Unlocking the HR secrets in self-help books

Jenny Keefe finds some parallels for HR managers in some of the world’s bestselling self-help books. Topics include change, quantity v quality, male and female benefit provision, and career enjoyment.

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A bit like owning a complete back catalogue of Cliff Richard records, reading self-help books is something one avoids mentioning in polite company.

Us cynical Brits turn our noses up at all that American mumbo jumbo – we can sort out our problems with a stiff upper lip and a cup of tea, thanks very much. But, in the course of researching this article, it turned out that, while many people would not admit to owning said volumes, they just happened to have seen a copy belonging to their girlfriend/husband/gran. And, funnily enough, they could reel off the texts, chapter and verse.

Pop psychology manuals promise to help readers achieve perfection in all areas of life, be it conquering depression, losing weight or snaring the right partner. So what do they have to offer the benefits manager?

Who moved my cheese? By Spencer Johnson

Like it or loathe it, we live in a rapidly-changing world. So whether your business is going through a merger or takeover, redundancies or relocation, the chances are you will have to change your package at some point.

Which is where one of the biggest-selling business manuals of this decade, comes in – Spencer Johnson’s Who moved my cheese? The book, which describes itself as "an amazing way to deal with change in your work and in your life", is the story of four characters who live in a maze and spend their days eating cheese.

One day, the supply of cheese runs out and each character deals with the change in a different way. Some resist it, while others quickly adapt and look for new sources of cheese. The lesson is that if you conquer your fear and embrace change, you can end up with even more new cheese than you had in the first place.

Richard Higginson, GlaxoSmithKline’s (GSK) director, international benefits, learned to enjoy change. His cheese disappeared when the firm was created from the merger of Glaxo Wellcome and SmithKline Beecham: former rivals which had juxtaposed philosophies and a very different emphasis on benefits. "As we saw it, we had three options: we could combine the packages and give some staff less; we could give staff some more; or we could meet somewhere in the middle. In the end, we decided to start from scratch with a blank sheet of paper and give them a package that was unrecognisable from the first one. We dealt with the change effectively so the package was even better in the end. Staff got different cheese, but even better cheese."

GSK employees’ new package includes a defined contribution (DC) pension scheme, private medical insurance, a voluntary benefits scheme and an all-employee share ownership plan.

He adds that some staff were resistant. "We weren’t scared because we had already been through mergers before. [But] some individuals went through and tried to compare their package with their new package and found it difficult to live up the reality of the merger."

Nevertheless, GSK has not had any complaints and recently carried out a survey which showed that 98% of staff were aware of their benefits package.

The seven habits of highly-effective people by Stephen R Covey

In the third chapter of his self-help classic, Stephen R Covey tells us to put first things first. The Seven habits of highly effective people looks at how to achieve your goals by working out what your values in life are: whether they are money, family or pleasure centred. Then, if for example, success at home is your most important goal, spend more time on this priority.

Robert Myatt, managing consultant at occupational psychologists Kaisen, says: "If you can do that for yourself, then you can do it for other people".

He says employers should work out exactly what’s important to staff and cater for their needs. "Covey uses the analogy that you have a tanker full of water and you have a load of rocks, some are big and some are small. Now, if you just start throwing big and small rocks in randomly, there will be big gaps and it won’t take long before some of the big rocks are sticking out over the surface of the water. Whereas if you put the big rocks in first, then you drop in the rest of the rocks, they’ll fall around it and you will be able to fit much more in. So the analogy is that you’ve got to think about each individual and identify what their big rocks are, and what they value."

He adds: "For some people it’s achievement, for other it’s recognition. It might be that work-life balance and an afternoon off mean a lot more to them than an increase in pay and some other benefits."

He cites the example of one manager, who was a golf enthusiast. "He decided to introduce a golfing day, but no-one apart from him, liked golf. [So] actually it had a demotivating effect."

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus by John Gray

Imagine that men are from Mars and women are from Venus, says John Gray. In his 1992 classic, he argues that because the two genders are from different planets, there are some fundamental differences between the sexes. But, by recognising and respecting these differences, employers can bring harmony ‘to the two races’.

