Employee Voice

The Power of Unwritten Rules

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By Graham Oxley, Project Manager – Digital Engagement

Whether at work or at home, we often hear about unwritten rules. These are the norms, behaviours or actions that people are expected to follow or do even though they are not written down anywhere in a formal rule book or culture document. We encounter these unwritten rules every day and get annoyed when people don’t follow them – think of every time you have muttered under your breath when the person in front of you doesn’t hold the door for you. But beyond merely being frustrating, in certain contexts, such as corporate culture and sports, unwritten rules have the power to create a vastly different reality to the intended rhetoric of written rules.  Often, we see that once a written rule is created, various factors go to work to change, reinforce or undermine it, until the unwritten rules that have been created hold more power than the written rule that they have emerged around.  

One place where unwritten rules are in abundance is sports, and this has been making the news recently. Firstly, there has been fierce debate in cricket this week around Ravi Ashwin, the Indian all-rounder playing for Kings XI Punjab, who performed a ‘Mankad’ dismissal on England batsman Jos Buttler in an Indian Premier League match against the Rajasthan Royals.[1] This is allowed in the official rulebook, but a large number of ex-players and pundits have condemned him for contravening ‘the Spirit of Cricket’, which is a set of unwritten rules that many cricketers subscribe to. On the same day, on the other side of the world in Miami, Nick Kyrgios, an Australian tennis player, served underhand in beating Dusan Lajovic.[2] The reaction towards this has been more balanced; Judy Murray labelled him a genius afterwards, but during the game a spectator ran onto the court to remonstrate with him for the tactics. These are two examples in just the last week, which show that unwritten rules are rife across the sports world; footballers put the ball out of play when the opposition has an injured player, rugby league players do not contest scrums and baseball has so many unwritten rules that people lose track.[3]

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The question that follows here is: how do unwritten rules relate to my business? Organisations operate as complex systems of (1) formal, interdependent processes – such as pay, performance and training; and (2) informal practices and behaviours operating under the radar, such as ad hoc flexibility in work schedules, or the prioritisation of presence over performance. The latter are the ‘unwritten rules of the game’ and they exert a strong influence over employee behaviours and have a significant impact on the success or failure of any new intervention implemented. Here is an example: your organisation may have set up a generous parental leave policy aimed at improving engagement amongst families. However, if the culture and leadership of your organisation signals, through non-verbal or verbal cues, that anyone who takes up their full parental leave will face a delay in getting a promotion or pay rise, the reality of that decision looks very different to what the written rhetoric intended.

Clarity on the unwritten rules of the game that are shaping behaviour is therefore key before launching any new initiative. This exercise allows businesses to understand how any intervention will influence and be influenced by other factors at play, giving an early indication of any unintended consequences that you need to consider and plan for.

So how do we find out the unwritten rules of the game? The answer lies in engaging your employees in an open dialogue. Taking the time to truly listen to your employees to understand their diverse motivators, enablers and triggers will pave the way forward. We have worked with a number of clients on this challenge; you can see a snapshot of who we have worked with here.

I would be happy to have a further discussion about how you can go about uncovering the unwritten rules of the game and ensuring that your organisations’ reality is truly representative of the rhetoric. Just drop me an email at graham@hotspotsmovement.com.


[1] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/cricket/47697369

[2] https://www.bbc.co.uk/sport/tennis/47704618

[3] https://www.abc.net.au/news/2018-10-12/unwritten-rules-in-sport-are-fast-becoming-a-thing-of-the-past/10364436

Do Diversity Statements Really Work?

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lottiehsmphotoWe are surrounded by pro-diversity messages today – from the #MeToo campaign, to the controversial Pepsi advert featuring Kendall Jenner – diversity, and the lack of it, penetrates every aspect of society.

We find here at HSM, that workplace diversity and inclusion (D&I) is often the most pressing challenge for many HR executives, and it’s no surprise given that there are only 25 female Fortune 500 CEOs and three black Fortune 500 CEOs[1], and that just 16% of autistic adults in the UK are in full-time employment[2]. Many organisations are trying to amend these inequalities not only because it has become socially unacceptable, but also because it has been evidenced that a diverse workforce can greatly benefit an organisation’s bottom line.

For example McKinsey has found that companies in the top quartile of ethnic and racial diversity were 35% more likely to financially outperform their industry competitors[3]. This clearly has huge appeal for organisations, yet there remains a significant gap between the rhetoric and the reality of diversity efforts today. In this post I will focus on how often well-intentioned organisations are unaware of how to make the leap from the rhetoric of aspirational diversity agendas, to creating a reality of a company culture that is truly diverse and inclusive.

