Why do bad people do well in good companies… and why does your boss never notice?

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It’s Company Awards Night. You and your colleagues are giddy with the excitement of seeing each other in “home clothes” and the carefully calculated half a bottle per head of house wine is going down nicely. You’ve cheered Lou receiving ‘Best Sales Achiever’, clapped patronisingly as Lizzie from Reception won ‘Team Player of the Year’ and now it’s the one you’ve all been waiting for: “The prize for Biggest Asshole this year goes to…”

Except that that award never happens does it? Despite overwhelming evidence that if it was put to a public vote, almost everyone in your company would choose the same bullying, arrogant individual whose reputation and indeed intimidation reach far beyond their theoretical remit, the next time you hear his or her name called out, it’s because they have been promoted. Again.

How is it that in every company there remain individuals who epitomise the diametric opposite of every behaviour the company values. And why doesn’t anyone in management ever notice?

Let’s start by defining our terms a little. I’m not talking about those colleagues, possibly sitting around you now as you read this, who you find slightly irritating. Yes it’s true that Amit never does a coffee round and Rachel nearly bit your head off yesterday when you asked her a question while she was packing up to leave but that’s all within the normal bounds of being human and a bit rubbish sometimes. Anyway, you haven’t answered Natacha’s email which has been sitting in your inbox for a week, and now you’re having to take the long route to the loos just to avoid walking past her, so you’re hardly in a position to throw stones. Nor do I mean the other end of the scale: headline-hitting, criminally Harvey Weinstein type bad. We’re talking about your common or garden Office Assholes; people who bang desks, swear loudly at individuals, lose their temper in public for deliberate impact. We’re talking about people who create cultures of intimidation where not staying up drinking til 5am before a sales meeting can genuinely damage your career prospects, people who are openly scornful of your customers, derisory about the company’s values and who actively undermine them at every opportunity. You know who these people are, everyone does. Except that somehow, extraordinarily, their manager doesn’t.

At one of the companies I’ve worked with/for*, this person was right near the top. The company in question is world-famous for its employee and customer experience. In my era, the most senior person in the organisation was presiding over a sales culture that was unhealthy to say the least. In company meetings he’d roar at department heads and threaten us all with hellfire and damnation if targets weren’t hit, while heaping praise on those who’d found ingenious workarounds for whatever restriction was holding us back. It was no secret, everyone knew. At least once a week someone would marvel at how a company with such a squeaky-clean external reputation and such family values could be run along such sleazy lines. We would all roll our eyes and agree but we did nothing more, assuming his behaviour was sanctioned from above. Some time later though I found myself spending time with that man’s ex-boss. I asked if they had been aware of what was happening. “God no! I only found out after I left, I was really shocked!” And so was I. The person I was speaking to had not been managing from afar, they were in the next office to our Senior Sleazebag.

Let’s take another example. Another household name, run by good people who were serious about the responsibility of leadership and earnest to the point of nerdy about the company’s values. So how was it that on the same day they promoted the two men everyone in the company would have singled out as prize-winning Assholes. Both men were clever, driven, funny (if you weren’t the butt of the joke) and ambitious. Both were prone to publicly humiliating their team members and only slightly-less publicly denigrating their peers. People working for them sometimes achieved extraordinary results but also tended to take long-term sick leave and suffer from burnout. After 3 out of 7 team members of one unlucky team went down with stress, we all assumed something would be done. When their subordinates starting leaving, and citing their boss in exit interviews as the reason they were going, we were certain that finally action would be taken. When their HR partner herself was reduced to tears after a session of systematic humiliation and intimidation we dared to hope it was the end-game. It wasn’t. Eventually both of them left, but not before each of them acheived one more promotion.

“She’s a scrubbing brush – all smooth from above, bloody painful if you’re below her”

As staggering as it is to witness management’s blind eye in action as a subordinate or co-worker, it’s actually much more shocking to find out that as a manager you’ve been harbouring one of these little charmers. At least once in my career (maybe more, would I even know?) I’ve been that boss. There was someone in my team who was sensational. She exceeded my expectations in every way. She grasped instantly what we needed to do and interpreted it and over-delivered as a matter of course. She was my ‘office wife’, the one I used as a sparring partner, sharing a little of the burden of leadership with. She was clever, driven, funny (if you weren’t the butt of the joke) and ambitious. Wait a minute – have I written that before? Anyway, when the team grew large enough to need a team leader I didn’t hesitate and announced her promotion to the team. It was only as I was actually saying the words, looking down the meeting room table at their faces that I saw a flicker of fear in one face, frustration in another, concern in another, and I realised I’d made a mistake. One of my team told me later “I was thinking ‘Don’t let it be her. Anyone but her’. She’s a scrubbing brush- all smooth when you looking from above, bloody painful if you’re below her“. Subsequent digging unearthed a completely different side to this wonder-woman, one I’d never seen but which was bullying, confrontational, patronising, competitive to the point of destructive. How had I not known? Why had no-one told me?

Inconvenient truths are just soooo inconvenient

First let’s tackle how I hadn’t known one of these people worked for me. My guess is, it’s because I didn’t want to. This employee made me look good, she was fun to work with and she pretty much made my work-life easier in every way. Any comments I might have heard about her ‘getting a bit feisty’ in the bar after an evening out, or being too demanding on a project I would have filed under ‘jealousy’ and ignored. Meanwhile I continued to praise her publicly (in the hope that her team-mates would take the hint and become more like her) and so made it highly unlikely that anyone was going to think it worth the effort to try to change my mind. They must have thought I was an idiot with appalling judgement and who knows what other important information they didn’t bother to share on that basis.

