There are innumerable pop-psychology quizzes to play with on the Internet: endless opportunities to classify yourself as one type or other of something you’ve probably never even contemplated before or would only undergo with a trained psychotherapist and a flask of hot sweet tea on stand-by. I’ve just completed several that offered to enlighten me as to my animal personality. Despite one or two friends having pointed out I’m essentially an otter (a reference that you either will or won’t understand), the Internet assures me that I’m a grizzly bear. Or a dolphin. Even a unicorn. All good, clean fun, albeit in a rather silly way. But surely, if we were to ask the right questions, we’d find out that a large percentage of us in our working lives are more like ostriches than anything else?

Let me explain. I don’t mean flightless, although I suspect a number of the working population would nod in agreement, longing to stretch their wings and hover just a little higher in the scheme of things. Too many of us feel our ambitions and careers are ‘grounded’ in the more negative sense of the word.

I do mean the sense that we traditionally – if not quite accurately – attribute to ostriches: sticking our heads in the sand to spare us from looking at a reality that either is threatening or at least appears that way. Although they are capable of delivering a good kicking (a parallel to pass over?), ostriches’ main responses to danger are to a) run away, or b) lie perfectly still till they resemble a mound of earth and wait until the threat has passed. Give or take a few feathers and an egg-laying habit, I for one have worked with quite a few people who fit the general description.

What’s particularly worrying about this is the rather acute sense of potential danger that we seem to have developed. Despite the enormous advantages afforded to us as a species – opposable thumbs, the power of language, the ability to build and operate sophisticated tools, highly developed communication skills and channels – we’re just as likely as our feathered friends to look away rather than face up to things. It’s particularly striking in the case of any number of instances where we actually know what ‘the right thing to do’ is, but pretending to be a mound of earth remains our preferred option.

Consider the following extract from an article – To motivate or engage – that is the question? – posted recently at HRZone:

What the current command and control management dogma gets completely wrong is that engagement, motivation, empowerment are not verbs but nouns. Let me explain. If we say we need to engage, to empower, to motivate employees, these are verbs. We treat these as inputs or processes and worst of all they’re typically DONE TO people. Instead (and we seem to have forgotten everything Herzberg and others taught us many years ago on this topic), people feel engaged, empowered and motivated (nouns) as outcomes of things we do WITH them.”

As we’ve said here before, engaging is something we do with each other, not at each other. As human beings, we know this: yet as participants in the workplace, many of us feign ignorance of this fairly obvious truth for years at a time and carry on merrily doing things that we swear will engage, empower and motivate other people, even as we use monologue rather than dialogue to do so. Change is difficult and uncomfortable, hard to achieve without support (and without admitting we have previously been slightly amiss in our thinking and behaviour), and risky. So, rather than redrawing the maps to recognise the evidence, we stick to the equivalent of the Flat Earth theory.

It can be hard to identify quite why we’ve adopted the ‘ostrich position’ on an issue, especially one that is so much a fact of life that – rationally speaking – ignoring requires an obtuse mental leap. While we would all hope – and some of us would swear oaths on sacred texts – that organisational practice and process is completely concerned and aligned with organisational sustainability and competitiveness, consider how we handle one of the most utterly basic elements of sustaining a flow of future potential talent: pregnancy.

The most recent edition of Stella, a supplement to the Sunday Telegraph, included an article about women’s experience in returning to work (or attempting to) after having children. Given the number of female executives who drop out of the working world in the mid-thirties and find it difficult to return, you’d be forgiven for thinking we might evolve an accommodation between continuity of the organisation and continuity of the species that works a little more elegantly, especially in the face of the evidence:

While half of new recruits at most City banks are women, according to Dr Ruth Sealy of the Cranfield School of Management, only five to 15 per cent of managing directors are female. Across the FTSE 100 companies there are only 17 female executive directors, compared with 313 men. Law is only slightly better, with women making up a third of practicing lawyers. Even so, this still represents a fall-out, given that half of all law graduates leaving university are female.”

The article does point out that CorporateWorld™ is starting to find ways to adjust, offering ‘onramping’ and ‘offramping’ strategies and working with specialist headhunters. But despite our keen concern for employee engagement, talent management and equality and diversity, the skills of many talented women are lost to organisations as they cannot sufficiently embrace part-time or flexible working to allow women with young children to concentrate working during either term-time or school hours. Retaining part of a recognised talent – and enabling its holder to continue professional practice and development while avoiding the cost of replacing them and training their replacement – doesn’t seem to be a big enough incentive. Instead we have a situation that triggered the following response from Claire Enders, founder of a media and telecoms research company:

‘It’s amazing how many ex-City women open shops’, adds Enders, who has seen many high potentials’ sidelined to the ‘mummy track’: human resources, coaching, a back-office role.”

