Why You Might Need To Hire Differently To Fix Your Broken Company

Recently I’ve been working on an experiment to learn how to help companies improve by working with them remotely. This experience inspired me to write about broken companies, where you can get a better idea of what I mean by ‘broken’.

The difficulty I find most often in working with companies trying to improve themselves is that a new conversation needs to be started and it is often a difficult conversation to have. It is difficult for three major reasons:

  1. An organisation and its management have to acknowledge that there are problems that they cannot fix on their own. Acknowledging this can be a big deal – especially in companies that have a rich history of blame for things perceived as failure.
  2. Few –  if any –  of the people who need to be in the conversation have ever experienced being open-heartedly asked to join and take part fully in the conversation – at least not in a way that makes it OK to say ‘No’.
  3. Few –  if any – of the people in the organisation, know or have experience of facilitating this particular type of conversation.

Most employees were not hired to help improve companies.

Almost every company I have known in over 20 years of my working life has hired almost exclusively for function and competence at function – they hire people to do the job they want doing. In this regard people serve a functional purpose, just as a telephone serves a functional purpose, or a stapler serves a function. Yet human beings are so much more than simply functional resources.

So people join companies primarily to do what they were hired to do – not explicitly invited to take part in the continuous improvement of the company, themselves and each other. As people move from job to job, the invitation is never made. Until one day they get to a company that does make the explicit invitation and they have no idea how to do contribute to help make things better.

Continuous improvement of the sort that I believe in – where we are individually and collectively focused on improving both our product (and services) and each other in the process takes people who care. It is not the kind of continuous improvement that is mandated from above. The input about what needs fixing comes from the same people who will play a key part in fixing it – everyone. I’ve often heard this referred to as ‘bottom up’. I do not agree with this – because it implies that in this approach there is still a ‘top’. In fact there is no hierarchy when we have this conversation – we are all equal partners, albeit with different responsibilities.

I once invited a group of developers in a company to a brown bag session to explore what things they thought needed improvement and what capabilities they thought might enhance their effectiveness. As the invitation went out, I got responses from a number people who said they weren’t interested. One in particular elaborated on why he wasn’t interested. This email created such an impression on me that I saved the most relevant quote. Which I share with you now.

We are here to code this software and we have too much to do – I’m not fucking interested in helping anyone else to get things better – that is what we have managers for , isn’t it?

I often wonder how many of the people I have met in the companies I have worked with who feel this way but never say it, but act on it nevertheless. How many work in your company?

Now I also wonder how many of those same people would have applied for the jobs if they had been explicitly invited to help the company continuously improve – not through some bullshit HR feedback system – but through full participation and ownership of both the problems and the solutions. How many would be willing to take the empowerment that was offered and seek sustainable improvements through collaboration? How many would in your company?

Invitation? But joining in improvements is implied, isn’t it?

Often when I talk to groups about why an explicit invitation is essential, I often get people who roll their eyes and say “but it’s kind of implied, isn’t it?”. Of course, it is reasonable to assume it is implied if we are ourselves readily do it. Expecting of others what we do naturally is common human behaviour. It is also one of the commonest ways we inflict violence on ourselves and others. By expecting that others will behave in the way we think is implied often results in disappointment which often leads to judgements – ‘they are incompetent, they are selfish, they are <insert your moral judgement here>’.

I feel pretty strongly about this and see a strong analogy with  date rape.

A guy invites a girl out for dinner, a movie and some drinks – maybe even coffee. After the date, she drops him at his place and he invites her up for ‘coffee’. Is sex implied with coffee? What happens if the girl doesn’t recognise that implication and actually has no intention to have sex with the guy? For her, the invitation to coffee was exactly for a beverage. What happen if she says ‘No’? Whilst this situation may not always end in rape, one has to wonder what moral judgements emerge as a result, what coercion was applied, what suffering caused?

All this because an explicit invitation wasn’t made.

I deeply believe that whatever is risked by making an explicit invitation to join a mutually beneficial activity is returned several times over by the explicit buy-in and commitment that those who say ‘Yes’ give back.

Hire differently

I believe that it is a form of violence to demand people to do something they had no explicit knowledge they would be asked to do and then, if they do it ineffectively, to chastise them. Yet I see this happen often. The chastisement is not often overt, but it is present nonetheless.

This is why I think all organisations that are committed to developing the habits and behaviours of continuous improvement need to fundamentally redesign how they hire, to explicitly include the invitation – not demand – to prospective employees to participate fully in  continuous improvement.

Redesigning how hiring is done is actually the tail end of a longer chain of redesigning activities and attitudinal shifts.

To make the invite, the company has to figure out what continuous improvement means for them – this is the start of the internal invitation. The makers of the invitation – usually management – need to discover what a ‘openhearted invitation’ means and be comfortable enough to make one.

Then the invitation itself needs to be figured out.
If it is too vague, it risks being irrelevant.
If it is too rigid it risks being perceived as a demand and as coercive.
If it is just right, it is easier to have the conversation and demonstrates to the prospective employee that your company is worth taking a risk on.