Another answer is that particularly in the more junior stages of our career, we credit senior leaders with way too much omniscience. At my first company, (where rank was helpfully “zoned” from entry level =13 to company owner =1, so you knew exactly where you stood), I started as a lowly Zone 11. I was nervous around a Zone 6, terrified around a Zone 5 and a Zone 4 was basically a rock star, someone I knew by sight but never expected to speak to. The idea that these megastars did not know absolutely everything that happened in the company would never have occurred to me. They were gods, geniusses and gurus all rolled into one. Anything that happened, good or bad, I assumed happened on their command, or at least with their permission. As I progressed to become a leader myself, I was actually very disappointed to find out that they were, after all, just people. I had enjoyed putting them on pedestals, it made me feel I didn’t have to think too much for myself, just follow them. When I discovered they didn’t always remember every golden instruction that had dripped from their lips, or seemed tired or absent-minded, I was shaken to my core.

Leaders are human, we give off clear signals when we hear things we don’t like. This teaches our followers to hide that truth because they believe they’ve learnt telling it isn’t safe or productive. I remember one forecast meeting where, before our SVP came into the room, a few of the Sales team reported that all their retail partners said a certain product would not sell and so they would not be ordering it. We needed to reduce the production forecast drastically. When the SVP joined and enthused about the potential of this product, one of the Sales guys mumbled something about not being convinced and the SVP shut him down. The forecast remained unchanged, we produced millions and they sat on the warehouse shelves unsold.

What leaders can do

Well it’s stating the obvious (but then that’s what this post is about)… it matters hugely how we, as leaders, react when we’re told something we don’t want to hear. We might only get one chance to show that we are capable of having our opinions challenged before word gets out that “she won’t listen” to anything. Showing that we can listen to criticism of a favourite, leaning forwards rather than backwards when someone contradicts our view of the world, and being open to the possibility that what seems like an unhelpful interruption may in fact be the most helpful thing we hear is a skill we all have to master.

*Some of you might know I’ve only ever been an employee of 3 companies so you may be speculating on the names behind some of these examples. However, bear in mind that I’ve also consulted for 7 companies in the last 2 years which has given me a whole new batch of source material… so don’t jump to conclusions too quickly 😉


Only Connect: Creating a sense of belonging without belongings


How do people know which is your desk? The family photo from your trip to Disneyland? The fading thankyou cards pinned proudly to the fabric partition? The 2ft high Costco jar of Jelly Beans? Personalising your space means there’s always somewhere that feels like home and it’s valuable for your colleagues too. It gives them a small insight into who you really are beyond the teammate who makes funny jokes and terrible coffee (or more realistically vice versa). So what happens when you don’t have a space at work to call your own?

The sushi, slides and skateboards offered by startups have forced wholesale changes in more traditional workplaces. We’ll leave discussion of the awkward office mid-life crisis for another time (when 150yr old businesses do the equivalent of buying leather trousers and insist their board members, who have worn a dark double-breasted suit their whole adult lives, suddenly wear jeans and sit on bean bags). Companies who want to compete for digital talent have been scrambling to update their offices and their ways of working. Sadly those that cut corners by jumping straight to a funky office design without the clear purpose and change journey to support it are discovering that installing a football table and providing hand-knitted muesli isn’t enough. Making sure people choose to stay with your company isn’t about the building, it’s about the people themselves.

Freedom’s just another word for nothing left to lose…

Lots of companies are realising that as Daniel Pink said, knowledge workers want ‘autonomy, mastery and purpose’. Along with the promise of real estate savings, that’s driven a move to flexible working. Unassigned desks free up space and cash for better facilities for focussed work and collaboration. Employees get more discretion to choose when, where and how they do their work. For most it’s all upsides: no more trying to concentrate at an open-plan desk, a more energised, purposeful sense of engagement when you come into the office, reduced travel time and costs when you work from home and bad hair days no-one else need know about. But for a significant number of people the downside is a risk of disconnection that easily worsens into full separation. For some people it feels important to be able to pre-introduce themselves to others by the family photos on their desk or the choice of Dilbert cartoon on their partition wall. If you take away the space that they ‘own’ and which they use to create their work identity, you need to make sure you are giving them something else in return.

The new role of the people manager

Research by Activity-Based Working (ABW) Specialists Veldhoen+Company indicates that immediately after a move to flexible office space, employees feel more connected to their wider company but a loss of team cohesion. This phase of team disconnection, although normal and expected, can make the whole concept vulnerable if anxious leaders don’t taken the right steps to mitigate and start to lose confidence in the direction they’ve chosen. It also, more significantly, can make individuals vulnerable. Some respond by creating interactions but others start to feel neglected, leading to anxiety and disengagement.

People managers need to think differently about how they create a sense of team identity and cohesion and how they connect to individuals. Even better, they could do this thinking with their team not for them. A team that can have a structured conversation around how to work together, and review those principles regularly, is already well on the way to preventing any issues.

Questions for teams:

  • When, why and how often should we meet face to face?
  • Which channels shall we use for different interactions?
  • What expectations do we have around online availability?
    • e.g when does the weekend officially start, and what does that actually mean?
    • e.g. For an urgent answer, should we use email, IM, text or something else?
  • How do we stay informally connected so we can support one another as a team? Do we need to ensure we’re all in the office on a certain day, plan more social events together, or use informal social media e.g WhatsApp groups more than today?

There are no right answers, the value is in the process. Simply the act of allowing the team to self-organise and making any assumptions explicit not implicit, is how the magic happens. The line manager sets the tone for a new way of working by suspending their own assumptions and biases to the table and trusting that if issues or abuses occur, the regular review of the principles will allow them to be addressed.

The new role of the office

The address on our business cards used to be the only place with the facilities we needed to do our jobs – printer, computer, coffee machine. Now for knowledge workers the primary unique purpose of the office is as a source of interaction, stimulation and connection. In offices without assigned seating, the ‘bump factor’ of unplanned interactions that lead to fruitful collaborations is rightly celebrated. For some though, not being able to spot a familiar face is excruciating. In a traditional office you’d have the people you sat next to every day to anchor you. They might have talked too loudly, worn overpowering perfume or breathed in an annoying way but crucially, they knew you and you knew them. In an unassigned office you’re torn between taking a seat next to a group who all seem to know each other (although they probably don’t) or withdrawing to a more individual work-space where you sit all day feeling isolated and invisible. Well-meaning but broad ‘Everyone Welcome’ invitations to social events might be taken at face value by your colleagues, but perhaps you assume they don’t really mean you unless you’re personally invited. Soon others have a set of mutual touch points you don’t have, and the sense of not-belonging becomes self-fulfilling until you decide you might as well work from home in future, and ultimately find a new role somewhere you feel psychologically safer.

