Simon Terry

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Who is that exactly?

One of the most important questions to ask in any leadership conversation is “Who is that exactly?” Getting beneath the opaque references to people is important to bring real human impacts to the foreground in decision making. Human behaviour is richer and more complex than segmentation and averages can show. Importantly, a specific conversation about people can also surface other impacts, alternative approaches and bias hidden in decisions. 

The Opaque Other

Politicians love opaque phrases to refer to their opponents: ‘the 1%’, ‘big business’, ‘immigrants’, ‘refugees’, ‘special interests’, ‘leaners’, ‘those people’, and so on.  The value of an opaque phrase is that avoids the risk of conflict with the current audience and builds a sense of conflict with an Other that they use to unite that audience. Demagogues have been threatening audiences with an Other since politics began. In an age when sexism, racism and overt discrimination have become less acceptable, the Other needs to take on a more opaque form. Usually when confronted with specific examples or challenged to name who exactly they mean, politicians duck and weave to avoid being more specific. Who they actually mean can be quite surprising to the audience. 

The Opaque Other at Work

The same opaque conversations have drifted into business and social conversations too. It is not unusual to hear that a particular decision will have an adverse impact on ‘retention’, ‘a small segment of customers’, ‘stakeholders’, ‘some performance indicators’, ‘poor performers’ or even just ‘employees’. Behind each of those opaque phrases are real human impacts often on a scale that is far larger and far more important than the phrase indicates.

Asking “who is that exactly?” lifts the curtain on that obscurity and enables a better quality decision. Understanding specific individuals impacted can reveal unintended consequences beneath the averages. Percentages and other statistics are driven by real human decisions by specific customers. I have seen examples where organisations have approved decisions like changes to customer loyalty programs that have a forecast of a minor uptick in customer churn, only to discover later that it adverse impacted the most loyal and most profitable customers. The business impact was far worse than expected. 

Equally changes to organisational structures, processes, performance management, leave, flexible working and other HR policies rarely impact employees equally. While they may looks so in the data used for business decisions, real human employees are rarely fungible. To consider one example, a decision to ‘spill and fill’ a management role in a restructure had a devastating consequence on the business because of the experience that was lost as employees took their talents to market and the market lacked of talent to fill a sudden large demand for lost experience. Had people considered individuals in both the roles and the market first a better decision could have been made.

If you want greater collaboration and innovation at work then you need to get beneath consideration of the opaque bucket called ‘our employees’. Innovation and collaboration are different for specific employee.  They have different meanings, benefits and costs to different people. A successful strategy focuses on real individual employee needs to achieve the organisational outcome.

Turning your conversation to consider the specific people impacted and ensuring that you understand them well before making a decision is important in any conversation. Importantly this is also a key step to make sure the decision is inclusive and not divisive. The consideration may not change the decision but it will make everyone more aware of the risks and impacts. The consideration will also improve the quality of any engagement you have with impacted people as discussions move into implementation.

Asking the simple question “who is that exactly?” will help you to consider the complexity of real people.


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