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Deborah Hartung

Personify Change

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

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Leadership lapses, workplace woes and five HR solutions: Avoiding Network Rail’s prolonged industrial standoff

Culture expert Deborah Hartung flags five factors that lead to a breakdown in employee relations (and how to overcome them).

More than a year and three months following the initial Network Rail strikes it seems the unions and rail bosses are no closer to resolving disputes relating to pay, employment conditions and modernisation.

This is a long time for employees and their union representatives to be so unhappy that they down tools and sacrifice pay, to get their point across.

It’s hard to imagine how prolonged industrial action and general distrust between employees and their employers will impact culture, morale and employee engagement in the long run. But here’s the thing: for the parties to have landed up here in the first place, things had to have been broken for a long time. 

Over many years of working in employment law and then leadership and workplace culture, I have seen five critical factors contribute to the type of breakdown in employee relations that lead to protracted industrial action and permanent damage to culture and engagement.

1. Lack of employee listening

Most companies are very good at talking ‘at’ their employees, but they don’t listen.

Communication is top-down, directive and restrictive. It tells employees what has happened or is on the horizon, what the rules are and everything that they’re not permitted to do.

This leads to frustration and low morale, as employees feel that their voices are not being heard, their opinions don’t matter to their employers and they’re merely dispensable ‘resources’ instead of adults with complex human needs and emotions. 

2. Lack of trust

When the results of employee feedback or engagement surveys are either ignored or not actioned, it teaches employees that leadership and managers cannot be trusted to take action or to do what they say they are going to do.

Over time, morale and engagement deteriorate more and more. Employees feel increasingly isolated and powerless and – because of past experience –  find it difficult to believe anything that management says. 

Managers generally find it very challenging to make the mindset shift from being responsible for tasks, to being responsible for people.

3. Lack of flexibility and agility

When nothing ever changes, or the response to any suggestion for change is always no, lack of flexibility becomes institutional.

Anyone who asks questions or seeks to make any improvements is automatically branded a problem and isolated. Both managers and employees stop looking for opportunities to learn and improve and, instead, settle into the way things have always been done.

4. Lack of leadership skills

Leadership creates workplace culture and employee experience. Managers generally find it very challenging to make the mindset shift from being responsible for tasks, to being responsible for people.

If we are to avoid micromanaging, lack of transparency, lack of trust and lack of continuous learning and improvement, we cannot escape the fact that leadership development and management training is absolutely crucial at all levels.

As HR professionals, we are in a unique position to influence systems, processes, policies and people.

5. Lack of culture alignment

All too often, that list of core values is just that – a list that lives on a wall. Values create expectations for behaviour and ways of working. When actions and processes don’t align with the values, tensions and frustrations build and eventually lead to lack of employee engagement and motivation, as well as high levels of staff turnover or, eventually, protracted workplace disputes. 

So what can we do to avoid a similar fate? There’s no one-size-fits-all magic approach. However, there are three foundational culture and employee relations building blocks that should be in place in any organisation.

Invest in management training and leadership development from the most junior supervisors, through to the C-suite

Most managers don’t know how to motivate their employees or how to have difficult conversations or give effective feedback or even properly set goals and recognize and reward good performance. Managers create culture and employee experience, so ensuring that every single person who manages anyone else, knows how to do the things that matter, just makes business sense. 

Create mechanisms for employee listening and feedback (both anonymous and individual)

Everything from a regular monthly check-in conversation with a manager, to daily or weekly mood tracking, monthly pulse surveys, suggestion boxes and employee-only social feeds provide insights into employee experience and areas for improvement. 

Listen and act

Feedback and data means nothing if it’s under rug swept and forgotten. Identify the top one to three culture priorities per quarter and create robust action plans to achieve the goals that have been set. 

Include measures for achieving the culture goals in the performance evaluations of supervisors, managers and executives, to ensure goals are achieved. 

It’s time we start demystifying workplace culture

It’s nowhere near as complicated as expensive consultants make it out to be. It’s simply about how we treat our people and about how we structure our organisations and our ways of working.

If we create massive hierarchies and complexity and we tolerate toxic behaviour and a lack of accountability, we create an unpleasant – and eventually, unbearable – workplace. An environment where employees don’t feel seen or valued and where managers become complacent and stuck in ‘the way we have always done things around here’. And with attitudes like that, nothing changes for the better. 

As HR professionals, we are in a unique position to influence systems, processes, policies and people. Once we start proactively creating the strategies and systems to create people-first organisations, we will see these leadership lapses start to decrease and workplace woes will be replaced by motivated, engaged, high-performing people who feel empowered and enabled to be and do their best. 

Interested in this topic? Read Strike action: Five lessons from a Chief People Officer

Author Profile Picture
Deborah Hartung

SPARKFluencer: Sparking Ideas Influencing Change

Read more from Deborah Hartung

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