It’s not often we encounter ‘evidence’ and ‘values’ in the same paragraph, so Charles Jacobs posting Values Investing caught my attention (with apologies to him for taking since April to get to reading it.)  While leaders, managers and learning & development professionals have long held that values matter, it can tempting for many of us to just see them as being of the same ilk as school mottos – something we can vaguely aspire to living by when we haven’t got too many deadlines bearing down on us. Yet it seems Jacobs, Peter Drucker and the Bishop of London share some common ground.

Although there is a logistic leap from the original research that inspired Jacob’s posting that defeats me slightly, reflecting on the values that matter most to us – much as some of the business community might consider that to be, in Jacob’s words, ‘too soft-nosed’ – does appear to help us to focus and to improve our overall performance. By giving us a truer sense of perspective, it appears that it reduces anxiety and enables to get on with the task at hand – and subsequent tasks – more confidently. From the L&D perspective, it also appears that the effects are lasting, an attribute so sorely lacking in many approaches.

Interestingly, the researchers attribute the success of the technique in part to reminding participants that not everything rests on individual testing moments: one of the things perspectives gives any of us, after all, is sufficient distance to distinguish the urgent from the important. This is not so far – if any distance at all – from the likes of Charles Handy and his interest in the search for meaning. And when it comes to the importance of values, today’s Independent indicates that the Bishop of London agrees too.

The Bishop, Richard Chartres, is no luddite: the BBC website recently covered his involvement in the virtual reality 3d Church of Fools project. Whatever his views of the 21st century, he cannot be said to have not joined it. Though he is speaking more specifically about religion, which he believes many of us came in the previous century to see as “part of the world we had lost”, he too sees an importance in values as providing perspective to our lives:

Many people experience the way we live now as existing in the wasteland with a suppressed fear of death and a hectic lifestyle developed in the hope that living faster will mean that we get more out of this short life. This is why rhythm in life has been abolished by 24-hour shopping and the season of fasting has been swept away in favour of perpetual carnival with no ensuing Lent.”

Given that Jacobs arrives at his own position from a review of management practice informed by neuroscientific research, it’s almost sad that Charles Darwin isn’t available to comment, but Jacobs’ findings and arguments unexpectedly support an often-cited quote by management guru Peter Drucker:

 One does not “manage” people. The task is to lead people. And the goal is to make productive the specific strengths and knowledge of each individual.”

There’s a fuller review of Jacob’s book at the Financial Times, but a few salient points are worth quoting, illustrating his contentions that:

Conventional management practice jars with our natures. “Whether we’re a chimpanzee or a corporate employee, we don’t like being controlled by others,” he adds. Management is “more suited to forms of life lacking the ability to think”.

Feedback is basically just upsetting. We remember the bad bits and ignore the good. Instead of standard appraisals, “employees should set their own objectives, critique their own performance and, if there is a performance shortfall, determine what corrective action needs to be taken”, Jacobs argues. The new role of the manager should be virtually the opposite of the old one, he says; asking instead of ordering, providing information to enable employees to set their own objectives.

“When it comes to organising large numbers of people, we’ll get better results if, rather than trying to thwart their natural inclinations, we just accept how people behave and make the most of it,” he says.”

Although he is in some ways arguably a more management-focused update on Desmond Morris, Jacobs’ use of scientific studies to argue for new working practices are bound to brush many people’s fur up the wrong way: maybe change is uncomfortable for the majority of higher primates? He may not be proven entirely right: feedback often is basically just upsetting, but this is usually because it’s been delivered badly, clumsily or inappropriately – giving feedback is a skill that requires careful practice, not – if the Bishop will forgive us – a form of divine right that is granted on elevation to a certain organisational level.

Feedback becomes an organisational minefield where its ‘practitioners’ have confused it with status-assertion or bullying, although acknowledging this might be to acknowledge Jacob’s point from a different angle. We’ll need to finish reading the book to see if he admits that his approach implies that managers are just a different group of chimpanzees: should the nightmare future scenario have actually been Office of the Apes?

That said, there are certainly interesting challenges for our thinking here: let’s hope we don’t just scratch our heads and throw bananas at them.

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