Are you involved in continuous organisational improvement in your company, I’d love to hear your experiences. Please comment or tweet me: @mhsutton

Why I Wrote This

I wrote this because my mission is for the world  – including and especially the world of work – to be full of JOY.

I wrote this because I wish for the people who work in broken companies to see value and a potential for JOY in joining with others to improve their companies and I want them to realise this potential.

I wrote this because most of the time, I see that a huge amount of misery, frustration and anger could have been avoided by a few open-hearted invitations and conversations and I want to help companies start to have those conversations.

You can help spread JOY in the world by sharing this. Thank you

Is Your Company Broken?


Many companies are broken – some deeply.

Yet, many remain profitable – thanks to the evil of ‘maximising shareholder value’ – profits roll in, souls and joy roll out. Others busy themselves with the structural preoccupations of ‘a real business’ – plush offices, sophisticated internal systems and fancy titles. All these add to the illusion that they are not broken.

What is a broken company?

By ‘broken’ I mean there is an abundance of stuff that needs fixing – from communication to the coffee machine and no one is fixing them because they are too busy or they don’t care or both.

Whilst many types of things might be broken, the most critical are the key foundations of human relationships – openness and trust. In broken companies there may be many  people who are disengaged from the wider organisation and feeling disempowered  – though they might excel at the function they were hired for. Broken companies often have processes and procedures that choke deep, meaningful human communication and become increasingly human-unfriendly places to be.

Getting things done in a broken company is like having teeth pulled – painful. People devise workarounds for getting stuff purchased, create defense mechanisms around power-hungry, psychopathic managers, play silly political games to get ahead because that is how the systems seems to work. Others might get by simply by keeping their heads down and hoping for the best.  For others still, there is so much BS that they simply give up and go some place else.

Another aspect of a broken company is the absence of a clear plan for how things get better. Some broken companies attempt to fix themselves by creating a role to be responsible for fixing things for everyone and surround themselves with even more process. This creates an illusion of doing something which is often as problematic as being broken in the first place.

Things will break – sales will sell something we don’t yet have and we will be late at delivering it, servers will fail, suppliers will let us down and colleague we work with will – at some point – not live up to the expectations we have of them. A broken company is not simply a place with things that don’t work. A broken company is a place that is incapable of openly acknowledging and fixing them.

How does a company get broken in the first place

I don’t believe anything starts off broken.

I’ve been involved with companies of all shapes and sizes and I love asking how they got started. If you go back far enough, almost every company was started by people who wanted to make things better – for themselves and others. They saw an opportunity and they provided something – a product or a service – to exploit it. Then they scaled by hiring more people and creating more layers without real thought of how it might evolve.

From my observations I think that as people join a group, they bring with them a culture – ideas, behaviours, experiences, and attitudes – that gets mixed in with the cultures of the people in the existing group and something new emerges. Similar biases are likely to get stronger and groupthink becomes more likely. Ultimately, depending on what the dominant biases are – being closed vs openness , choosing to blame and punish vs collaboratively learning from mistakes and seeking solutions together – certain behaviours will become dominant that that lead companies to or prevent them from being broken.

Incidentally, I don’t believe there is such a thing as a corporate culture. I think each person operates on their own culture – their own set of internal beliefs, ideas and behaviours – which may  all be hugely influenced by the widely held ideas and behaviours. But fundamentally people choose how they behave.

As things don’t work as expected – the dominant behaviours tend to be blame and finger-pointing that sets off a chain of events that results in everyone learning that failure is unacceptable and will be punished. Trust between people is usually the first casualty – at which point it really doesn’t matter what breaks, resolving it becomes very difficult to do. What most companies then do is get policies and grievance procedures in place – as though those will somehow magically restore trust and openness.

From this point on, things still break  – as they always do – but no one cares enough to fix them and the company becomes broken.

So, is your company broken?

Look around where you work and consider these questions to help you figure out if your company is broken.

  • What are the relationships based on? Contract or collaboration?
  • How healthy is the communication? Is it free, open and honest or narrow and defensive
  • To what extent do  you trust the people you work with and how much do they trust you – ask colleagues if you can (and if not, consider the previous point)
  • What is the general level of trust in the company – think of examples.
  • What are the dominant behaviours when stuff  – really important stuff – breaks?

I would love to hear from you – anonymously if necessary – about your experiences of working in companies that you consider broken. Please consider commenting on this post or we can chat about it over twitter.

Why I wrote this

I care that people find joy in their lives and work plays a huge part in most people’s lives.

I wrote this because without acknowledging that some companies are broken and represent an unhealthy places to work, we cannot get to the conversation about improving them and we cannot begin to open the invitation to the very people who can help improve them.

I wrote this because someone may have been silently suffering and enduring an experience that they have felt unable to share and this post gives them a voice. I know I have met people who have been scarred by working in broken companies and not been able to share their feeling.