One way in which companies try to incorporate a pro-diversity message within their organisation’s culture and values is by including diversity or equal employer opportunity (EEO) statements, or by creating lengthy and comprehensive D&I policies. It is sometimes assumed that by creating these statements or policies, they will automatically attract a more diverse applicant pool of talent, and thus a more diverse workforce, allowing them to benefit from all of the advantages of diverse workforces. However, research has shown that EEO and diversity statements are ineffective in bringing about actual change[4]. A recent World Economic Forum report claimed that although 97% of companies have diversity programs or statements in place, only 25% of employees from diverse groups believe that they have personally benefited from these initiatives[5].

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So where can we go from here? Evidently employers still have a long way to go in fully addressing discrimination in organisations. Eliminating discrimination and working towards inclusivity needs to be made a regular part of the conversation in order to become a reality. For example, it could be a good starting point to ask employees what they think inclusion means, to ask them to share their experiences of feeling excluded, and to co-create with their employers the actions that would make the company more inclusive. The ideas and actions that come from these conversations can help bring your policy to life, as they truly come from the heart of your organisation and your people, those who will ultimately be responsible for implementing it.

This is something we have enabled clients to do, using our Collaboration Jams. These online, crowdsourced conversations enable thousands of employees to connect in a many-to-many conversation around the most pressing issues. Combined with expert facilitation, they make even the most sensitive topics safe to explore and provide leaders and HR teams with evidence-based solutions. Get in touch to find out more about how you can empower your employees to convert your diversity rhetoric into a reality.


[1] http://fortune.com/2017/06/09/white-men-senior-executives-fortune-500-companies-diversity-data/

[2] https://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7540

[3] https://www.mckinsey.com/business-functions/organization/our-insights/why-diversity-matters

[4] https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/000312240607100404

[5] https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2019/01/company-diversity-fatigue-no-excuse/

Identifying Your Organisation’s Influencers

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JFWhat does it take to successfully deliver an organisational transformation? Whether it’s a culture change, a new operating model, or a shift in the approach to performance management, this is the number one question on many executives’ minds. When attempting to answer this question, people often default to the conventional wisdom of leadership buy in and role modelling. However, our experience at HSM suggests that many executives may be missing a vital ingredient – influencers.

When most people think of influencers within their organisation they think of leaders; managers, directors and their executive board who have a lot of formal hierarchical power and can sway their colleagues due to their position within the organisation. However, there is another group who are harder to identify, yet can be even more important when embedding change. These are people who can, because of their knowledge, skills and position in the company network, and not their formal hierarchical power, shape the views and behaviours of multiple colleagues. It is this ability to softly effect the behaviours of others that makes them such a valuable tool in your change initiative.

But how can you identify these influencers? By their very nature they can sit in any part of your organisation, in any function, in any region and could have been there for 20 years or just a couple of months.

One method advocated by Yoonjin Choi and Paul Ingram of Columbia College (2017) is to analyse semantic networks, which track how knowledge flows within a community. Choi and Ingram define culture as a web of connected concepts that people use to make sense of situations.  For example, if a culture is collaborative, then at the centre of the web would be concepts such as “Help others”, “Good Communication” and “Altruistic”. Choi and Ingram then identified influencers through semantic network analysis asking questions such as “choose three people who are valued, and then…why is this person valued?” Using this information, they mapped out the culture, showing that some concepts were central, and some were distant. Cultural fit and therefore the strength of an influencer is then defined as the degree to which an individual has these concepts assigned to them. For example, your team members may describe their colleague Sam, as someone who regularly helps others and often takes time to explain decisions made in the team. Sam would therefore have high cultural fit to a collaborative company culture and as such would be a useful influencer in embedding this culture across the firm.

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Another method is one we use frequently here at Hot Spots Movement – the power of Crowdsourcing to solve complex organisational challenges. Crowdsourcing is an inclusive problem-solving approach that gives everyone in the organisation a voice, regardless of rank or tenure. This enables organisations to identify influencers from different regions, departments and levels, irrespective of their place in the hierarchy. During our Crowdsourcing Conversations, we identify influencers firstly, by highlighting participants who had particularly high energy and enthusiasm in the conversation, demonstrated by high participation rates. Secondly, we look at the quality of comments, to find those who added significant value to the conversation. And finally, we establish which individuals had strong social capital, these are participants who received a high number of comments, likes and praise for their comments. Only participants that meet these varied criteria can be defined as influencers and therefore individuals that our clients can engage with when launching a change programme.

