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Lembit Opik

Leadenhall Consulting and former MP

Associate Director

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Lembit Opik: Three HR lessons from my life in the Commons

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Anyone who’s ever watched Prime Minister’s Questions in the House of Commons will have an opinion on the style of behaviour that we see every Wednesday at noon: it’s a bear pit. 

Grown adults show apparent contempt for each other in an effort to score points – as if it were the only way to win. 
 
It’s adversarial with a capital ‘A.’ But as strange as it may sound, could there be lessons for HR professionals to learn from PMQs – or any other activity in Westminster for that matter?
 
The simple answer is ‘yes.’ Here are three insights that begin to show the vast parallels between business and politics, although not all of them are obvious:
 
1. The danger of silo thinking
 
Firstly, the impression given is that Parliament is primarily an aggressive, negative and disrespectful place, which shows scant regard for the volumes of organisational effectiveness books explaining how to create a positive and proactive culture. 
 
After all, it’s rare to come across reports of how competing MPs celebrate the best in their colleagues rather than the worst. It’s even been said that ‘the only way to win praise from your political opponents is by dying.’
 
In truth, the reality is quite different. Parliament looks bad because politicians are portrayed by the media as verbal brawlers who are unable to work together and enjoy denigrating their opponents. 
 
But the overwhelming majority of interactions between politicians – in all parties – are actually inclusive and co-operative. It is as true of cross-party select committees as it is for MPs lobbying for legal change or socialising informally at the bar. 
 
The HR lesson: The learning here relates to ‘office politics’. Politicians don’t generally attack each other personally. Yet collectively, they behave in the way that they do out of a willingness to embrace cultural norms that may prove useful in the short-term to their individual ‘silos’ – namely, the political parties to which they belong. 
 
Thus, a conspiracy of consent to attack each other has become the norm between parties. One group occasionally wins an advantage over another, but such victories come at a cost because the wrangling harms the overall reputation of the sector.   
 
Has this ever happened in your organisation? If so, you’ll know how much energy that such mischief wastes.
 
If departments begin to compete for whatever reason – for example, because of variable reward systems or personal power grabs – then otherwise effective and functional teams can sink into the kind of negative spin that we see occurring in Parliament, even if as individuals they get on.  
 
Hence there is a need for HR directors to ensure that silo thinking does not lead to empire-building, which simply damages the effectiveness of the business as a whole.
 
2. The necessity of defining a coherent narrative
 
Political groups depend on having a ‘narrative.’ Ideology serves to unite many – if not all – politicians in their respective political clans and the more lucid the narrative, the more robust the party’s identity. 
 
A case in point is the relative clarity with which the Tories continue to present their brand image. In contrast, weak ideological leadership within the Liberal Democrats has served to undermine the party’s image in the public eye. 
 
The result? The Tories are doing tolerably well in a difficult political environment while, by contrast, the Lib Dems have suffered a catastrophic collapse in support.
 
The HR lesson: Poll ratings are the political equivalent of brand market share. This means that, in a competitive environment, your narrative has to be clear, distinct and reflect the true essence of your business. 
 
Vagueness is a dangerous game and risks generating a reactive rather than proactive approach to the market. This is as true when selling Fairy Liquid’s distinctive image as it is for Nick Clegg who, as a ‘brand’, has suffered badly from apparent ‘narrative drift’.
 
3. The destructiveness of factional in-fighting
 
The House of Commons consists of a classic mix of those for whom outcomes matter, and those for whom the process is more important.
 
The ideologues are there to achieve certain changes in society, whether their vision is socialist, libertarian or free market. Others just like being MPs. They enjoy the process of debate, the institutional reassurance of being in Parliament, and perhaps other perks. 
 
The HR lesson: Parliament and business can accommodate both kinds of people, but there has to be someone responsible for driving the overall vision. As a result, HR directors must be careful not to permit the creation of a culture in which sub-groups actively work to subvert their organisation’s overall mission.
 
When this happens, the business splits into factions – or the political party is divided in two as happened with the breakaway SDP, which damaged Labour’s fortunes for a decade. But there are plenty of other examples in British politics and in business, from which salutary lessons can be learned too.
 

Lembit Opik is an associate director of Leadenhall Consulting, former Liberal Democrat MP and one-time HR, training and development manager at Procter & Gamble.

3 Responses

  1. Politics is indeed mired in inconsistency

     Well it’s more coherent than that of the Lib Dems, and I say that as  Lib Dem.  Labour are similarly mired in pragmatism, but it seems to me this is a consequence of the lack of public scrutiny in terms of political inconsistencies.  As long as that situation persists, opportunism is at least as much a driver as strategic consistency.  The consistent MPs are often the ones made to look like naive ideallists or mavericks – people like George Galloway and David Davis.  As MP I was regularly depressed by the extent to which many other politicians had the capacity to operate consistently, but didn’t feel obliged – or courageous enough – to act on that basis.  The situation is different in times of crisis when Maslovian motives cause a greater reliance on consistent thought – because when its about life and death, people won’t tolerate flaky leaders.

  2. HR for politics

     Interesting point.  The primary issues are individual interests compete ruthlessly with collective interests both internall and externally, plus a lack of any coherent meritocracy.  On the former, parties compete and have a vested interet in the failure of others; while theres no clear link betweengood long term decision-makign for the country and personal success.  On the latter, you can do badly as a poltician but rise by default or because other did worse more publicly.  The one thing that would change political productivity is a reward system which considers the long term outcomes – though in a democracy that’s tremendously hard.  Also, when the culture is so blame orientated, it’s hard to prevent the silos from becoming reacitve and defensive.  In fact, to a large extent, this is a case study in how not to run business!

  3. Maybe the reverse?

     An interesting article but I cant help thinking that the reverse process would be beneficial. Which areas of HR do people think would benefit Members of Parliament most?  Change management? Performance appraisals?

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Lembit Opik

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