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Books from the past about our future – Things are going great

Every book contains a treasure.
This blog is about books, old books.

Things are going great, and they’re only getting better
These are dire times. Since 2008 Europe has been going through one crisis after another. The basis of this crisis lies in human behaviour and leadership. The problem is that we could have known where it would end. In the past decades many people have warned for the lack of sustainability of our economic and societal model. We haven’t learnt much, because maybe we did not listen. And we are still not listening because there is no need.  And the proof is there : the NY stock exchange is doing great (date: 5 march 2013, revised 15 september 2013) and so we are back to business as usual.
Looking back
But let’s look back and see what some people warned us about what could happen and which hints they gave us. So I picked to review three ancient books that are still inspiring.

Book Cover - Human Side of Enterprise

Human Side of Enterprise

The first one is The Human Side of Enterprise by Douglas McGregor (1960). McGregor hoped that social sciences could help to create a ‘good society’. He predicted the coming of evidence-based management and saw a direct positive impact of research. In that he was a little naive, comparing social sciences to exact sciences, but still. He hoped that companies would move from a “carrot-and-stick” approach (Theory X) towards a higher form of management (Theory Y) that relies on self-control and self-direction. McGregor described 50 years ago elements of what we call today the new way of work and modern leadership. We can ask ourselves what we’ve done with that positive view on management? And why did it take us so long to pick up certain things that he wrote.
Book Future Shock

Future Shock

A second book is Alvin Toffler’s Future Shock, written in 1970. Toffler said that the increasing speed of change would cause enormous distress, what he called future shock. In this massive book he describes in detail the changes that occur, many of which have come true. Two special elements merit some attention: decision stress and information overload. In a changing environment people will have to make more decisions, which causes stress. Toffler launched the word information overload to illustrate that people need to process more information than they can handle. In 1970 the world was turning at a slower pace and the digitilisation had just begun.
Book Cover Small is Beautiful

Small is beautiful

A third book is “Small is beautiful: Economics as if People mattered” (1973). This book by Schumacher in which he criticizes Western economics. The context of this book is the Oil crisis. Schumacher argues that our economic model is not sustainable. He talks about enoughness and stresses the need to balance human desires and technology. He attacks the notion of growth, and pleads for a focus on well-being with less consumption.
Many of the ideas from these three books could have been written today. You can find those ideas in Tim Jackson’s “Prosperity without Growth” (2009),  Sennet’s “Culture of a new Capitalism” (2006), or even Gratton’s “The Shift” (2011).
More than just a curiosity
Reviewing old books is more than just a curiosity. We should be aware of what historical figures have written and suggested and see them as inspiration from the past for a better future. They make us also humble in the sense that most problems have already found a solution. But something stopped us from listening to these (and other) thought leaders. Instead our society went bezerk, focussing on greed and consumption.
There is hopefully a time of a sustainable way of working coming: doing business as if people mattered. I strongly believe that the HR profession can and will play an important role in this evolution. And if not, someone might read this blog and say how wrong or how right I was and regret that nothing has happened since 2013.
Adapted from a first publication :


This blog is about kindness. Not kindness in general, but kindness in organizations. You might ask yourself if we really need to talk about that. You might qualify the topic as being too soft, sentimental and not business appropriate. You might think it’s a moralizing and patronizing topic, pedantic even.


Zadkine – The Poet (Knokke)

The base-line of this blog is not at all sentimental. We need to integrate human characteristics like kindness into organizational culture. We need to make companies into habitats in which people are able and willing to engage and perform. Companies should be aware that psychological and social capital is the main leverage of corporate success and sustainability. Not taking into consideration the human traits and psychological processes that define engagement, innovation, adherence, … is a strategic weakness. And kindness is an essential part of human behavior.
We all know successful companies that are treating their people like cattle. Recent reports about companies like GLS, Amazon, Zalando, Zara, Foxconn, …  show that the topic is relevant. Those companies might even excel for some time thanks to a dehumanizing approach. But we know from research that companies that do good, perform better in the long run. Even though this research is not all that conclusive, humanizing corporate practices contributes to overall company performance. By the way, a CEO is usually interested in humanizing the company because he or she is a decent person.
Kindness is also not about obeying the law. It’s about being human.
Adam Phillips and Barbara Taylor explain how human kindness has been exiled and reserved for the caring behavior of mothers. There is also growing literature on the emergent organizational capability of compassion.
 As organizations are human constructions  they should embrace human behaviour. Like acts of kindness.
There is only one reason that I can see why kindness has been ousted from corporate life. These behaviors may stand in the way of swift economic progress and efficiency. Companies are often built on competitive behaviors and these are often contradictory to helping behavior.
Helping another might lead to a relative weakness. Not helping another might lead to a relative strength. And this behavior starts in school. Companies have designed systems of performance management and variable pay, that stimulate competitive behaviors. Those systems discourage behaviors of kindness. So we might need to look again at those processes and systems.
 Every company needs to look at how it can integrate behaviors of kindness into its own culture. By doing so, a great company environment can be created. Kindness in itself is not contradictory to achievement. Both can go hand in hand.
Some info
Lilius, J. M., Worline, M. C, Maitlis, S., Kanov, J. M., Dutton, J. E., & Frost, P. 2008. The contours and consequences of compassion at work.
 Journal of Organizational Behavior, 29: 193-218
Morten T. Hansen, Herminia Ibarra, and Urs Peyer (2013).
Can Companies Both Do Well and Do Good?
Harvard Business review Blog Network.
Phillips, A. & Taylor, B. (2009). On Kindness. London, Penguin Books
Originally Posted on 13/03/2013 in Human Interest Magazine

