A while ago, on a bulletin board that can remain nameless (to protect posters’ identities, and as its actual digital whereabouts is irrelevant to my point), someone started a thread that commented on their rootless, international upbringing and asked the simple question “Where do you call home?”
The answers were intriguing. Although some were geographic or family based (ie home is where yougrew up or where your parents live, if they still do), many were not and explored what we mean by ‘home’ – not the same word, or the same associations, as ‘heritage’. Some responses mixed the two, for example:
Aberystwyth, on the Welsh coast, where I lived for five years as a student and lecturer and whose faded Victorian beauty, rugged surroundings and adorable people make me feel instantly secure and integrated the second I go back, which I do at least four or five times a year.”
Others were far more concerned with what ‘feeling at home’ actually feels like and the different ways we can experience it:
- Wherever i feel safe and comfortable.
- Anywhere that contains George, some plants I have grown and a pile of books could be home.
- There used to be an old Goth/Alternative club […] where I worshipped weekly back from the early till the mid-nineties. Until now I’d forgotten just how safe and happy I felt there with all the sights, sounds and of course the lovely people within. It’s a place that helped shape my formative character just as I was part of what shaped its. It was home and I miss it.
- […] Which, presumably, is why we refer to favourite bars, clubs, cafes and the like as ‘homely’ – we don’t really mean ‘domestic’, we mean ‘comfortable’ in the truest sense: places we feel like we belong. It can even be somewhere you’d never been before – I’m thinking of a tapas bar in Perpignan and a now long gone art gallery in Leicester. Home is a connection we feel through more than just our feet.
There are some classic clichés of British (and I think I really mean English) life. A lot of it involves a wistful nostalgia for a life that historians might – spoilsports that they are – point out wasn’t like that when we were allegedly living it. Among the tricks memory plays is the vanquishing of rickets, chilblains and rural poverty. The would-be evocative speechmaker that looms largest in recent memory was John Major, whose 1993 speech to the Conservative Group for Europe included a sentence since widely quoted:
Fifty years from now Britain will still be the country of long shadows on county grounds, warm beer, invincible green suburbs, dog lovers and pools fillers and – as George Orwell said – “old maids bicycling to holy communion through the morning mist” and if we get our way – Shakespeare still read even in school.”
It wasn’t until I searched for the original source of the quote that I noticed its original audience – a political party divided over European issues – or the sentence that followed: “Britain will survive unamendable in all essentials.” I can’t trace details of the venue for the speech, but if it had a gallery the speaker was certainly playing to it. But there was one thing missing from the gallery of nostalgic charms that I thought was conspicuously absent – until it popped up on the news a few days ago. Yes: matron.
We can be a perennially puzzling species. While the majority of us almost certainly head to work intending to do our best, it would interesting to know how many of us are that generous in our assumptions and assessments about those around us – and how far any gap is accounted for by the generosity we tend to extend when we are invited to assess ourselves. But I strongly suspect that the start of any new job – something we’ve (usually) chosen to apply for, polished our cvs and interview skills, cleared the hurdles of interview and assessment centre – is a time when all of us are at our most positively intentioned. There’s a lot of hoping as well as striving in the journey from hoping to induction, and the moment of arrival is a time when we are looking to invest that hope.
That’s a view echoed in the words of Orlagh Hunt, group HR director at the RSA Insurance Group, in an interview with People Management:
We know that people show up in a new company wanting to engage. Very few people think, ‘I’m going to do as little as humanly possible and be as destructive as I can’. They start off thinking this is a shining new opportunity, and then the job they do, the leader they get, the environment they’re in either translates that optimism into having a great time and doing a great job, or not quite so much.”
Dave Ulrich is, without question, an HR guru: as with any guru, it’s difficult to know whether to approach them on bended knee or with a degree of trepidation. Having read “The Why of Work”, the best approach is with an open mind, a small pinch of salt – and with sufficient time to take on board what Ulrich (writing with his wife, Wendy, a psychologist) has to say. There is much of immense value here, and much that has the potential to enable leaders and organisations to generate immense value in more than one sense for themselves (and, importantly, both their customers and their shareholders). Like many of the best books in the ‘how to manage business better’ arena, my biggest qualm is that those who stand to gain most from reading it are those least likely to read it.
Working life is full of phrases like ‘walking the talk’ and expressions like ‘delivering on potential’. With our suits on, we exist in a world where promises are meant to be kept, and reputations can rise and fall on our ability to maintain this code of honour. A little remarkable, given that we’re all at least old enough to dress ourselves and navigate our way from duvet to desktop: as far as the reliability of promises goes, that’s surely old enough to know better – whether that comes to making the promises, or believing wholeheartedly that they will be delivered upon. But whether we are being naïve or not, our working expectations, hopes and aspirations often start with the promises that are held out or presented to us. And turn a little bitter when the delivery doesn’t follow. We may be older and wiser, but we can still wind up like the little kid who keeps being told they’ll get a new bicycle for Christmas. Just not which Christmas they’re going to get it.
Britain’s Got Talent would make a nifty patriotic slogan, for what is – in ‘reality’ (quotes intentional) – the name of a competitive game show that pitches individual ‘talents’ against each other. “England’s Got Talent” might have made a good tabloid headline about a month ago, but would now have the appeal – at least to the footie minded – of stale lager. Which illustrates one central conundrum of modern culture: the ‘star system’. Evolved in Hollywood, it might be perfectly adapted to the entertainment industry, but most occupations are not actually about the luminous performance of individuals. Organisational development is no less a team game than football, and in neither case is the display of either striking talent or overbearing celebrity the real point: the real point is to achieve goals.
It is, they say, lonely at the top. But there are many of us who have yet to have the opportunity to weigh up how much the view comes as compensation: in the meantime, many people still busily scaling the workplace ladder are finding it pretty damned lonely on the second or third rung down too. The working space immediately above a local workforce and just below a remote or virtual boss with whom there is precious little time or opportunity for direct contact comes not just with great responsibility, but a high incidence of personal isolation that it all too often falls to the isolated manager to tackle.
Though their governments and economies may rise and fall, countries have one lasting trump card: national pride is a potent force. A force strong enough to effectively close much of England yesterday afternoon, remove traffic from motorways and leave every checkout in my local Sainsbury’s completely queueless. Which is one reason – probably the reason – the French Minister of Sport was tasked by President Sarkozy to have what was presumably neither a quiet nor a soothing word with the national football team during a World Cup campaign marred by in-fighting and threats to ‘strike’ in a sense totally unconnected with goal scoring. ‘Sporting behaviour’ embraces more than a strictly athletic meaning: it also invokes respect, team play and a bit of basic decency.
In challenging times, retreat is a natural human response. Rightly or not (and sadly usually not), we tend to perceive some earlier time when things where ‘right’ and – at some level, conscious or otherwise – look for ways of returning to this blissful state. As Carole King sang, in a song whose lyric merits a less casual interpretation:
I think I’m going back/to the things I learned so well in my youth;
I think I’m returning to/the days when I was young enough to know the truth”.
A joke recently cracked at the HR Case Studies Blog for your entertainment. And the answer (no sniggering at the back: the Internet is interactive – we can hear you): “None. But they would like to be represented at the meeting!” Which, metaphorically, is where the ‘next generation HR’ theme – much discussed after the recent CIPD report of the same name – is coming from. And the response is varied. It seems to range from “Hang on, I think I’ve seen that light bulb before …” to a less sceptical response that’s something along the lines of “The light bulb’s not the issue. What they need is a stepladder, so they’re in a position to reach high enough to change it”.