, work life balance. It causes far more imbalance than anything else. As with all the fashions that organisations get drawn into like a new religion, it soon loses any sign of sense. At the extreme it can become positively damaging.

But how, you say, can something which is so clearly targeted at the wellbeing of employees cause harm?

Like this:

Firstly, it presumes that the choice is work or life. Be at work or be alive. Oh great. Job opportunities for zombies. I object strongly to the inference that life is something that only happens outside of work. Do we have to stop working in order to enjoy ourselves?

Secondly, work life balance lowers expectations and flattens ambition. Work is good enough if it provides for you well enough. It doesn’t need to be fulfilling or engaging. I have come across a depressing number of people, at the stage when traditionally they would be very career-conscious, instead sitting back on their heels. They have swallowed the work life balance mantra whole, and see work simply as a cash machine buying them the time to live, live, live.

Nobody in their right mind would argue against the importance of a rounded life that nourishes and sustains us. Work is integral to that rounded life, though, and not just the feeder for it.

Rights and obligations

Society has become obsessed with rights, but seems unwilling to accept the obligations that come along with that.

We claim the right to be completely safe from harm, including self-inflicted harm. We should be warned that coffee is hot and could scald, that babies should not play with plastic bags, even (my favourite) that butter contains milk. Where is our obligation to use a little common sense? What about our own responsibilities – for ourselves and our nearest and dearest, and for society as a whole? This is all, of course, fuelled by lawyers (bless their cotton socks), especially the ambulance chasing variety who are making their presence increasingly felt.

In a massive piece of hypocrisy, we point at the reactions we have all generated, and call them “health and safety gone mad”. Mad possibly, but whose fault is that? I’m delighted to see that, in a move to rescue their reputation, the Institution of Occupational Health and Safety are sponsoring the 2007 World Conker Championships.

Sorry, got into a bit of a rant here. What has this got to do with healthy organisations and galvanized people? This obsession with rights is played out in the workplace as well. Increasingly, managers who try to set demanding expectations of their employees are accused of bullying. No-one could be more against bullying than me. It goes against everything I believe about distinctive organisations, and everything I’ve said about eliminating misery at work. In any case it’s completely counter-productive. But there is a big difference between bullying people and setting out their obligations and accountabilities. In the face of the rights obsession, managers become fearful about taking action, and they tolerate poor performance to a damaging degree.

Poor performance damages the organisation’s achievements, and destroys the morale of the people affected by it. Work isn’t social welfare. As working people we all have rights. As employees of distinctive organisations in particular, we have many rights. We also have obligations, and we should expect to be held accountable for them.

The stress fashion

There’s a lot of it about. Work related stress costs us more than £3.7 billion a year. Everyone has a different tolerance level, is affected by different triggers, and will respond differently to stress.

There are four kinds of stress:

  1. Good stress
  2. Referred stress
  3. Made-up stress
  4. Real stress

Good stress:

There is a level of pressure without which it would be very hard for people to get up in the morning. No stress at all could for many people be depressingly bland, and indeed stressful. For people who are deadline driven, the stress associated with an approaching deadline is highly motivational. Working against seemingly impossible odds and getting the job done can produce a real high for some people. And then, of course, there are the adrenaline junkies. All of this is pressure, but not pain-inducing stress. It could be called good stress.

Referred stress:

People can’t compartmentalise their lives. A stressful situation at home can make them unable to cope at work. It is entirely appropriate that their employers be understanding and supportive. They are not in a position, though, to fix things, and yet they do bear a lot of the cost.

Made-up stress:

Call me a cynic but I’m sorry, I just don’t believe that all the people taking vast amounts of sick leave are really stressed. A manager makes a decision that an employee doesn’t like, and two second later they’re off with stress. I am reminded of the child who didn’t get cast as Titania, and locked herself in the loo for the rest of the day. Sorry, it’s not real.

Real stress:

Of course there is real, work related stress. It causes untold misery and pain. It can be nobody’s fault, although it is usually caused by bad organisations and bad managers. There is no excuse for organisations causing this kind of stress in their employees. It is cruel and wasteful of human life and energy.

We often don’t recognise that we are in a stressful situation until quite late on. We tolerate a slow slide into discomfort and unhappiness, but don’t see it for what it is until we hit the point of pain. Learning to recognise your personal stress response can give you a very valuable early warning mechanism. A stressful situation recognised early is far easier to challenge and change, or if necessary to step away from, before the damage is done.

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