Behaviour: HR’s Redemption or HR’s Ruin? #CIPD14

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Well this is something I never thought I’d say, but the second day of the CIPD Annual Conference took me on an emotional roller coaster. There couldn’t be a more apt demonstration of one of the messages coming over loud and clear from the event – that our emotions affect our behaviour and we’re motivated by the way we feel.

First up, Laughology (best session title ever) provided for me the answers to the first day’s session by Nick Chater (Warwick University) on understanding behavioural science. Nick talked about the uniquely human action of following unwritten rules. Anything that’s out of the ordinary basically annoys us, hence the reason why we don’t like change. Humans like things to co-ordinate, which results in physical mirroring. While coordination and cooperation are essential to team working and culture, they can also significantly undermine innovation. Our current behaviour is built on layers and layers of past experience – we do something well and we repeat it. Over and over again. The best case scenario is proficiency. The worst is a blockage and resistance to anything new.

Stephanie Davies from Laughology taught us how to challenge those rigid ways of thinking and behaving. With simple physical exercises she demonstrated the difficulty of breaking those established patterns of behaviour that Nick talked about. It’s not that humans don’t want to try something new, it’s that they feel embarrassed to make a mistake while trying, so then revert back old behaviours. With positivity we are better equipped to deal with the problems life throws at us and, more powerfully, if we work together in the spirit of good humour, mistakes can be a source of fun, rather than fear. But if getting your CEO’s buy in to such a radical approach is an unsurmountable object, then the next session may be more up your street.

After having laughed more than I had in ages, I waited in the auditorium for the next speaker, Kevin Murray. Within minutes of his talk starting, Kevin demonstrated to us the power of storytelling. I had a lump in my throat as he explained how his daughter had nearly died in a plane crash. I was practically in tears when he told us about getting to the bottom of a problem manager who was a health and safety bully by discovering the reason for his behaviour was that he had once had to explain to a young boy’s parents why their son had been impaled on his site. Once the manager was encouraged to stop shouting and start telling his story instead, the culture was transformed.

Other #CIPD14 sessions, as well as Kevin’s’, noted how modern communication had changed the nature of leadership, meaning actions are constantly under scrutiny. One wrong move, and a company’s share price can plummet, hence why the value of intangible assets had overtaken that of the tangible. With social media, a customer can be tweeting about a problem long before the company is even aware, with possibly devastating consequences. Rita Gunther McGrath, in her keynote speech, had already highlighted the importance of getting problems on the table as soon as possible. Kevin emphasised this and demonstrated the range of communication styles that either help or hinder this approach. What it boiled down to was authenticity, courage and wanting to make a difference and fix problems.

All of Kevin’s insights are from his extensive research, undertaken to answer questions raised by his intense curiosity. He found out why his daughter’s plane nearly crashed, narrowing it down to faulty fuel parts on a production line in Japan. Then he wanted to know why, although none of the leaders he’d worked for were stupid, some failed and some succeeded. His points seemed almost obvious, but fascinated at the same time. His military stories highlighted how a lack of empowerment had led armies to their doom. Instead, a true inspirational leader has a clear vision and enables others to makes decisions within that framework. When you think about the best boss you’ve ever had, it’s never a micro manager. It’s someone who believed in you and inspired you to achieve more than you ever thought possible.

So, human behaviour has a lot to answer for. It can be our biggest downfall, but also has the potential to be our saviour. The techniques needed are actually pretty simple. We just need the courage to embrace them.