Heading home last Tuesday on the train I read a fascinating article in the Evening Standard that I thought I would share. We’ll be losing, according to the author Anthony Hilton, so much if we stop talking face to face. Looking up, watching everyone texting, or messaging, or whatever new app people use now, this article really hit me. It resonated with so much of the leadership and management challenges I face in my organisation, and moreover the challenges I see in the delivery of improvement in services across the public sector.
The evidence he cites states that one in five people never use the mobile phone to speak to people. That number has doubled since 2012. The report predicts that this will rise to a quarter this year, and move on from there. The question I ask is this; does this trend in human behaviour help or hinder us? Surely effective communication is critical to quality? On a purely personal level, do our minor, and dare I say it, occasionally mundane interactions, not add colour and contrast to otherwise repetitive days? A case could be made that electronic communications are as destructive as they are productive to modern day organisations.
When we look at the front line in the public sector, what we are talking about are very personal services. If I have a problem with my tax return, I want to talk to someone about it, not spend endless hours communicating by email, which cannot be productive for me, or HMRC. At work, as managers we often wonder why staff don’t do what we want them to do, or do it the way we want it, or why something hasn’t worked as we had expected. When you get to the root of it, they didn’t read the email, they misinterpreted the text, they didn’t understand the rationale, they didn’t actually agree and buy in to what was wanted, and the list goes on and on. It might be easier for me as a manager to outsource the establishing of context and agreement to a ‘message read’ ticket, but in the end it is far less productive, and quality suffers.
What we know is that understanding behaviour is critical to motivating staff and creating a sustainable and positive culture, which in turn creates more virtuous behaviours. Anthony Hilton says “the boss of one of the big PR firms moaned the other day that whereas once his graduate trainee programme focussed on how the media worked, it is today devoted to teaching people how to behave in meetings – how to read a room; what to look for to glean who has the power in the room; to understand at what point they should intervene to make an impact…” Is our PR big wig right to moan? No, he isn’t, at least not about helping to develop people who can communicate better. When I consider the big challenges confronting the NHS, local government, police, etc… they are all at their root, cultural problems. Finances, whether in times of plenty or scarcity, necessitate change. It is our adaptability to that change which is critical and is the determinate of our success.
I am fortunate that my business is continuing to grow, but that brings with it new challenges. I can’t know what’s going on everywhere, my diary is constantly full, I spend a lot of time travelling to clients’, etc. no different to the pressures all modern managers and executives face. I am fortunate in that I have an excellent Chairman, who above all makes me return to one simple management discipline: How should I spend my time, how do I actually spend my time, and do I spend enough time talking to my key staff each day.
It’s absolutely right that we can use technology to improve the productivity of public services, but it should never replace the fundamental efficacy of human interaction.