MOOCs: a revolution in learning or just another try?

MOOC stands for Massive Online Open Course. It’s a way of providing learning content to the “masses” through the internet. The access one has to recent high level content seems to be without boundaries. MOOCs have the potential of slashing social and geographical barriers. People can learn whatever they want on whatever topic. They can learn whenever they want. And they can adapt the pace of learning. It only takes access to the internet. This might be an issue in some parts of the world.
In order to have some idea of what I am writing about, check this list.
It’s not the first time that initiatives like this have been undertaken. Not many of these were a big success. Maybe the easy access of MOOCS combined with participative learning through social media will  change the odds. Another disadvantage is that the courses do not provide academic credit. This is related to the aberrant insistance on diplomas instead of experience and learning. MOOCs can open up the world to many people, but it will not open up the job market in many countries. For that, you still need to register and pay.

Paradise after the Storm

The current state of the world is often compared with turbulence in the atmosphere, a storm. The Flemish political philosopher has written an essay, or should I say a pamphlet, with the title “A paradise blows from the storm” (Een paradijs waait uit de storm). The title refers to a phrase by the German social critic Walter Benjamin, describing Angelus Novus, a painting by Paul Klee:
The face of the angel of history is turned toward the past. Where we perceived a chain of events, he sees a single catastrophe which keeps piling wreckage and hurls it in front of his feet. The angel would like to stay, awaken the dead, and make whole what has been smashed. But a storm is blowing from Paradise; it has got caught in his wings with such violence that the angel can no longer close them. This storm irresistably propels him into the future to which his back is turned, while the pile of debris before him grows skyward. The storm is what we call progress.
File:Klee, Angelus novus.png
Paul Klee, Angelus Novus, 1920
Oil transfer and watercolor on paper
Decreus argues that only resistance is truly democratic. The current organisation of democracy is to him an elective aristocracy because access to mandates is reserved to an elite and elections usually lead to re-elections of the same elites. But the question is against what one should resist. Decreus argues that the predominance of the market ideology is in itself totalitarian. Moreover it is based on selfishness and assumes that this individual selfishness will be benificary to the group as it allows individuals to experience pleasure and entrepreneurs to make a profit. Competitiveness leads to optimal solutions and creativity. But the market is not perfect and not egalitarian. And in this state, the market creates elites.
Decreus’ criticism on the free markets is not new. And he is right that the free market needs corrections. He is also right when he states that the inequality that has been created is harming the general interest. But these arguments are hardly new. Decreus returns to the foundations of democracy and quotes from the writings of Plato and Aristoteles and describes the Polis or political system as a way to go beyond selfishness and allow people to achieve a higher level of being. For that, inequality cannot be too big. This adagium has been repeated by many in the past 2000 years. John Rawls (1990) defines justice as fairness, which is an even access to resources and corrective measures if this access is not general. Joseph Stiglitz (2012) makes a brilliant analysis of the price of inequality and he comes with a plan.
Decreus does not come with a plan. He says that a philosopher should not solve problems, but reframe them or create new ones. This is quite apalling as a statement from someone who criticizes the current situation and belittles recent initiatives to strive for a more participative or deliberative democracy.
So after reading this essay, the question remains. How to realize progress? How to learn from the current storm(s) ? Resistance against what exactly? In Europe there is a corrected market ideology. There are redistributive systems. In many countries there is a minimum wage (I am still puzzled by the fact that Germany has no minimum wage). Unions exist and collective bargaining is part of the organization of the labour market. Employers increasingly focus on the human side of enterprise and strive to create societal value.
The current storm to me is not a storm of a crumbling ideology, a failure of the free market. It’s a leadership crisis. It’s based on greed. And Decreus argues that the ideology of the free market gets out the worst in people. This is not necessarily true. If there are bad human characteristics, they will be present in all ideologies and human systems. Horrible things have happened in the name of any ideology or religion: crusades in the name of Catholicism, genocide in the name of racial suppremacy (fascism), organised famins in the planned economy of the Soviet Union (Communism), … Any human organisation is not free of “sin” and in all systems elites have abused their power but in all systems elites have been around.
This is just an observation. Maybe an elite is a human characteristic, whatever the nature of the elite (religious, economic, political, …). But there is no reason for an elite to not accept something like the general interest. So the economy is a part of society and should not be treated seperately. So I agree with Decreus that state and economy are not to be divided. But I see no answer in Decreus’ pamphlet.
So far there hasn’t been any civilization that has reached a moral equilibrium that has eradicated immoral behaviour. Only cooperation and leadership could solve that. And I guess the trip towards interdependence and moral equilibrium will be eternal. So the paradise after the storm will remain utopian, but nevertheless desirable.
So even when I agree that crisis (storm) is the basis for progress (after the great flood of 1953 the Netherlands build dams to avoid this kind of disaster), I find Decreus’ analysis quite reductory. As if only resistance is the key to progress. The base of progress is leadership and cooperation. This leadership and cooperation can be anywhere, at any level. And acts of leadership or cooperation do not have to be against something, can be found in various cohabitating ideological systems or can be neutral. And I do see a new world of we arriving (cfr previous blog), in which everyone can play a part, even philosophers, through cooperation and leadership.
Decreus, Thomas (2013). Een Paradijs waait uit de Storm. Over markt, democratie en verzet. Berchem, Epo.
Rawls, John (1990). A theory of Justice.
Stiglitz, Joseph (2012). The Price of Inequality: How Today’s Divided Society Endangers Our Future. W.W. Norton & Company.
Source of the picture:,_Angelus_novus.png

