Stella Smith: Great working environments don't just happen, they have to be created

We can't help anyone if our own people management leaves staff stressed and demotivated, writes our columnist

Nothing is more motivating than working with supportive colleagues, understanding your role and what's expected of you, and feeling appreciated.

A huge disappointment, then, to read the latest Charity Pulse survey, covered in the September issue of Third Sector. Although 89 per cent of respondents say they believe in the aims of the charities they work for, only 35 per cent say they believe their workload is reasonable and only 46 per cent say they rarely get stressed at work. Perhaps the most shocking figure is that only 24 per cent say they believe poor performance is dealt with effectively at their charities.

Contrary to popular belief, great working environments don't just happen; they are created. This takes investment of time and money, and it seems that the sector, despite being values-led, is still to be convinced of the value of that investment.

So why does a sector that prides itself on delivering positive change struggle to implement good people management? Maybe we feel that the needs of volunteers and staff come second to the cause, or that we don't need the luxury of good people management to thrive. I suspect, however, that somewhere deep in the charity sector psyche we take secret pleasure in being just a little dysfunctional. It's almost a badge of honour. People boast of overflowing inboxes and rocketing stress. They delight in rushing late into meetings while checking their emails. It seems as if being visibly under pressure is proof of heartfelt commitment to the cause rather than of poor organisation and time management.

Recent stories of governance and management at the Terrence Higgins Trust and the British Association for Shooting and Conservation highlight just how important senior leadership is to sound HR. It is, after all, at senior levels that the cultural tone is set. Trustees often support the charity's aims, but they - like staff - are too rarely challenged over poor performance. It's not uncommon that trustees fail to attend meetings repeatedly or, when they do, have not read the papers and don't contribute. Some hijack meetings with personal agendas or insist on revisiting decisions. Fellow trustees tiptoe politely around them, seemingly fearful of highlighting the damaging effects of such behaviour.

If trustees don't work well together, repercussions ripple through the organisation. And if trustees aren't seen to value sound people management, this is the first thing to fall off management's to-do list.

It creates an environment in which it is quietly acceptable for managers to miss one-to-one meetings and appraisals and for poor performance to be overlooked. We might tell ourselves we are being kind by not giving feedback, but in fact it makes people feel undervalued, under-appreciated and ignored. In such circumstances, it is understandable if fundraisers (or fundraising agencies), in their attempts to hit demanding targets, cut a few corners. They're probably surprised anyone noticed.

We need to move away from delivering targets at any cost and understand that what we achieve cannot be separated from how we achieve it. We might be seeking to deliver excellent services, but if our people and volunteers feel stressed, unappreciated and demotivated, we're not really helping anyone.

Stella Smith is a consultant and facilitator

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