Let’s say your employer set you a target of smoking 100 cigarettes a week, and stipulated that you eat only fast food and sugary drinks in office hours. Then they gave you some vouchers for a health spa and told you they wanted you to keep up your physical fitness.

You’d probably think there was something confused about their thinking. It makes no sense to encourage people to live an unhealthy lifestyle, then put pressure on them to do things that supposedly make them healthier.  It would be more rational for you to smoke less and eat better food.

And yet many employers who trumpet well-being at work are doing much the same thing. They allow a toxic, stressful, work culture to build up and then provide well-being initiatives almost as a form of virtue-signalling, as if to say: ‘Hey look, we’re a caring 21st Century employer’. But these add-ons are unlikely to override the effects of the core culture.

In this interview, Cary Cooper, author of Workplace Wellbeing, lists some of the ways in which managers can create a culture that is conducive to well-being:

  1. Use praise and reward in preference to blame and fear when motivating the workforce.
  2. Allow room for autonomy. Humans respond positively to being trusted and challenged.
  3. Ensure that people have flexibility, working from outside the office if need be.
  4. Stop the flow of emails ruling people’s lives. Don’t expect instant responses or any response at all outside office hours, unless this is part of a flexible working practice arrangement.

These are good tips. But I’d like to add something even more general. It’s to do with the whole way we interact at work. It’s the principle of open questions and open listening. Let me explain what it is first by explaining what it’s not.

The problem with a lot of interaction at work is that it is transactionally efficient. In other words, I have a preconceived idea of what I want to tell the other person and find out from them. I want to achieve this transfer of information as quickly as possible and then move on to something else. And this is commendable in many ways. It means that I don’t idle around, chatting irrelevantly and wasting my time and other people’s. In meetings, I like to maximise the use of time by adhering strictly to the business at hand.

There’s nothing wrong with being transactionally efficient for the majority of the working day, or week. If we weren’t able to do that, the workplace would be a talking shop where nothing ever got done. But the problem is that in most cases it’s the only kind of interaction there is. There is no opportunity for conversations to explore or deviate from the immediate tasks and concerns. Where communication is expected to be transactional and efficient, any attempt to go beyond the minimum exchanges often ends up sounding forced, negative, or inappropriate.

The effect of this is that people don’t really connect. Managers remain in the dark about a lot of things that matter. They know very little of their colleagues’ hopes, fears, ideas, questions and confusions. We’re not primarily talking about their personal lives; it’s probably more important that they communicate their understanding of, and attitude, to the work they’re doing.

This detracts from well-being at work. It makes people feel less valued and they invest less in their work emotionally. Productivity suffers and staff turnover rises. It also means that as a manager you’re working on very poor information. You have no ‘feel’ for what’s going on around you.

The best proof of this is to think of your own manager, now and in the past. How often have they been ignorant of key facts about the workflow or the practicalities at your level? Almost everyone agrees with the statement: ‘There are some things that my bosses really ought to understand better, but they never will because they will never ask the right questions and listen to the answer’.

Of course, all of these problems are multiplied when teams are split across different sites, regions and areas of expertise.

The answer is to provide a forum where you, the manager, question and listen openly. Don’t assume that people want decisions from you, at least not instant ones. They may just want acknowledgement. And it’s not wasted time. Nor is it a sop to the workers to make you look caring. Think of time spent interacting with staff as you would any other information-gathering activity: knowing the lie of the land keeps you ahead of the game.

Think about how you, and they, work best:

  • Should you have long product development workshops that range into new areas?
  • Should you take individual members of the team for a coffee and a catch-up?
  • Should you organise lunches or drinks for the team?
  • Should you get your team together in your absence and task them to come up with something beyond business-as-usual?
  • Should you have fewer meetings but ones which last long enough to get to the bottom of issues?
  • Should some work be slowed down so that you can communicate meaningfully about it ‘in real time’, thinking about how the decisions you’re making fit with broader objectives and values?

Some of these practices can fall flat or be counter-productive, depending on the human dynamics. But the leader needs to read those dynamics and respond accordingly. That’s a large part of the art of management: understanding how people work, and how people are working.

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