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The human givens workplace

Keith Abrahams describes how applying the human givens approach to his business has boosted both morale and productivity.

ALONGSIDE my ‘day job’ as managing director of a dental supply company, I have always tried to find some time to give back to others. My work with the Samaritans took me to prisons and pop festivals, and, after taking a counselling course, I also became involved with developing emotional awareness in schools. But everything I had learned, and duly applied, focused merely on listening and reflecting back. Only when I came across the human givens approach did I realise that it is possible to do so much more to bring about healthy change. Now I not only use it in voluntary work and private work as a human givens counsellor but, because its principles are universal, I also apply the approach to enhance my own business. The improvement in morale, co-operation and productivity has been enormous.

We are a motley crew of 130 – comprising warehouse staff, service technicians, external sales staff, internal telesales staff, a customer service team, financial and clerical staff, plus their managers, all in one building in Potters Bar. We sell anything and everything that dentists might want to use, from needles, anaesthetics and composites for fillings to X-ray machines and state-of-the-art dental chairs. I had joined the company as the accountant and worked my way up, so I was well aware of ways in which things were not working as well as they should. As in most companies, there were minor rivalries and resentments between individuals or departments, a tendency to be preoccupied with one’s own particular sphere of activity rather than awareness of the whole business, and clashing styles of working which led not to anything catastrophic but definitely to lower output and poorer overall service for customers.


For instance, the sales people continually complained about the service staff, whose job was to carry out repairs, when required, to the equipment and machinery that the sales representatives had sold to customers. Perhaps the service appointment was not made as quickly as it should have been or perhaps the loss of use of the equipment seriously impeded the dentists’ work. Whatever the cause, the technicians’ common experience was that, when they arrived at a dental surgery to perform a repair, they were very often greeted in less than civil terms by a frustrated and highly stressed dentist or practice manager, desperate to get their equipment functioning again as soon as possible. On the receiving end of such ire, the technicians might resort to openly blaming the office for not sending them out sooner or else blaming the machinery – “What do you expect if you buy this load of rubbish? This is the third one I’ve had to repair today!” – not the ideal way to foster customer relations.

This fact was not lost on the sales teams who were regularly on the receiving end of the ensuing complaints from the now even angrier dentists, with whom they had worked hard to build up good relationships. The sales teams, in turn, complained to head office, muttering darkly about scruffy, clumsy engineers, who undid all their good work. As sales were made on commission, it was not surprising that they didn’t want to put at risk the regular 3,000 or so ‘consumables’ (products such as alloys, restoratives, disinfectants, etc) that a dentist routinely bought each year, just because of a fall-out between a dentist and a ‘techie’.

The upshot was that, when dentists wanted to buy a large piece of equipment, the sales representative might decide that there would be less comeback, and less threat to his livelihood, if he advised them to go to a different company for anything that might at some point need repair. Indeed, the sales team saw nothing wrong in doing so: they considered themselves self-employed, rather than part of the company.

Such failure to pull together as a team was also evident back at the office, albeit for different reasons. Historically, the telesales team members had their ‘own’ customers, whom they looked after for their purchasing needs. It was common that, if someone else’s customer rang and that person wasn’t around to take the call, no one else would see it as their job to handle it instead. They all also tended to be reactive, rather than proactive. While they were quite happy to talk to their ‘own’ customers and give them good service, they wouldn’t dream of trying to find new ones.

Then there were the inter-departmental squabbles. Someone whose job was focused on consumer products might not be helpful if a customer raised technical problems (so it might well be the case that a customer’s request for a service visit would not be responded to swiftly) or raised a credit control issue – “I need to talk to you about my account.” “No, that’s credit control, but they’re on the phone right now.” And if those same staff in credit control pushed customers for settlement of accounts, the consumer products staff might get seriously agitated, fearing that their best customers might take their business elsewhere.

These are familiar kinds of problems to anyone involved in running a business – staff too often being concerned with their own patch and not company wellbeing as a whole. But once I had come across the human givens approach, instead of viewing such behaviour as a problem, I started to view it as the outcome of unmet needs, which I set about identifying and meeting.

