Business and Stockholm Syndrome

Stockholm Syndrome is the classic problem of becoming so engaged with our captors that we end up identifying with them. It happens over time, and if we’re the captives, seems to make absolute sense. It requires hard work by those who care for us to help us understand what is going on.

It has been going in in organisations generally, and business in particular for some time. We identify with a problem so much that we give it a respectable seat at the table.

‘Wellness” seems a good example. We create ways of working that are so toxic that we create whole departments to address what we have created and in doing so, legitimise the problem to the point where it becomes invisible.

It was therefore a breath of fresh air to read an article on Octopus Energy, a billion pound fast growing energy business who gets it. It has few of these ancillaries, and no HR department. The challenges reside where they belong, with the people who run the business.

There’s a very telling line in the BBC article by the company’s founder, Greg James. When I was 27, I was managing a manufacturing business in north London and there was a woman who ran the reception and also did customer service, who was in her 40s,” he remembers. “One day I heard her speaking to a customer on the phone and I thought I could help, so I leaned in and gave her some wise words. “She finished the call, like a consummate professional, and she turned to me and said: ‘Greg, I bring up two boys and a husband on the poxy wage this company pays. If I can do that, you can be pretty sure I can do anything this company wants from me. And by the way Greg, I was here before you were here and I’ll be here after you have gone. I love the company more than you do, so you never need to tell me what to do.’”

He recognised this for what it was – a wake up call. There is of course, nothing wrong with HR (other, perhaps than the name – “Resources”; as in “paper clips”). The sheer volume of legislation and complexity in running a large organisation requires specialist support. The problem arises when it becomes a convenient dumping ground for those who should be dealing with the issue themselves. The problem expands when pressure causes more challenges that these managers want to internally outsource – like “Wellness”, or “Engagement”.

Eighteen months , or what seems like an eternity, ago we could get away with it. The challenges were more complicated than complex and could be delegated, but now they are more complex than complicated and that means the problem belongs to the person responsible for it. If it’s our problem, we are a live, dynamic part of it. Everything we do, and the way we understand it, changes it. They cease to become generic problems with “solutions” and become individual and unique, like Greg James’ receptionist.

The critical skill right now is to be able to do what Greg James did as a result of his dressing down – have a real conversation, exercise humility and adapt. The most important part of any strategy is the ability to observe, as dispassionately as we can, what is really going on rather than be seduced by how we would like it to be.

To see the hostages holding us captive for what they are.

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