One of my least comfortable memories as an HR Director was presenting a new pay and grading system to my senior leadership team. My team had worked for months on it – and in my view, it was a thing of beauty.
We had reduced the number of levels from 17 to 6 to make it simpler and reduce hierarchies. We had carefully plotted the generic and transferable skills to facilitate movement across the organisation. We had stripped away the inflationary and often nonsensical job titles to make it easier to analyse and plan resource allocation. This will be transformative I thought. Unfortunately, other than a general reaction of ill-disguised apathy – one particular response from a Divisional lead sticks in my mind:
“I can’t see how this helps my organisation, it just looks like HR neatness.”
I was devastated.
Years on, I can see what he meant. Whilst my intentions were good, I had failed to recognise that the human beings who worked for us were not going to respond well to this “neatness”. They loved the fact that the smaller, incremental steps through the hierarchy gave them a sense of progress. The reasons people didn’t move across the organisation wasn’t because they didn’t know how their skills could be transferred, it was because we had a culture where asking to move out of your Divisional tribe was seen as a betrayal by your manager and peers. In an era of cost cutting and low pay awards, the puffing up of your job title with the addition of “senior” served as a reward. Yet again, I had put my faith in established HR wisdom that process can change human behaviour. Yet again, I had neglected to reflect how human beings might actually think, feel and behave.
I’m not alone in making this mistake. As we moved from Personnel managers to Strategic HR Business Partners, we became the process experts. We became brilliant at providing process solutions to human challenges. You want to improve human performance? Here’s a performance management system. You want a pipeline of talent? Here’s an Annual Talent Review supported by a 9 Box Grid. You want engaged employees? Here’s an Annual Engagement Survey supported by a cascade action plan for every team. You want people to feel rewarded and recognised for their efforts? Here’s a complicated bonus system.
It’s not difficult to see why we’ve taken the process route. In organisations, it’s often easier to introduce a one-size fits all process that is monitorable, scalable, and more cost effective to implement. Our desire for a consistent experience drives us towards a universal approach to the key elements of the employee lifecycle. But there is also an often-unspoken belief that underpins our process-obsession; if we don’t make managers do it, they won’t. Our lack of faith in line managers to do the right thing by their people results in the creation of processes that try to compensate for them. Sadly, if we have line managers who have no interest in developing their people, there is no process that will change the outcome. We just feel better that we can point to our completion rate of performance reviews, or the fact that we have everyone in one of 9 boxes. We rarely question whether we have actually had an impact on human behaviour in terms of performance or personal growth.
With all of the current buzz around HR needing to become more human, I believe we need to stop being the process experts and to start being the experts on how human beings think, feel, behave, communicate with one another, learn, are intrinsically motivated, etc. We need to build our capability and our credibility on how to create the conditions in our organisations where people can become more creative, more productive, more collaborative, more agile. Being the architects of these conditions won’t come from the implementation of universal processes but through a more robust understanding of WHY people behave in certain ways and HOW you can help them to shift their established behaviour.
The next time you’re interviewing someone for a role in your team, ask them about their understanding of the drivers of human behaviour and how they can vary. Ask them about System 1 and 2 Thinking and how this impacts human behaviour. Ask them about how introverts and extroverts respond differently. Ask them about different perceived threats and rewards and how they have applied this in their work. Ask them about how they believe habits can be changed, how you can use behavioural nudges to influence decision making, how they have used left and right brain thinking to improve communications. Ask them how they might create a culture of psychological safety to build more innovation.
Or ask them about how they might tackle some human challenges without resorting to a well-established process. Here’s your starter for 10.
We want our people to have conversations which help them do things slightly better than they are doing at the moment.
Current HR process
A performance management system that sets objectives at the start of the year, then has one big conversation at the end and gives each employee a numbered rating.
– Eliminate the one big end of year conversation and introduce concept of frequent check-ins
– Make them easier to do, ie: short, informal, undocumented
– Show line managers what a decent conversation looks like – provide them with conversation starters
– Get rid of ratings from the conversation.
– Encourage employees to initiate the conversation
We want our people to feel valued and recognised
Current HR Process
The Annual Bonus scheme linked to the annual performance system
– Give line managers a budget to make “spot rewards” so that employees get the gift or cash in a timely way
– Ask line managers to “surprise and delight” their people with gifts that matter to the individual
– Share examples of the types of rewards that managers are giving
– Introduce “peer to peer” rewards based around recognising collaborative behaviour
We want line managers to take an interest in developing their people and helping them reach their potential
Current HR Process
9 Box Grids, the Annual Talent Review, Hi-Po Programmes
– Introduce “career conversations” and show line managers what a good one looks like
– Recognise line managers who do this stuff well
– Create clusters of managers where cross-team movement might be achievable and get them together one hour a month for talent sessions
– Ask employees to show how they’ve updated their LinkedIn profile every 6 months so they can demonstrate how they’ve grown
The credibility of our traditional processes is increasingly being called into question. When only 8% of organisations believe their performance system is worth the time and effort that goes into them and as employee engagement levels have remained static for over 15 years, so our faith in large scale processes is getting shaken. Our response should not be to automate these broken processes in the hope that this will make them easier to comply with. I believe that our response should be to finally become what we were always meant to be – the genuine human expert.
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.