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  • Writer's pictureSarah Ellis

Cars, Kittens and Pizza... Unpacking the Importance of Systems Thinking in HR.

Motivated woman on pier at sunset

Let’s think for a moment about a car.

They can be great at taking us to where we want to be. Get in, pop your seatbelt on, start the engine, drive off. Use your indicators (go on, it’s just that little stick on the left), use your breaks, pop fuel in when needed, put your tunes on, reach your destination. Great, isn’t it!

But wait a minute, you get in the car, but the seat belt won’t fasten…so you’re not going to drive off.

Fixed the seatbelt but realise you’re also out of fuel…so you’re not going to drive off. 

Finally got some fuel in, but 10 different warning light pop up at once; tyre pressure is wrong, breaks need checking, engine is overheating, oil is low…you know where this is going.

Let’s face it, that’s unlikely to happen. You get your car serviced, take it for its MOT, know with absolute certainty that the bits you don’t even know the names of under the bonnet are all working in perfect harmony to ensure you can drive off and reach your destination.

This is sometimes referred to as systems thinking. The basis that everything is connected, and the entire system needs to work, with everything influencing the system as a whole, not just working as separate parts. It’s about seeing it as a bigger picture. A car with a working horn is useless if the engine is dead.

Being able to take this systems based approach is important as a leader of a business, particularly in relation to your HR policies and procedures. Yes, you might have a kitten room and free pizza Friday, but once the kittens have gone home and the pizza has been consumed, everyone is still unsatisfied and burnt out.

That’s likely because only part of your system is working, someone is clearly trying hard with wellbeing initiatives, but without appropriate HR policies and staff benefits which motivate the team, it’s not going to make a real impact. Like trying to start a car with no fuel.

So, from the perspective of systems thinking, you need to view your HR offer to staff as a whole and not just as individual parts. A HR system that has honestly considered and worked on all aspects of the employee journey is more likely to produce a motivated and engaged staff team.

You might have an excellent annual leave and TOIL policy, and some great wellbeing initiatives but you haven’t considered that you also need to align this with your pay & benefits policy, your performance management framework, your menstruation & menopause policies.... Again, to get in the car, drive away and reach your destination, you need all the parts to be functioning.

The benefits of taking stock of your whole HR offer can be of tremendous scale. It brings true value for your team and for your organisation.  A joined-up HR strategy helps to deliver improved recruitment, retention, and output.

When assessing your HR offer, some of the things you need to stop and consider are:

  • Are all your policies and procedures up to date and in line with current legal legislation?

  • Are your policies and procedures easy to find, simple to understand and readily available in a staff handbook on a shared area?

  • Do you have a clear performance management framework which includes appraisals, regular 1-1s, easy ways for staff to give and receive feedback?

  • Have you recently audited your pay and benefits to ensure you’re competitive with your market, and that the policies associated with it are transparent and allow for positive conversations?

  • Can you honestly say you’re a values led organisation? Can your staff name your values? Do they see them embedded with everything you do?

  • Do you have a behavioural/competency framework so staff at all levels know what is expected of them outside of their operational objectives?

  • What does your wellbeing strategy look like? Is it all kittens and pizza (which are fine, you could have puppies and sandwiches if you prefer) or does it also include employee assistance schemes, occupational health information, training on understanding the menopause etc…

  • Are you confident that you know what your staff think? Would you consider them to be engaged in the organisation? Do you have an employee survey, open staff forums, 360s for your senior leaders?

The points above aren’t all encompassing but they should give you an idea of what a more ‘whole’ HR function looks like. Ensuring these functions are accessible and well communicated should give a far high level of staff satisfaction and motivation than just one or two tokenistic initiatives.

You might be thinking all the above could take years to do, and that could be true depending on your starting point. But wouldn’t you rather be in 2026 with all the above in place, than in 2026 with unsatisfied staff, grumpy adult cats, and mouldy pizza?

If you’re not sure where to start, below are some practical suggestions for you to consider:

  • Carry out a staff engagement survey where your team can be assured of anonymity, ensuring your questions are constructive. If you want detail, ensure you’re asking open questions, not something which could be a yes or no answer.

  • Hold some staff forums to engage staff in conversations about what motivates them, what they think is missing, what would keep them here for more than 18 months, what do they think isn’t working. Ensure they know it is a safe space and you genuinely want to improve their working lives.

  • Do a proper ‘stock take’ of all your policies and procedures; check that you have everything legally required, assess what policies might be missing, do you have frameworks, check when policies were last reviewed. That way you’ll have an idea of the amount of work you might need to do, and you can make a plan so it doesn’t feel too overwhelming.


As always, you can also speak to us at Atkinson HR about supporting you with strategic projects and policy implementation. We can add particular value if your capacity is an issue, and if you’d like to see results in a shorter time scale.

For further reading around the areas of staff wellbeing, burn out and staff engagement, check out the links below:


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