• Q&A Vlatka Hlupic: 'Humans aren’t resources – so let’s stop treating them that way'

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  • 24 Nov 2015
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Author and management thinker Vlatka Hlupic on why she believes people power can force businesses to adopt a more consensual management style

Professor Vlatka Hlupic has a bee in her bonnet when she meets People Management on a crisp London morning. The news is full of gloomy talk of public sector cuts and in-work poverty. And having spent the past few months lobbying politicians to begin thinking about making businesses more people-centric, she’s not sure anyone’s listening.

“We know business leaders need to think more strategically, but so do politicians – and not many are right now,” says the professor of business and management at the University of Westminster. “We have to look at the long-term prospects for employees and the economy. Short-term cuts just won’t lead to long-term benefits.”

Croatian-born Hlupic now has the platform to make such points more forcefully. Her book, The Management Shift, has won widespread acclaim for exploring how delayering organisational hierarchies leads to profound business outcomes. And now she is ready, she says, to bypass the corridors of power and launch a petition that will begin a national debate on the very purpose of organisations.

 

In The Management Shift, you claim that much of the way we do business is hopelessly outdated. Why is that? 

There are several reasons, but the key one is that we have consistently dehumanised our organisations. Businesses have a natural tendency to be human. There is so much research showing that organisations are living organisms, and behave like complex, adaptive systems. And they should be managed as such, rather than as a mechanistic system where we look at all the individual components in isolation. But in practice, we defer to traditional approaches based on hierarchical command-and-control, standardisation and specialisation. That was fine in a production economy when productivity and efficiency were key. But it is detrimental to modern businesses. It prevents innovation, engagement and even profit.

Does the research back you up?

If you look at the global figures for engagement, only 13 per cent of people are fully engaged with their work, just 25 per cent are passionate about what they do and 20 per cent trust that their leaders will tell the truth when confronted with difficult issues. In the last 50 years, the average life expectancy of large organisations has declined by 75 per cent. The traditional business model is broken, and the traditional management model of centralised decision-making doesn’t work.

Organisations are comprised more and more of knowledge workers, and research shows that those workers don’t need hierarchy – they need autonomy and freedom to explore their ideas. And then if you look at millennials, research suggests that they favour purpose and flexibility in work – so they don’t like to be dealt with in a traditional way either.

But won’t we default to maximising short-term profit so long as that remains the dominant measure of business success?

It’s damaging to focus on shareholder value. There’s a growing body of research to show that it’s wrong. If you focus on process and profit at the expense of people, both your short-term and long-term profit will suffer. If you focus on people, organisational culture and relationships, together with the appropriate processes that govern how you do the work, you get sustainable long-term profitability.

Unilever’s Paul Polman is a good example. He refused to give short-term quarterly reports. When he joined, he said he would double the size of the company and halve its CO2 emissions – and while he was doing that, his share price went up almost 300 per cent and engagement scores went from the 50s to the 80s. It shows that we can do better when we focus on people and the environment. 

What would you like to see done about the issue?

I’ve been working with thinkers and professional associations to launch a petition to the UK government. If we get 100,000 signatures we can force a debate in parliament, which should be focused on making sure organisations comply with the part of corporate law that requires them to take into consideration the interests of all stakeholders, not just short-term profit maximisation. It’s something I would like to try – and if we don’t try, we will never know.

What role can HR play in these sorts of shifts?

My message to HR directors is: ‘Can you please change your job title?’ Because humans are not replenishable resources – they are sources of value creation. Another way of looking at it, as someone put it to me recently, is to move away from human resources to resourceful humans. But whatever we call HR, it needs visibility at board level, a voice and a clear role to empower people, train and develop them and build more human ways of appraising them than just ticking boxes.

Once you begin consciously thinking about relating to other people in a different way, it becomes an unconscious competence. From there, you start finding the purpose of work, asking what you do that affects other individuals and wider society – seeing business as a force for good, as Peter Drucker put it. That would be a pretty good place to start, I think.  

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Comments (4)
  • The elephant in the room is self-interest,which dominates organisational behaviour.

  • The difference now, I feel, is that there is more and more consistency in the message from a wider range of professionals and contexts. If you read or watch Dan Pink, Simon Sinek etc these messages are common over the last 5-6 years, but a lack of strong leadership and willingness to acknowledge that the current operating platform (reference Dan Pinks book Drive there) is broken has held us back. We should be focussing more on intrinsic motivators and not carrot and stick extrinsic motivators, which we are still stuck in the dark ages offering.

    Shining lights such as Virgin and Unilever should not be held aloft as exceptions, all organisations should be focussing on these companies as aspirational with a desire to learn how they can have people genuinely at the centre of everything they do, yet still turn fantastic profits whilst many of the rest 'use' their employees to try and reach profits.

    It is all about leadership (inspiration), and of course not just about management (compliance)

  • I agree with Michael Walshe about the need to find the triggers to change the thinking of leaders and managers. Unhappily, many leaders and managers do not receive the exposure required to manage people effectively, and often come into management from a completely different job expecting it to be easy. Much of management is project management, a transactional process, that doesn't engage the manager in the behaviours and attitudes required to achieve peak performance via psychological wellbeing. The most effective trigger appears to be the CEO who understands all this, and demonstrates this in his/her routine behaviour, attitude and approach. However, I am finding that more and more learning and development people are interested in the application of psychology to leadership and management, something I do with helping organisations implement the wellbeing and performance agenda.

  • Interesting - but haven't a number of writers on leadership trodden this path over the years without changing what actually happens in organisations? There is a lot of agreement on the "why" and the "what" but talk of unconscious competence etc has made little change in the last 40 years to the aims of organisations and how they seek to achieve them. This needs a far more radical thought process then repeating past research.