Building connections in the LEGO London Hub

officeIn the LEGO Group’s Slough office, staff spend years decorating their desks not only with the usual photos of family but also their favourite models and mini-figures. If you want to know where Pavel sits, you follow the Duplo Train track (used to deliver muffins around the office, obviously) and look for the desk with the Star Destroyer on it. If that isn’t clear enough, most people have built themselves customised nameplates out of LEGO bricks (see mine in pic below – yes that’s cats, pizza and penguins, don’t judge me). For the staff moving to the new London hub in 2015, tnameheir new environment would be unassigned; no dedicated desks or offices. That meant far fewer opportunities for personalisation. It was important that people felt they could find themselves somewhere in the otherwise communal, impersonal space. One method was to leave shelving and display areas empty on Day 1. All new starters build a small set on their first day and these were also put on display. The office soon became a vibrant exhibition of colourful creations, each of which had special meaning to at least one person. TED talks nominated by staff played in open areas and staff chose tunes for the coffee bar playlist so they could hear their own music playing in the cafĂ©. (N.B. We learned the hard way to only use the ‘Radio Edit’ version. No-one needs to hear language like that while they’re sipping their oatmeal latte.)

Digital connections

Despite the fact that outside of work we’re all connected to multiple social media networks, work-based ones usually need a little help to get started. The trick is for it to feel unforced and authentic. If you’ve got a social media Community Manager somewhere in your company, get their advice at this point! Otherwise there are a few key principles to bear in mind.

  1. Keep your online communities as generic as possible initially so they get enough traffic and critical mass. You may be positive that your ‘AD&D’ group will overwhelm the Clubs page but let’s just wait and see shall we?
  2. Don’t be downhearted if your Facebook Workplace Group isn’t immediately flooded with activity – there will always be a very small group who post content, a larger group who react to it and a much higher proportion of people who just browse passively. This isn’t a problem.
  3. When that small group of willing content-creators identify themselves (by creating content), thank them and ask offline if they can try to include as many photos and tags of staff in their posts as possible. A name-check online does wonders for someone who was previously feeling invisible.

Think broadly, or better, get others to do it for you

You want people to feel they belong and ‘Community Management’ is the best term we’ve got for this right now but it’s not exactly right. Even more importantly, don’t think that an extensive Events programme has this covered. Not everyone wants to attend face-to-face gatherings, join a club or socialise with colleagues outside of work but it doesn’t mean they don’t want to belong. Strive for a balance in your initiatives to ensure maximum inclusion: think about social vs professional (e.g guest speakers), in-person vs digital, working day vs out of hours, even active (charity volunteer day) vs passive (watching Wimbledon).

Make it clear to everyone that building connections is a shared responsibility. Nurture any ideas that come from your end-users – that’s where you really want the energy to come from, so unless it’s a health and safety issue, try to say ‘yes’ and offer your assistance – but don’t take over. If they don’t feel strongly enough about it to implement their idea themselves, it’s probably not compelling enough to get commitment from others either.

The need for sustained attention

Assuming companies recognise the need to support a sense of belonging, the second easiest mistake to make is to think that this can be done overnight. Community building needs resourcing until it has enough momentum to be self-sustaining. It can be unwelcome news that this could be long after the official project closes. Many companies have regretted not securing funding for 1-2 years after the implementation phase ends and populations experiencing rapid growth or churn could even take longer.

So how do you justify that resource?

One company who is convinced building communities delivers an ROI is WeWork, the giants of the co-working world. In a blog written after they acquired social networking service Meetup, founder Adam Neumann said “As the world gets more and more connected every day through technology, we’re actually finding that people are more disconnected now than ever. When we launched WeWork back in 2010 we saw our opportunity to build community by bringing people together. Everything we did had intention, from designing common areas where people could meet over a cup of coffee, to sponsoring social events where entrepreneurs could meet others in their industry”

Ironically, their efforts mean your staff may find a greater sense of community by going it alone in a co-working space full of strangers than in your newly renovated but impersonal offices. My advice? If you’ve saved millions on square footage, save a little more on sushi and invest in a community manager to avoid a beautiful office as empty and echoing as a deserted theme.

Note: this post was adapted from a May 2018 article to support the Mad World Summit, an event aiming to shift the conversation about mental health in the workplace up a gear. 

Call me Mrs Machiavelli: The tempting personas of change management

woman dark eye spooky
Photo by Rene Asmussen on Pexels.com


I don’t want Change Management on this project – it’s like you’re saying something bad is coming and you’re going to brainwash me into wanting it.

This is not what you want to hear in a Steerco, especially if you’re the Change Manager. I was still desperately trying to think of something to say that would be constructive, concise and career-saving when he went on…”Can you call it something else?

Ah ok, back on familiar turf. Fiddling around with wording to avoid triggering negative reactions, that’s a Change Manager’s playground. It’s now weeks afterwards though, and I’m still thinking about that initial challenge. It touched a nerve: am I making things better, or have I built a career getting people to do something they don’t want to do? (Are those ideas even mutually exclusive?)

What I tell myself about being a Change Manager

First as a leader and now as a consultant, I’ve been trying to facilitate individuals and groups through change for over 15 years. Sometimes it’s mandatory changes like IT implementations or restructures, but I’ve always been more interested in facilitating discretionary change, behavioural change. Behavioural change is tough for individuals even if they want to change, and even tougher if it’s externally motivated by their employer.

I love my job because I enjoy the challenge of trying to knit together what a company wants and what their humans want. I don’t want to be a spin doctor or a propagandist, I don’t want to infantalise people, I don’t think I want to start a cult. But it’s possible that this is just more word-play. To put it in more personal terms, is it just coincidence that someone who even her loved ones would describe as a bossy control-freak ended up creating and implementing change programmes?

