“HR Told Me To Do It”

I was at a wedding this weekend and I was able to catch up with my friend  Donald.  He’s a fairly senior manager in an NHS Trust and years ago we briefly worked together.

Naturally, I asked how things were going and, unsurprisingly, Donald started to tell me about a “transformation” project he was working on.  In essence, he needed to make cuts in line with his decreasing budget and was trying to restructure his team.  He described his frustration because his plans weren’t running as smoothly as they should be and ended his story with

“….and in the end, I just did what HR told me to do.”

I think I was a bit blunt in my response – I blame my northern roots.   But it transpired that Donald didn’t actually understand what HR was advising him, so he thought it would be quicker and easier just to do what he was told.

There lies several issues with this.  As advisers on HR matters we need to ensure that managers understand what we’re advising.   I frequently ask managers whether they are “comfortable” (my exact words) with my advice.  Because if they aren’t, they won’t do it.

But more importantly Donald is accountable for his actions.   It is tough going through restructure, but employees will respect their manager more if they “own” the process.   And lastly, I don’t think Donald would come out of an Employment Tribunal with his dignity in tact if he uses the “HR told me to do it” defense.

So this Monday morning, I hoping Donald is going to pop into his HR department.  And for me, it reminds me once again how important it is that we, HR practitioners, explain complex policies and procedures in way that is plain and simple.


Thoughts on NHS Restructure – Part 2

Restructure.  That’s the reality of the NHS at at present.  This is my second post about restructure within the NHS,  and highlights another issue that I regularly see when working with different NHS Trusts around the country.

When the finance guys look at the numbers and decide that there needs to be a plan to bring the balance sheet back into the black, the gut reaction is often to take a percentage cut from each division – 10%, 12%, 25% (sound familiar?).

But there are two reasons why this isn’t the best approach:

1. To enable effective organisational change that generates cost savings, resources need to be ploughed into the organisation.  In otherwords, Trusts need to “spend to save”.    In some services it is as simple as making an invest need to be able to realise any potential income generation.

Turning to HR:  By asking a HR Department to cut back on 25% of it’s employee relations team when it’s just about to embark on a major redundancy programme is just madness.

During any major downsizing – it’s all on hands-on-deck if you’re in HR.  There are numerous meetings, letters, calculations and other transactional tasks that need to be taken.  And that’s not even considering the transformational elements that should be part of the mix.

Trying to do this within limit resources means that the organisation is more likely to encounter problems down-stream. Problems that cost.  Either at Employment Tribunals or that fact that the organisational change wasn’t properly thought through and doesn’t work.

2. A flat cut across departments encourages silo working.    Organisations should consider what cost efficiencies can be gained by redesigning a workforce that cuts across the organisation.  Such as moving from a service that is  decentralised to a centralised approach.

When departments seek to achieve a percentage target, the organisation does not give itself the time and space to consider what greater, and perhaps more appropriate savings could be made within the system  as a whole.

There is often a pressing need to identify how money is going to be saved, yesterday.  Decisions are made under pressure, and the impact is that there are lost opportunities.

All the above is easy for me to say, as I’ve already learnt from my mistakes.   However, I am (un)fortunate enough to have already lived through this fight before in the last five years.  Not many of my colleagues have.

Significant savings require a radical, yet carefully planned and thoroughly considered  organisational change plan.  I know that I’m not stating anything new here.   I just felt it had to be said again.

Thoughts on NHS Restructure – Part 1

After a brief hiatus, I felt that my first post this week should be about restructure – it’s the topic that everyone has been talking about non-stop since the publication of the White Paper.  From Executives to the Healthcare Assistants to the external suppliers.

Many Trusts are now also feeling the impact of the recession.  Reality has finally hit the NHS, whereas it affected the general population some time ago.

Last week, I was chatting with a Full Time Officer from a professional body.  I found myself completely agreeing with their position:  after years of working to establish levels of staffing that will provide a minimum of safe, clinical care, Trusts are now looking to reduce staffing levels as they need to to save money .   All the hard work over the last 5 – 8 years looks like it’s going to be washed away.

I reflected upon the time I was working as  a Director in a PCT when we were faced with a significant financial savings plan.  My full-time officer-colleague was working in the same patch at the time.  However, as none of her members were represented in my organisation, our paths did not cross.  But she remembers the pain.  We made radical cut-backs in staffing and overhauled how we delivered clinical care.

