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Jamie Lawrence


Insights Director

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Seven Emails: from childlike interactions to gender equality and the alienation of labour


Seven Emails is our conversation-driven dose of insight. We start with a topic and see how the topic is moulded and changed in seven emails. Fancy getting involved? Drop us a line at and we'll get something set up. You pick the topic, we'll respond. Then we'll have five emails to take us to our destination. Where will we end up?

Today's Seven Emails conversation is between Jamie Lawrence, Editor of HRZone, and Jasmine Gartner, one of our regular columnists and trainer, facilitator and engagement expert.

Email #1 – The Opening Gambit

Jamie Lawrence: When an organisational initiative feels like parent-child – as most do – it's only going to have limited effectiveness.

There's some unexplored blog post I've got in the back of my mind about organisations pushing employees to a state of learned helplessness with a misguided approach to mental strength, so wellbeing, engagement etc.

Email #2 – The End of Leadership?

Jasmine Gartner: I was trying to think about how we ended up here – Google taking care of their staff's dry cleaning and other companies with their table tennis – and what got me thinking was an article I recently read in the New Yorker about leadership.

It talked about how one model of leadership that is frequently used is that of the person who saves us from crisis.

A lot of our political leaders use this framework. This implies that we cannot save ourselves. A few years ago, I saw this myself when a group of employees I was training to be staff reps wanted their union steward to take care of it.

He told me, "they're scared to think for themselves."

Why do the numbers of engaged employees never seem to significantly rise?

If leadership is there to save us from crisis, the next question has to be: well, in that set-up, what is employee engagement? Is it also something leaders do? And if so, why do low engagement numbers continue – why do the numbers of engaged employees never seem to significantly rise?

A Deloitte article echoes this, asking "What if the very existence of a leader-follower dynamic is at the root of the abysmal engagement numbers?"

Email #3 – The cheapness of words v the reality of money

Jamie Lawrence: The last question is very pertinent especially as we continue to hear people say that 'your front-line workers are your most valuable asset.'

Well, these words are easy to say but pay differentials tell the real story, don't they? On what do we base the belief that some peoples' time is worth more than others?

Well, the more 'senior' you are, the more you're paid.

Can this 'rule' really apply across the board and be effective? Of course not, it's a shortcut, a simple way to look at a complex system.

Pay differentials tell the real story, don't they?

We're learning in society that labelling people doesn't really work, yet we continue to do so: what their job title is, whether they're a leader v a follower. To move your point on, maybe it's labelling that creates abysmal engagement.

It's the fact that someone else is sitting at a desk identical to us, at the same time as us, as stressed as us, and they're being paid double. Because they're a leader.

Because they are 'senior.' I went off on a tangent there but it does come back to your point about 'saving ourselves.' Do we need to be led nowadays? I'm not so sure we do. Complex entities need guidance to work – but this guidance can be emergent through social groups rather than instructive from leaders.

Email #4 – Labels are SO last century

Jasmine Gartner: That's a really good point – we correlate time spent at the job with pay – but is that the right combination, all the time?

Is it always true? I think in the best of all possible worlds, that's because time spent = experience and knowledge. But again, are those the only two things that should be rewarded with pay?

And in a world where it seems that people skip from job to job with more frequency, how will that translate? So, yes, the labels might have made some sort of sense in the last century, but I guess the question we should ask is: are they still relevant?

The other side of the labels put on us by others is the labels we ourselves ascribe both to ourselves and others – in other words, most of us seem to accept the status quo.

We correlate time spent at the job with pay – but is that the right combination, all the time?

Yes, I'm talking about unconscious bias – we all suffer from it. The other day, I was speaking to a friend. I know her daughter is at uni, and her son is just passing exams.

My friend mentioned something about her daughter's reaction when her son was born, and I had the sudden realisation that I thought her son was older!

This might seem benign, but now apply it to the workplace, and my unconscious bias probably means acceptance of a gendered status quo.

So there's a corporate labelling as well as a psychological one, which seem to be beautifully in sync.

