This article is the second part of my humble attempt to describe core elements of the HR value chain using examples provided by the modern oracle that is our television. If you’re not sure why on earth I would think something like this is a good idea or indeed you much prefer consuming your entertainment series in the correct numerical order you can find part 1 here.

I’m going to let you all in on my embarrassing secret. Even though I’m well known for being an international woman of mystery (my words), or an expat-brat (everyone else’s words), I hate flying. In fact, I’m clinically phobic about it. While the rest of my fellow passengers are quietly engrossed in their in-flight movie or snoring gently along to dreams of tropical beaches and cocktails at sunset, I’m the one white-faced and sweating, gripping the arm rest and bargaining with any available higher power to get me safely back on the ground in exchange for a life time of devotion to charity and selflessness. This inconvenient malaise has me gripped so tightly in its power; even talking about aviation can send me spiraling, catastrophically into an irretrievable nosedive of panic.

It was thus that I found myself with the familiar chills and palpitations during a conversation with an ex-colleague about organizational metaphors.  I’d been doing a piece of research on the metaphors people use to describe what their company feels like in order to use the same language and examples to diagnose issues and deliver training and development programs. Many people use the established metaphors of systems or machines, or organic metaphors which talk about the ‘DNA of the company’ or its lifecycle. But I was stopped dead in my tracks and struck with horror when my colleague – let’s call him Andrew, because that was his name – told me about an organization he’d worked with previously. This organization was large and unwieldy but worked at a reckless pace with ever expanding ambition and demands. Andrew had been hired as HR Director to lead transformational change in strategy and leadership. When I asked him what it was like he answered “It felt a bit like trying to change the engines on a plane while it was in-flight”. This triggered my immediate panic response, which interestingly is neither fight nor flight, but an overwhelming desire to lie on the floor and play dead.

However, once recovered, and having picked the carpet fluff out of my hair, I reflected on what Andrew had said. His words had given me a great sense of the pace, uncertainty and fear he was experiencing at that time and I began to wonder if I had stumbled (or indeed dropped to the floor) over the perfect metaphor.

Let me elaborate.

Aircraft are marvelous things, incomprehensibly complex, with multiple layers of safety systems and devices. They are designed to carry people to fabulous places, contributing in no small way to globalisation, cultural diversity and understanding, industry and, of course, learning. An organization that works that way could arguably be considered as a fantastic place to work. 

However, when something does go wrong, it can be catastrophic. A crash will affect the lives of thousands of people, be leapt upon by media and unscrupulous competitors – each with their own opinions of the cause and some with wild conspiracy theories – and draw the horrified fascination of the masses (Remember Enron?).

In the aftermath of disaster, it is usually determined that there is not one single cause which in isolation will create a catastrophe. It is almost certainly a series of interconnected events which lead to a crash giving multiple opportunities to halt the progression towards destruction. So can the techniques and lessons from aviation help us to detect and diagnose potential issues in our organisations and save us from tragedy?

I became more excited and convinced by this metaphor while – ill advisedly as it turns out – fueling my phobia, poring over episode upon episode of “Mayday! – Air-crash Investigation” documentaries. Investigators of any kind of incident will start by considering groups of possible factors when looking for the root cause.  The more episodes I watched, the more parallels I started to draw between aviation and corporate organisations and the factors which can influence the success of our journeys:

1. Structural failure

A tiny flaw in an airplane skin can go unnoticed for years. Except that one day, that crack could grow to a tear, which could result in a hole appearing at an extremely inconvenient moment. Once the integrity of the structure has been compromised, it’s a race against the clock to equalise the pressure so that people can breathe, relieve the stress on the over-all frame and get to a safe place where the critical breakage can be repaired or replaced. If the failure takes you by surprise, there may not be time to recover the situation.

Ponder this for a second. Is your organizational structure susceptible to sudden failure? Could it have a small crack which is slowly sucking the air out of your workplace? Or worse, is there an inherent flaw biding its time before blowing a gaping cavity in the company, potentially wrenching your people from their seats and out of the nearest exit?

The integrity of your structure is dependent on a combination of factors. Solid workforce planning including succession and attraction power will make sure that any holes are not of your own making. It will also help you anticipate any potential points of weakness and allow you plan some scheduled ‘maintenance’.

2. Maintenance

This brings me to my next point – maintenance. How often do you pull your structure out into the sunlight and give it a good check over? As well as gaps and cracks, there are other threats to its integrity which may only ever be detected through a diligent inspection regime.

The clue is in the word integrity. How do we know if every part of our structure is acting with the ethical standards that the organisation requires? The words and actions of an individual that present as ethical (or indeed non-ethical) behaviours are often an extension of personal value systems. Having a good look under the waterline of your organisation and checking that your stated values are the things that you really believe and stand for is a good start. It allows you to be authentic about your expectations of your people and the standards to which they work and represent the company. It also gives them a guiding hand in navigating the moral mazes we face daily in corporate life by providing a basis on which to make decisions about how they perform their duties.