Patricia Hind, director of the full-time MBA at Ashridge Business School, confirms that men and women are motivated by different things and speak different languages. "When women are evaluating their own performance, they use a broader raft of factors. So if you ask a man, ‘how are you doing?’, he’ll say ‘well I hit my targets, therefore I’ve done well’. Whereas a woman might say ‘the team’s not holding up terribly well and my work-life balance isn’t right, therefore I’m not content with my performance’. Women are a bit more cognitively complex in the way that they review their own performance."

Different mindsets mean different motivation packages. "So when it comes to motivating them, it means actually you’ve got a lot more to work at with women. Then they’ve got targets to hit across a broad range of frameworks so you’ve got a lot more buttons to press. I don’t like to focus on the gender difference simply in terms of childcare and family because it’s not that simple."

She believes flexible benefits plans reflect the way women think. "Women naturally lend themselves to that sort of incentive package. I think a flexible benefits plan is more likely to appeal to women simply because they factor more into their evaluation of their jobs. It’s that whole thing about multi-tasking. They do have [several] mental streams on the go at one time. There are going to be different things that are going to appeal to them whereas men are a bit more straightforward [and] are unlikely to be as attracted to flex."

French women don’t get fat: The secret of eating for pleasure by Mireille Guiliano

How do French women stay rakish while living off a diet of foie gras, steak frites and brie? The answer: according to French women don’t get fat: The secret of eating for pleasure by Mireille Guiliano, is choosing quality over quantity.

The French rarely snack between meals, turning their noses up at the crisps and sweets stuffed into themselves by many Britons and North Americans.

Take the example of chocolate. Rather than pigging-out on second-rate vending machine rubbish, French women ration themselves to one square of satisfying thick, dark chocolate a day. And while it’s true that their diet is stuffed with cream, butter, cheese and meat, they steer clear of anything processed or pre-frozen.

But what on earth does all this have to do with employee benefits? Sometimes one expensive, artery-clogging benefit, such as a final salary pension plan, makes more of an impact than five cheap e-number loaded perks.

Barnardo’s is a benefits snob. While the cash-conscious charity offers a limited number of perks, all staff have access to a generous defined benefit (DB) pension scheme. Darren Marquis, senior pensions administrator, says: "The final salary pension is just about the only benefit Barnardo’s offers, we don’t have any others really.

"As a charity, we can’t really justify spending your money on staff benefits rather than looking after children. We can’t offer spare stuff like computers for the home."

But would Barnardo’s swap one DB pension for three other benefits? "No. It’s an expensive benefit, but we look at it for staff retention and recruitment. We take a lot of our staff from local authorities and it can be hard to compete with the pension in the public sector," he says.

The little book of calm at work by Paul Wilson

Finally, enjoy yourself, says The little book of calm at work, by Paul Wilson. Above all, look for the positive, humorous, entertaining or even ridiculous sides of what you do. Paul Wilson was a stressed-out consultant before he had a road to Damascus experience and started writing books on how to keep calm. The book offers up several tips for casting aside feelings of stress or tension. "Work to the maximum during working hours, then leave it all behind when you go home" and "spend up to half-an-hour a day not being a cog in the machine. Take a walk around the block. Nap under the desk," prescribes Wilson.

The erstwhile managing director of wellbeing consultants, the Carole Spiers Group, says that with the right working environment, staff can stay cool, calm and collected. "One of the great points about stress made by publications such as The little book of calm at work is the overriding importance of corporate culture.

"A lot of stress reduction programmes are to do with the amount of work an employee has to complete within a given amount of time and the amount of control they have. But it’s actually the quality of the working environment that’s important." "All of us like to be treated properly by our manager. We like to have our work respected. And we like to have our contributions aptly recognised. It’s also vitally important for all of us to know exactly where we stand. And ideally, we want to be able to do the work we have to do in the way we want to do it," adds Spiers. "At the end of the day, all of this is related to the culture of the working environment. And, as The little book of calm at work so rightly points out, above all enjoy yourself. Because if we can succeed in doing that, issues such as workplace stress really will become a thing of the past."

Who moved my cheese? by Spencer Johnson (Vermilion, 1999)

The seven habits of highly effective people, by Stephen R Covey (Free Press, 2004)

Men are from Mars, women are from Venus, by John Gray (HarperCollins, 2002)

French women don’t get fat: The secret of eating for pleasure by Mireille Guiliano (Chatto & Windus, 2004)

The little book of calm at work, by Paul Wilson (Penguin, 1999)