Smart trousers and a tie

I started with the service engineers, inviting them to a meeting at which we discussed how they perceived themselves and their work. It was quickly clear that they felt left out, because they were always on the road, and that they saw themselves as being at the bottom of the heap. If they were aggressive and rude, it was because they didn’t know how to cope with angry customers and so felt on the defensive most of the time. Already three unmet needs were clear: they felt no sense of belonging; they lacked a sense of status; and they lacked the necessary competence to do one important aspect of their job – deal with angry customers. We decided that it would be helpful for them to spend some time in the office, meeting the people who sent them out to jobs, and having the chance to build rapport and a more meaningful relationship with them, while at the same time playing more part in new product development, so that they would know in advance what they would have to deal with and feel more competent to do so.

Some engineers, I discovered, wanted to make their own arrangements to see customers while others preferred to have arrangements handled by the office. In the small act of enabling them to have the choice, we significantly increased their sense of autonomy and control. We agreed, too, that they would move from commission to salary. This achieved two desired outcomes: they would feel that they belonged in the company and they would be open to training. Previously, training had been undervalued within the company – it meant simply that a whole day’s potential income was lost and that customers would get even more upset about a longer wait. But when training was, in effect, ‘paid for’ (we agreed on one day a month), it became a more attractive proposition and one which, they could see, would pay dividends with the customer later.

During training, I taught them how to calm customers down without inflaming them further, demonstrating how to match the urgency in the customer’s voice but not the aggression (“I can see you are very angry and you are quite right to be so! I am going to do everything I can to put this right as soon as possible”) and politely remove themselves from the situation temporarily, to allow the client to calm down (“May I just take a few minutes to call the office?”). Role-playing the part of the client helped them to see that the aggression was not directed at them personally, which helped them to stay in control of their own emotions.

We also addressed the fact that the technicians felt looked down on by other staff. So, instead of ‘scruffy’ overalls, they opted for a practical but smart outfit – light blue shirt and dark blue trousers, with knee pads to use to protect the material while on the job. They also accepted the idea of wearing a (clip-on) tie on arrival, to be removed while working on the equipment and then replaced before filling out the service sheet prior to departure. The difference these small measures have made to the technicians’ feelings about themselves, their role and the company have been immeasurable.

Mix and match

As for the conflicts I had identified between different departments, it was clear that they resulted largely from unmet needs for control, status, sense of connection and challenge. This we have addressed through special workshops at which we discuss our systems, what we can do better and ways in which to do so that meet those needs. The workshops run weekly for two hours every Tuesday morning and are attended by six people at a time – two from the consumer side, two from credit control and two technicians. It works out that every staff member attends four workshops in all, with six-week intervals between each. For the first two workshops, team members remain constant; then they are mixed up with others for the final two. By the end, everyone knows each other’s departments very well and will have compiled, on an A4 sheet, all ideas about how our service should be run and how to develop and implement them.

Before each workshop, one person is appointed facilitator. It is their role, after briefing from me, to get attendees together and, in turn, brief them on what is going to be covered at the workshop and get them thinking about it in advance. For instance, one workshop will cover the skills needed when speaking to customers on the telephone. Attendees might identify in advance skills such as speaking clearly, ability to listen and empathise, responding to the customer appropriately, knowing when to handle and when to forward calls, and confidence in handling difficult calls. At the workshop, with expectations already raised, we then explore ways and means. In this way, because there are no surprises, everyone feels safe enough to contribute and to consider new ways of working.

For instance, we will explore people’s tendency to be precious about their ‘own’ customers and dismissive of anyone else’s. The telesales staff can soon see that, if they say to colleagues, “My customer needs his order delivered immediately”, they put people’s backs up and are less likely to get co-operation. But a far more positive atmosphere can be created if they take an inclusive approach: “Our customer that we have been working with together lately needs his equipment. How soon do you think you will be able to get to him?”

At one session, we look at helping telesales staff to be more proactive. They had admitted that they feared cold calling because of the dismissive or rude responses they might receive – “Your company is too expensive”; “I’m too busy”; “Go away and don’t waste my time”. They found the “yes-set” technique a very helpful way of overcoming that fear. This is a technique designed to get a customer to agree with you without realising it, thus helping to establish rapport and co-operation.