As an extension of that, values and strengths-based recruitment and selection can help you find people who share in the core beliefs of the company. Working in an organization with whom an individual has shared values is a much more stress-free scenario than when the way the company operates feels contrary to what they believe in.

Therefore, of course, the less stress on the structure, the less chance of failure. But, of course, not everything is always 100% within an organisations sphere of control….

3. Weather

Ask me – or perhaps more accurately, ask my phobia – and I will tell you that people are not meant to fly. If we were meant to fly we would have our own wings. Things happen in the atmosphere that are actively trying to kill us. Electricity flings itself across the sky seeking to cause fiery destruction and hail the size of a small Fiat can suddenly smash against the high-speed aluminium test tube in which you are currently forcing down a highly unsatisfactory meal-on-a-tray.

The macro climate in which modern businesses find themselves can be just as hostile. But much in the same way that I confront the possibility of a terrifying and quite inconvenient death to enjoy my two weeks on the beach, if we want to do business we must to some extent brave the elements. With the same awesome power as any super-cell storm, a financial down-turn or crisis can immediately jeopardise any organisation.

So what’s the answer to protecting your organisation or at the very least being prepared for a sudden rough ride? Certainly, robust forecasting has a large part to play. Just as different types of radar are used to detect different weather phenomena, the more data we can gather, synthesize and interpret the better our chances will be of foreseeing potential changes or issues. HR in organisations is, almost without exception, the largest keeper of the most significant data but how often it is actually looked at and used to inform strategy is another matter.

The recording and utilizationof this data can be critical to knowing whether, and when, to change path, having the decision made in enough time to follow appropriate change processes and tactically formulate communications within and outside of the organisation. If your employees have come along on your journey having been promised a metaphorical fortnight in Hawaii, landing, instead, in the Siberian tundra is going to require some serious explaining to avoid a revolt.

4. Hi – Jacking

You will be realizing by now that I have spent a lot of time considering all of the, increasingly unlikely, opportunities potentially afforded me for an unpleasant demise at the hands of an airline. Thankfully, nowadays, an extremely rare cause of disaster, hi-jacking is still an occurrence which can strike fear into the hearts of even the most seasoned traveler.

Likewise, having someone at the controls of your organisation who has ill-intent should induce some measure of fear. For the sake of clarity, and to help avoid any potentially career ending moments, I am by no means advocating that you should wrestle your CEO to the ground and attach batteries to their sensitive parts while you question their intentions. What I am, gently and without the use of crocodile clips, recommending is the upkeep of organisational systems used to protect against the hi-jacking of strategy and goals because of politics or terrorism.

Undoubtedly, office politics are unavoidable to an extent. However, preventing them from taking over control of the leadership team or the entire direction of the organisation is a case of security. When an organisation is authentic about their values these become like the secret code into the cockpit. By measuring and observing behaviours at work, we have a gate-keeping system against those who would take over the controls to drive their own agenda. Quite simply it should be a case of ‘no code – no access’.

Similarly, but with different cause and higher probability, our security systems must also be designed to protect against those who are determined to bring our organisations down with maximum destruction. A recent Gallup poll tells us that 18% of the global workforce is actively disengaged. Now, while I intensely dislike the term ‘engagement’ (that is a rant for another day) what the results of this poll tell us is that these 18% of people are not merely indifferent to the organisation and not performing. They are occupied with the enthusiastic demolition of the organisation. Why would an employee do this? Why is anyone ever intent of the annihilation of someone else’s property or work?

Without getting into a discussion about oppressed masses and the other such triggers of uprisings, we can pinpoint one key area to pay close attention to – the psychological contract. An offer of employment is bound not only by the written contract but also all the other, unwritten things which sell someone on the idea of coming to work with you. Perhaps the way you described the culture during the interview or the promise of donuts in the break room every Friday. Frivolity aside, when these unwritten terms come to be expected, they form a powerful psychological contract that the employee has with the organisation. If these expectations turn out not to be true, it can be hugely disruptive to an employees desire to hold up their end of the contract – namely not devoting all their energy to bringing the company crashing down.

5. Flight Crew 

Finally, the most common factor in any disaster – the human factor overall. 56% of all plane crashes cite something to do with the flight crew as the ground cause. This is, of course, a big subject and covers everything from training and culture to incapacitation and communication. For that reason, I am not even going to attempt to address this here and at this time. I will, however, at great personal sacrifice to my mental health, re-open the wounds of my phobia at a later date to explore this subject in its own right.

I wouldn’t be able to do it the justice it deserves right now, and anyway, I must sign off. I have a plane to catch.