Thursday, October 20, 2016

The Grumpy Ones

Thanks to the by-lines in the sister magazine 1843 (which I am coming to like more and more), I now know The Economist’s current Schumpeter columnist as Adrian Wooldridge. In 1843, he writes a humorous end piece, chronicling various misfortunes. In this, and each week in Schumpeter, he gives us a strong glimpse into his peculiar personality. He could only be British, with a combination of self-deprecation, humour and cynicism, all traits that I share and admire.

A classic Wooldridge piece was his Schumpeter column of a couple of weeks ago, Against Happiness. I am sure he suggested the delightful title himself. In the article, he derides companies who seem to rate happiness as a goal or metric as much as they do profit, and especially tries to defend his personal right to be grumpy. I get accused of being grumpy every so often too, especially when annoyed by our cats, and I confess to something of a fondness for the state. A hero of mine used to be Victor Meldrew from the TV show One Foot in the Grave, an aging man who is permanently grumpy.

Wooldridge always hits the mark, and loves to destroy fashionable theories. But on this occasion I find his article a little lazy and scattergun, almost a grumpy tirade.

First, he takes on retailers who try to employ staff with engaging personalities. Now, what could be wrong with that? Customer interaction is at the heart of retailing, and we all feel better and buy more when it goes well. Only yesterday, I sat in Central Park in the sun and had (English Breakfast) tea at a delightful café with chatty, attentive staff. I tipped well (not a regular habit) and will visit again. Most visits to the DMV convey opposite experiences. And just see how you feel after buying coffee at a Dutch café.

Wooldridge has lived in the US for some time, and I suspect part of his problem is with the “have a nice day” culture here. I was also cynical at first, but I’ve come to believe that the sentiment is usually authentic – most people here are optimists and really do want me to have a nice day, irrespective of whether a prospective tip is part of the equation. I love it, though I know I could never emulate it.

Retailers have every right to focus on staff engagement, and to recruit accordingly. Mystery shoppers are fair game. So long as staff are not bullied or humiliated or asked to behave inappropriately, it is reasonable to demand courtesy and even pleasantness. Smart companies also give staff leeway as to how they implement good service.

Wooldridge than turns to other companies and a growing industry of happiness consultants and happiness KPI’s. Gimmicky or not, why should Google not have a “Jolly Good Fellow” on its books if it wants to and if it believes competitive advantage will result? Why shouldn’t smart consultants try to make a bit of money by advocating models, courses, KPI’s and all the rest of it? As Wooldridge acknowledges, staff engagement truly is a strong predictor of performance. Many other important indicators are hard to measure (innovation?), but that doesn’t mean we should not try. Further, surely we should laud countries like Bhutan (and, fleetingly, the UK) for identifying that having happy citizens might be a more laudable goal than things like GDP?

Why Wooldridge is on stronger ground is in his forensically cynical challenges of current practices to achieve happiness in firms. Google’s Jolly Good Fellow is seemingly pursuing other career opportunities just now. A lot of the models so far are pretty shallow.

But a root cause for this could be that seeking staff happiness is an afterthought or an activity of a single division. Firms only made progress on things like safety or diversity once they became expected priorities of everyone, and staff contentment may be the same. I can Wooldridge being one of those cynics trying to park the topic in HR. He partly gets it when he says that wishy-washy goals will be less effective than concrete steps, such as reducing annoyances like e-mails or meetings.

OK, so e-mails and meetings annoy him. But what about everyone else – what annoys them? If leaders care, they have a strange way of showing it. Many companies run annual staff engagement surveys. But these have become tick box exercises, designed more to salve the leaders’ consciences than to effect lasting change. Most surveys nowadays contain a question: “Has anything happened as a result of last year’s survey”? The typical results don’t throw leaders into a good light – nor indeed the surveys themselves.

I am associated with a company called Synthetron, which has found a better way. Synthetron sessions are online, anonymous, real-time dialogues of invited groups, moderated via a script. Participants are given time to think, air real concerns, build from each others’ ideas, and even to seek solutions. The dialogues are invariably revealing and point to practical ways forward, often local to business units.

Yes, these discussions complain of leadership gimmicks, and also moan about e-mails and meetings. But usually they unearth deeper root causes, such as inconsistent or disrespectful behaviour by leaders, incompetent or lazy line management, and poor communication and recognition.

Correcting such failings requires concerted efforts, and Jolly Good Fellows will not help much. But we find that if leadership teams really care deeply about the motivation of their staff, they find ways to improve engagement, and better performance follows.

Wooldridge reveals his real gripe at the end of his article, when he states that the cult of happiness is an unacceptable invasion of individual liberty. Wow. Perhaps he has received some feedback about his own grumpy attitude.

I used to receive such feedback at work (and still receive it at home), and I too resented it. But when I was able to step back, I came to see such feedback as justified and valuable, for many reasons.

During my career, I learned that I could really influence a group at a meeting or workshop. A combination of experience, intelligence, networking, courage and oratory could have people hanging on my every word. I guess the same factors in the end led to my success as an internal blogger. I loved this power, it really fed my ego, but eventually I abused it.

I would prioritise being right and winning the debate against the interests of the group. I would make being grumpy an art form. I would take pleasure in destroying arguments. In the end this became a limiting factor in my career, because I could not resist humiliating my boss and even their boss. Of course, this added to the legend of street credibility, but revenge was wrought – and quite rightly.

Being an effective corporate citizen is part of our job description, just like having a winning smile and an engaging manner is a fair expectation of customer facing staff. I forgot this, preferring grumpiness and power and cynicism over what my organisation needed from me, despites all my excuses about intellectual rigour and contributing to diversity. A degree of positivity is as much part of leadership as intelligence and empathy.

I learned this in the end, my career have been stalled in the meantime. I wouldn’t presume to suggest that the brilliant and inspiring Mr. Wooldridge has the same lesson to learn. But, if an organisation pays our wages, it most emphatically is not an invasion of liberty to demand less grumpiness.

Now, I’ll get back to grumpily kicking the cats.                     

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