Dr. DeLisle Worrell
Governor, Central Bank of Barbados
XIII Annual Conference of Human Resource Managers of Central Banks of the Caribbean Region
August 19 & 20, 2010
Creating a Happy Workplace
Address to the HR Practitioners’ Conference by DeLisle Worrell
August 19, 2010
The challenge for CEOs, Governors of Central Banks, HR Directors, managers, staff and unions, in all the countries in which I have lived and worked, is to create a happy workplace. We spend so much of our lives at work that our work experience should be enjoyable and rewarding, if we are to enjoy a fulfilling life on the whole. Moreover, the happy worker is the most productive; achieving a happy workplace is the best guarantee of efficiency in producing whatever good or delivering whatever service our businesses are set up to provide.
This objective of providing a congenial work environment, so that workers look forward to returning to the office on Monday, is not new; we have been attempting it in one way or another for decades. However, after three or more decades of effort we are further away from the goal than when we started. The evidence is all around us. I can speak to my own experience with the institutions I have worked with in Jamaica, Barbados, the US, and Trinidad and Tobago, and the members of this audience will have a much wider regional and international experience. I suspect I will find few dissenting voices to the following characterization of the typical institution or business of any size in the English-speaking Caribbean, North America and the UK. There is typically:
- A pervasive culture of selfishness, and an absence of concern for the collective well being of the organisation;
- A generally low level of trust throughout the organisation;
- Processes of decision making that are so emotionally charged that almost all decisions leave everyone’s feelings raw and scarred; and
- A low degree of social cohesion in the organisation.
In the worst cases we find, in addition:
- A high level of turnover of skilled personnel; and
- High levels of personal dissatisfaction recorded in surveys of staff opinion.
If after decades of effort we have made no progress in the direction of happy and productive organisations, it should begin to dawn on us that we need a change in direction. It is becoming increasingly clear that if we continue with our present management and organisational culture, behaviours, tools and practices, we will never ever achieve happiness in the workplace, and, as a result, we will never attain world-beating levels of efficiency. The reason for our failure will have nothing to do with our unquestioned talents, but will be as a result of sticking to practices that amount to shooting ourselves in the foot. Among the things I believe we must change are the following:
- We must abandon the culture of individualism, in favour of systems that treat with groups, and provide opportunities for cooperation and collaborative behavior;
- We must stop trying to measure things that cannot be measured in any objective way, like the quantity and quality of service;
- We must abandon attempts to pay for the production of services in the same way that we can pay for the production of goods; and
- We must recognise that businesses and institutions are societies made up of emotional beings, not mechanical artifacts.
Results depend on the group, not the individual
Way back in the early 1960s the late Peter Johnson taught me an indelible lesson about teamwork. Peter was the captain of the Harrison College second eleven in the Barbados Cricket Association competition at a time when HC, the Lodge and Combermere (Barbados’ leading secondary schools at the time) each fielded three teams in the competition, first, intermediate and second. So the second division team was actually the third string team, composed of under-fifteens, and used as a training ground for players who showed promise of later prowess. The team, for which I acted as scorer, was never a serious competitor in the second division until Peter Johnson took over as captain. He was not an especially talented cricketer, but he was an inspiring leader. He got the youngsters, no more talented than their predecessors or successors, to believe in themselves and their ability to be competitive, and he led them from in front. In the two years that he captained the team it rose to the top of the second division, and once he left it fell back into oblivion.
The West Indies team of the past two decades provides a current illustration of my point. We have had the world’s greatest batsman on the team during that time, and several individual players have won man of the match titles, but the team has gone from one embarrassing series defeat to another.
The moral is that our efforts to reduce organisational performance to the sum of individual performances are completely off track. It doesn’t matter how sensational the performance of one or two individuals may be, if the team doesn’t gel, the organisation will fail; and the organisation can be a great success if the team pulls together, even if it has no stars.
Services cannot be measured in an objective way
Anyone who works on the 10th floor of the Central bank will tell you that I predicted, well before the Pic-O-De-Crop Finals, that either RPB or Gabby would win. It was a no brainer, really. RPB and Gabby are known to have superior talents, so as long as they are in the competition no one else has much chance of winning. This is not an indictment of the judges, the judging system, or the management of the competition. It is simply a recognition of the fact that the several times champion always starts with an advantage. He can seldom be defeated unless the competition has an outcome that does not depend on judgement.
