Like any other new piece of vocabulary attempting to find its way into corporate language, the term 'spiritual intelligence' (SQ) is coming in for its faire share of scepticism. For some, it's merely a neat new way of packaging and selling some pretty basic principles. But for others, it points to a living, breathing way of being which generates very tangible business benefits in a fundamentally different way. My message to all of you business leaders, HR directors and personnel professionals out there who are working hard to bring a spark of SQ into your organisations is: keep at it, you will reap the rewards.
I work for an organisation which, from my very first day, struck me as different from anything I had experienced before. I was greeted with warmth, supportiveness and a wonderfully positive atmosphere combined with a fast-paced sense of purpose from colleagues. There was also a distinct absence of controls, rules, management and conformity, which, as a newcomer, sent me reeling. I didn't acclimatise to it overnight and I struggled initially to comprehend why this incredibly supportive, energising and positive-spirited organisation was such a challenging place to be. As you may guess it took me a while to realise what the deal was. Now, thanks to the principles which have found expression through Danah Zohar and others (People Management, 13 April 2000), I have come to understand that what I was experiencing was SQ in action. Through my experiences here I have come to know that SQ is not, as perhaps regarded by some, a nebulous ideal based on transcending the everyday realities and messiness of business life. On the contrary, it is about dealing with that messiness from a very honest, courageous and grounded perspective.
When I joined the company, Humberside Training and Enterprise Council, I already knew that it had an excellent reputation in its field and was known as a high-performing TEC. However, many of the characteristics of a high performing company that I assumed I would see here, did not seem to apply. Over time it became apparent to me that something quite profound was going on. Or rather, not going on.
The surprises included:
Above all it is a place where you are treated as a whole person, a human being who wants to be the best they can be. The warmth and encouragement are overwhelming, the stretch and challenge extraordinarily high. To my knowledge the term SQ had not even been conceived-of when I started here five years ago. It was certainly not part of my language. But I am clear that the place has a spirit about it. To work here it helps if you can be as inquisitive, exploratory and as keen to learn as a child. And at the same time you truly experience what being a self-responsible adult is all about. That, for me, is SQ in action.
Lest I paint too cosy a picture, it's worth mentioning that as a publicly-funded organisation we are continually under pressure to maintain absolute rigour and transparency in all our dealings, balance the books to the satisfaction of Government auditors and provide high quality services to business which are cost-effective and competitive. Our operating environment is open to hard-edged public scrutiny and as such we are required to work to national standards and regulations, manage contracts worth £32 million a year and meet the expectations of our suppliers and customers. It is against this backdrop that we have evolved, thanks in great measure to the vision of our Chief Executive. He sees it as his role to clear pathways within the business, actively removing the artificial 'comfort factors' that can exist in any business and which do not serve our purpose.
Herein lies yet another of the many paradoxes that surround SQ - namely that it's often not what you put in but what you take out that counts. Strip out the commonplace control mechanisms - such as written plans, policies and management hierarchy - and you are forced to look inward for guidance. Your intuition, judgement and humanity become your compass instead. This may mean standing by your principles and making some difficult decisions, but there is something about this approach which gives you an inner strength.
The things I am describing certainly weren't part of some clever plan. They were the consequence of an intuition, however, that if you give up trying to control things, allow them to flow naturally, and just stay with the questions, then answers or better alternatives emerge. If you free an individual from rules and instead offer them your trust, they can find their brilliance. To work for an organisation which offers this degree of trust both in individuals and in natural emergence is challenging precisely because of the extent of accountability it leaves you with. When things get tough there is no rule book or manager to blame, no 'subordinate' to point the finger at (they'd give you direct feedback and point it right back!).
