Getting the best out of people – thoughts from Riverford founder, Guy Watson

The best thing about getting a weekly vegetable box delivery from Riverford – aside from the yummy fresh organic veggies of course – is the short letter included in the box from founder Guy Watson. This week, writing in response to the General Election result in the UK, he shares some thoughts on motivation and management and hits the nail on the head in his usual eloquent style:

What I find so depressing about modern post-Thatcherite Conservatism (and only marginally less so about post-Blairite Labour) is the apparent ubiquitous cynical belief that appealing to personal greed is the only way to get anything done… In the real world, where businesses have to compete by getting the best out of people, it has largely been abandoned as a piece of failed, ideologically driven dogma.

… Ultimately we all want to feel good about ourselves and at work this falls broadly into three areas: feeling we are learning and getting better at stuff, feeling some control over our lives and feeling a sense of purpose. To believe that ‘carrot and stick’ management is why a nurse will care for a patient, a parole officer will struggle to support a young offender or why a programmer would write exceptional code is crass to the point of incredulity.

I couldn’t agree more. My only hope is that more and more businesses, and leaders and workers within them, wake up to this realisation and we can build a better society that way, nevermind who is in government.




It’s something of a buzzword in HR-speak at the moment: ‘resilience’. The basic idea is that, as implied in every contract of employment, the employer has a ‘duty of care’ over employees, and one way of fulfilling this duty is to check in and make sure your workers have the means to deal with and handle the demands of their work. For employers of humanitarian aid workers, for example, the idea of resilience is really important as those workers need to be able to not only survive but also fully operate in hostile environments, and recover quickly from shocks and setbacks.

Resilience is about how you bounce back or recover form hardship, as well as how you can withstand hardship while it is going on around you.

In the past, HR has focussed on ‘stress management’ and ‘stress’ is often given as a cause of long-term sickness absence from work. However stress itself is a symptom, it is not a sickness in itself. We all feel stress to a lesser or greater degree, and sometimes it can be the thing that drives us to achieve. A more useful distinction can be made between ‘stress’ and ‘pressure’ and excessive pressure can eventually lead to severe difficulty.

Along with the current fragility in the global economy, competition on a more global scale and volatile markets are becoming the ‘new normal’, and organisations who can survive are the ones who are agile enough to adapt. This also means that those organisations will need workers who have the agility to adapt and react well to change.

I do not believe that resilience means being able to simply ‘put up with’ hardship, or work and work and not burnout. The Japanese have a word that describes the extreme end of this: karoushi. Which means, quite literally, death from overwork. There are Japanese people who work so hard and put in so many hours that they just stop living.

But that isn’t resilience, it’s endurance in the extreme, and I don’t think that it is in anyone’s interest (it’s clearly not in the interests of the worker concerned or their family). Resilience is not persistently sticking with things when they are harmful to you, it is the strength needed to cope with change, the agility to adapt to a changing environment, or the self-reliance needed to bounce back from criticism or projects not going completely to plan. It is survival, but the planned-out smart kind.
So how can we build healthy resilience in our workers and in ourselves? Coaching, gaining perspective, standing back from the fray, adjusting yourself and your reactions, spending time doing activities that provide a ‘reset’ or recharge you, building a ‘regenerative community’ of people who give you energy rather than draining you. All things that enable us to defuse stress, grow as individuals, and not just simply soldier on. I know of individuals making a good job of this within organisations, but I’d be interested to hear of any organisational programmes or managers actually succeeding in building resilience in their workers. Any ideas?