This too might contribute to why engagement figures haven't risen despite the amount of money and time put into it. And to why the number of women in high positions hasn't risen as much as it should given the effort that's been made to improve. 

Email #5 – The threat of ingrained unconscious biases

Jamie Lawrence: It's a great feeling to recognise a bias or a shortfall in your thinking and take steps to prevent it, isn't it?

Like an evolution of the mind, really. And of course you're right. I overheard a conversation the other day. Two women talking, and one of them said to the other that her husband was a modern man because he "helped her with the housework."

Well, that type of language assumes that it is her responsibility and that he is assisting her in discharging her duties, rather than it being a jointly-owned task.

There are a lot of gender status quo issues in business and I think your idea of labels is a good way to frame this.

It's amazing how much a job title can change people.

Let's take job titles. It's amazing how much a job title can change people. Suddenly they get a more senior job title and it literally changes their whole world-view, confidence, how they treat others, their perception of life.

And these are transient labels that could disappear in a heartbeat!

What about culturally-ingrained labels, many of which are weaved into the fabric of society? Forward-thinking companies are challenging the idea of job titles and of course society is challenging the idea of gender labels because of course gender labels change how you feel about what society expects of you.

We still have a long way to go. Seen that video about what it means to 'run like a girl?' I mean it's ridiculous – it's the 21st century, yet we are dealing with these ingrained unconscious gender-based biases.

Email #6 – The Alienation of Labour

Jasmine Gartner: Yes, I do love that feeling of a layer of understanding deepening. I think that's why I like to teach – I like to help others have that feeling too! I had seen that video – there is so much work to do! And to come back to where we started, I think this is all about being precise in our thinking and precise in our communication.

So perhaps part of the issue for me with the idea of "mindfulness" is that it's a catch-all phrase that is not precise. I suppose when I think about it, I want to be precise and say what I really mean by it: the ability to reflect and develop self-awareness.

Now, is this what other people mean when they use the word "mindfulness"? I don't know. I'm sure it is for some people; but probably not for others.

And this applies to those job titles too – the problem is the lack of precision in our own understanding – in other words, if we were able to be sure of the value we provide as whole individuals at work, a label wouldn't have so much impact!

The work we do has become separable from the people we are. And as such, we sell ourselves short.

For me, this always comes back to the idea of the alienation of labour – the work we do has become separable from the people we are. And as such, we sell ourselves short.

The question as always is: what to do? I think the answer lies in redefining capitalism for the 21st century – a bit like the McKinsey article from a few years ago that suggested that capitalism should be about solving human problems: "the essential role of capitalism is not allocation—it is creation."

I really wish I had written that article, I think it's so important! It doesn't solve every problem out there, but perhaps it is an ideal to work to. I don't know. What do you think?

Email #7 – A positive future for capitalism?

Jamie Lawrence: I think that's the beauty of capitalism – it can create solutions to the world's biggest problems. I love the concept of philanthrocapitalism and I follow Bill Gates and his attempts at eradicating poverty with interest.

Regarding the role of capitalism and what it can achieve, I watched Alain de Botton speak recently and he painted an optimistic view of capitalism.

Whereas our biggest companies have historically commercialised things like infrastructure, food, shelter, etc, our modern giants are commercialising at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

He gave two examples – firstly Facebook, which is a company built on social conversation.

Then there's mindful app Headspace, which is making a lot of money teaching people how to be happier just existing (we are human beings, after all) and guiding us towards focusing on self-improvement or self-actualisation, the top of the pyramid.

Our modern giants are commercialising at the top of Maslow's hierarchy of needs.

So there's likely to be less focus on financial wealth as part of a healthy society in the future and in fact your article points to non-financial wealth and its increasing importance.

It also feels pertinent to bring in Stephen Hawking's point about AI, which has the potential to bring us into the post-scarcity era – if, and only if, the 'machines' – the means of production in this era – are not wholly owned by the elite with limited redistribution of benefits. Otherwise we could find ourselves in a time where people are totally outclassed by machines and cannot be more efficient than a machine, in which case they can't earn money.

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Jamie Lawrence

Insights Director

Read more from Jamie Lawrence