HRM is a process, not a function

HRM is een proces
Het eerste wat we voor ogen moeten houden is dat HRM helemaal geen functie hoort te zijn, maar een proces. De specifieke functies die gealloceerd zijn in een traditionele HR-afdeling, hebben enkel als doel dat proces te faciliteren. Te vaak wil HR een bastion zijn, waar de macht gebaseerd is op compliance en systemen. Beter is te focussen op de toegevoegde waarde en het mensbeleid te integreren in de business. Dit geldt trouwens ook voor andere functies zoals marketing, finance, IT.
Soms noem ik dat de “verkaveling” van HRM: het delen van de verantwoordelijkheid voor het mensbeleid met de volledige business. Alleen zo kun je de doelstellingen van een mensbeleid realiseren.
Is een Afdeling nog nodig?
Als HRM een proces is, is de vraag of een HRM-afdeling nog nodig is niet ver weg. De kritiek op de HRBP-functie is duidelijk: een onduidelijke rol. De kritiek van Bersin is terecht. HRBPs worden vaak gebruikt als manusje-van-alles. Voor mij is een HRBP de expert op people matters binnen de business met als doel ervoor te zorgen dat de factor mens zodanig beheerd wordt dat de doelstellingen van de organisatie – en ook die van de mensen – beheerd worden.
Een HRBP integreert people reflexes in de organisatie. Als het goed loopt zal de HRBP eerder een coach zijn, dan een puur inhoudelijk expert. De technische expertise moet elders in (of buiten) de organisatie aanwezig zijn. Dat loopt niet steeds goed en dat heeft vaak ook te maken met een tekort aan competentie bij de leiding gevenden.
Soms zeg ik wel eens dat HRBPs er zijn als prothese, om de ontbrekende skills te compenseren. Is het dan voldoende om leiding gevenden de nodige skills te geven. Zal de HRBP dan overbodig worden? Misschien. In elk geval heb ik een groot respect voor de vele HRBPs die het mensbeleid bij hun interne klanten opbouwen en vaak geconfronteerd worden met een (te) grote diversiteit aan vragen.
Vandaag geloof ik zeer sterk in een tandem tussen CEO en CPO. De core van HRM wordt meer en meer leadership. HR heeft als doel het leiderschap binnen organisaties te verstevigen. Om een mensbeleid te voeren is men ook afhankelijk van de sterkte van de leiding gevenden. Leiderschap kan zeer breed gedefinieerd worden. Daar valt dan ook Talent onder. Hoeveel leiding gevenden houden zich actief met Talent Management bezig?
Ik definiëer leiderschap aan de hand van vijf eenvoudige maar pertinente principes.
1. Bouw vertrouwen
2. Creëer zinvolheid
3. Help mensen groeien
4. Zorg voor een context waar engagement mogelijk is
5. Zorg voor jezelf.
Ik noem dit duurzaam leiderschap, gebaseerd op karakter. Het HR-beleid moet zich richten op de realisatie van een leiderschapsmodel. Meer nog, het business model van HRM is leadership en organizational development.
Vergeet de administratie niet
We mogen niet vergeten dat aan de factor mens ook een (te) zware administratieve last hangt. Deze helaasheid is een realiteit en teveel tijd wordt opgeëist door deze administratieve last. Er bestaan landen waar de sociaal-juridische context veel eenvoudiger is dan in België. We moeten hiermee leven. Dankzij slimme tools, geoliede processen en het stimuleren van de zelfredzaamheid van managers en medewerkers kan deze administratieve last verminderd en gedeeld worden. Vergeet niet dat als de basis niet goed is, de rest bezwaarlijk ingang zal vinden.
Maatschappelijke waarde
Wat ik volledig mis in de beschouwingen van Bersin, is het streven naar een maatschappelijke rol van HRM. In het kader van duurzaam ondernemen is de factor “mens” één van de centrale aandachtspunten. Bedrijven zijn ook een actief bestanddeel van de arbeidsmarkt en kunnen door hun mensbeleid een actieve bijdrage leveren tot de werking van de arbeidsmarkt en de ontwikkeling van een duurzame inzetbaarheid van de eigen medewerkers. Met de maatschappelijke rol, naast de administratieve, de procesmatige, de strategische rol, bereikt HRM het summum van maturiteit.
Met heel wat aanbevelingen van Bersin kan ik leven. Zijn kritiek is evenwel de kritiek van iemand die aan de zijlijn staat. De ideale HR-structuur en -werking is iets wat we wel kunnen nastreven, maar nog even niet bereikt hebben. Er is dus nog werk(zekerheid) voor HRM.
Eventjes mijn aanbevelingen op een rijtje:
1. Zie HRM niet als een functie, maar als een organisatie-proces.
2. Focus niet op de afdeling, maar op de resultaten en toegevoegde waarde
3. Koppel het HRM-beleid aan het leiderschapsmodel
4. Zet de mens centraal en probeer niet andere management-functies te imiteren. Zie de factor mens als jouw expertise en zoek op basis daarvan een duidelijke toegevoegde waarde. Maak dingen mogelijk.
5. Beheer en reduceer de administratieve workload
6. Verwaarloos de ontwikkeling van de eigen HRM-medewerkers niet.
7. Laat de naam “Human Resources” – HRM vallen. Het is mensbeleid. Groei naar een maatschappelijk relevante rol.
Lesley Arens trok mijn aandacht op een artikel op P&O-actueel over wat allemaal moet veranderen bij HRM ( Het betreft een vertaling van een blog van Bersin ( Bedankt Lesley voor de uitnodiging om even over mijn beroep na te denken.

Happiness and love. Why employers should not touch them!



Happiness. looking at water is relaxing.