Let’s look at some of the changes I’ve supported recently. In each case, although the change has been initiated by the business, there’s been an authentic benefit to the employees. That benefit hasn’t always been explicit at first, but it’s been easy to find.

Business Need Corresponding Employee Need
Better, faster decisions. Greater autonomy, better flow of information
More productive use of office space. Flexible working, a shiny new office with

better furniture and better tech

New identity and re-engaged employees post-merger Fresh start, shared cultural norms,

a shiny new office with better furniture and better tech

So far, so good. The business wants something, the people want something, I help them find a way of working that delivers on both sides. Everyone gives a little, everyone gets a little, we hold hands, take a bold step into the future and job’s a good’un.

But of course during that process I thought about how best to communicate the guidng principles behind the change, of course I thought about what ‘nudges’ could help people change their habits, and of course I thought about how to make the change sustainable and back-sliding unprofitable. I’m feeling uncomfortable spelling that out, it makes me feel a bit grubby. So is there an ethical grey area around change management, and if so, how big is it, and where do my practices fit?

There’s only so many ways to introduce change

In 1979 Kotter and Schlesinger’s wrote ‘Choosing Strategies for Change‘. Their article was first written in 1979 but why should it be out of date 40 years later when human nature hasn’t really changed for hundreds of years?

Kotter Change

Naturally, when asked to describe what I do, I focus on the upper half of the chart. I prefer to think of my role as a facilitator, smoothing the path from current state to a desired future state that for whatever reason, is deemed unlikely to happen on its own.   I see myself as someone who finds a way to alchemise a new business need with the needs and wishes of the employees. But further down the chart we see other ways of doing things, each of them effective and sometimes very tempting. Let’s look at a few archetypes of those approaches…

Change Manager Personas you may have known…


The most obvious and the most negative persona. Despite evidence that Machiavelli-the-statesman was outstanding in many ways, if you’re accused of being Machiavellian it’s probably not a compliment. According to Wikipedia, in modern psychology “Machiavellianism is a personality trait characterized by a duplicitous interpersonal style, a cynical disregard for morality, a lack of empathy, and a focus on self-interest and personal gain”. Kotter and Schlesinger list ‘Manipulation and Co-optation‘ as the fifth of their six strategies to overcome resistance to change within companies. It was the go-to option for Machiavelli in 1500’s and highly effective for him. There’s no reason why this can’t be in your toolkit but it’s unlikely to be useful if the changes you’re implementing around increased transparency, lower hierarchical barriers and increased autonomy for employees.

I once scored 0 out of 10 for integrity during a recruitment process so it might not surprise you to hear that I would certainly implement neutral changes in a nice way for a nasty leader, just like I help implement nasty changes for nice leaders. I’d still want to make whatever was coming easier on the population. What I wouldn’t do is try to deceive people into thinking the change was a good thing if it wasn’t.

Mary Poppins

Mary Poppin’s sugar-coated bullying (or ‘Explicit or Implicit coercion‘ as Kotter and Schlesinger call it) is an even older tactic. I totally get this one. The brisk, bossy ‘come along children’ approach can be incredibly effective and comes way too naturally to me. We’re conditioned through school to respond like Pavlov’s dogs to a certain tone of voice issuing instructions. Maybe on some level we even enjoy being sheep occasionally. After all, we’ve got businesses to run, problems to solve, politics to navigate, and if someone is willing to tell us what to do and where to stand that’s one less decision to make. The problem with this approach is that it takes away independent thinking, something no company can risk.

As well as being bossy, implicit in the Mary Poppins persona is the change manager as Adult, the employees as Children. That’s insulting and unhelpful to everyone concerned but I’ll admit, it’s something I have to guard against. In my mind, good change management is about macro- and micro-moments of empathy, compassion, common sense and relentless progress towards the future state. I’ve never been a parent but that’s probably how you potty-train too. Ensuring the relationship stays Adult:Adult is always going to be a focus for me.


Another tempting persona to use to ease the transition. Making change happen by building a personality cult around the leader/sponsor or yourself can be very effective. People are predisposed to at least try what you’re asking if they like you, even more if they worship you. In times of crisis we need a figurehead who can lead us through, who can be our Henry V on the eve of St Crispian’s Day. There are two issues though. The first is that if you achieve change this way in business, people are not engaging with the change, they’re engaging with you/the leader. That’s fine if you’re implementing a new IT system, pointless if you’re trying to change strategy. You want alignment around a common purpose and direction. That’s not the same as an alignment around an individual. And anyway, is a cult really what you want? Pretty much everything I think on this topic is summed up in Bretton Putter’s excellent article ‘13 steps to developing a cult-like company culture‘.

The second issue is sustainability. Maybe the charismatic leader you’ve chosen to figure-head your initiative really is flawless, they’re still going to resign/retire/get asked to run the UN some day, and it’s unlikely your programme will have the resilience to survive when that happens.

Avoiding the Guru temptation doesn’t mean you can’t have personal charm in your change toolkit. Using personal charisma to get people to adopt a new expenses policy or stop leaving dirty mugs in the office sink isn’t the same as getting them to turn their back on their families and give you all their money.

Where to draw the line

Here are my own guidelines. These are what I use to keep me on the right path. Yours might be different, if so, I’d love to hear them.

  1. Companies are allowed to want certain behaviours from their staff which might change over time. What isn’t allowed is to insist someone changes what they think, feel or believe. 
  2. Treat people like adults. Teach people like adults. Protect their autonomy wherever you can, be honest where you can’t (if something’s non-negotiable then say so). The final change will be stronger for it.
  3. Be relentless in your application of compassion, empathy and common sense but never lose momentum towards the future state.
  4. As James Clear says in his book Atomic Habits; behaviours form habits and habits form identity (consciously or not), so behavioural change is ultimately identity change. In this case, remember it’s the company’s identity (as expressed through its culture and practices) you want to change, not the individuals.