My managers at the time kept telling me that their service re-design was based on best practice and current research.  The front-line staff strongly disagreed, their biggest issue was with the heightened levels of risk they were required to work with on a regular basis.

For my part, I steered the organisation through a reduction of the workforce by one third (400 staff) with only one Employment Tribunal claim (the manager refused to take sound HR advice).

My Full-time officer – colleague was surprised to hear that there weren’t more ET claims.  My response:  we technically got it right from an employment law point of view – but it doesn’t mean we made the right clinical decisions.

And so back to the issue in hand:  There’s no doubt that we are entering a period that will see a series of radical cutbacks in the workforce.  The good Trusts will do so in accordance with the legislation.

But that’s not my point (or that of my full-time officer-colleague).  The point is that patients are the centre of our business.  We have to make cuts, there’s no disagreement about this.  But if the balance between cost savings and clinical care tips in the wrong direction, it is the patient that suffers.

Is Mental Toughness important?

Mental Toughness has been around for a number of years and is frequently used in the world of sport.  But in an organisational context – what is it and how much do we really know about it?

Mental Toughness is about an employee’s ability to deal with pressure / stress that they encounter on an day-to-day basis at work.  It is a quality that some people have, and others need to develop, which will enable them to continue to perform well during times of difficulty.

But why is being mentally tough important?  Evidence demonstrates that those with high levels of mental toughness:

  • perform better than their colleagues
  • have the drive and tenancity to see goals through to their completion.
  • have a “can-do” attitude
  • continually strive to optimise their potential
  • are more employable that those with less mental toughness
  • are more content in their lives and have better overall wellbeing

 A number of studies based in educational establishments have demonstrated that those students who have higher levels of mental toughness are less likely to “drop-out” and more likely to achieve higher grades.   There’s no reason why these outcomes cannot be applied to the workplace: lower staff turnover and higher productivity.

An assessment of an individual’s mental toughness can provide insight on their capacity to deal with stressful situations, which can be used in recruitment, restructuring or as part of someone’s personal development.   Those with low mental toughness can recieve coaching to help them develop strategies and tactics to help them (and their organisation) to perform when under pressure. 

The downside is that there is a danger of being “too mentally tough”.  Those who demonstrate extreme mental toughness are considered to be insenstive: they will achieve their goals and aspirations at the expense of their colleagues.  They may be considered a bully by the behaviour they demonstrate. The ideal scenario is an individual who can achieve that balance of performing well under pressure, but still able to display empathy.

As we enter a difficult period of transition in the public sector, the ability to be mentally tough will become more and more important.   And I suspect, more organisations are going to want to measure how mentally tough their staff actually are.   In a timely fashion, a  new psychometric test (MTQ48) has just come onto the market that measures mental toughness. 

If you want to know more about the MTQ48 and how it can be applied in your organisation, please contact me for more information.

How to Tell a Story

Last year I watched both of the Truman Capote Films: Capote (2005), staring Philip Seymour Hoffman who won an Oscar for his performance and Infamous (2006). Both films covered the period of Truman Capote’s life when he was researching the book “In Cold Blood”.

What struck me most about these films is how Capote would use social gatherings, parties, or dinner parties to refine his stories through orally telling his friends about the subjects of his current book. Each time he told the story he noted the reaction of the audience and this influenced his sentence construction and phrasing to enable maximum impact to the reader.

I recalled this fine art of story-telling as I prepared this week for a workshop for staff who are currently undergoing an organisation restructure. All the staff are having to apply for new posts in their department and my workshop is to support them through this process so that they are able to effectively demonstrate their skills, experience and abilities.

One of the key elements whilst preparing for an interview or any type of selection process is to practice “out-loud” the responses to key questions. We often find that we’ve constructed an excellent reponse in our minds, but frequently this response does not sound as good when we hear it out loud for the first time.

I encourage participants to find some private space – either in the car, or in the shower for example, and to use this space to recite their stories out loud. The key is to repeat the stories over and over – ensuring that the story reaches a conclusive end. Refine the story as you practice it, and the more you do, the more embedded the story will become.

When faced with a couple interviewers, candidates often feel nervous and their minds “go-blank”. With well rehearsed stories, answers spring to mind easily and the delivery is well prepared: it demonstrates the point, highlights the learning that occured and shows the interviews both the level of skills / experience as well as the ability to reflect and learn.

So, I think that Truman Capote sets us a good example. We may not be as literary competent as he is, but we can learn from his methodology about how to make the most of our own stories.