“Is it right that you don’t deal with our company right now?” “Yes.” “Would you like to save some money?” “Yes.” “But I’m sure you are very busy.” “Yes.” “Then I’ll be very quick!”

Using this sort of ‘script’ has helped the telesales team focus their attention on their aim (to sell) rather than on their fear (of rejection) and thus, in effect, to rehearse success instead of failure. It has paid dividends, not only in terms of the team’s confidence but also in extra orders.

As we know, using the imagination to rehearse success is very powerful, increasing the expectation that success will be achieved. I use it in staff training whenever I can, to enable them to experience a different, more empowering mindset. I ask them to close their eyes, focus their attention for a moment or two on their breathing or on counting numbers and then invite them to see themselves doing what they want to achieve, such as making a cold call calmly and confidently. It works even when someone is petrified of the idea of making these calls, as one woman truly was. She insisted she could never, ever bring herself to do it. “How would you feel if you did make a successful call?” “Oh, brilliant! I would feel so much more confident and proud of myself.” Having created that image for herself, she was able to engage in the guided imagery.

Sometimes, I use guided imagery to help people imagine the answers to their own questions or concerns. “How are you going to know that you are handling a difficult customer better?” “I will be calm, courteous but firm.” Then they have something clear to picture.

New sales staff have benefited from this approach too. It is not easy to understand and sell a wealth of specialised dental equipment, if you are not familiar with the field. If they are paying a courtesy call, showing new wares, I advise starting with something small like gloves and wipes and composites. Handpieces – the business end of drills – are more difficult to talk about, so I suggest that they simply have one in their bag and bring it out only if a dentist asks about them. That immediately reduces the fear around feeling expected to sell one and they can relax enough to rehearse in their imaginations successfully doing so.

The workshops have been so successful that all staff want to keep them going. I have now handed the training role over to the human resources manager who shadowed me and I am currently trialling something similar for our external sales staff, who begged to be involved too. As they, as well as the service staff, are now on salary rather than commission, they feel far more interest in and connection with the company as a whole.

Status, control and challenge

One innovation that goes across the board is our customer categorisation scheme – increasing sense of status, control and challenge in one fell swoop. It is a system which I describe as ranging, in effect, from a shout to a whisper. The marketing people are responsible for customer category 599 (a randomly chosen number representing the people who don’t buy from us regularly or have never bought at all) and for customer category 503, people who may buy from mailers. They must ‘shout’ – shower these customers with mailers, thus achieving wide reach but fairly impersonally. The telesales team is responsible for customers in category 502 –- clients who may well be encouraged to buy more, if contacted personally. Sales staff take responsibility for category 501, those deemed likely to respond to a visit – a personal communication or ‘whisper’. Meanwhile, everybody is responsible for category 500, representing our ‘prime accounts’ or best customers: so the marketing people need to give them first choice of new products or to customise the mailers that they are sent; the telesales team must be willing to place back orders for them (whereas other customers are simply told that items are out of stock) and so on. In this way, everyone gets a specific area of remit, a degree of control – and a challenge to meet.

Putting an emphasis on creating high autonomy and control for individuals automatically leads towards a ‘flatter’ hierarchy, where as many people as possible have key responsibilities and accompanying status. One way of achieving this was through the introduction of team leaders, to act as day-to-day coaches for staff. Our team leaders – junior as well as more senior staff who wanted to take the NVQ team leading course – are distributed through all departments, and ‘sit’ between managers and staff. They work alongside, and are part of, their teams but have the ear of the managing director, so staff can be sure that any concerns they raise with their team leader will be fed back to me.

In other words, staff feel listened to. We also designate ‘experts’. These are individuals who are invited by team leaders to take on responsibility for excellence in a particular area such as pricing, profiling customers or specific products. The expertise they develop is put to the good of all staff who can benefit from it. For instance, if I am covering pricing in a workshop, I will invite the pricing expert to take over at that point, while I leave the room to get on with something else. Of course, the act of passing on her knowledge about pricing enables her to rehearse it and embed it deeper, as well as increasing her sense of confidence and competence.

