At a recent masterclass for the Future of Work Research Consortium, I raised the following question: what would HR policies and processes be like if companies based them on the assumption that their employees are programmed to be helpful to others?
My starting point was the realisation that in most organisations, HR seems to be set up to act as a buffer between the company and its employees’ worst natures. The “worst nature” they imagine is that of someone whose priority is to take what they can while giving back as little as possible in return. This in contrast to what we see around us. For example, if you take a look at the people you know, you’ll notice that in their lives outside work, they often give their time and resources to help others. In fact, outside work, most of us are what Professor Adam Grant defines in his book Give and Take as “givers…people who contribute to others without expecting anything in return,” or “matchers [who] aim to trade evenly.” Far fewer people are “takers” who “strive to get as much as possible from others.”
If we apply Adam Grant’s concept to my question above, the question becomes: “What would happen if we turned the tables?” Here are my thoughts on what would happen if we based HR policy on the assumption that people alike to cooperate.
- It would revolutionise the selection process
If you were building an organisation with the awareness that some people are “givers”, others are “matchers” and some are “takers”, who would you want to hire? Iimagine the first change most companies would make would be to redesign their selection process to identify and favour more cooperative individuals.
- Performance management would have a positive focus
If your policies are based on the assumption that employees are trusted collaborators, you would also assume that every worker in your organisation is doing the best they can. As a result, development processes would be run on the assumption that employees have a positive outlook and are prepared to coach and mentor colleagues. People wouldn’t be ranked against each other – instead, managers would focus on building each individual’s strengths as fully as possible.
- You would provide meaningful work
In an environment where we assume everyone will be generous with their skills and time, it would be easier to design meaningful jobs that allow each employee to give of their skills and expertise to others.
- You would provide opportunities to give something back
Co-operative people tend to give across the board – they don’t restrict their giving to a single context. In an organisation based on a culture of giving, the working day would be structured to allow ample time to give to the community around them as well as the organisation. A great example of this is the John Lewis Partnership, where employees are encouraged to take time out to volunteer in the community.
- It would add value to your business
Such changes might make the workplace a nicer place to be, but how would they add value to the business? I feel that one of the advantages cooperative people bring to the workplace is their ability to build far-reaching networks of weak ties – those slight connections we all create on an everyday basis and which have proven to be more valuable than strong ties (friendships, family relationships) in the context of work. People who are generous enough to help those they don’t know well build networks as wide as they are strong – and wide networks are extremely valuable, not only to the individual, but to the organisation in which they work.
It seems clear that assuming employees are inclined to cooperate makes sense. However, actually changing HR policies and processes is a much taller order. Aligning HR policies and processes with the realities of work today isn’t happening. It’s time to start asking ourselves why.