The crux is that asking and helping people to change their behaviour must stop short of asking them to change their beliefs and thoughts. However, if some of the tactics you’re adopting are starting to make you feel a little grubby, maybe it’s time for a re-think.

If you think I can help or you’d just like a chat, get in touch via the form below…



“The Nine Unchangeable Truths” of office life…and how to change them.

two black ceramic teacups
Photo by Ekrulila on Pexels.com

Every now and again, perhaps on the back of a successful project, an extra coffee or simply a common-or-garden mid-life crisis, you will get over-confident and think you can tackle “The Nine Unchangable Truths” of office life. You’re not the first and you won’t be the last bright-eyed optimist who thinks that just because they got 12,000 colleagues through a Successfactors implementation, or persuaded their CFO to embrace flexible working, they’re ready for the ultimate change challenge.

Ok. Nothing I can say is going to talk you out of it now your dander’s up but I feel it’s my responsibility to point out a few home truths and pass on what little advice I have. Don’t say I didn’t warn you.

  1. No-one is ever going to put their dirty mug in the dishwasher. If there is 1 tiny teaspoon in the sink, the dishwasher door is shut or a nearby coffee machine is making a noise that sounds a bit like the dishwasher running, forget it. Passive aggressive ‘jokey’ notices, photos of eyes watching the errant mug holders and signs indicating if the dishwasher is running or not are all a waste of good A4. If it really matters to you, provide a container for dirty teaspoons (and another for tea bags) on the worktop next to the tea caddy, and ensure the default state of the dishwasher is wide open with the top rack pulled out and 80% of the space free. Personally I’d just pay someone to load and empty it; there’s lots of other tasks they can do while it’s running (see points 2,3,4,5,7). 
  2. In unassigned seating, no-one will ever report a broken monitor or missing keyboard if there’s another desk nearby they can move to and just get on with their work. If this is really important, put a “maintenance needed” card face down on all desks and maybe, just maybe, someone will lean it against the monitor before they move. Then you need someone who floor-walks to notice it (see point 1)
  3. No-one will ever throw away the run-out flipchart pens in the meeting room. Tradition dictates that they are carefully re-capped and replaced on the little metal shelf so the other pens can resume their vigil over their fallen comrade. To avoid this, assign someone to test all pens and check all other meeting room facilities first thing each morning. Also, put a bin in the room. Ideally under the flipchart. With another flipchart pen already in it to help people get the idea.
  4. Everyone will accidentally write on the whiteboard with the permanent marker that got mixed up with the dry-erase pens. Eventually there will only be a 10cm square writeable space left on the whiteboard. Future generations will use the layered fragments of business plans, flow charts and brainstorms like a modern day Rosetta Stone. On no account should the marker pen be removed or thrown away because ‘we don’t know how it got there’ and therefore it might be magic. Make life easier for everyone, don’t have whiteboard and flipcharts in the same room.
  5. No-one will replace the flipchart pad until they’ve written on the easel itself with permanent markers. History does not record why this is. Theories range from the weight of a fresh flipchart pad being too much for many office workers to carry, to an atavistic urge to draw on cave walls. We may never know the real reason but if you want to avoid this situation and those in points 3&4, don’t have flipcharts, just have wall-boards.
  6. No-one will use the ‘quirky’ bit of furniture you thought would make your office more like the Googleplex. Space-hoppers as chairs, sleep pods, hammocks and bean bags all have their place, but if you put one in the middle of your mainly-silent office in full view of everyone else who’s working in normal chairs at normal desks, don’t expect to see much usage. Ditto newspapers and sofas. If you have a culture where it’s considered fine to take nap or read a magazine at 10.30am in full view of the management team, go for it. If you haven’t, be prepared to make a rota of napping, newspaper-reading senior leaders for at least a month to show people it’s not a trap.
  7. No-one will maintain the funky employee photo wall everyone is initially so keen to put up, just like they won’t update the content on the big screen in reception which means we’re still Welcoming Katie! as a new starter despite her having been with us for a year and it hasn’t been Rob’s Birthday! for 3 months. The photo wall will become a rather sad mausoleum to all the people who have left the company. Those that haven’t left are now married with children and unrecognisable from the perky-faced optimists pulling wacky faces in the polaroids. The only ways to avoid this situation are to make the wall digital and automate the process, or make it a recognised part of someone’s job to keep things current. While they’re at it, they could do some more effective community-building activities like setting up a guest speaker programme, encouraging people to start a running/yoga/drinking club and organising meet’n’mingle evenings with like-minded neighbourhood companies.
  8. No-one will ever “contact the help-desk” with an IT issue until they’ve first spent an hour trying to hunt down the one I.T. supporter actually based on-site, then wheedling their way up to Nick in Accounts (widely known to be good at stuff like that because he once made Gunjan’s laptop come back on again) and finally phoning their younger brother for advice. Then, and only then, will they phone the help-desk. Under no circumstances will anyone ever “raise a ticket” via the helpdesk website, that way lies madness. I have no advice to give on this one except if it’s vital that the helpdesk is the first point of contact a) make sure they’re excellent and b) don’t have any IT supporters on site, that’s just being a tease. And make Nick from Accounts work from home.
  9. Everyone will use the special cleaners’ plug sockets to charge their phones in a “crisis” (i.e. battery below 60%). It is a truth universally acknowledged that an office worker in possession of a smartphone must be in need of a charger. All plug sockets are fair game, you can hide the cleaners’ sockets under a flap in the floor with a heavy table on it, it will still be commandeered by 10am on Monday by an intern who doesn’t look like they could lift their mug never mind the table. The only way around this is to remove the scarcity mentality. Put plug sockets and USB points everywhere, be generous with charging stations and stock the office helpdesk with well-labelled lurid neon ‘loaner’ leads that at least give you some chance of getting them back. 

