Many HR professionals share a common dilemma. Their leaders often moan about the things HR ‘makes them do’ – but are also the most reluctant when it comes to trying something new. It goes without saying that if HR teams want to do things differently, we’re dependent upon leaders trying new approaches: facilitating peer reviews rather than telling their teams how they’re performing; holding open conversations instead of giving someone a grade; and owning decisions about pay and reward. When we ask them to set aside these broken processes and attempt something new (and often unproven) we ask them to put their confidence, reputation, and self-esteem on the line. That’s pretty scary. If we’re going to help them trust it’s okay to change, we need to create a climate of psychological safety (apologies for yucky psycho-babble) which makes it comfortable for them to experiment.
In her book Mindset: The New Psychology of Success, Dr Carol Dweck explains that our behaviours are determined by how we see ourselves. If we have a fixed mindset we believe our qualities are set in stone; intelligence and personality are fixed traits rather than ones that can be developed. This is why some leaders say, ‘I’m too old to change. This is who I am. I’ve always been like this.’ The problem with having a fixed mindset is that it creates an urgency to prove ourselves over and over again, with criticism being received as an attack on our character and to be avoided at all costs. A growth mindset, on the other hand, comes from the belief our basic qualities can be cultivated through learning and effort. Obviously, people differ greatly in their attitudes, talents, interests, and temperaments, but we can all improve through application and experience. When we believe we can do this we’re driven to learn, practice, give things a go, and to see criticism as valuable feedback that should be embraced. In fact, the hallmark of a growth mindset is a passion for sticking at worthwhile pursuits, especially when they’re not going well. We need to help our leaders develop a growth mindset, because otherwise they won’t feel safe enough to experiment with change.
How can HR help leaders to develop this growth mindset? There are various ways.
Recognise there isn’t one right way of leading
This is where traditional leadership competency frameworks are so unhelpful, because they point to a set of behaviours that people either demonstrate or they don’t. They also suggest there’s only one way of leading, because the frameworks typically describe the ‘perfect leader’, whereas we know leaders need to vary their style depending on their situation. There are times when command-and-control can be helpful, for instance in a short crisis period, and we continue to look for extrovert leadership even though it’s perfectly possible to be an introvert and a great leader. We need to encourage leaders to find ways of delivering the outputs we want but in ways that work for them. I really like the approach they have taken at SAP. I met with their HR Director recently and he told me that they focus on what they want their leaders to do, rather than who they should be. They have three simple asks:
How they deliver this is down to their personal style and preferences. SAP HR focus on providing tools to help them do it well – and measuring to ensure the impact is being felt.
Encourage leaders to share
Suggest your leaders get together regularly and share how things are going for them (you’ll need to prime a couple in advance to relate their stories). This will give them the opportunity to learn from one another. The meetings aren’t for boasting, but for them to discuss where they’ve messed up and even to have a laugh about it. One financial services organisation I know asks groups of 10-12 leaders to meet for just one hour every month to talk about their people; simply gathering together every few weeks, with a facilitated discussion, to share highs and lows encourages leaders to learn and become better.
Celebrate those who’ve worked hard at leadership even if the results weren’t good
This feels counterintuitive and puts me in mind of the funny film Talladega Nights. In this, Will Ferrell’s ultra-competitive dad yells at him with the challenge: ‘If you’re not first, you’re last!’ But if you celebrate effort, you foster the factors that help leaders to grow. You also make it safe for them to try new things in order to improve, because your focus is on their good work and not on their results. One way of doing this is to encourage well respected leaders to share their fallibility; the more those who are perceived as great can talk about their mistakes, the better. We don’t celebrate leadership effort enough, and in more macho circles this is even seen as weak. Some companies are even experimenting with rewarding failure as it’s such an intrinsic part of innovation. Without failure, we’re not evolving.
Break it down into smaller chunks
Why do businesses have an obsession with big change programmes being better? At the BBC we instigated a change programme called Delivering Quality First (DQF), which felt (and was) massive, with multiple project streams and five year time horizons. These huge projects are always difficult and scary for everyone. If we want leaders to change willingly we have to shrink the size of the challenge they face.
This is one of the strategies advocated in the brilliant book Switch. The authors assert if we can find a way to make something seem small or even temporary, we’ll find it easier to persuade people to do it. This is the thinking behind Alcoholics Anonymous, which encourages its members to give up drink one day at a time, not forever. That way drinkers aren’t tempted to give up before they’ve even started (‘How will I cope at Christmas? Or at my sister’s wedding? Or when I get my test results?’). AA gives them a ‘Just For Today’ card which reads: ‘Just for today I will try to live through this day only, and not tackle all my problems at once. I can do something for twelve hours that would appal me if I felt that I had to keep it up for a lifetime.’
I’m also a devotee of a technique called the ‘Five Minute Room Rescue’ by home-organising guru Marla Cilley. When cleaning the entire house seems like such a mountainous task we decide not to bother, we can set a kitchen timer for five minutes and just tackle the worst room. When the buzzer goes, we can stop with a clear conscience. This taps into the notion that getting going is often the hardest part of change because it feels so daunting, but that anyone can accomplish something useful in five minutes and do it again the next day. Our confidence grows as we discover it’s not so difficult after all, and we want to do more of it.
We can use this in HR when we want leaders to change their habits. Instead of asking leaders to have continuous conversations with their staff each day, which sounds really daunting and frankly, exhausting, we could suggest they have one weekly five-minute conversation with a couple of their people by their desk, and to comment on one good thing that week. Just one five-minute conversation, and one comment — give it a go. Western Union used this approach when it wanted its leaders to improve their way of managing talent. Instead of the annual standard nine box grid completion accompanied by endless calibration discussions, it asked clusters of managers to come together for an hour a month to talk about the talent in their teams. It shrunk an industrial-scale task into a human-sized one.
Another way of minimising a challenge is to break it down into staged tasks – the educational technique of ‘scaffolding’. It states that, instead of assuming teachers need to teach something sizeable such as how to do algebra in one go, they take the end point and break it down into chunks. Each chunk involves learning something new but messing up one of them won’t put the learner off doing the rest of it. For instance, if you were to try to hold line managers responsible for making pay and bonus decisions rather than it being controlled centrally in HR, this would be a terrifying prospect for most leaders because they’d assume managers wouldn’t be capable of having honest conversations and would bust the salary budget in no time. However, your starting point in HR could be that instead of not implementing this change for fear of its causing problems, you could do it in stages like this:
This might sound time consuming, but how many hours do you spend carrying out the annual pay review at the moment? With scaffolding, you protect people from making huge mistakes and losing their confidence, creating ways for them to practise and improve.
If we are going to help leaders and managers move with our desire to change approach and to deliver HR that is more relevant for today’s disrupted world, then we need strategies that make it easier and more appealing than our usual HR initiatives.
As unpopular as it might be with leaders who often crave certainty, great HR is just ‘messy’. The HR leaders who are having the most impact, who are creating the conditions where people and organisations can thrive in our disrupted world are those who have the courage to avoid the neat solutions and instead offer messy solutions to the challenges we face. In this blog we explore what 'messy' HR looks like in practice.