Over time I learned to let go. Give bags of support to the team and leave them free to organise themselves. Help them articulate the outcomes that were needed then encourage them to set their own objectives. I got better at challenging my own assumptions, asking why and expressing freely my lack of knowledge or answers. In this environment I became more self-aware, able to ask for feedback from colleagues and give feedback to others, honestly and constructively. I have acquired some skills which will be with me for life, learned not to fear decision-making and have grown in maturity. I have also been able to stretch my repertoire way beyond the communications role I began on day one. I now deliver paperless 360-degree appraisals, for example, and am an internal facilitator for a range of team and individual development work. This growth and capacity-building is replicated again and again throughout the business.
We are regarded, against most yardsticks, as a highly successful organisation. We have won numerous local and national Awards including twice being the Investors in People UK outstanding champion for the Investors Standard. In a national benchmarking exercise to compare our performance with that of our counterparts across the country, we were found to be amongst the leanest and fittest. We benefit from a high level of staff loyalty, low turnover and a can-do spirit which comes to life when things get tough. This is very much in evidence at the moment, as we go through a period of significant transition and upheaval. As part of the Government's reform of the Learning and Skills agenda, along with all TECs in the country we will cease operation in April 2001. And yet morale, motivation and retention remain remarkably high.
So here's the deal.
To any of you who
are keen to work with the principles of SQ but feel it is somewhat 'remote',
my advice would be to start with small steps. Little things matter a lot
to people. For example, every month our Chief Executive requests that
each of our 160 employees send him a note describing all the learning
they've done, all the ways in which they've developed or grown. He then
follows these up personally. Just one piece of paper can send out a very
powerful message and act as a very practical means of connection-making.
Remember that trust is infectious. Demonstrate that you trust others and
ask that others have faith in you. Look out for any policies, procedures
or other control mechanisms which do not seem to match your organisation's
principles. Be curious, ask why and get others thinking too. Unravel and
simplify. Take out anything you feel is getting in the way of the humanity
of your business. At first glance this may appear to be a risky approach,
but rather than creating complete chaos, it actually helps people be more
thoughtful, balanced in their judgements and inclined to ask for help
from others, which has a natural levelling effect. The result is self-regulating,
self-organising behaviour in which SQ can nurture and be nurtured.
in attitude, not rigid
in Action 2
Like any other new piece of vocabulary attempting to find its way into corporate language, the term 'spiritual intelligence' (SQ) is coming in for its fair share of scepticism. But at Humberside Training and Enterprise Council (TEC) we have woven the principles of SQ into our business - including our entire HRD strategy - in very practical ways. We don't see this approach as some nebulous ideal of transcending the everyday messiness of business life. It's about confronting the messiness head-on and challenging yourself to think the impossible. The journey hasn't been without its risks and painful lessons but our willingness to take a leap of faith has repaid the investment many times over. By most traditional measures we are a high-performing business, tightly resourced and cost-effective. But what does SQ have to do with running an organisation?
It is not a people development framework, a management style or a set of competence standards. It is, however, a different way of looking at the world that has provoked us to think holistically about how we help our people learn, what 'management' means to us and what our 'gut-feel' standards are. SQ is about making sense of a complex, paradoxical world and designing a business with a sufficiently high degree of self-awareness and self-responsibility to deal with that.
From the outset, our Chief Executive has been determined to create a working environment that simply reflects how people like to be treated as human beings. So we have systematically removed the traditional barriers that get in the way of people behaving naturally and giving their best. All our policies are based on trust rather than 'policing', and on treating one another as adults. This is no soft option, because there's no rule book to hide behind. And it leads to a lot of diversity - after all, one person's concept of 'right' can be another's worst-case scenario. But we have learned, over time, to let go of the idea of needing to protect people from such every day dilemmas. Instead, we've taken what some would call a spiritually intelligent strategy, based on encouraging people to put their energies into asking useful questions rather than seeking one so-called 'right answer'.
This stripping-out of barriers can be seen in every aspect of operations, starting with recruitment and selection. The process places less value on academic intellect than on human qualities, attitudes and behaviours - the holistic view, in SQ terms. Except for highly specialist posts, interviews focus on the ability of the candidate to question their own assumptions, their attitude to taking risks and making mistakes, and their interpersonal and listening skills. Formal qualifications are rarely taken into account, because it's our belief that they can sometimes mesmerise the interviewer at the cost of tuning into the whole person.
