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James Judge is the CEO and founding director of Australian Human Resources Professionals, an organisation helping workplaces deal with challenges such as conflict, leadership, and perhaps most importantly, engagement.

Around Australia, and indeed the world, workplaces are experiencing great change. As the number of mobile workers increases and companies downsize, internal dynamics are also changing. Engagement amongst employees is also waning. In 2016 a study by Aon Hewitt found that around 8 percent of employees are ‘workplace prisoners’ – employees who stay on at their job, despite being unmotivated and largely disinterested. Never has it been more important to reassess the culture of an organisation to ensure that employees are engaged, conflict free and have the tools necessary to reach their leadership potential.

James spoke to us about these matters, his shift from law to human resources, and workplace engagement, empowerment and resolution.

From an LLB to Human Resource management. Why did you decide to stray from a purely legal career?

That’s a good question. For a while I thought I wanted to be a lawyer but I kept meeting lawyers who seemed to be pretty miserable in their jobs: people who were burnt-out or felt trapped because of the money. There’s an old expression “the law broadens the mind by narrowing it.” Most successful lawyers become experts in a particular field or specialisation with careers characterised by long hours and intense pressure. I’ve always had a range of broad interests so when that reality struck home, that’s when I began contemplating other options.

I think knowledge of some legal theory is very useful in a number of contexts. I would include here having an understanding of contracts, corporations law, how government works, administrative law and say intellectual property for instance. That knowledge is going to be useful in lots of business settings, in some research and development industries, in regulatory and government roles for instances. Some of the areas you might cover in a law degree are probably largely unusable in most non-legal careers.

How did you come to be CEO of AHRP?

I’d been working as a sole practitioner under a business name and I wanted to upscale. I had some strong views about what I saw was lacking in the market so I launched Australian Human Resource Professionals last year.

What is your primary objective in your position?

The company is all about helping leaders, teams and individuals achieve their full potential at work. That being said, there are a number of ways in which we hope to fulfill that mission.

 

“I don’t believe there is a single process or approach that represents a magic wand to miraculously transform organisational culture. As to what a healthy culture of engagement looks like, I don’t want to sound unscientific but you can actually tell a healthy workplace culture by just going and spending time in one. It’s palpable.”

Resolution, empowerment and engagement are the three areas of focus for AHRP, why these specifically?

Unfortunately important organisational challenges and people objectives can get broken down into a set of policies, into specific job family responsibilities and systems, which can sometimes cause people to lose sight of the bigger picture. Historical approaches to problems can also mean that they are defined in outmoded, less than helpful ways.

Take the example of some very public bad behaviour in a workplace, say an extended shouting match between two reasonably senior people in front of numerous staff and maybe some external parties (throw in some profanity and door slamming for good measure). As a result, complaints are made and the two protagonists might end up saying they won’t work together anymore.

This will, in many cases, end up in the Human Resource Department in-tray where, for whatever reason, a decision may be made to get an external mediator involved. There is nothing wrong with this, I do plenty of this type of work, but the point is that the presenting issue isn’t always the underlying issue.

The situation I posited here could be the product of multiple contributing factors. There may be a lot more going on with inter-team dynamics, understanding of role clarity, mixed messaging from leadership, probably unknown external factors, that need more than a single mediation to thoughtfully identify and address complex issues over the longer term.

That’s why I talk about “Resolution”. It’s more than providing a single type of one-size-fits-all remedy. It’s about investigating, resolving and transforming behaviours at work. I’m more interested in working with those leaders and teams that want to operate at a more comprehensive, holistic level.

It’s the same reason I talk about “Empowerment” and not training. There is often very little real measure of return on investment of training within organisations. There’s a strong evidence base to support this by the way, this is not just my opinion.

I am interested in alternative ways to build self-awareness and capacity in leaders and teams. One of the things we are doing this year, for instance, is running a series of facilitated discussion on topical and emergent issues impacting on the world of work. This includes things like the workplace implications of family violence, managing unconscious bias in organisational decision making, effectively managing remote staff, new approaches to enterprise bargaining to just mention a few.

Talking about “Engagement” is a similar conscious choice. It’s not just a conversation “…we need to hire someone, go talk to recruitment”. It could include an analysis of:

  • What factors are influencing attraction and retention, what do the metrics reveal?
  • What are the organisation’s strategic people objectives (do they have them? are they thought-through, realistic?)
  • What policy levers and practices could be modified to get where the organisation wants to be?
  • What messaging are they sending both externally and internally about the employment experience?

Which piece of advice do you find yourself dealing most frequently?

Well the advice varies considerably but it’s often the question that is similar, and it’s typically something like “How can we fix this or what can we do to change things”.

Disengaged employees or “workplace prisoners” have been noted to represent a critical outlier when creating a culture of engagement. What does a healthy culture of engagement look like? How can it be achieved through your expertise?

Disengagement is a huge problem. Gallup does an international survey on this subject every few years and the last time I looked, the statistics were staggering. Those employees who were “actively disengaged” (meaning they hate their job) was around 25% and this number was double that of those reporting being engaged at work. With a disengaged workforce the flow on effects in terms of injury, absenteeism, loss of productivity, lack of innovation and poor customer service can be immense.

It was in Anna Karenina where Tolstoy noted that “happy families are alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way.” I think that’s true of organisations. I don’t believe there is a single process or approach that represents a magic wand to miraculously transform organisational culture. As to what a healthy culture of engagement looks like, I don’t want to sound unscientific but you can actually tell a healthy workplace culture by just going and spending time in one. It’s palpable.

One of the most important things to do to achieve engagement is to first listen to what your managers, staff and customers or clients are telling you. This should be a non-threatening and properly planned exercise and, along with some people metrics, gives you a base line to begin to institute change.

What you need to do from there is something I would need to sit down with your readers to discuss to better appreciate their unique situation and circumstances.