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June 2012

Motivation and the wild wild sea

Imagine you live in Bournemouth, a town with one of the best beaches in the world, and probably the best in Europe. And then imagine you get complacent: you haven’t swam in the sea for several years. You safely pass along the beach and look longingly out, but the sea remains curiously out of reach. Then imagine you get seriously ill; in fact you nearly die.

You are in a hospital ward, Ward 17 to be precise. The nurses are lovely and the doctors try to reduce your pain. The windows are limited and the view out is restricted. It is summer time; something is happening out there, but what you don’t know, except that sometimes the sun escapes into your room and you experience a longing.

You know life could be over – for someone opposite it is, and he is wheeled away and they don’t speak about him anymore. You wonder when you will get out. And you have lost four stone in weight – you can’t eat and you can’t drink and this has been going on for a month. Intravenously you live, and you are not and never will be satisfied.

A day comes and you are out: weak and frail. How cold the body is now. But you do not give up – you bless the day you were born and you bless Almighty God for this living now, right now. And as day succeeds day, and you experience love, and yet another mouthful of food, and a larger sip still of drink, your strength returns. Like Samson, the hair grows back and the hero will return.

Of course, there will be more tests ahead, but they will be faced on their day then. For now the English Spring is in flood – the wettest April on record and so the deluge continues, till …

A week arrives. Your son is back from University and your wife says, Let’s go to Bournemouth Beach because the sun is shining. And you do.

Down there for the first time in years, you feel the sand under your feet as you approach the sea. Then there are sharp pebbles, just a few, and then you are at the shoreline, the interface between the land and the sea, and the cold salt water runs over your toes. Imagine it! Oh, imagine it!

I stand there, the cold, the intense cold – can I bear it?  And then I begin my journey towards its fullness. My wife and son already there ahead of me. Laughing in the glory of a day that isn’t quite summer, but still the sun shines.

Finally, I launch myself in – into the gentle waves and I am immersed in the freezing cold. My hands especially feel it – my core tries to resist. But what joy as the current takes me, and as I flip and flop and attempt this stroke and then that, and know I am back. Yes, back from the sunless rooms and corridors and into the light and into the sea. The wild, wild sea – turbulent as all my motivations, inspiring me to live, provoking me to embrace the wholeness, the wideness of every uncontrollable atom of existence.

So, friends, if you are feeling a little down at the moment then take a tip from me – no, take a dip from me: find that water, that wild wild water, and find that sea, that deep and bottomless sea and let yourself go. As you do, you will come alive again.


Three Priority Problems for HR

I have done a lot of work with HR specialists – both senior internal directors and managers of HR, and external consultants. HR is always under pressure to justify itself because at root it appears to be a cost rather than a profit centre for a business. When we Map HR experts the typical profile indicates that they are mission-driven people who largely want to make a difference. Often, however, they get down-hearted because the way they end up making that difference is through redundancy programmes, as organisations seek to cut costs and de-layer staff. This is unfortunate; especially in the smaller kind of organisations where more than once I have noticed that after the redundancy rounds are complete, HR itself becomes redundant!

What, then, I think makes sense for all HR specialists to undertake is to be more strategic in how they approach their role, lest becoming totally operational becomes all they do – and in that doing is their expendability.

To be more strategic involves solving, or more accurately being seen to move towards solving, three obvious and interrelated problems besetting organisations. I call these the TAP.

As we move further and deeper into the Twenty-First Century it is apparent that retention of key personnel is a number one priority for competitive advantage. Organisations need to get smart about why anybody would want to stay with them aside from mere salary and bonuses. In short, we need to address ‘T’ – Turnover, staff turnover and how to reduce it. Reducing it saves serious money as well as creating other benefits, not least the protection of knowledge and skills, continuity with customers, and the efficiency that can derive from expertise honed with experience.

Thus, HR needs to develop a deeper understanding of why people go to work and why they stay. And they need to move away from scarcity models that simply predicate that people work only for money, or only because they need a job. People, given a chance, are much more complex than that.

Second, ‘A’ – Absenteeism: if you really don’t like your job or your employers then the next best thing is to be absent – sometimes in the UK this is called a ‘sickie’. It is apparent that most absence is really stress-related. How is it apparent? From any consideration of the differences in absentee rates. For example a few years back in the UK the average absence rate for public sector workers was 17 days off a year; but in the private sector the figure was 7 days a year! Given the size of these samples it is almost inconceivable that public sector workers are actually two and a half times more sickly than private sector staff. No, other factors are at work, including culture, expectations, management and leadership – or lack thereof – but things that can and should be adressed by a strategic HR function, and not only in the public sector, but private too. What we want are improvements whatever the benchmarks currently are.