Emphasis during induction is placed on encouraging people to ask for what they need, and helping them get to grips with the nature of self-responsibility - another key feature of SQ. "There's a really supportive atmosphere here which came across even at my interview," reports Sam Leeman, marketing assistant. "But it takes a bit of adjusting to at first because usually in an administrative job like mine you are required to follow a set procedure. Here, you're suddenly given all this freedom to make your own judgements."
From day one, responsibility for professional and personal development is firmly placed with the individual. A small team within HR is devoted to providing support, including a wide range of practical resources to help people identify and access what they need. Learning facilitator Julie Shillito says: "Training courses certainly have their place but we try to cultivate a climate where ongoing learning is a way of life rather than a one-off event. We have a room dedicated to learning, which is full of resources for anyone to use at any time, we offer lunch-time drop-in sessions on topics such as multiple intelligences, and we offer all staff development opportunities designed to build generic know-how such as thinking skills, creativity and complexity." We do not have a scientific method of measuring exactly how this kind of activity impacts on the performance of the business, but our experience tells us that it works. Each individual is accountable for evaluating, by giving real examples, the difference that a development activity has made to them, while the HR team builds up a business-wide picture of these examples over time.
A significant amount of learning activity is instigated independently by people across the business. "Teams and individuals are also empowered to invest directly in the development they require, as and when they see fit," explains Julie. "We do not believe in controlling the learning process centrally because we recognise that different people learn in different ways. We trust each other to seek the learning that's needed to get the job done." Significantly, SQ thinking forces you to confront the issue of power in an organisational development context. We have taken the view that if we want whole people working here then we have to give up trying to dictate what people should know and instead help them evolve.
The HR policy on performance appraisal also reflects this philosophy of trust. Three years ago we completely replaced our traditional paper-based annual appraisal system with a self-managed process based on face-to-face 360-degree feedback. This is supported by a team of trained volunteer facilitators who, in addition to other full-time operational roles, help people to manage their own appraisal process. The emphasis is on supporting people to become self-aware, to look at themselves honestly and learn about how they contribute to the business. Jynette Carter, the TEC's receptionist says: "It can be scary at first, inviting people to tell you directly what they think of your performance, but over time you get better at it and a facilitator is always available to give you support and guidance. I'd never experienced anything like it before but it's so much more useful than a discussion with just one other person or reading a report. I learned a lot from my last appraisal and also felt highly valued and motivated as a result."
One might be forgiven for wondering how people find the time to undertake all this development. What we've learned from designing the business to support people in developing themselves is that this attitude creates a real spirit of cooperation and flexibility. For example our working hours policy is based on trusting individuals to be responsible for managing their own time. All staff and go freely at times to suit both the needs of the business and their own personal commitments, with no system required for logging hours worked. If anyone needs to arrive at lunchtime to attend their child's school play, or put in extra hours to free up some time later in the week, this is handled with no fuss or form-filling.
Psychologically this is a very simple two-way street. On the one hand you are held accountable by your peers for acting in the best interests of the business; on the other hand you are respected as an adult human being with responsibilities beyond the work place. The good will this generates is immeasurable. So we can accommodate the time people spend on their development as an integral feature of their role, rather than a bolt-on, knowing that they will gladly go the extra mile when the business needs it. Loyalty is mirrored in low staff turnover - steady over past few years at around 5%.
While this flexible way of working has certainly brought results for us, it also requires a fundamentally different approach to carrying out the job, which can be challenging. Role descriptions at Humberside TEC are a thing of the past, as are rigid job titles (business cards simply carry a person's name and contact details). This is not as 'fuzzy' as it at first seems. People are recruited to deliver a range of outcomes - they are very clear about their purpose within the organisation, and equally clear about what the TEC needs to achieve overall. But how they deliver the outcomes is a judgement they have to make. I personally found this hard to adjust to at first, being accustomed to a line manager giving me direction. There are no managers in the traditional supervisory sense of the word here, and people are expected to set their own operational objectives.