Policing the code

We now consistently welcome input from people who will be affected by or have to implement new systems. When the sales director voiced concern about a rather relaxed approach to the clothing worn to work, we asked staff to come up with a dress code they thought appropriate – they decided on formal shoes in muted colours, smart skirt or trousers, smart T-shirts, blouses or jumpers with no slogans and no exposing of midriffs. Because they came up with the code, they are keen to police it. Similarly, having agreed that it didn’t look good for the company if smokers congregated around the front of the building for a puff, staff themselves took on the responsibility for devising a smoking policy and implementing it.

We have 12 managers in the company, covering accounts, purchasing, marketing, human resources, operations, warehouse and customer service, and none is responsible for more than six people. So, if a manager has 30 staff, he or she is given five team leaders with whom to share the load. I firmly believe that communication works best when managers aren’t far removed from those they manage and that they can be more focused and more productive if they aim for breadth rather than depth – a wider understanding of the whole business rather than lording it from on high over many minions.

To this end, we have introduced the idea of the duty manager. Once a fortnight, every manager acts as duty manager from 4-8pm. During that period, they take responsibility for everything that needs to go on, from overseeing that the right goods leave the warehouse at the right time to ensuring that the building is properly cleaned and closed up. As many of the routine daily jobs that need to be performed distract from our prime concern, which is to focus on the needs of customers, we are increasingly taking on part-timers to perform these tasks during the time when the duty managers are in charge. This meets a lot of needs. Sales, technical and customer service staff can pay full attention to customer concerns; the later hours suit mums who find it easier to arrange child care after school; employees are likely to have fewer absences because, if a child is sick, they don’t have to abandon work to collect the child from school: child care is already in place; and duty managers learn even more about the business by being in charge at this time.

To encourage all our managers to think in terms of unmet needs rather than problematic behaviour or relationships, we have discussed the scope of important needs such as those for control, attention, connection, status, privacy, competence, meaning and purpose, and how people might healthily, or not so healthily, try to meet them. The aim is for us to recognise unmet needs in others and also in ourselves, in our dealings with one another. For instance, one  manager had struggled to cope with the emotional outbursts of one of the customer services team. If she couldn’t influence a situation in the way she wanted, she would revert to throwing childish tantrums. This had led to unhelpful confrontations before. Once the manager realised, however, that the employee became emotionally aroused very quickly if she felt out of control, he was able to show her ways to take back control by calming herself and then reappraising the situation.

The result, overall, has been a much happier, calmer and more productive workplace. We expect staff to make 90 per cent of the day-to-day decisions. Ten per cent of their decisions may need collaboration or checking by team leaders or managers. And just one per cent, the most difficult, probably need to be referred to me – and I tell staff I reserve the right to make the most mistakes, as my decisions are necessarily the most difficult! I make it sound jokey but there is a serious point: we would rather staff ask for forgiveness than ask for permission – in other words, that they take the responsibility for making a decision whenever they can but just inform us quickly if it was the wrong one.

Smoother systems

We did initially lose staff – particularly sales staff who had been highly successful personally, working in their old way, in which they put their own needs before the good of the whole company – but we now have far fewer mistakes being made, far smoother systems and much more co-operation between departments. Staff are keen to pull together and to take on challenges. The atmosphere is positive, friendly and purposeful – it is a good place to work. A little while ago, we explained to some well-known recruitment agencies how we run this company; they were impressed, not only wanting to place candidates with us but also adopting some of our ideas.

Recently a firm of IT consultants has been helping us to introduce a new computer system and we gave team leaders and some more junior staff the responsibility of working with them, to show them all that we need the system to do. The consultants, who have worked with some very big companies indeed, told me how impressed they were with staff preparedness, flexibility and willingness to try new, better but unfamiliar methods for achieving their ends.

It was a proud moment and it brought home to me that, although there is still ground to cover, we have one overriding purpose now: to do the best for the business. For me, that means putting the needs of staff first, so that they will help me meet, in turn, the needs of the shareholders; for them, it means putting the business before themselves – but in so doing gaining much more personally in terms of status, confidence, autonomy and achievement.


Keith Abrahams is managing director of Plandent Limited, a dental supply company serving the UK and Ireland. He is also a human givens therapist.


This article first appeared in "Human Givens Journal" Volume 15 - No. 3: 2008

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