Article: Save yourself from being viewed as a reactive support function

#Building HR Capability

Save yourself from being viewed as a reactive support function

Far from being seen as a strategic or leading force, HR is seen and encouraged to be a largely reactive support function that takes much of the people-related grunt work off managers, handles the tough people stuff, and helps keep people-costs down
Save yourself from being viewed as a reactive support function

We, the human race, continue to exploit our brain power to change the world in which we live; we make it more volatile, uncertain, complex, and ambiguous. Driven by many different urges, from unashamed self-interest, through a desire to exploit, to child-like passion to explore the unknown, we create the world around us. 

Yet, to read some contemporary business literature, you could be tricked into thinking that we are all the innocent victims. We hear phrases like, “With the unprecedented disruption in all spheres of life … businesses need to continually refocus, realign and respond to such disruptions to cope with the diverse demands.” Is this an illness that we need to cure? 

NO! Creative disruption has always driven progress; this is an innate component of success. It is not something to be tolerated, managed, controlled but something to be nurtured, encouraged and led. We have all heard how organizations are questioning the value of annual performance appraisals as they don’t increase performance. Duh! For over half a century, we have known that they did not work, do not work, and could not work as a performance enhancer. Now there is a rush to ditch them and try something new. We should have done it then!

No wonder that, in August 2005, Keith Hammond wrote the article “Why I Hate HR” in Fast Company. In it, he cited examples and comments that led to his conclusion that:

“… [HR] pursue standardization and uniformity in the face of a workforce that is heterogeneous and complex.”

“… abhor exceptions — not just because they open up the company to charges of bias but because they require more than rote solutions … Make one exception, HR fears, and the floodgates will open.”

HR is an immensely complex function — in my opinion, the most technically complex. And, I would contend that most HR professionals are technically skilled and are typically passionate about what they do. And yet, in most organizations, Keith is correct, HR is still undervalued, and not enabled or allowed to deliver to its strategic potential. Far from being seen as a strategic or leading force, it is seen and encouraged to be a largely reactive support function that takes much of the people-related grunt work off managers so that they can focus on “their real jobs”; handles the tough people stuff so that the organization doesn’t get sued; helps keep people-costs down; and introduces an interesting initiative, occasionally.

Of course, line managers welcome that type of support. But, let’s be quite clear, failure to fully capitalize on the potential of HR is not a zero-sum game. Encouraging, or worse, expecting HR to do what managers are paid to do debilitates management and leadership; expecting HR to simplify processes that are just not simple, often to the point of trivialization, weakens an organization, while not using HR’s full capability is an opportunity lost and potential competitive disadvantage. Let’s take these two examples and look a little closer.

Effective Management and Leadership

We can argue about the specific figures but there is growing research-based consensus that over 2/3rd leavers cite an issue with how they were managed; 40 percent+ of people are less than fully engaged; less than 50 percent of employees have performance plans, even 20 percent of the way into the year; and 1/3rd middle managers find managing others “unpleasant.”

Those figures have been consistent for years but most of the innovative work has been by vendors — selling Band-Aids to address the symptoms (Engagement surveys, Benchmarks, Well-being Workshops etc.) 

Call me dumb if you like, but isn’t there sufficient evidence that we are putting the wrong people into management roles? 

The data is not good evidence for HR taking or needing to take on more responsibility for recruiting staff for managers or helping them with their discipline discussions. We need HR to fix the problem not mask the symptom. We need to either select managers based on evidence that they can lead and manage people (not merely achieve results in a prior role), and/or put in place powerful development processes that include pass/fail/exit options.

Process Design

Processes are behavior engineering devices designed to trigger, reinforce, and enhance performance and/or development and HR needs to design them accordingly. Of course, this should include attention to simplicity. However, simplification for the sake of it can, and often does lead to trivialization. 

HR’s role is to design processes that are first and foremost effective. If they aren’t, then scrap them now (not 50 years later)! If they are effective, HR should make them as easy to learn and apply as possible. Performance Appraisal is a classic example of simplicity over effectiveness. We trivialize the rating scales and the paperwork to the point where it produces indefensible output, which is then ‘calibrated’ to the point where nobody other than the CFO believes it and is hated by most users. 

Why does this happen?

I repeat that most HR professionals are highly technically skilled and typically passionate about what they do. But frankly, in many organizations, I find that senior managers with little contemporary people-management expertise make poor decisions about how best to use HR. We have a chicken and egg scenario! 

Until we dramatically enhance the average quality of people-management in organizations, we will continue to see employees less than optimally productive, increased employee litigation, growth in the gig-economy, and organizational failures through poor decision-making. HR must take a leading role and will need to call on skills not typically deployed.

The Solution?

The solution does not lie in another initiative such as wellness, diversity, employee engagement, e-recruitment, but it may still lie with HR. 

First, HR needs to be extremely clear about the contributions it needs to make to maximize organizational success and sustainability, and then focus its efforts on the important issues, not merely the urgent.

There are six key contributions that HR needs to make:

  1. Ensure a secure talent pipeline 

  2. Maximize performance and productivity

  3. Accelerate, deepen and broaden development

  4. Optimize HR investment

  5. HR Team development to keep up-to-date

  6. Ensure compliance

Only when the HR is clear about what each of these looks like in day-to-day measurable terms can it then work out the specific technical skills it needs.

But, secondly, great HR leaders bring five skillsets to complement their technical expertise. These are critically important when making the transition from “Highly skilled professional support function” to “Strategic leader of the business”:

Courage – ambition, determination, agility, persistence, and resilience needed because: “Without courage, we aspire to mediocrity”; “Without sustained courage, we become servants rather than providers of professional services.”

Personal Effectiveness – presentation/speaking, selling, and negotiating needed because: “Through personal interactions, we can achieve powerful and sustained impact on the strategy and operation of the business.”

Business acumen – a combination of commercial acumen, financial acumen, and political savviness needed because “HR should shape and drive strategy, not merely support it.”

Technological acumen – needed because we must, “Ensure that the most appropriate technology is used to trigger and optimize sustainable productivity and development.”

Analytic acumen – understand data quality (validity, reliability, comprehensiveness, differentiation, and usefulness) needed because: we must “Drive evidence-based strategies and robust tactical decision-making.”

Which of these do you need to develop the most? 

Topics: Building HR Capability, Strategic HR, Leadership

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