Without the comfort of a line manager telling us what to do, we often have to use our conscience as an internal compass and be crystal clear about the meaning and value of what we're doing - another challenging aspect of SQ. "Working here makes you think really hard - we're continually questioning what we are doing, what the overall purpose is," says Shaughan Farrow, Business Advisor. "If you think that something is losing its value or not achieving the right outcomes, it's up to you to act on it and instigate a change for the better." Paradoxically, we find that rather than creating complete chaos, this self-managed approach actually helps us to be more balanced in our judgements and inclined to work collaboratively and consultatively, which in turn has a natural levelling effect. "It's OK to say you don't have the answer, you need help or you've made a mess of something. What's important is that you get on with finding a solution, "continues Shaughan. This capacity to love your mistakes as learning opportunities is one of the key SQ characteristics.
Amidst all the diversity and 'free flow', what does run through our organisation like a stick of rock is a simple principle of 'doing the right thing' in each unique set of circumstances. In practice this means that staff set no store by written plans and policies as they can lull people into taking their eye off the ball. Instead, all employees regardless of the type or level of role are required to decide what needs doing, how it gets done, who needs to be involved and what the evaluation criteria should be. This means that we each have to be clear about levels of risk, accountability and impact on the business in the decisions we are making. By definition, this approach can only work if everyone takes the initiative to find out what they need to know, consult other relevant colleagues or external partners and act responsibly with the resources they have access to. As a natural consequence, we are a highly-networked business with a significant degree of internal connectivity that helps increase shared knowledge and information.
Over the years, we have experienced a huge pay-off to this approach. External benchmarking of TECs across the country has revealed that Humberside has consistently outperformed its counterparts on a number of criteria, with 15% fewer employees pro rata. The annual exercise, undertaken by the Ben Johnson Hill consultancy, compares key variables such as costs, volumes, inputs and staff numbers. Without ever having taken deliberate steps to cut costs, we are found to be more cost-effective than most other TECs.
But could this kind of strategy really translate to other sectors, such as manufacturing, for example, where processes and procedures are all-pervasive? Peter Fryer, Chief Executive of the TEC, certainly thinks so.
"We are a £32 million-a-year operation, meeting rigorous national standards and continually under audit scrutiny," he says. "The evidence shows value-for-money, targets being met and an exemplary record of H&S for all our trainees. If our people aren't continually learning and using all their potential, then we're in trouble. And to make that happen, we have to recognise and remove those common features of business life that we take for granted but which can really hold us back. It requires a leap of faith, but chances are your employees are sitting on a goldmine of business improvements that can be instigated simply and cost effectively if they are given the support and freedom to act."
In contrast to his distaste for form-filling and measurement, there is one piece of paper Peter Fryer does ask all our 160 employees to complete - a monthly Development Sheet. This could cover anything from 'courses attended' to intangibles such as realisations made, a painful mistake or a change of perception. It also asks how much individuals feel they have developed over the past 12 months, and how much they feel they are currently contributing to the company. The form takes just minutes to complete yet, according to Gary Hughes, Individual Learning Manager, has multiple benefits. "It's a useful barometer of staff morale and how they feel they are contributing to the business. It's also a measurement of your own commitment to personal development and a reminder to release any 'untapped potential'."
Now the TEC is facing perhaps its greatest challenge yet. As part of the Government's restructure of the Learning and Skills agenda, along with all TECs in the country we will cease operation in March 2001. Staff are being assigned to a number of new successor bodies and teams and functions are being split up in preparation. Operationally life is getting more complicated by the day, but commitment remains extraordinarily high and there is a real willingness to see the glass as half full, not half empty, despite all the upheaval. I believe that's when a spiritually intelligent attitude of 'going with the flow' and accepting responsibility for making your own reality can be most powerfully felt.