In April this year, the Financial Consumer Agency of Canada, the watchdog charged with protecting consumers of financial services, launched a probe into business practices at major Canadian banks. TD Bank found itself uncomfortably forced into the spotlight when hundreds of staff came forward to the media and spoke openly about living in fear of losing their jobs if they didn’t hit their targets. To meet their quotas, sales employees were selling products that weren’t always right for the consumer. They knew that what they were doing was unethical, but the process forced them to do it.
How did things get this way? To answer that, let’s see what happened in the past to lead us to where we are now.
Before mass production, individual artisans created goods from start to finish; there was a network of relationships, and in business and society the mindset was collaborative.
Mass production changed all that. Companies structured themselves as machines with many parts (departments), each with a specific role to perform. And so, the industrial mindset was created: as long as every part of the machine does its job, we can drive the machine to be productive. Questioning procedures and innovation was not encouraged or tolerated. Deviation from the plan would lead to failure. Information was tightly controlled by a strict hierarchy on a need-to-know basis which created a culture of secrecy. The high-ups would filter information and pass it down to their staff when—and only when—necessary. At that point in history, it is safe to say that the word transparency was only ever used by scientists and glassblowers; another couple of centuries would have to pass before transparency moved into the management lexicon!
The industrial mindset is alive and well in the 21st century, with many companies operating under the mistaken belief that it is quicker and easier to focus on process rather than people. After all, a process can be logically thought out, and honed until it works consistently; then it can be standardized, targets can be set and met, productivity can be measured, boxes can be checked.
Sausage, anyone?
Once something becomes a process it becomes an entity in itself, with a life of its own. It’s like a sausage machine: you put meat in one end, and a sausage comes out the other. To put it another way, you feed a person in at one end, and at the other end, you get a trained employee or a fired employee or whatever. Companies forget that what you are feeding into the process is a person, with wants and needs, expectations and values, and—above all—emotions. It’s hard to accommodate those in a standardized process, especially when you’ve taken a lot of time trying to make the company into a well-oiled machine that runs efficiently and effectively. It can feel like any accommodation will jeopardize the process. But you don’t want employees to feel like they are just a cog in a machine, or worse still, meat being ground up in a sausage mill.
Is your focus on people or process?
It’s time to turn things around. Business processes may be a great way of managing a company to get consistent results, but they are a terrible way of managing individuals to get consistent results – just ask the salespeople at TD.
As a manager, part of running an effective, productive team is to create and maintain strong relationships with your people. I appreciate that may sound obvious or even like textbook advice from a management training manual; but in the VUCA workplace, how many of us actually make time to connect with our employees? You may have told your team members that your door is always open, but do you follow through and encourage them to bring their concerns or ideas to you? Are you even in your office in the first place? When a direct report walks up to your desk, do your facial expression and body language convey interest in what they are about to say, or do you telegraph annoyance at being disturbed? In an effort to keep their visit short, do you interrupt them mid-sentence, presuming you know what they are about to say only to find out (if they are brave enough to continue) that they were trying to make a different point?
So, it’s not only fully listening when someone has a problem or idea; it is being aware of subtle changes in how your team is functioning. Notice when a team member seems ‘off’ instead of ignoring it. Take the time to check in on how things are going for them. It doesn’t have to be a formal closed-door meeting; you could make that initial check-in just by stopping by their desk as you pass, or making conversation when you are both in the break room getting coffee.
Let me explain why this is important. When someone feels overwhelmed (and research shows this is the case for many employees!), they might not be willing or able to speak up and make themselves heard. That’s especially true if they’ve encountered a negative response in the past, making it very easy for them to disconnect emotionally and psychologically from their job and from the company. When that happens, team dynamics, creativity, and productivity are adversely affected, and the team is less able to adapt, innovate, and respond when a VUCA situation arises.
Simple steps you can take now
We need to treat our employees as human beings and acknowledge their feelings and needs. Don’t let business processes disconnect you from your team.
  • Be authentic: recognize the emotional impact an instruction may have on your team member and talk about it with them.
  • Show your team you value them: be interested in their ideas and opinions.
  • Take the ‘pulse’ of your team, through regular check-ins with each of them: it doesn’t have to take long, and it can help you navigate any future difficulties.
  • Encourage and empower them to find solutions to problems.
In the next article in this series, we’ll look at why collaboration is important in VUCA-proofing your organization.