Everyone wants to be happy.
Everyone deserves to be happy. We all agree on that since the earliest philosophers have contemplated about the meaning of life. So there’s no rocket science in that. And for centuries people have looked for a certain kind happiness. But on the way – somewhere in the 18th century – we have derailed. We have made happiness into a quest and the more we seek it, the more we seem to lose it. Today we live in a POSH-society. People have to be Perfect, Original, Successful and Happy. There is an obligation to be happy. And we try to define happiness too often in a hedonic sense. We look for pleasure and have no longer boundaries. We want it all and we want it now. And we have not become happier because of that. On the contrary.
Employers have discovered happiness as well. Happiness is important because happy people perform better. Imagine that I would say to my wife that I want her to be happy because she would cook better (for me). A slap in my face is what I would deserve. I want my wife to be happy because I love her, not because I want her to perform better. Probably it’s the other way around. Cooking for my family makes me happy (I hope they like the food).
Employers should not touch happiness for many reasons. Happiness belongs to the personal experiences of life. People have the right to be unhappy. People do things that make them unhappy. People find happiness elsewhere (too). People derive happiness from a sense of meaning, less from single experiences. And work is not the single most important source of happiness.
Richard Layard (2011) describes the 7 factors affecting happiness: family relationships, financial situation, work, community and friends, health, personal freedom and personal values. The funny thing is that work is not the most important generator of happiness, it’s family. Even when we know that becoming unemployed will lower your level of happiness (the most important aspect of work, is to have it), the effect seems to be lower than when one is separated (rather than being married) and it has the same impact as a small deterioration of personal health.
Who is responsible?
But if health and family are the most important aspects of happiness, who is responsible for that? It’s the individual of course. So an employer cannot do much about happiness, but to provide possibilities for people to combine work and private life, personal health, … and at the end the choice is with the employee.
People are unhappy during parts of their life: losing a spouse, divorce, economic crisis, health issues, … and still they keep working. Not working would make them worse off, financially and socially. And luckily for the employers, some people seem to cope well with unhappiness. Not everyone ends up in a depression even when they might have feelings of depression during difficult phases of life.
It’s not only about critical life incidents. People are also unhappy because they compare with someone who has or earns more. This is the pitfall of social comparison. We work hard to earn a lot of money to be able to buy stuff to impress people we don’t even like. Having a big car in the driveway is for someone a sign of achievement. And to have that car, they do foolish things that make them utterly unhappy. Why does Peter’s principle exist? Because people ignore their limits and are driven by things outside of themselves. But is the employer responsible for the inner drives of all employees? Should we as employers intervene when we see an employee is leading a life that might lead to unhappiness? Or should employers exploit those drives in order to maximize output, which I am sure happens. The answer to the latter 3 questions is negative.
