A friend in deed?

Many old sayings have tangled histories or ambiguous meanings that we often overlook. Is it “A friend in need is a friend in deed’, or should it end with ‘a friend indeed’? A subtle difference, you might say, or you might just snort and agree with Benny Hill that ‘a friend in need is a bloody nuisance’? One version of the phrase’s history suggests it came to us from the Latin ‘‘Amicu certus in re incerta cernitur‘, which translates rather less ambiguously as ‘a sure friend is known when in difficulty’ – it is not our ‘friend’ that is in need but us, and their friendship is revealed through their support.

It’s not the only phrase about friendship and relationships that has become a well-worn cliché. Another that springs to mind is “you can choose your friends but you can’t choose your family”. And family can be a very loaded word: after all, family relationships are ones that we cannot distance ourselves from lightly, or abandon or move on from without emotional upset to at least one party. And views about the nature, meaning and importance of family are often tightly held and hotly contested.

Families can be a source of claustrophobia as well as comfort, of lasting damage as well as sustained nourishment. I remember many years ago working on learning materials for a social work course that contained a case study where one participant’s story started with words to the effect of ‘Think of the family as a petrol can and every member of it as an unstruck match’. Like other nouns sometimes seen with the prefix ‘nuclear’, there’s a background concern that for all the warmth and power that is being generated, there’s a lurking potential for something nasty further down the line.

Which was perhaps why I paused flicking through the April edition of HR Magzine while reading a profile of Helen Cretten, HR director at Berkeley Partnership. Rightly proud of its receipt of a top ten placing in the Sunday Times Best Small Companies report, the company is proud of what it describes as “its ‘family feel’ approach to HR”. The company places both emphasis and faith in a range of business and social gatherings, including a weekly dinner and discussion group in a restaurant. (For a fuller picture of the range of these gatherings, their website hosts a page describing ‘Social activities’ with the heading ‘Big on fun’.

As Helen Cretten describes this to the magazine:

This is not compulsory […] We are not about enforcing fun, but these meetings are a great way for staff to reconnect. They can learn about what’s going on in the wider ‘Berkeley brain’. Although this helps them share ideas which they will take to clients, it was designed to engage staff with the business, rather than for a more strategic goal.”

This is, as the Sunday Times accolade goes to show, much to praise and to be proud of this approach. The Sunday Times’ own website mentions in its commentary on the company that:

People feel a strong sense of family in their teams (89%, a top 10 score). Departments work well together (87%) and have plenty of fun (93%).”

Berkeley seems genuinely to have created an organisation in which most people feel that – rather than have a sense of being obliged to act as if they feel that – they belong. Cretten is proud that the company – including its HR function – is ‘process-light’, and that HR policy should ‘act a blocker’. We can’t know how much her words have been edited before publication, but we might hope that she also spoke practices that were designed to engage the business with the staff rather than vice versa, although its website statement’s suggest that this is the case.

Indeed, the Sunday Times website goes on to highlight some highly unusual approaches that the company takes, not least that it is ‘run by partners who take turns in five main management roles; there is no leader’. And if you look at the company’s own website, the introductory page to the section on ‘Our culture’ starts with the following words:

It shouldn’t just be a happy coincidence if you get along with your colleagues. After all, if you’re anything like us, you’re at your best with the right people around you.”

It’s also headed ‘A good fit?’ This to me reads like a company that understands the importance on the personal specification and the cultural fit as well as the skills profile of its potential recruits: there is a hefty implication of choosing the company we keep – from both the individual’s and the company’s perspective – that sits awkwardly with those words ‘family feel’. What both potential employee and organisation are choosing here are not fraternity or sorority but future working friendships. It also reads like a company that perceives that a sense of belonging isn’t just something you can command others to display: it’s something that you have to generate. Engagement shouldn’t just be inclusive as an aim, but as an activity.

It reminded me of a post we added here nearly two years ago, reacting to an article that had asked the question ‘Who owns engagement?’ and suggested that employees should shoulder most of the effort in enhancing it. We weren’t impressed with the argument at the time: even with 21 months to sleep on the idea, it’s hard not to think that even the most willing employee needs something to engage with and opportunities to do so. We also quoted a well-known anonymous blogger who, although they occupied a senior HR role themselves, was astute enough to observe:

I’m incredibly loyal to the companies that I work for as people who know me would testify. But I’ve never really joined an organisation and felt that I was in the place that I wanted to be for the long-term. Maybe that is a thing of the past? Work is more disparate these days too, we have portfolio careers. Maybe I ended up in the wrong career and should be doing something else (as an aside, I am totally in awe of people who change their careers because they are unhappy).

Maybe everyone feels a little like this, we are all trying to find something, someone or some place that we can identify with. Maybe I’m just never satisfied with my lot. Maybe I’m making something of nothing. More questions than answers.”

A sense of belonging – which is what I feel we are most accurately describing – is something that partly happens naturally through a careful matching of cultural and behavioural preferences, or through adjusting our behaviour to accommodate the preferences of others so that they might do the same in return. But it’s also partly about providing opportunities – as many firms increasingly do – for employees to gain this sense.

What I’m left scratching my head at is our choice of language. Our sense of belonging is surely acutely personal: ask people where they feel most at home, and ‘home’ may not be their answer. In an age where we move away not just to study but to establish careers and families, the original ‘nest’ may be many miles and years behind us before we find somewhere where that sense of belonging develops.

If human issues like engagement and belonging are aspects of the working experience that HR feel a need to grasp and tackle, equating them with ‘family’ seems an odd choice. It seems old-fashioned in so many ways, and not just in terms of the mental image of Dame Maggie Smith as the acid-tongued Dowager who must be obeyed. In a world where the job for life is a historic relic, can we really make interpersonal approaches that equate to “We’d like to be your friend for 18 months, after which we’ll review the situation”?

If you search HR Magazine’s website, most references to ‘family’ are associated with difficulties: family problems being a cause of absence, families’ failures to acclimatise to new locations being a factor in appointments not turning out as had been hoped, struggles with work-life balance.

Are we struggling to make a single word and single concept cover too much ground, or is it something else? That having shared understandings of the concepts of ‘family’ and ‘friends’, we lack a concept for working relationships that has similar implications of positivity, sharing, mutual support. Whatever a friend in need might be, a colleague in need often is a bloody nuisance. And a superior in need is generally a temporary increase in workload. Much as we might need to put our thinking caps on about a better word, it’s the behaviours and the relationships that really need our efforts.

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Filed under: behavioural change, communication, HR, life, line managers, motivation, relationships, teamwork


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