2008 – Building respect for good work
One of the most enjoyable things about working for the
Financial Times was to attend the annual Christmas carol
service at Southwark Cathedral.
For many of us, the Christmas carol service and maybe
the odd funeral or wedding, is the closest we come to a
church these days. If we seek it at all, we find meaning
in our lives through other avenues, very often through our
But there is something to be said for carols, something
about their simplicity and lack of cynicism. There is too
much cynicism in the way we relate to each other today.
I see a lot of it in management writing and management practices.
It is as if the very idea of “goodness” in life
So we try to attribute a motive in every gesture. More
than that, we try to improve it, package it and profit from
it. Companies and consultancies are making a business now
from the analysis and commoditisation of goodness. Employees
who do good things or who work extremely well with the kind
of attitudes that demonstrate a love of their job are being
singled out as role models.
There is nothing wrong with that, you may say. Who would
want to single out the feckless? It’s a fair point,
but I’m not sure that a love of the job is something
you can distil, package, then disseminate among others.
It was something I was discussing a couple of weeks ago
with Peter Flade, managing partner of Gallup in the UK.
He told me about a study of room cleaners in Disney hotels.
Those who were questioned had been singled out as the best
at their jobs.
One of the cleaners described how she would lie on the
bed after she finished cleaning so that she saw the room
as residents would see it. In the bathroom she would sit
in the bathtub to see the lower walls and surfaces at eye
level. Neither of these practices was recommended in training;
in fact they were expressly forbidden. But this employee
had “thought through the rules” to understand
the requirements of her work from a customer perspective.
There are thousands, probably millions of people out there,
who possess this understanding, but how many of them have
the confidence to work in this way when companies have introduced
systems for everything?
A forthcoming book, The Extra Mile, How to Engage Your
People to Win, puts the need to understand the way employees
relate to their work in context. As the authors, David Macleod,
a consultant at Towers Perrin, the HR consultancy, and Chris
Brady, Dean of Bournemouth University business school, point
out, it’s no good trying to build a great workplace
if you ignore your products, services and customers.
“The workforce needs to have confidence and trust
in those responsible for policy; they need to feel they
are in safe hands,” say the authors. Before the decline
and subsequent recovery of Marks & Spencer, they add,
“staff knew that M&S had the wrong ranges in stock
– everyone that is except the management.”
What the authors are talking about, they stress, is not
employee happiness, or ways to make companies, more “employee
friendly” but about reaching the untapped potential
of people at work.
One thing that’s clear from the book is that there
seems to be little disagreement among the bosses of big
companies that employing people who are keen to do well
for a business is a good thing that they want to encourage.
The difficult thing is creating the conditions for better
work when companies have done so much to remove discretion
for many employees. The word “engagement,” may
be a relatively new term in human resources, but there is
nothing new about the concept.
The Japanese, for example, talk about something they call
“Wa” that refers to people working in harmony
with the aims of the business.
Frederick Taylor, the originator of scientific management,
thought the answer was to remove responsibility for good
work from the worker and place it with the manager. He equated
skills with power and he had a point. The artisans in his
machine shops understood their machinery so well that they
could regulate their working patterns in a way that allowed
them to work at their own pace.
This is the dilemma for those who seek to improve the way
that people relate to their work. More often than not this
desire equates to getting more work out of people. But people
are not machines. They are people. They are designed for
living and work is an important constituent of living. But
it is not the whole thing.
Too many companies today are myopic in their approach to
work. They will happily allow their employees to work through
their lunch hours but then they become alarmed when people
become distracted by surfing the web.
Some of the best work on engagement has been undertaken
in customer relations. The authors quote from a long running
annual survey carried out by Towers Perrin, that noted improvements
reported by employees in their understanding of customer
The way that some of this is penetrating in to working
practices is evident in a trip to the supermarket. When
I asked someone at Sainsbury’s where the cream was
the other day, he broke off his shelf-filling and took me
round to the spot. He may have been a particularly helpful
chap but I suspect that this kind of behaviour had been
encouraged in training.
While training is important, however, it is not the be-all-and-end-all
of engagement. The book emphasises the need for managers
to have simple conversations with people and to get out
in to the field.
One of the best illustrations of this point is not in this
book but in a much older book, Anna Karenin by Leo Tolstoy.
One of the main characters, Levin, a landowner, works alongside
his farm labourers, cutting hay and learns how they develop
a natural rhythm in their work.
He sits with them, shares their food and learns about
their families and daily concerns. At the end of the day
he persuades them to work on to finish the field and they
do so out of respect for someone who has learned to respect
their work, that and “a drop of vodka for the lads.”
Like the carols that make us feel good about Christmas,
good work is founded on the simplicity of human relationships.
It’s founded on learning, understanding and sound
communications. But most of all, I suspect, it is founded
The Extra Mile, How to engage Your people to Win, by David
Macleod and Chris Brady is to be published next month by
Prentice Hall, price £21.99.
See also: Placing
a value on values