Are you and your staff brainwashed?

  • Do you believe the TV ads you see?
  • Do you believe the newspapers and what you read on social media?
  • Do you believe what your professional advisors assure you is the truth?
  • Do you accept what your suppliers tell you when they say they are providing the best possible solution for you?
  • Do you nod sagely when your lawyers tell you that you can’t do what it is you want to do?
  • Do you believe all you learnt in school and further education was true and correct?

I’m sure the answer will be no to most of these questions as we all like to think that we are discerning individuals with independent thought that allows us to question what we are told! But if this is the case, why do I encounter ‘brainwashed’ people all the time?

You don’t have to look far to see rational, logical people who have become radicalised, lost touch with the ‘real world’ outside of their organisation, got so emotionally tied up/invested in their own cause that they have ceased to hear any other views and opinions, or become so bought into a new fad or idea that everything else has faded from their reality.

In a public seminar I attended recently, the speaker asked the predominantly European business owners in the audience how often they were confident enough to dismiss under-performing staff. The resounding response was ‘European law doesn’t allow us to sack under-performing staff. Our hands are tied.’

What a load of twaddle. It’s more like their brains are mangled, than their hands are tied! What many companies and managers lack is sound knowledge of both employment law and procedure but also personal confidence, assertiveness, resilience or determination to tackle under-performers and difficult employees.

They also fail to grasp the simple commercial reality that under-performing staff impact on good performing staff, productivity, quality, sales, customer service etc. Even if it costs you to get rid of them, for the long-term profitability of the business, you can’t afford NOT to get rid of them.

I expect the business owners at my conference had heard the press ‘headlines’ about how hard it is to sack staff. They had listened to their risk-averse HR Advisors and then didn’t take time to question what they had heard and been advised. Some companies choose to say their hands are tied, others choose to act and manage their businesses as they need to be managed.

But who was responsible for brainwashing the business owners in this audience that so frustrated me? I expect it was predominantly their lawyers, the media (in all its forms), their business network and their own HR departments.

So, why would my own HR profession be part of the problem that ‘brainwashes’ the directors of the companies that employ them? Brainwashing them into believing that you can’t challenge staff, you can’t call staff to account when they misbehave, that you can’t sack those who drag everyone else down – along with the profitability of the business or success of the organisation?

I once interviewed an HR Manager who, at that time, was working for one of the Banks. During the interview, I asked various questions about employment law. She gave a few correct answers but at one point we debated her understanding of employment law in relation to dismissals. She insisted I was wrong and wouldn’t be dissuaded from her beliefs/understanding. After not getting the job, a few weeks later she called me to say that she had reflected on our discussion, made further enquiries and had learnt that what she thought was ‘law’ was just her own company’s interpretation of the ‘law’ which, in fact, took a very risk-averse approach to managing staff issues. She said she had never thought she would need to question the ‘facts’ presented to her by her own organisation.

In this case, the ‘brainwashing’ arose as a result of a (probably not very commercial) senior person putting in place a risk-averse policy and then suggesting to others that this was ‘the law’. This action then being compounded by a whole department of intelligent people never checking the facts or using their brain to question what they were being told.

My interpretation of organisational ‘brainwashing’ is: repeatedly putting unhelpful/unwanted pressure or fear on someone in order to coerce them to act in the way you want them to act, think as you want them to think, believe as you would like them to believe.

I often come across HR departments that choose not to properly educate either themselves or managers about the realities of employment law and also put pressure on managers not to act. This being the result of an HR team that puts its fears and anxieties about conflict, litigation and anything that feels remotely precarious ahead of commercial needs, as surely no action is better and safer than an action that has no controllable outcome or repercussions? That just isn’t the case.

In this modern world of information overload and technology saturation, organisations that fail to take the importance of valuing and encouraging the independent thinking of their staff seriously, that don’t understand the necessity for constant questioning by staff of accepted policies and practices and that don’t take time to create a culture that both permits and requires employee participation, may well be heading for the Natural History Museum. At least that’s my view! What’s yours?


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