With many companies embarking on transformation programmes, perhaps now is the time to find out who in the organisation really has influence. Contact me at john@hotspotsmovement.com to find out more.

Are your newest employees your best innovators?

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By Graham Oxley, Digital Project Manager.

A few months ago, on my first day at Hot Spots Movement, I had one specific question on my mind that was particularly important to me: are they going to listen to my new ideas? Lots of smaller companies have a challenge innovating due to decision-making being driven by a select few, usually the founders, who can sometimes fail to embrace change. Research shows that start-ups are 9.4% less productive on average when the founder is also CEO[1]. So, starting a new job at a 10-person company with a single founder, you can see where my apprehension stemmed from.

Luckily for me and given what we do here, Hot Spots Movement recognises these challenges and in my first few weeks I have been set to work looking at existing processes, documents and marketing with the goal of thinking of ways to improve them. Why a brand-new person with no experience of the product or research? The answer is that I brought different advantages:

1. I had more time than anyone else. With projects already underway, aside from training and shadowing, I had spare time on my hands. I could take the burden of creative thinking off those who were in client meetings and delivering projects. I could set aside dedicated time for new ideas.

2. I had no biases or preconceptions: I had a blank slate in terms of how I thought we should represent ourselves, meaning I could be totally honest about my thoughts and think without restriction. I had no existing investment in current processes.

As I delved more into our research and read more about innovation, I began to discover that the challenges of innovating in an SME are not that different to those in a multi-national FTSE 100 company. There are a couple of key similarities:

1. Employees don’t have time to incubate. Everyone is busy these days and this is impacting the time we can spend simply thinking creatively about innovative ideas. Distracting technology and open-plan workspaces mean that we are dedicating less and less time to creative thinking.

2. Innovation inbreeding. This is the concept that the same group of people keep thinking of ideas and don’t, or can’t, look elsewhere for new ideas. In a small company this is unavoidable; if you only have 10 employees, you only have 10 brains thinking of new ideas and they quickly come to think in sync about certain things. In a larger company, this is usually by design as innovation is left to a specific ‘innovation team’ who themselves have the same challenges a small company of fewer brains and convergent thinking.

Whether you’re an organisation of 10 people or 110,000 people, the argument is definitely there to be made that your newest employees may be the best equipped to help with innovation. They arrive with new experiences, different perspectives and often have the most ‘free-time’ that they will have in their entire career at the business as they have yet to take on projects. In small companies, one person can have more impact – when I arrived into a team of 12 employees, the brain capacity increased by almost 10% overnight – and if you think about the number of new employees arriving into larger businesses, the aggregate effect is likely to be the same.

Finally, back to my earlier question, did they listen to my new ideas? Well, I have made some suggestions that have been taken well and you may see the outcomes in the near future.


[1] http://www.people.hbs.edu/rsadun/AreFounderCEOsGoodManagers.pdf

Three insights on the future of work from our Sydney Workshop

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AG

I recently returned from running our annual Workshop in Sydney. Alongside trying to find the best flat white in the city and dealing with jetlag, I was able to hear more about what is on the minds of our Australia based clients. At our workshop we discussed why companies need to build a narrative on the future of work, and how to build a future-proofed culture amongst other topics. There were three major takeaways for organisations that came out for me around the workshop.

  1. Think about your narrative

 Despite increasing digital disruption and the rise of AI and analytics, organisations need to ensure they don’t forget the social aspects of change, and the power of stories over straight facts or data. Research has shown that stories impact people’s brains differently to facts, causing more connections in the brain and leading to closer relationships between the storyteller and the listener. People use stories as a way of understanding the world and this is particularly true when it comes to the future of work. Employees are looking to employers to provide a sense of stability and purpose in a rapidly changing world. Organisations therefore need to reflect on their own narrative on the future, thinking about what it will mean to work in their company and how work will be done in the future. Where are your non-negotiables? Where are you going to take a bet and what will stay the same? In considering questions such as these, companies can provide their workers with a story about where they are going, and how they will be supported along this journey.

  1. Abandon assumptions around aging

 The importance of not relying on stereotypes and assumptions around aging also came out strongly in the Workshop. Longer working lives mean that organisations cannot make assumptions around the needs and desires of their workforce, particularly older workers.  No longer is it always the case that a worker in their 60s is looking to retire, for example. Organisations need to make sure that their practices and processes are not based on erroneous expectations. They need to rethink the way they approach retirement, or what it means to progress in the organisation, so that people are not penalised if they want to downgrade their working hours without losing status in the organisation.

