Centrality of the Individual

Organisations are inhabited by individuals, it’s probably about time we recognised that in the way we set policies and procedures…

Increasing organisational productivity and performance are laudable aims but when we get beyond KPIs, group figures and so forth, it all comes down to how well an individual is doing at work.

The overarching “mood” of the modern age is one focussed on efficiency and effectiveness. This permeates all we do and the entire organisational structure and processes within which we work are set up to ensure each person cannot exercise his or her initiative or act upon their conscience.

In a service organisation, we have the added complication that quality of service is co-created by the customer and service cannot be stored, is intangible and disappears as soon as it has been delivered. A bit like a concert performance.

Bureaucracy is defined as the triumph of means over ends and it is a situation in which the vast majority of people find themselves, either working in or having to interact with. This has the effect of treating the individual as a “cog in the wheel”, “part of a well-oiled machine” and other preset definitions of efficiency and effectiveness, none of which fit the definition or characteristics of service.

What does this mean for the individual?

Only an individual can deliver service.

And it is in the relationship that individual forms with the customer that the quality of service is determined. A big part of that relates to how far the rules allow the employee to act on his or her conscience, to take initiative based on the situation in which they find themselves.

Acting on our conscience is what makes us truly human. We see something that doesn’t feel right and we act on it (or video it, depending on your disposition). If our organisations through their Corporate Services have created policies, procedures and processes that prevent us from taking initiative or acting on our conscience, our organisations are dehumanising us and it is our managers who are doing it.

How can we fix this? Should we?

Let’s assume that it would be a good idea to fix this. We all seek freedom in some form or another and for every pair of hands you hire, you get a free brain. To take advantage of the free brain and contribute to the rehumanising of the individual seems pretty reasonable to me.

By reconstructing policies, procedures, financial delegations and so forth that send the message to each and every individual in your organisation that you trust them, that you want them to take initiative, that their conscience should always override company policy, you are encouraging their development in ways no course can hope to do.

One way to do this is by adopting the approach described in the Carver Model for Governance, for example, in which the things that may not be done are made explicit but everything else is permissible. The trick is to lift these “do not do”s to a sufficiently high level that they allow for the individual’s conscience to guide them.

Is there a risk? Depends. All change involves risk but, given this individual drive to act upon conscience and take initiative is going to happen anyway and will be exercised somewhere, usually outside working hours, finding ways to bring that drive to work would seem pretty reasonable. After all, why waste an innate talent?

Whatever the risk may be or perceived to be, it would seem to be far outweighed by the reward of having employees who feel trusted and free to act as ethical individuals. Try it.

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