Happiness is a state that is the result of many variables. Employers cannot be normative about what happiness is for each and everyone. Employers might think that working hard and achieving is the single most important source of happiness. They might think that engagement is not enough, but that they need people who see their work as a life’s mission (workaholics are good to the company). They might feel contempt for people who give work a minor role in their life (work just enough to earn a living that will feed the kids and allow me to go fishing every weekend). Employers might try and save people from their dull existence and have them develop their full potential. They might want to rescue people who have lost their ambition or who in spite of their potential go for the quiet job.
Oh yes. Employers can contribute to one’s personal happiness by providing decent and meaningful work. By making sure that work does not make people sick. By providing choices (also so called bad ones). And a leader will make sure that the people in his or her team will be able to stay in balance. All of this is a lot and it’s enough. The focus should not be happiness, but sustainable employability which includes health, engagement and talent. Because this is what employers do: they employ people. If they are good at that, they might contribute to overall happiness in life. But again, the employer is not responsible for the happiness as such of the employees.
Happiness comes as it is. It’s a hidden quality of life. It’s a quality that disappears when you focus too much on it. If we want to be happy, we need to stop talking about it and take every day as it comes, with a high appreciation of what it brings: the sun on your face, the smile of a child, the gratitude of colleague, the sense of having done something worth while, … Let’s not engineer happiness.
And what about love?
After employers have conquered the field of motivation and inner drive, they went for engagement. Engagement is interesting because it brings benefits to the company and by being engaged people might even improve their mental health (isn’t happiness a state of mental health?). And after that they went for passion. And after that they went for happiness. And now they seem to go for love. And after that it’s spirituality.
Like the fact that anyone of us wants to be happy, all of us wants to be loved as well.
A husband wants his wife to be happy because he loves her. Does an employer want his employees to be happy because he loves them? Basically any (normal) person wants any other human being to be happy because he is human. We are empathic. An employer respects his employees, appreciates them, wants to help them, … but he does not necessarily want or need to love them.
Trying to conquer love is a logical step after having tried to conquer happiness, but it’s not a position an employer needs or wants to hold. Vice versa, people can say they love the company they work for (remember Steve Balmer but that’s not love. It’s identification. It’s sharing goals and values. It’s part of a psychological contract. There’s even a “prenuptial”. He was basically paid to jump on stage.
Love is unconditional. That is why people can love people that do bad things, are failures in life, … Will an employer love his employees when they do bad things, or when they make too many mistakes? Employers don’t want to, and they should not,  because the relationship is different, conditional, even instrumental.
And please do not accuse me of being cold. An employer that tells this to his employees cannot keep the promise of love. It’s already difficult to be kind, even though I am convinced that kindness is an essential part of leadership. Love isn’t. Not love but empathy will make a difference.
I plead not to go into the realm of personal happiness and of love as an employer but to focus on creating a context in which people can pursue whatever they want to pursue, with the condition that they contribute to the results of the company. Let’s not hide possible issues under the cloak of happiness and love. These two aspects of human life are way too important to be hijacked by employers who inevitably will link the concepts to economic profits.
Layard, R. (2011) Happiness. Lessons from a new science. London, Penguin Books.
Originally posted at

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