Put people first

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With research showing the pandemic has negatively affected people’s mental wellbeing, supporting the emotional health of your staff has never been more important.

A forgotten disciple of Voltaire once said that reason and emotion are not antagonists.

Luc de Clapiers, a French marquis, who published anonymously and died young, said: “Reason and emotion counsel and supplement each other. Whoever heeds only the one, and puts aside the other, recklessly deprives himself of a portion of the aid granted us for the regulation of our conduct.”

I think the same can be said for business, especially in times of internal crisis or societal disturbance.

Samantha Peters: "we are increasingly coming to recognise organisations as emotional arenas."

The infancy of management science was characterised by a focus on reason rather than emotion. Frederick Winslow Taylor, well-known among early exponents, applied principles of logic, rationality and standardisation to 19th century organisational design.

He boldly claimed: “In the past the man has been first; in the future the system must be first.” While Taylor is no longer fashionable, the perception of organisations as reasoned entities, which benefit most from rational behaviours, lingers. But if the current situation has taught me anything, it’s that a reliance on rationality is neither viable nor healthy.

Today we are increasingly coming to recognise organisations as emotional arenas. Championing this school of thought, Professor Stephen Fineman claims emotions are a strategic organisational resource. Which means that right now leaders should be asking questions about the state of their organisation’s internal emotional capacity.

People feel hostile, upset and afraid. They believe that society has let them down. Photograph: iStock

Such questions are hard to answer, but emerging research may help. The World Values Survey is a global research initiative tracking people’s beliefs in almost 100 countries. In February 2021, they released a report measuring the pandemic’s impact on values and emotions in 24 countries. It shows two critical global trends.

Firstly, negative emotions are rising. People feel hostile, upset and afraid. They believe that society has let them down. Secondly, positive emotions are declining. People feel life has gotten worse, eroding their mental wellbeing and capacity for joy. What this means is that positive feelings inside companies may be weakening while negative ones are strengthening. Effectually, the strategic emotional resource we so desperately need is likely to be in short and corroded supply.

My own research into kindness, compassion and altruism in the workplace suggests how problematic this can be. Employees distracted by negative emotional states will have reduced capacity to appreciate others’ emotional distress. From such contexts, poor employee wellbeing and damaging customer mistreatment can quickly emerge intertwined. I am not sure we are ready for this. I am looking for solutions.

While Taylor spoke of putting systems before people, I am more persuaded by another early management thinker. The much-neglected Mary Parker Follett, a committed Quaker, was arguing for people-centred management more than 100 years ago.

Ahead of her time, she said that we don’t have economic or psychological problems, but human problems that have economic and psychological aspects. The pandemic has left us with a very human problem – fear and anxiety in the face of potentially prolonged economic uncertainty and protracted psychological insecurity. In the light of that, Taylor is clearly wrong. This is a time to put people first.

At the British Safety Council, we believe it’s not enough that people are not injured or made unwell at work. We want it to be a place where wellbeing flourishes. We begin every meeting with people in mind. The first item on our meeting agendas is employee health and wellbeing. Never has this focus on people been more useful. But never have we needed it more.

Samantha Peters is Chair of the British Safety Council's Being Well Together Committee


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