How do you change what it is that people value in a system?

At the breakfast briefing I was at last week, I heard John Manzoni, Chief Executive of the Civil Service  ‘discussing the current {UK} Civil Service transformation agenda and offering his reflections on how the Civil Service and Private Sector can respectively learn from one another.’  During his talk, he posed the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’

Hearing it, I remembered the time when I was working on an office move.  We were asking (‘making’?) senior individuals to give up their individual offices – a perk of seniority – and work in open plan spaces.   One man was appalled at this idea, asking me ‘How will people know that I am important?’  He valued his own office as a symbol of ‘importance’.

I was amazed.  I hadn’t had my own office in years, I was used to roving around to find a hot desk or sitting in a cafe or working from home or other location.  I valued the flexibility and ability to meet people I wouldn’t meet if I were in my own private space.

However, that incident led me to look more closely at why we want to change what people value, what they value, and how do you change it if that’s what seems to be needed by leaders.

Change and transformation programmes typically involve a lot of clashes between what leaders value and what employees do.  For example, employees value having a job, leaders value automating the work .  Employees value a permanent contract, leaders value contingent labour, etc.  We want to change what people value in order to resolve this clash (in favour of the leader).

Manzoni talked about various aspects of transformation that he is involved with – they’re common to much of transformation work and they usually involve clashes of what people value. He mentioned:

Moving from hierarchy to flattening the organisation that erodes a grading structure or career ladder that people have often struggled up

Changing to regard expertise over generalists (or vice versa) that under-estimates the sense of professionalism and pride people feel in the role that they have done up to now

Relocating work which often involves more virtual/remote working that  bites at the social network and sense of community, or local identification that people enjoy about work

This ‘transformation’ activity, sometimes thoughtlessly, attacks what people value in an organisation.  Their response, which often comes across to leaders of the transformation charge, as resistance then stalls the process.  Hence the question, ‘How do we change what it is that people value in a system?’

In our office move case, it was clear that people valued private space which wasn’t on offer in the move scenario.   Typically, what happens next in this type of clash is activity of one type or another in which leaders try and ‘get’ people to ‘buy in’ to whatever the leader values at the expense of what the employee values.   The language and intent can feel coercive or manipulative.  See a Fast Company article How to Get Employee to Buy in to an Exceptional Culture

‘Getting people to buy in’ is hardly the stuff of most organisational values, and, I haven’t found lumping ‘people’ together a very productive route when I’ve been asked how to ‘get’ people to ‘buy-in’.  People value different things.  Some people in the office move loved the idea of giving up their private space because they’d felt isolated and looked forward to joining their team and colleagues in open plan, others took it as an opportunity to try out the various types of work spaces newly available freeing themselves from the idea of being tethered to a fixed desk.

I find a better approach is to try and understand the reasons why people value what they do and whether there are value substitutes that can be made or whether we (the transformation team) can adjust to respect what they value.   In the office move having a private office was a sacred cow to several people, albeit for different reasons:  for some as a symbol of power and for others as a symbol of their expertise, lawyers, for example, strongly valued the principle that they should meet their clients in their own private office.

In the office move case, I commissioned a team of academics to come in and look at the symbolic aspects of power and status.  Their research and findings helped us think through a range of ways of managing the potential loss of what the CEO called ‘private real estate’.

I’ve found the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’ to be one with no answer, many answers, and no right answers even if you think you have an answer.   As with anything complex what people value is contingent on situation and circumstance.  Behavioural economics has various theories on what people value which may help.  Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow is a good read that offers insights on what people value and why.

Over the weekend I read Stuart Heritage’s article on the stresses of parenting small children, what he values now – time to think,  a respite from the relentless grind, etc.  is not what he’s likely to value when his children are grown up.   He sees that too and has what could be a sage answer to the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’   (You’ll see I’ve made an edit to his statement): ‘Figuring this stuff out is a long-term goal, and the early years of parenthood and change and transformation projects are a mess of short-term firefighting. When the time comes, when basic autonomy kicks in and I don’t feel like I have to carry the whole world around on my shoulders, maybe then I’ll get this looked at. That’s become my mantra of late: dig in, see it through, this is just a phase, it isn’t for ever.

What’s your take on the question ‘How do you change what it is that people value in a system?’  Let me know.

Image: Flickr user John Lustig

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