Services cannot be measured objectively, and systems that provide guidelines for individuals to score the quality of service do not get around that fact. People treat such scores as objective, but they are wrong to do so. These systems merely give a number to an individual’s opinion, and there is no way of ensuring that a different individual would give the service the same number. In other words, the number does not measure the quality of service, it merely represents an individual opinion, which may be influenced by any number of factors, some reflecting the service and others reflecting the personality of the reviewer.
A few days ago a leading Barbadian entrepreneur was explaining to me why he prefers to pay his workers in relation to the volume of their output, rather than at a fixed rate. It occurred to me that if you are producing a physical commodity, such a system actually empowers the worker, because he may increase his income by upgrading his skills or working overtime. However, attempts to apply this principle to services can have very bad effects, as we have seen with the sub-prime mortgage crisis in the US. In many companies that sold such mortgages, the seller’s income was a percentage of the value of the mortgage, so there was an incentive to sell as many mortgages as possible, at inflated prices. In services such as central banking, it is impossible to identify a quantity of output, and the proxies that are typically used are deeply flawed. They are of two kinds: scoresheets, which suffer from the biases that we all bring to the table, every one of us; and measures of time spent on the job, punctuality and overtime, which all reward busyness over productivity.
Managing people, not automatons
Businesses and institutions are best thought of as communities or small societies, organised together for some common purpose. Managing the business is therefore about managing people, something which is difficult to do, and which we are not very good at doing. Three decades of management experience have taught me that you cannot manage people well unless you care about them. If you really empathise with the people you manage, and want to see them get ahead, chances are you will be a good manager, whether or not you went to Harvard Business School. And in service industries good management is the key to high productivity.
Our management practices and HR policies seem to be firmly grounded in an Anglosaxon tradition, which has come under challenge in recent times. The challenge is evident in economics, with the emergence of studies of happiness as a motivation for economic activity, replacing notions of an abstraction economists call “utility”. There is a nascent school of economists which recognises that people just want to be happy, and they evince no interest whatsoever in whether economists think they are maximizing their utility. A second reason for economists to rethink what they have been taught is the spectacular failure of the largest capitalist economies in 2008, which has led to questioning of capitalism itself, with its emphasis on the individual “utility”. As a result there is renewed interest in alternative traditions. I want to suggest that the search for alternatives to individualism as the reigning principle of social interaction in the economic sphere needs to be reflected in the field of management and human relations as well.
As we go forward, the challenge is to evolve new systems which will help us to change direction, towards creating businesses and institutions that are happy and productive places to work. In order to do this we should look outside the individualistic Anglosaxon tradition for models of cooperative behaviour. We need to modify management and HR systems to take account of the way people really are; we are emotional beings, formed by our values and experiences, and we make decisions on the basis of intuition and partial information. Anyone who doesn’t operate in this is way is socially dysfunctional and would be considered to be chronically ill.
We must be prepared to discard management tools that are not working, despite our best efforts. If the systems are constantly being refined and upgraded but they are not helping in the search for a happier and more productive workplace, maybe they are not working.
We must recognise that the world has changed so much that whatever we have learned from past experience will have to be modified to meet the needs of the modern world. If we persist with the habits and guidelines of an era of bicycles, typewriters and calculating machines, in today’s world of global telecommunications, we create frustration and inefficiency.
Going forward, we must resolve to work cooperatively in improving the way we work together and manage our people. We must create a climate of openness, communication and flexibility, so we can assess our progress and make changes as we go. We must not presume that anyone has definitive answers to the challenges that face us in an uncertain future.
We must understand that businesses are societies that live through the interactions of their members, and that the behaviours which determine those interactions are what determine whether the institution will be a happy and successful one.
We are facing a major challenge in how we manage people and organizations. We are going down the wrong road, but we don’t yet realize it. We sense that something is very wrong: we attend the best management schools, we employ armies of MBAs, we use the most sophisticated performance appraisal techniques, we train and train and train, and we end up with the litany of problems with which I began this address. But we are still, I believe, in denial; we still believe that if only we can perfect what we have, we can achieve the happy workplaces to which we all aspire. I am satisfied that we are wrong in this belief; only when we change direction, will we arrive at the destination of the happy and productive institutions that we all aspire to. I do hope that this conference, and similar activities in the future, will offer us some practical alternatives that offer a feasible route to the summit, drawn from more collaborative traditions.