Fake goods

In my last post I wrote about Zappos.  I neglected to mention something that I really like about them.  Which is, that I get the impression from reading Tony Hsieh’s book, that he and the people he works with have done a lot of thinking to figure out the best way to run their company and create an environment in which employees can happily give their best.

Fake goods - a picture of fake handbags

That’s happened through learning from mistakes – Tony talks about how the culture went bad in his first start up, mainly because he didn’t pay attention to it.  And also he frequently explains how he gets interested in a subject, like positive psychology, and then finds the research and reads up on it, and works out how to use these theories to make his company better.

What Zappos are not doing is following the herd or following the rule book of HR practices.

I think that is really important.

I think that there is too much ‘follow the leader’ behaviour in HR, and business more generally.  It becomes like Chinese whispers.  Sometimes people don’t even know why they do things the way they do.  They just do it because it’s what everyone else does.  And it is what is required for their CVs and by the job ads for their next role.  For the concept of Talent Management is criticised by many, e.g. see here on Flipchart Fairy Tales or here on Gareth Jones’ blog.  But I suspect that most L&D people feel a pressure to put Talent Management on their CV and LinkedIn profiles because that is what is demanded by our future employers.

Here’s another example.  An organisation I know of has recently added two questions about happiness to its employee survey.  “Are you happy?” is one of the questions.  What is the thinking behind it?  I bet it is a Chinese whispers watered down interpretation of the current vogue for positive psychology in work. E.g. from the example set by companies like Zappos, and from Harvard Business Review’s Jan-Feb 2012 issue being about happiness.  I don’t think there’s anything wrong with the actual idea of seeking happiness within businesses. But what is wrong is picking up the vague concept of the idea, without studying it properly, and implementing a tiny portion of it.  It’s a cheap rip off. Fake goods.

Perhaps unsurprisingly given this follow the herd mentality, some of the most interesting people management that I read about does not come from HR.  Take the wonderful Valve employee handbook.  It is kept on wiki style webpages that every employee can add to and edit.  Most HR departments would turn over in their graves at the very thought.

I do think it is important to study other companies, to study academic research, to read books.  But I want that to inform what I do.  It is so important for me to take a step back and think innovatively and clearly about what is right for the place where I currently work.

Am I being too critical?  What do you see in terms of fake goods or the real mccoy? What are the barriers to taking a step back and doing some thinking about what is really the best thing for your organisation?

NB If you do want to gain more insight into positive psychology there is a seminar in London on 17th August, which I think will be really helpful. 

13 thoughts on “Fake goods

  1. Happiness is subjective, situational and personal. Words fail me. I honestly think i would feel offended if an employer asked me this question. You’re not being too critical.

    The organisations that are getting it right don’t need to enter the competitive field of “best company to work for” or ask “are you happy” as they are just getting on with it. Checking in with people using surveys has its place, but – needs to come from what people within the organisation think is important, and what they think is the most useful way to gauge opinion. I guess if the employees of the organisation came up with this idea, then maybe it has some purchase but responsbility or shaping of my happiness not something I would choose to place with an employer.

  2. Flora’s back!! I have been thinking a lot about values recently after listening to Tonys book (l prefer audio books). What companies live and breath their values – hire and fire based on them and help people form their decisions. How refreshing would it be for someone to resign on the basis that the values of the company do not match their own personal values (at CHRU Phil Clothier questioned how many people actually know their personal values). It got me thinking – for big business with 10,000’s of employees, how do you go about changing these things? Even if the CEO knows it needs changing, can it be achieved?

    • You don’t, because most of your employees don’t care. They turn up, do their job and then go home. Zappos may have lots of company values, but the one that rules them all is sell more shoes. If Tony Hsieh cared that much, he wouldn’t have sold up to Amazon.

  3. I would say it’s more mcdonalds than fake. When you walk into mcdonalds you know you’re going to leave a little unsatisfied, but at least you know what you’re going to get.
    Doing things properly requires engagement from all levels of the organisation, and I’m not convinced that lower levels of organisations are all that interested. I know this sounds cynical, but for most people work is just what you do to pay the bills.