Good luck 😊


Dealing with the F-word: is there a business case for fluffy? (Or…3 objections to change management and how to handle them).

duckling on black soil during daytime
Photo by Pixabay on Pexels.com

I was recently asked to speak to the leadership team of a large organisation in the throes of a big acquisition. The emotional wake of the process was disrupting productivity and lowering morale at a grass-roots level but the executive team refused to support any kind of change management programme. Their view was that proactive change management is overkill, infantalising and the business equivalent of selling crystals and horoscopes. The specific word they used was Fluffy. To say this didn’t fit with their prevailing culture would be an understatement. “Why is it a problem if only the strong survive?” was how one person expressed the executive team’s perspective to me.

Although usually less extreme, it’s pretty common to have to justify why change management is worth it. Often it’s an unbudgetted add-on once the programme team realise their communication plan isn’t going to solve everything. Coming in late means having to ask for additional funding and that means trying to demonstrate ROI, or “The Business Case for Fluffy” as I like to call it.

When asking for investment for a change programme, the 3 most common challenges I get (aside from genuine financial shortfall) are:

  1. It adds complexity

  2. There’s no measurable impact

  3. I don’t need it/wouldn’t like it

Here’s how I address those points, sometimes successfully and if I’m honest, sometimes not. Before you go into one of these meetings you need to accept that if the executive culture is totally opposed to the deliberate application of respect, compassion and common sense, no argument is guaranteed to make a difference, but any conversation might, so it has to be worth trying.

1. It adds complexity

McKinsey make a useful point in their article ‘Putting Organisational Complexity in its place‘.

“…few executives have a realistic understanding of how complexity actually affects their own companies. When pressed, many leaders cite the institutional manifestations of complexity they personally experience: the number of countries the company operates in, for instance, or the number of brands or people they manage. By contrast, relatively few executives consider the forms of individual complexity that the vast majority of their employees face—for example poor processes, confusing role definitions, or unclear accountabilities”. 

These individual complexities are the kind that a change programme hopes to minimise and, as you see from the examples given, they arise from lack of information or interventions. A change programme exists to help people navigate through a transition and it’s completely irrelevant how complex it looks on paper. What matters is whether the end-users experiencing it find it simplifies their transition.

birdIt is also possible that the people judging your plan as complicated aren’t very good themselves at embracing the compexity of being human. This isn’t an ad hominem attack, it’s just a statement of fact that individuals who have risen high in companies because they excel in one area sometimes have blind spots in others. If you tried to make a robot to build engagement and higher performance in the workplace whilst implementing change, the algorithms would be far more complicated than whether a driverless car should kill its passengers or pedestrians. But just like the birds in the photo above, who swarm and turn and spiral without ever crashing into one another, sensing and responding to other humans is not complicated if you’re an empathetic, compassionate human blessed with common sense and a clear end state to aim at.

If you’re missing some of those characteristics then the things you would need to do wouldn’t feel natural, the level of detail and micro-moments of truth that need managing would seem over-whelming. And a wise leadership team realise they’d get a better return on investment letting someone else, to whom these things do come naturally, step in. What doesn’t make sense is not to do it at all.

2. There’s no measurable impact

In trying to overcome this objection I asked my network: ‘have any of you successfully made a business case for change management?’ I asked the internet, I asked my old tutors from Harvard Business School, people I met at conferences, even someone I sat next to on a plane. Everyone started by saying ‘yes of course’ and then talked about the importance of adoption, the importance of engagement, everyone was willing to defend the need for change management to the bitter end but what no-one talked about was numbers. I eventually turned to the only person I know who probably feels the same way about change management as the people I am trying to convince – my husband. An accountant-turned-physicist-turned-IT guy and a born sceptic, I asked him what would convince him to invest 5% of a project budget in the soft stuff. The result was the following equation, with terms defined below:

Cost of Critical Non-Essentials – Cost of Lost Discretionary Effort = ROI of CM

Critical Non-Essentials = Humphrey Walters introduced me to this concept and how it was applied to the England Rugby Team who won the world cup in 2003. The England Rugby team didn’t win the World Cup because they had developed a skin tight jersey (to make tackling more difficult) or because they worked with a peripheral vision coach, or because they changed their kit at half time to ‘focus the mind’, but because they did all of these and did them well. The culmination of these Critical Non Essentials allowed the team to possess the additional 1% in performance to set themselves apart from the competition, a little like Dave Brailsford’s ‘Marginal Gains’. Those practices were soon copied by other teams around the world. Many of them are small interventions that put people in the right emotional, mental and physical state to perform at the highest level. That level of detail, empathy combined with relentless focus on the end goal is consistent with good change management programmes but it’s why they can seem over-complicated too.

Discretionary effort. This is the extra work done to hit a deadline, taking a later train home to answer an urgent email. Outside of a crisis, it is when the business takes care of the critical non-essentials that employees put in discretionary effort. Sir Christopher Rotolo identifies the components of discretionary effort, nicely described in an Oct 2012 Finance and Management article by Steve Coomber. None of the things he lists are technically essential for a company to function. You could just tell people exactly what needs doing and pay them to do it, that’s how production was done in factories for decades. In fact to play devil’s advocate, putting in place any of the conditions on the list below will take time and effort and probably even reduce productivity for a while. But if you employ knowledge workers and would like to be in business for a while, I strongly advise you at least consider the following:

  • Autonomy and empowerment
  • Understanding and fulfilling the needs of individuals
  • Unselfish leadership
  • Fairness
  • Team cohesion and purpose
  • Mutual trust

Calculating an ROI for Change Management CM)

To estimate the cost of critical non-essentials I refer to my change plan:

e.g. each employee might attend 2x 2hr workshops, read an online discussion thread a few times a week, attend 1 x lunch’n’learn and have 3-4 x 15 minute chats with a change champion in the course of a year. So the cost is usually around 1 working day per FTE per year, plus the Change Lead themselves.

I use a deliberate under-estimate for the impact on discretionary effort if staff become demotivated and disengaged:

e.g. a business loses 12hrs of discretionary effort per year per employee (approx 3 minutes a day).