(There’s something horribly depressing about that ‘mummy track’ reference too: I assume Enders is speaking ironically, but it’s surely a travesty to categorise all these roles – central as they are to getting the best performance out of both individuals and organisations – as things that are best suited to women with children. And depressing to think all those female HR and coaching pros haven’t tackled the issue: can they really all be too busy up a stepladder keeping that glass ceiling clean and shiny for the men to admire their reflection in?)

This ability to know one thing and believe (as if we know) another is widely practiced: perhaps we could call it ‘legacy thinking’ – settling into an outdated mindset that doesn’t update itself in parallel with reality. Amidst the uproar and outcry – mostly from journalists, rather than readers – recently around David Laws’ resignation, only a few have commented on an apparent failing of policies to promote equality and diversity. While much will remain conjecture and there are personal/family issues involved too, there is sad irony when the public are upset about the money and unfazed by the sexuality when the undoubted political talent that has been lost to the Cabinet was motivated not by the money but by fear of a lack of positive or understanding response to a simple – and mostly irrelevant – matter of human difference.

If a member of the Liberal Democrat party – which has campaigned stoutly on equality and diversity for decades – can wind up in this position, how many other careers are being adversely affected (or even abandoned) in other, ostensibly less enlightened, organisations? I think we can assume that whoever first said that men have easier lives was heterosexual, male, married to a woman who subsumed her personal ambition into a domestic equivalent of ‘a back-office roll’ – and adopting the ostrich position about the diversity of members of his own gender.

We are, of course, little different when it comes to learning. The fact that abstract, unconnected and irrelevant learning might be a pleasure in itself but achieves nothing for the sponsor (let alone the learner) is hardly a blinding breakthrough. That people need encouragement, support and opportunities to practice new skills and behaviours until they are polished practitioners who are confident in the flexible application of their new capabilities shouldn’t escape us: it’s a rare human being who hasn’t been there in one capacity or another. (To quote an old Sparks song: “It’s a lot like playing the violin; you cannot start off and be Yehudi Menuhin.”) Yet, as my ASK colleague Robert Terry has written in his The Great Leadership and Management Development Conspiracy article, there are several distinct groups of professionals – HR buyers, trainers, CEOs, training designers and even the learners themselves – who are still managing to lie down, pretend to be a mound of earth and allow expensive development interactions that improve very little to continue.

I think we need to impose two new traditions on the world of work:

  • Remembering that you are an adult, and so is everyone else is the company
  • Pointing out when we are collectively doing something we already know doesn’t or won’t work.

The first part is easier. Whatever aspects of yourself your workplace culture tacitly or implicity requests that you leave at the door, some things are inescapable. In any organisation, some people will be women, some will get pregnant (and not lose their entire IQ and skill set as a result), some may be gay, some will no doubt be bored senseless, and so on. Processes or cultures that work in denial of this are, ultimately, working across the grain of human nature and, even if not actively resisted, may prove unnecessarily difficult.

The second is harder: it needs the confidence to challenge and the professionalism and respect of others for them to listen and act. In a world that provides portfolio careers on one hand and fixed term mortgages on the other, squaring some of our circles will be harder than others. But if all those ‘mummies’ in HR and coaching (stereotyping? Moi?) want to do something positive for the broader human family, tackling our organisations’ seeming inability to adapt themselves to these more challenging aspects of reality might leave us all with a greater legacy than some nice frock shops and the odd deli. The opportunities for reflection that part-time working during early maternity allows would even keep their talents and connections fresh and active while they contribute to our collective future planning. If HR – and their CEOs – are up for the challenge of trying it, of course.

Months ago, we wrote about looking at ‘both/and’ rather than ‘either/or’ thinking – in a piece called Going beyond binary – and Rory Stewart’s recognition that strategy in Afghanistan didn’t need to be a battle between two objectives: territory on one hand, and hearts and minds on the other. Hearts and minds are territory too: both matter.

Likewise people and organisations: if organisations are to flourish through the efforts of their people, the people need to flourish too. When our life experience tells us that the world is full of not just square pegs, but triangular, rhomboid and rectangular pegs too, shouldn’t we ask why all the holes in our organisations are so round?

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