Interview with Christian Hunt, founder, Human Risk

Christian Hunt is founder of Human Risk. He applies Behavioural Science to ethics and compliance, by understanding decision-making drivers. He talked to me about the risks and opportunities the pandemic has created for organisations.

‘The tide’s going out, we’ll see who’s not wearing any trousers’

The pandemic was a huge shock – like a tsunami. And we won’t see the after-effects on land until the water goes back out.

The water analogy is very powerful. It conveys the idea of hiding things, being very forceful, not being able to stop it. Now the tide’s going out, we’ll see who’s not wearing any trousers.

Almost overnight, many things that we had been led to believe were constants suddenly shifted. We’re having a trauma response now – trying to work out what’s going on.

While we’ve started to see some impacts, we’re going to need more time to reflect, and for the impacts to be felt. Many potential avenues have been opened up. Although it’s too early to predict how far things might move.

There are many other dynamics out there that are shifting. Covid is like the conductor of an orchestra – it’s just brought these out.

In many instances we may revert to what was there before. But in some cases, I think we will find some interesting tipping points. For those people that want to use it, Covid is a helpful accelerant.

‘The meaning of ‘going to work’ has changed’

The pandemic has exposed many of the structures that were in place. Such as the way companies hire people and the freedoms they give them. And equally, it’s challenged employees’ sense of commitment and loyalty. The meaning of ‘going to work’ has changed.

These constructs weren’t necessarily fit for purpose in the past. The ways that organizations tried to influence employees’ behaviour were pretty primitive. But they could normally get away with it because they were all in a physical location.

Consider meetings. The very essence of a meeting was getting people together in a room. There’s a construct that is built around a physical location – this is no longer valid. The same thing applies to things like employment contracts, training or rewards.

We’ve been fixated on what time you turn up to work or if you’re leaving early. The presumption is that if you’re in the office, you’re working hard, if you’re out, you’re not. All of these constructs, formal and informal, and the expectations around them, were suddenly thrown open by the enforced working from home.

The pandemic has just exposed things that were already there – people were already starting to test at the edges. But now they have permission, on both sides, to start experimenting and reshaping. We’ve effectively turbocharged what would probably have happened anyway,

‘The leadership at the top of many organizations isn’t capable of responding’

I’ve been reflecting upon the relevance of experience. Historically, we would see past experience in a field as automatically being valuable. Senior people could rely on tenure to justify their position.

That makes sense in the physical world, where the longer you’ve spent studying or doing something the more you will know. Take architecture, engineering or science for example.

But when you move into the cognitive and digital space, experience isn’t necessarily valuable. And in some cases, it can act as a blinker.

At the top of certain organizations, the people are blinded to many issues – for a variety of biases. If they started to challenge the idea of experience as always being valuable, they’d be challenging their own expertise. They would have to admit that the world has changed and they don’t necessarily understand it.

A lot of the responses we’ve seen to the pandemic are illustrative of the fact that the leadership at the top of many organizations isn’t necessarily capable of responding to some of the emerging demands.

So we’re seeing many organisations hunkering down for self-preservation. The dinosaurs are clinging onto the world that they know, living in fear of the new world. What’s really interesting is that many of the people that are responding well are the ones that aren’t wedded to old models and vested interests.

‘Climate change or social equality feel alien to them’

We have many cases of group-think at Board level – and there’s an understandable reluctance to engage with these issues.

Look at the things they wouldn’t naturally understand. Technology is a very clear example. Often Board members are digital immigrants as opposed to digital natives. What does someone in his or her mid-50s know about social media and the sorts of risks it holds for a traditional organization?

For obvious reasons, they don’t understand some of these social trends and dynamics. Things like climate change or social equality feel alien to them. As a result, these things can be perceived as a threat.

There’s a blindness, which is perceived as a revolution afoot. One which they need to stamp out. It doesn’t give them any opportunities to move, because a deviation from where they are now feels risky.