That doesn’t include any costs incurred by poor adoption of whatever the change was, increased sickness, higher staff turnover or any of the other symptoms of low engagement, all of which you could legitimately add and support with studies.

Change Management is the enabler, not the driver of ROI.

It doesn’t make sense to think of the change workstream as needing to deliver it’s own ROI. It’s role is to ensure that the ROI of the whole project is achieved. In the example below, typical of an Activity-Based Workplace implementation, formal training might drive 5% of the costs, ‘fluffy stuff’ drives another 5%. The ROI on the project comes from real estate savings, IT license and equipment savings, but none of those savings are sustained if there isn’t a behavioural change, so the 10% for Change Management is actually the enabler for 100% of the ROI.


3. I don’t need it/wouldn’t like it

Finally I always point out that an elite group of leaders for whom the change itself was a choice and who are unlikely to be affected by it on a daily basis are not the right group to decide if others might need support. To put it more bluntly, “It’s not about you.” If you believe you’re fully ready for whatever transformation is ahead, you’re not going to see the value in my offering, and leaders are a) usually driving that transformation, and b) at least 6 months down the track versus their teams, so of course they don’t need help adjusting (or think they don’t) and assume no-one else will either.

Leaders wield so much power it’s perilously easy for them to forget they may not know how they make others feel because no-one dares to tell them. Just as they don’t really know any more what it feels like not to have power. In particular, informal collegiate leadership teams may deceive themselves that they are simply ‘first among equals’, that they are mates with their subordinates and are in touch with what’s really going on. They need to be reminded of their blind spots, and find ways to hear the ‘ground truth’ as often as necessary.


Critical Non-essentials require an investment of time and thought from a company, but rarely huge amounts of money. They give an organisation an experience advantage that is hard for competitors to replicate.

Discretionary Effort is the employee equivalent. These two things combined to make the oil that keeps the engine running smoothly. When it runs out, the whole machine grinds to a standstill.

It’s not about you. When change comes, senior leaders are in a privileged position because (hopefully) they saw it coming from miles away and/or even chose it to happen. That immediately disqualifies them from understanding how it feels for others; they need to ask, empathise, engage and be prepared to accept that others may need more or different things to make the change work than they do.

I don’t think the benefit of any change management programme, particularly if the change you’re looking for is cultural or behavioural, is ever going to produce a crisp, indisputable business case, but I also suspect that if you need the benefit of treating people as humans explaining to you, you’re probably not going to find that explanation compelling, if indeed you listen at all.

If you’d like me to give a talk at your organisation, or just have a chat, use the form below


OMG That could only happen here!…What’s your Signature Employee Experience (and is it what you had in mind)?

people at theater
Photo by Monica Silvestre on Pexels.com

“Nervously I lowered the giant bear’s head over my own and everything went dark…”*

I lifted it, still dripping, to my mouth and tilted my head back…“**

“It’s disconcerting when your boss picks your body up and absent-mindedly pulls your head off mid-conversation.***

Above are three stand-out moments of my time at the three companies I’ve worked for (see footnotes for spoilers). I could have chosen others: for example, realising that not only were all my colleagues super-competitive at work, they were all apparently Olympic athletes and massive over-achievers outside of work too and on that basis I’d have to leave; walking up the red carpet at a film premiere and watching the paparazzi lower their cameras in disappointment as I went past, wasting five minutes of the hotel check-in staff’s time trying to decide if I wanted a Princess room or Ninjago room…

Signature Experiences are the moments that uniquely define your company, either to your customers or to your employees. I was introduced to this term by Richard Stollery and Cecilia Weckstrom while working at the LEGO Group. Both pioneered the conscious design of ‘moments of truth’ into our customer service processes. I learnt more about in-depth Experience Design from Joe Pine when I attended his (very excellent) Experience Economy course. It’s a natural step to transfer this thinking from customer experience to employee experience, and then specifically to change programmes.

Thinking about Signature Experiences helps you clarify what exactly you’re trying to change. It forces you to find moments that crystallise new behaviours, the ones you’d like to show every new starter through an immersive virtual reality experience – ‘There! That’s what we mean when we say we’re collaborative/agile/morally sketchy/(insert the behaviour of your choice)’

Case Study 1: A pharma company wanted to bring their outdated onboarding programme in line with their revised strategy and values.

I partnered with an internal facilitator for this project which was run using design thinking methodology. Through interviews and workshop discussions we established that what seemed to be unique about this company was that no-one could talk about the company mission without becoming emotional. In my first workshop with them the opening round of introductions (say your name, your role and what gets you out of bed in the morning) resulted in at least half of us welling up within 4 minutes of meeting each other. It became clear that the purpose of the company was so compelling to people that the greatest service a corporate onboarding programme could do would be to connect people’s roles to that purpose as quickly as possible. The signature experience of the onboarding re-design became that new starters would go home and tell their loved ones ‘I cried on my first day at work!’

Case Study 2: A large technology client wanted to improve their collaborative working as part of a bigger project. My first few workshops with the project team were characterised by two things: 1) everyone accepted every meeting invite but only 50% of invitees ever showed up and 2) the people who did come talked over each other ALL THE TIME. Eventually I raised these two things with them. “Oh yes, that’s classic ‘us’, that’s how everyone behaves here” they told me cheerily. So their signature employee experiences around collaboration were being unreliable and not listening to each other. Despite having just said so themselves, they seemed a bit shocked when I pointed this out and we quickly defined more aspirational collaborative moments of truth instead.

Learning: You can’t help having Signature Employee Experiences so you might as well make them count.

The point being that although these companies had never formally defined or designed their signature employee experiences, they existed anyway. You might have worked somewhere where the signature employee experience was that the network constantly crashed, or you had to hide the logo on your company polo shirt to avoid people abusing you in the street. A signature experience for LEGO Group employees is that if you tell people at parties where you work they either make a bad joke about you being a mini-figure, ask you why you can’t get good old doors and windows anymore or tell you that their 6 year old child is building models designed for 16 year olds.**** You can’t stop something being characteristic of life in your company, but you can be proactive, try to gain control over the really big light-house moments.