  1. Identify your influencers

 Finally, the need to think about the cultural influencers in organisations was another important point. Rather than relying on hierarchical leaders, companies need to uncover the real influencers and work with them to drive cultural change. These influencers can be discovered through network analysis or crowdsourced conversations but should be brought in early on in the process to ensure the behavioural change so crucial so a successful culture shift.


It was great to hear from our members in Sydney, and we look forward to our next trip Down Under!

Solving the productivity puzzle: The new ethical dilemma

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MHIn his 1994 book, ‘The Age of Diminishing Expectations’ Nobel Prize-winning economist Paul Krugman, perspicaciously argued that ‘productivity isn’t everything, but in the long run it is almost everything’.[i] When one considers that productivity is perhaps the main driver in an economy’s ability to grow and therefore also the greatest predictor of the standard of living for a given person or group of people, it is difficult to disagree with Krugman’s contention.

In essence, productivity is defined as output per hour worked. In recent years, however, within the developed world productivity levels have been lagging. To elaborate, the recent ‘Skills and Employment Survey’ highlighted that in the UK, labour productivity has historically grown by around 2% per year since the 1970s, but since the 2008-2009 recession it has stagnated and has failed to climb back to its prerecession growth rate.[ii] This unprecedented and unexplained slump has become known as the ‘productivity puzzle’ and is an issue that has caused widespread concern amongst economists, business leaders and governments within the developed world.

As productivity levels continue to stagnate, organisations are implementing AI solutions which are reminiscent of Charlie Brooker’s superb dystopian TV show ‘Black Mirror’ to help boost productivity levels. Amazon, for example has recently patented a wristband that tracks the hand movements of warehouse workers and uses vibrations to nudge them into being more productive. Veriato, a software firm, is able to track and log every keystroke employees make on their computers in order to measure how dedicated they are to their role and the company.[iii] In Helsinki, a digital innovation consultancy named ‘Futurice’ has installed sensors that can track an employee’s every move in the office, even in the toilet.[iv] Such technologies fall under the remit of what experts call the internet of things (IoT). Employees report mixed feelings about these new technologies, with a Harvard Business Review study revealing an approximate 50/50 split between those who believe AI technology enhances productivity and those who either disagree or feel its impact is neutral.[v]

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The appeal of using advanced AI from the organisation’s perspective is clear and, although surveillance at work is not a new concept (factory workers have long clocked in and out), the scale to which certain AI technologies can now be used to monitor the productivity of the workforce is leading some commentators to suggest they are bordering on Orwellian. This inevitably raises acute philosophical questions about the ethical underpinnings of applied AI in the workplace. Indeed, just how far are organisations willing to go in the pursuit of productivity? Finding the balance between safeguarding basic privacy, workers’ rights and enhanced productivity will raise some moral dilemmas for organisations, and will no doubt become central to AI discourse in the coming years.

Finding this equilibrium will not be an easy task for organisations. A recent RSA report on the ethics of AI suggests there is a public perception that we may be surrendering too much power to AI technology.[vi] One thorny issue is that existing ethical frameworks are often incompatible with the world of technology. Science has attempted to develop ethical frameworks before – from Asimov’s Three Laws for Robots to Nick Bostrom’s work on ethics. Adhering to these frameworks can be problematic, as humans often find it difficult to develop virtues for their own conduct, let alone build relevant virtues into new technologies.[vii] The debate around ethical AI must also consider how certain workers are better equipped than others to prevent employers going too far. For example, those with a specialist, in demand skill-set stand a greater chance of resisting any unethical implementation of AI, whereas those in insecure forms of employment such as zero-hours contract workers in low-wage industries, have considerably less leverage.

In the current economic climate, solving the productivity puzzle is an alluring prize for organisations. However, if organisations wish to solve it using certain AI, it must be conscientiously executed with a strong injection of humanity to help ensure workers can retain a sense of dignity in their work during this period of accelerated and uncertain change.