‘Start using our human capital as an early warning system’

The ratios between the top and bottom earners in organizations get are often quite obscene. It’s a 21st century version of Upstairs Downstairs – there’s a huge disconnect.

Organizations that have a flatter structure and greater amounts of diversity may be better able to handle things like the pandemic. They don’t necessarily have greater wisdom about what’s going to happen – they’re just more open to the possibility that change might be necessary.

When things go wrong in companies, there’s always someone somewhere that knew something that would have been useful. The more diverse those companies are, the more they have the opportunity for somebody to have an insight that would have been useful to know.

So the companies that listen to their people and have the broadest range of opinions are more likely to clock those things. We all need to start using our human capital as an early warning system.

‘Face-to-face meetings become a far more effective superpower’

The pandemic has created a tremendous opportunity to jettison legacy practices and to reset.

There will be some things that we absolutely want to retain. But there are many other things that weren’t fit for purpose in the old world and don’t sit nicely in the digital environment.

Think about meetings again. Do we continue to have them in the same way? Is that a good use of people’s time, or can we find other ways?

A meeting is typically a combination of people doing presentations, followed by discussion and decision making. For the presentations, it’s a waste of time having people sitting in a room together.

It’s much more effectively done, not as a live performance, but as a pre-recorded paper. Then everybody can watch it in their own time, at their own pace. They can rewind if there are bits they didn’t understand.

Then face-to-face meetings become a far more effective superpower – because you’re getting the best out of it. It’s a good example of a construct that’s been challenged as a result of the pandemic.

Similarly, look at the recruitment process – it’s become much easier to hire people. It’s so much more feasible now to build a global and diverse workforce. And that has implications for costs and creativity.

‘We can create jobs around the skills that people have’

The pandemic has given us a tremendous opportunity to rethink what we do and how we do it. It’s really exciting because we can start to build patterns around getting the best out of people.

For example, the logic behind appraisals has always been that we have a predefined notion of what we think a person should be doing in a particular role.

Then we assess how they stack up to the box that we have created. And the answer is that they succeed at some things and are terrible at others. This repeats itself year after year.

But increasingly we can create jobs around the skills that people have – that really gets the best out of them. Redesign roles to recognize what peoples’ strengths are.

A real opportunity is opening up to think differently about organisational charts.

‘A world where many of us could have several employers’

It no longer makes sense for everyone to give all their time to one employer. Because a lot of that time is not productive.

We have this arcane model – a hangover from the factories. Buying people’s time rather than their output. I would like to see a world where many of us could have several employers.

We could structure something much more exciting around that and think about the concept of labour very differently. It would also avoid companies having to be as dependent on any one individual.

If we think about buying peoples’ skills rather than their time, then we can work out what are they good at and how they can really add value to the organization.

Equally, we can offer people career paths that don’t involve them having to do large amounts of things that they’re not good at and don’t enjoy.

‘The pandemic has shifted the balance of power vastly towards employees’

What’s interesting about the pandemic is that it was a systemic issue – every single company had to respond to it.

Some of the things I suggest are not something that one company can do on its own. The fact that companies en masse have been forced to move into this space has been really helpful.

All the refuseniks – sitting in the old world, resisting change – have been required, to a certain extent, to shift. The back of the caravan has been forced along as well as the front.

We typically think of tech companies as being very good at this sort of thinking. They already recognize that doesn’t matter whether you are in the office or at home. They’re the outliers, sitting in pockets of industries where that’s permissible.

But vast swathes of industries where this wouldn’t have been prevalent have been forced to join the programme. That gives us a great opportunity to think in these terms. We’re not yet at a stage where this is starting to happen. But the pandemic has opened peoples’ eyes to the employer-employee relationship.

There will be a reluctance to embrace this stuff until employees start asking and pushing for it. The pandemic has permitted employees to raise questions that they wouldn’t otherwise have been able to ask.

Suddenly the workforce is, in theory, more mobile. If you’re working from home, then to change job you’re still sitting in front of the same screen. The pandemic has shifted the balance of power vastly towards employees.

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