How to use Signature Experiences in your change programme:

  • Be systematic about it. A good starting point is the mission statement or vision for the change.
  • Translate this into a set of guiding principles.
  • Break those principles down further into specific ‘green flag’ behaviours that would mean the change programme had been really successful
  • Add a list of ‘red flag’ behaviours, the ones that would indicate the opposite of what you’re looking for.
  • Be as specific as you can using real life scenarios where possible. See below for an example: flags

Choose 1-3 of the green flag behaviours and look for ways that they can be made inevitable.

e.g. Imagine you really want people to introduce themselves to others in the coffee queue, you could:

  1. Firstly make sure there is a queue
  2. Hire a barista who remembers faces and likes to connect people (that should also take care of point 1.)
  3. Create a prompt – a “nosy neighbour question of the day” on a blackboard will do
  4. Tell people repeatedly what you expect from them: effectively giving permission for a new behaviour. Tell new starters in their induction so they just assume it’s what’s done around here and launch themselves into it in typically keen new starter fashion.
  5. Finally, if you’re really really serious about it, you will ensure that people who can introduce each other to the barista get a free chocolate biscuit, or something.

Make the idea explicit, not implicit, and make sure someone hates it.

I sometimes use Signature Employee Experience design workshops not to actually create something we can implement, but to help project teams check they really are all imagining the same end-state. Because this process requires you to be quite specific, it’s excellent for flushing out inconsistencies and assumptions within the group. Build the experience from LEGO bricks, get people to act it out. What would its theme song be? What would it smell like? And more importantly, who would hate it? If you can’t think of anyone (ideally dead or fictional, it’s not meant to get personal) who would reject your experience, you probably haven’t come up with something strong enough.

If you want some help or just to compare notes, get in touch?


*Preparing to go out into Disneyland California dressed as Liverlips McGraw (Country Bear Jamboree. No, me neither), as part of the Disney Way I management course.

**The unforgettable, life-changing experience of being allowed to eat a still melting Mars bar straight off the factory line during the Mars Insider tour (sadly no longer permitted).

***At a certain level at LEGO Group you get LEGO mini-figures of yourself as business cards. I had a bowl of them in my office.

****Just to save any future LEGO workers some time, here’s my handy short-cuts: 1. Ha ha, good one 2. You can 3. Your child is obviously super-bright and you sound like great parents, could you pass the butter?

6 things the workplace culture at Airbnb and LEGO Group have in common.


Last week I was at LEGO Group’s activity-based London hub and Airbnb’s London office. I was there as a guest speaker on the Wavelength ‘Behind the Brand‘ programme.

Cecilia Weckstrom, LEGO Group’s Senior Director of People Innovation described the company’s turnaround story and how the company looks at innovation, sustainability, and Diversity & Inclusion. At Airbnb we were hosted by Julian Persaud, Global Head of Operations, Experiences. The attendees were leaders from 20+ companies around the world. Over the two days the conversations were wide-ranging but some clear themes emerged both in terms of what is currently top-of-mind for business leaders and also what these two companies felt was important to their way of working.

Below are the points that were echoed in both sessions.

An almost personal relationship with consumers – Acknowledging that you only own the trademark, they own the brand. Really listening to what they say, understanding how they engage with your products or services, giving them ways to co-create a better product. Both LEGO Group and Airbnb seem to almost know their consumers by name, and regularly bring individuals or groups into meetings at all levels.

Overcoming ‘it ain’t broke’ mentality – The challenge of trying to innovate during periods where your current model/product is working well. LEGO Group experienced what the CEO called ‘super-natural growth’ for 10 years, and both companies described how necessary but how difficult it is to find the appetite for risk (i.e. change) in that happy phase.

The importance of a sense of belonging – this was a broad and nuanced theme. It was about employees feeling wanted, needed, recognised and significant. It was also a determination that they should understand their impact and feel connected not just to their immediate team or line manager but to the company, the community and the planet. This belief played out in CSR initiatives that were woven into daily work rather than add-ons and in the messages about what each company wants to reward.

The ‘how’ matters as much as the ‘what’ – both companies have mission statements that are deeply embedded in the company psyche and which feel so personal that they’re almost reluctant to discuss them publicly. As Julian Persaud put it ‘our mission statement isn’t printed on the walls, it shouldn’t need to be; it’s inside us’. Interestingly in both cases the statements were created to describe what they already stood for, not as a direction to aspire to. (LEGO Group want to ‘inspire and develop the builders of tomorrow’, Airbnb aims to ‘help create a world where you can belong anywhere’). Both companies have performance management processes that give weight to behaviours as well as results and both are continually looking for ways to do business by doing good.

Cultural fit vs Echo Chamber – How to find the balance between wanting employees who share your beliefs and embrace the culture without suppressing diversity of thought. After so much conversation about how to recruit people with the right values, the right cultural fit, both companies reflected on the risk that a strong culture of like-minded people can soon become an echo chamber. Dissent is seen as a threat to the community or to speed of decision-making and so is suppressed. Neither company felt they had fully been able to resolve this yet.

Mission via profit – My first ever job after university was at Mars Confectionery, a company that lived and breathed its Five Principles, one of which was Freedom. “We need freedom to shape our future; we need profit to remain free“.  It was clear that for LEGO Group and Airbnb, being profitable is a means to an end. They consciously grapple with the ethical puzzles this creates: How to be commercially successful and still leave the planet better than you found it? How to make your company somewhere people can do their best work but still ensure less-than-best work has consequences?

Perhaps they are luxury problems you can only afford to care about in times of plenty or if you aren’t public; I’ll be interested to see how Airbnb’s culture evolves after their IPO. I actually think though that these questions need to be top of everyone’s mind. We’re humans paying other humans to sell a service or product to yet more humans, and our workforce and our consumers have higher and higher expectations of how we will respect that humanity.

Note: The visits were part of Behind the Brand, a programme organised by Wavelength. For more information, click here