A myth in science is that great insights occur as a result of linear application of effort and experiment. Most of the great insights have occurred serendipitously in the bath, Archimedes, or after a long walk with a friend, Einstein. It seems that the preconditions are having an open mind and having thought about a problem for a long time.
Brian and I make no claims to be original. We happen to be wide eyed observers. We went looking for answers and for insight. We spent the next year meeting with people much more thoughtful than us and reading about those that were making a real difference. Taken together we saw a pattern.
Changing to the new state that fits the turbulent world that we now live versus the relatively stable world of the 20th and 19th century requires a two step process. We have found that you have to change the workplace culture first and then you have to change the way that you organize. Culture first. What culture you may ask. Please read on and we will explore this map in detail.
Our first call was to David Brown and his partner Dr. Andrew Clarke to catch up with what was happening with their practice and at CIBC. I had heard that they had made progress but I knew none of the details. What we learned got us excited. After 3 or 4 years of frustration and failure in applying the conventional wisdom - much of it by trying to intervene medically earlier and with more power, David and Andrew broke through their own acculturation as physicians. Their insight was that workplace illness is not an illness in itself. It is a symptom. Workplace illness is a symptom of a stress in the relationship between the manager and the managed. While the illness manifest itself in medical terms or in disability, it cannot be "cured" unless the underlying cause - stress in the relationship is dealt with.
David and Andrew took this insight and built a measurement tool an intervention tool based on the managerial relationship and persuaded John Hunkin, the then new Chairman, to give it a try. John was embarking on a massive restructuring and had to take $500 million of costs out of the bank and to shift the culture in the retail operation with 35,000 employees, mainly middle-aged women, to sales. He wanted to find something that would work in providing some stability in a very turbulent time. In simple terms they used a simple tool to track the frequency and duration of absence and illness. In this new context of managerial relationship, regular absence is the first smoke that tells you that fire is brewing. Very few employees are inherently slackers. When an employee is regularly ill, these are the flames. The "cure" was to bring in an outside and neutral Facilitator who worked with the manager and the employee face to face until the real issues were on the table and were resolved. The cure was to broker a real conversation where both sides could be heard. In this short paper there is not space to provide you with a full description of what tis process really involves. The main point is that the cure is in the conversation. A conversation that cannot take place with out a neutral facilitator.
John Hunkin's priority was not science but results. He got them. $8,000,000 was saved in the first 9 months and the disability rate was cut by 40%. In two years, in the midst of the restructuring, CIBC was rated on of th top 35 companies to work for in Canada and the savings rate had continued to build.
So an important insight was gained by reconnecting to David and Andrew.We piled back into the research that supported the idea that the core issue in workplace illness and stress was relational. Michael Marmot's Whitehall Studies are critically helpful in this regard. His study of the British Civil Service shows that workplace illness is found on a gradient in the hierarchy. Those at the bottom with no voice or control had 4 times the amount of illness and even accidents than those at the top. His insight, there will always be hierarchies. The issue is the culture in them. Is it closed or open? Linda Duxbury is close to seeing this as well. She has deduced that the issue that drives most illness, absence and acting out is behaviour of the manager. She is also clear that all the conventional cures such as flex etc do not work in the unreformed organization. A valuable find was the Institute for Work and Health. Their work in the automotive industry shows conclusively that most of the back injuries in factories were related to the amount of control and voice that employees had and were only loosely connected to ergonomics. There is a mass of similar research supporting the issue that stress at work is a product of the managerial culture. An additional aha for us was more research in an entirely different field. Dr Doug Wilms at UNB, and a fellow of the CIAR, has been working on why so many of our children are vulnerable. The conventional wisdom is that poverty is the main driver for poor attainment. Wilms contradicts this. He has found that it is parenting culture not income that is the main driver. The most damaging parental culture? Very authoritarian culture. The same pattern.
So if culture, managerial culture was the key to workplace stress and illness, why did the facilitator seem to work so well to fix it and was this the holy grail or did we need to learn more?
Because we wanted to try this out in the Canadian Forces, we thought we should find a military testbed. So we turned to the work of General Gordon Sullivan (Retired Chief of the Army) and Colonel Mike Harper. To our surprise we found an entirely different route to the same destination. David and Andrew's insight at CIBC is well understood in the US Army and a different process, but with the same DNA, has been in play for over a decade. But we found a new issue. That you can be successful in changing a culture but if you don't also change the main operational doctrine, you are still stuck.