  4. Lovely post about fake goods and lazy promises. I once organised a survey which included a firmly tongue-in-cheek question about whether employees were happy. Most replies ticked multiple boxes. It was what I expected: one minute you’re having a great time at work. The next you can’t stand it.

    It seems to me that people have contradictory feelings about most things. Freeze-framing something as dynamic as feelings is basically problematic because they shift all the time. And bottling mood so you can convince someone that your people are 62% happy or whatever…that’s just funny.

    The exercise I did turned out to be useful. The survey helped to show that plenty of people loved the place (or said they did). It also showed that some things drove employees crazy, which gave us the opportunity to show our aim was true by fixing them. But the starting point was a survey we ourselves lampooned for being deeply flawed.

  5. There’s quite a few things here which are of interest. That Tony Hsieh has taken the time to focus on culture and uses his understanding of Positive Psychology to better develop and lead his business is fantastic. Well done that man.

    I’m really intrigued by the herd mentality thing. I wrote a post about conformity some time last year, and think that has something to play here too. We follow the crowd because they’re influential. In doing so we forget our own individuality and conform to the perception of best practice. I’ve said it in other places and I’ll say it here – if you follow best practice you are dooming yourself to failure.

    Some of those barriers you’ve mentioned are about our individual ability to step up to that task. Do we understand what that looks like and how to make it a success? Do we proceed until apprehended or produce iron cast game plans?

    Thank you for the very kind plug 🙂

    • Sukh, Bernadette, Rick, Jamie – thank you ever so much for taking the time to comment. What a lot of different views! Rick – I know we both come at this from different angles, and all I can say is that in my life I have come across many many people who care deeply about their work, far more than in a ‘just pay the bills’ way. But I acknowledge that you have come across a different set of people.
      Bernadette – yes, happiness doesn’t necessarily have a direct relationship with performance. But I’ve not seen many unhappy people perform amazingly well.
      Jamie – great point about surveys being a snapshot. As Megan says, surveys can been relied on far too much.
      Sukh – yeah, I hadn’t really thought about the powerful pull to conform. We’ve been doing it all our lives haven’t we? Right since infant school.
      Argghhh, got to go, my mac is running out of battery power and I’ve got a nail biting football match to watch 🙂

      • I agree that a lot of people do care deeply about the places they work. But they are quickly promoted off the shop floor, and in large organisations it’s the shop floor that dictates the mood.They are also the ones that engage with initatives.
        What I think would be interesting is to understand how/if the culture survives a downturn in the companies profits. It’s easy to stand by your values in the good times.

      • Rick, I’m VERY late in replying. Great question about what happens to culture in a downturn. I’m wondering aloud, but is IBM a good example of this? They really turned themselves around, at a time when they could easily have become a casualty of the internet revolution.

  6. The question you asked is whether we should think or follow the herd.

    I read the book too (actually I left it on a plane and then  listened to the audio book),  Mr Tsieh owes you a fortune which he can certainly spare by the sound of it.

    I too observed that while it all sounds very simple, the repeated process of thought, action, consequence was long, often painful but unified by the thinking bit.

    While reading the book I felt that panic you feel when the herd runs, that desire to run with them, to make my colleagues and our customers happy. It’s the answer to everything surely (again)? I get this fear most acutely when I think (usually wrongly) that the herd has already left me behind.

    What did I get out of it? 

    A realisation that culture is foundational and makes other change easier.

    That culture is your customer experience and that your customer experience is largely your brand (ok, there are fonts, colours and messages too).

    But then I realised I had to think about it all very hard, and persuade others this was important and that this would all take a while.

    I also realised that what makes one set of customers and employees happy is different to the next. While its a good outcome it’s the alignment of the causes that is the challenge. 

    Asking people if they’re happy may provide a bit of feedback but it’s reverse engineering. Proper value comes from forward engineering. To paraphrase the last chapter, reaching straight for instant gratification is a quick fix that won’t stick, reaching for purpose, is tough, long and requires constant thought, but it’s resilient.

    I wrote some values for a team recently. It contained the phrase, “We have the luxury of thinking for a living”.

    Enjoyable post and great comment stream 🙂


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