When the reality of an organisation's culture doesn't match its espoused values, simple conversations can help bring the "miserable people" into line, says leadership educator Steve Fearns.

An ongoing challenge for HR is to "get people to be accountable for their behaviour", he told a breakfast seminar hosted by Quay Appointments in Sydney yesterday.

But when HR is just promoting an organisation's values by stating what they are and putting up posters, not all employees will follow suit.

"Values are for the website," he told the briefing. "Culture is for what happens."

Fearns, who is the state manager (NSW) for Proteus Leadership Centres, urges HR professionals to "get real" about their culture.

"In no way am I disrespecting values. All I'm saying is if they're your values, and you're passionate about them, you've either got to raise the culture so it meets those, or go, 'You know what, we don't like these values here - passion, enthusiasm, integrity - we want them to be whinge, complain and sour-face'.

"Change them if you want, but at least get real with yourselves."

Even employees who start work with exemplary attitudes and behaviour can become conditioned to be negative, unproductive or difficult if a workplace culture allows it, he says.

For example, new employees might be told that work starts at nine, and on their first day they'll arrive on time and ready for action. If, however, over the following weeks they notice other employees arriving late, or spending their first half hour getting coffee and making breakfast, they'll assume "that's the way things are done" and follow suit.

Employees will also "test" their employers to see what they can get away with. This might mean taking a longer lunch break, or submitting a report late, "just to see" what happens. If nothing is said, they might assume it's OK and make the behaviour a habit, he says.

What HR professionals need to keep in mind is that "people only do what they do because we let them", Fearns says. It is up to managers and organisations to set ground rules, and speak up about behaviour or performance issues that breach them.

Be solutions focused
When managers have issues with their team members, they must be encouraged to assist with the solution, Fearns says, and not just dump the problem on HR.

"Tell them, 'If you're not prepared to be part of the solution, you forfeit the right to complain'."

He says "most people are reasonable" and go to work to do a good job, and if managers "have real conversations and hold people accountable", it's possible to move the difficult people into the group of those who work and behave appropriately.

(He adds, however, that two per cent of people will never change, "no matter what you do and... how good you are at communication. They've got to go".)

The solution should focus first on helping the problem person to "grow", and only if that fails, on helping them to "go", he says.

And the "grow" steps are not just to "tick a box and get documentation in order to move to 'go'".

"But if you've helped them to grow, and done everything - if... HR can say 'Here's all the sessions we had; here's the development and the accountabilities; however they still haven't been able to do this' - it's much easier to let them to go if you need to."

Fearns calls this "fighting clean". The first step is to have a real conversation with the person, label the issue clearly and call them on it, but "go in soft".

Managers often have conversations in which they'll say something like, "You're too negative; please be more positive", and don't understand why behaviour doesn't improve, he says.

They need to use specific examples to make sure the person understands. For example, "I just wanted to have a quick chat about some of the things you mentioned in that last meeting. Do you know what I'm referring to?"

Going in soft gives a self-aware person a chance to say "Oh actually, yeah, I probably shouldn't have said 'XYZ'", and the manager can simply reinforce that knowledge and ask that the behaviour not happen again.

Or, Fearns says, "They'll say, 'No, what are you talking about?' and you'll realise they had no idea".

"And whose fault is that?"

In such cases, these first conversations can be as simple as, "Remember when you said 'XYZ'? Can you see how that might affect the team? Would it be OK if you weren't to say comments like that?

"This could be the first time they've heard it," he points out, suggesting that all managers give employees the benefit of the doubt in this first instance.

The key is to create awareness of the issue, and get the person to agree to change it.

"Once someone's got awareness, then they've got choice. They can either toe the line, or they can go, 'I know I've been told, but I don't care. I'm going to carry on and see how far I can get away with this'. At least they're now in the driver's seat, and we're aware it's a conscious decision."

Only after this important step has been taken, and if further breaches occur, should managers consider taking the complaint to the next level, he says. "It's a lot easier then, of course, for the conversation to go on."

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