Finally, ‘P’ – Productivity. If Turnover and Absenteeism rates go up, then sure as eggs are eggs productivity goes down. How far down? Depends on the size of the organisation, but up to sixteen times down! In other words some workers become some sixteen times less productive than their colleagues, but once the rot starts then productivity in real terms declines too.

These three priorities are clearly linked and equally the starting point is not trying futilely to get staff to be more productive in the cack-handed way in which setting more targets supposes. Why are they leaving? Why don’t they want to come to work? As we start thinking about these problems we realise that if we could solve them, then we might well be on our way to increasing productivity with those who haven’t yet left and are not off on long term sick.

What is the starting point, then? The buzz now for solving this problem is ‘engagement’, which undoubtedly is an important word, but it is not the solution. The reason why it is not is because it is another shifting fad – morale, job satisfaction, happiness, engagement and now well being! There it goes – a continuum in which every three or four years the product to solve the problem morphs into another entity.

Underpinning all these entities, however, is one constant – one that remains true: motivation. If we understood what motivated people, really understood that, then we might make some progress. And that is why motivation – as touchy-feely as it sounds – is really a strategic issue for all organisations and for HR especially.


The Three Priority Decisions of Your Life

Many people never ask them themselves, What decisions are really important in my life? And when I say really important – I mean really, really important – mission critical in fact. They treat all decisions in the same way; or, worse, they prioritise the wrong type of decisions as being important when they are in truth trivial. What mobile phone supplier should I use? Agonising over that? Or where should I shop, and be seen to shop? And how about, what brand of trainers am I going to wear?

All decisions have consequences, so this blog is not minimising the importance of carefully considering any choice you have to make. But in the scheme of things the Pareto Principle applies: 80% of decisions are pretty low grade, and on 20% of our decisions big outcomes depend.

Drilling down further, what then are the three biggest decisions we are ever going to make in our life that will impact every aspect of it, for our good or for our bad?

There are three that are crucial and they are not perhaps entirely obvious. In order of significance, the first and primary decision that you have to make as a human being is to decide that your will is free. Sounds abstract? The great American psychologist William James put it this way: “My first act of free will is to believe in free will”!

The importance of this psychologically is that it means that you become responsible for your own destiny; you are not a victim – of genetics, of chemistry or physics, of environment, of evolution, of … all the excuses that people make to justify their own failures or behaviours in life. The free will asserts: I choose … This is profoundly liberating.

The opposites of freewill are fatalism and determinism. We see the effects of fatalism in those quasi-religions which lead people to hopelessness and helplessness conveyed in the misused expression, ‘It’s God’s will.’ And we see the pernicious effects of determinism all around us, in the pseudo-science of ‘explanations’, whereby science pretends it is explaining consciousness through chemical processes – and the of course people can’t help what they do since it is physically engineered into them.

As a sidebar, one of the most brilliant religious observations of all time was St Augustine’s on Christ’s nature. He said that we must not say that Christ was unable to sin (to explain his sinless nature), for that we would mean we could no longer impute any credit to him. If he was unable to sin, then big deal that he didn’t sin! Rather, we need to insist that Christ was able not to sin – can you see the difference? Able not to do, rather than unable to do. And this is true for us – we can choose or not choose – we are free. But as soon as we say I had to take the drug (my father was an addict, you see), then you start limiting human potential. In fact the constant repetition of the ‘unable’ mantra becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy – we chain ourselves in determinism.

The next most important decision to make is the decision to love our Self. This is not easy. So many people experience guilt, regret, anger, fear about themselves and in any case see loving your Self as a form of selfishness – which they were trained to believe is profoundly wrong. The truth, however, is that unless we do love our Self, then we can never love another.

We can only give love if we have love to give. Thus it is that we need to ask ourselves: how am I loving my Self on an on-going basis? What have I done today to that effect? What am I doing next week or next month? This self-love must not be deferred indefinitely, but must be practised constantly if we are to have high self-esteem, high levels of self-confidence, and the ability to touch, reach out and love others.

Finally, as we mention the word love, the third most important decision of your life is: your choice of partner. On this so many lives founder: marry in haste, they say, repent at leisure! In order to find the right life partner (and I accept of course that there is and always will be a small number, proportionally, of the population for whom a partnership is not desirable or necessary, and so this isn’t relevant to them) one of the central issues is knowing oneself well enough to choose the kind of person who is really complementary. I like the idea here of Chinese Yin and Yang – the balance of forces that create both progress and stability.

Whilst a partner may well stimulate us to greater efforts and achievements, I think it is the stability that the partner provides that is essential for long term success. If you have found that partner, all well and good; if you have not, what criteria are using to pursue love’s dream?

James Sale’s next personal development course is on the 8th June: contact him for details.