[i] Krugman, P. (1994) The Age of Diminishing Expectations. Cambridge, MIT Press

[ii] Retrieved from https://www.cardiff.ac.uk/__data/assets/pdf_file/0010/1229833/1_Productivity_at_Work_Minireport_Final_edit_2.pdf

[iii]  The Economist (2018) AI in the Workplace

[iv]  Burke, C (2016) In offices of the future, sensors may track your every move – even in the bathroom (The Guardian)

[v] Retrieved from https://hbr.org/resources/pdfs/comm/verizon/18980_HBR_Verizon_IoT_Nov_14.pdf

[vi] Balaram, B (2018) The Ethics of Ceding More Power To Machines (RSA)

[vii] Dalmia, V. Sharma, K. (2018) The Moral Dilemmas of the Fourth Industrial Revolution (World Economic Forum)

Avoiding Learned Helplessness

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JF

Last month I was lucky enough to watch a presentation by Professor Dan Cable of London Business School, talking about a concept called Learned Helplessness and how it is affecting performance at work. Learned Helplessness is a psychological theory initially developed by Martin Seligman in the 1960’s and can be seen in many different aspects of our daily lives. The theory states that in the face of aversive stimuli, which an organism is unable to escape from, the organism will eventually accept the loss of control and give up trying to avoid the pain.

We see this in real life, more so than we are potentially aware of. Weight loss programmes are a great example. Working as an ex-swimming coach I’ve seen dozens of people decide to lose weight and pick up a new exercise regime or diet expecting instant results. When these results don’t come immediately they give up and try a different one, and another and another, eventually reaching a point of learned helplessness where they accept that they can never lose weight and give up trying.

Another example occurred at the World Cup with the Spanish football team. Spain, a footballing giant and a favourite for many to lift the trophy, sacked their manager just two days before the beginning of the tournament. What resulted from this was an embarrassment for a proud footballing nation, Spain were knocked out, in the Round of 16, by minnows Russia. Now there are many factors at play, but one suggested was that many footballers (not just Spanish ones) are so dependent on their managers direction that they’re unable to think for themselves. The Spanish team had five world cup winners in their midst, almost 60 top-tier domestic titles between them all and combined almost 950 international caps. These professionals had the experience to play with any manager, no matter who they were, yet they felt helpless to think for themselves.

So, as a professional, why is this important for you? Well there’s evidence to suggest that many employers are inadvertently creating an environment of Learned Helplessness. Employees are put to task doing mundane repetitive jobs and they lose the ability to engage their brain’s “seeking system” which we use to explore our environment and most importantly experiment and learn new things. And it’s not just repetitive tasks that can foster Learned Helplessness. Many organisations have a culture of “zero-tolerance” to failure. It’s long been known that when workers feel anxious or afraid they no longer receive the physiological reward for being creative or curious, meaning organisations are missing out on those innovative ideas that could make all the difference.

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But what can you do about it? How can you ensure your employees are constantly looking to innovate, be creative and learn new things and not in a state of Learned Helplessness? Well through our work here at Hot Spots Movement, there are a couple of ways which we find to be extremely effective in encouraging innovation:

  1. Ensure Psychological Safety

A common cause of Learned Helplessness in the workplace is a fear of the repercussions of failure and a perception that it is unwise to challenge the status quo. People must feel able to try new things and potentially fail. Google’s approach to this is well documented, with 10% of their people’s time dedicated to working on high risk, potential high reward projects, where failure is seen as a perfectly acceptable outcome for pushing the boundary. Further to this, employees should be comfortable challenging the norm and challenging leaders (within reason) as well. Just because “we’ve always done it that way”, doesn’t mean that it’s the right way and you should be encouraging your people to ask “why?”

  1. Encourage an Appetite for Learning

We’ve been banging the drum on this point here at Hot Spots for a little while now. “Good Work” is work that allows you to learn new things. As Dan Cable says, you must ensure your employees’ “Seeking Systems” are engaged to ensure they don’t just go through the motions at work, feeling powerless to change course or experiment. Instead, organisations must create an environment in which people seek to learn new things and where you aid them in developing skills and requirements for the future, not just the now.

  1. Demonstrate results

Finally, Learned Helplessness can easily result if people speak up about a new idea only to have it fall on deaf ears. If you really want your employees to be proactive, take on new challenges and elevate performance, then you need to visibly act on their suggestions or, at the very least, acknowledge the idea and explain what will happen next. It only takes a couple of instances of an employee’s idea being disregarded before Learned Helplessness sets in.

So, what’s the key message for you and your team? Consider the dynamic in your organisation: are people proactive in tackling challenges and crafting a way forward? Or is there a sense of inertia, suggesting a culture of Learned Helplessness? Spot this early and start making the small changes that enable your people to feel back in control.

If you’d like to find out more about how to prevent Learned Helplessness and how you can create a culture of learning and innovation within your organisation, then please don’t hesitate to reach out at john@hotspotsmovement.com