F.W. Taylor, an American mechanical engineer and one of the first management consultants, who was widely known for his methods to improve industrial efficiency, laid down his Principles of Scientific Management in 1911. Taylor is maligned by some observers today due to his observations about shirking workers and the perception that he wanted to de-humanise people and turn them into cogs in a well-oiled, industrial machine. However, Taylor was actually seeking to revolutionise the relationship between workers and their organisations, assigning clear responsibilities to management and employees, and convincing them that they both had a common purpose in achieving higher productivity.
Since then, the relationship between employees and organisations has been on a constant journey: from employees acting as and being managed as a collective, through to Employee Involvement, Employee Satisfaction, Equal Opportunities, Employee Engagement and Diversity and Inclusion. The journey appears to be on a trajectory of moving away from the idea that employees are all the same and therefore need to be treated identically, to one where there has been increasing recognition of the differences that define groups and individuals, and the need to create increasingly bespoke solutions for each.
Diversity has been, until now, the pinnacle of this recognition of difference. Latterly however, organisations have begun to recognise that a focus on diversity itself is not enough. Firstly, there is the acknowledgment that diversity has been constrained by seeking to connect at the group characteristics level (for example the BAME categorisation, or the protected characteristics categories under the Equality Act 2010 such as ‘disability’ – both of which fail to capture the vast array of varied individuals which may fall within each category). Secondly, there is the acknowledgment that attracting and employing that diverse talent is not sufficient unless that talent is, and feels, truly “included “within the organisation. Providing an inclusive work environment, which connects with diversity at the individual level, has therefore become the latest stage on the journey of refining relationships between organisations and employees.
This is not an easy feat to achieve. It requires a focus on ensuring that organisations are inclusive and are experienced as being inclusive by the full range of diverse individuals that make up our increasingly diverse societies. It requires organisations allowing, enabling and supporting employees to be authentic at work.
This might seem simple, but there are a number of factors within organisations that mitigate against this happening. Firstly, organisations by their very nature have an in-built tendency towards uniformity. They seek to standardise as much as they can. Secondly, even when organisations generally want to connect with individuals as individuals, this is difficult to achieve, because they do not have the full data. In exactly what ways an individual is unique is a complex picture of multiple identities, often hidden from public glare and sometimes even from the individual themselves. Thirdly, organisations are recognisingmore and more that it is their organisational personality which defines them in the marketplace and is a source of competitive advantage. This drives leaders to define desired values, desired work cultures and desired behaviours.
Here in lies the central dilemma. These are all attempts to standardise and minimise difference and run counter to the notion of diversity and authenticity. This drive towards values, culture and behaviours has led organisations to prioritise “organisational fit”, even over the technical capabilities to do the job.
The situation is also complicated on the employee side, as inclusivity is not only defined by the desire to be one’s authentic self at work. There is also a human need to feel part of a group and accepted by the group. This can be said to be a need to belong. Employees will not feel good if the price of belonging is a reduction in their ability to be authentic, but similarly employees will not feel comfortable about being authentic if that positions them as an outsider in their place of work.
In reality then, there are complicated tensions on both the organisational and employee side of the work relationship: the trade-offs between organisational fit and enabling authenticity and between being one’s authentic sense and the desire for belonging.
Can these tensions be reconciled and if so, how? The first part of the solution is as always, recognising that there is a problem. Organisations need to move beyond the narrative level and really think through the nature of inclusivity. Then leaders need to make decisions around this trade-off between organisational fit and authenticity. What is to be allowed and what is not. An obvious example is, if an organisation is committed to equality of opportunity and diversity, it will not want to embrace the authenticity of individuals who want to express openly their discriminatory reviews. Employers will of course need to be mindful of the laws around positive discrimination and discrimination more generally when mulling these issues.
Organisations will really need to challenge themselves on the nature of their particular “organisational fit” though. If organisational fit is arbitrary and not linked to organisational effectiveness, and if it simply reinforces the status-quo and engrains out-dated ‘group think’, it can be a source of considerable disadvantage.
Organisations need to define the scope, validity and legitimacy of “organisational fit” and then recruit talent, allowing the maximum level of authenticity consistent with it. Beyond this though, organisations need to ensure they provide a home where that authentic talent can feel a sense of belonging. There will need to be a clear focus on this and it will need to be leadership led. Leaders and Human Resources will have to consistently role model good behaviours in this respect and encourage these behaviours in the organisation. Putting the nature of belonging on the Management radar, and developing employee voice mechanisms to measure it, will be key.
Over and above this ‘qualified’ approach to authenticity, leaders and Human Resources professionals need to recognise that the direction of travel is moving beyond mere employee engagement to employee experience: how do employees experience the organisation and all aspects of it as an individual? Human Resources professionals will need to develop their understanding of the capabilities around employee experience just as their marketing colleagues developed their expertise around the customer journey. In this respect Human Resources will need to become marketeers, as they seek to balance providing a suite of standardised employment experiences, differentiated for employee segments, such that individual employees experience them as bespoke solutions to their varied needs and desires.
The principles may have changed, but 110 years later, scientific management marches on!