As an HR Director, I spent most of my time on the people whom my processes had designated either as our elite or our problem children. The top 10 percent — the super-talent in our top right-hand box — were showered with attention through fast-track programmes, promotions and higher bonuses. Meanwhile, at the other end of the scale, the ones we didn’t trust, were the motivation behind the vast majority of our HR policies and processes. There are serious downsides to this approach, the main one of which is staring us in the face: we’re ignoring the vast majority of the organisation. I don’t think we can afford to do this any longer, and here’s why.
Letting the Stars fend for themselves
Our primary vehicle for top talent is our High Potential Programmes but recent research by management consultancy CEB report that 73 percent of them fail to produce a positive business outcome. We shouldn’t be surprised by this statistic, as there are glaring errors in how we execute them; the following three problems ought to be sufficient for us to pause and question.
Our ability to define top talent is flawed
The data we use to identify high potentials is flawed by our outdated performance and talent management processes, which have an inherent rater bias. One of my clients was disappointed when, at the launch of his new High Potentials Programme, his opinion was that ‘out of 24 people, there were probably only seven who had any real potential’. This was despite HR spending several weeks nailing the right criteria and coaching senior leaders to help them make sound decisions. How many times have you looked at your Hi-Po nominations and thought, ‘Really? Are they actually the best?’ In my experience we recommend people for this status for a whole range of dubious and subjective reasons: the most common being the person is a perceived flight risk, as an alternative to a pay rise, and because of not knowing how to say no. When I was at Serco, for instance, we ran a leadership course in which it regularly transpired that about half the delegates weren’t as high performing as we’d assumed they were. They’d been sent on it because they had a great relationship with their boss or were doing a job that played to their strengths, but when they were later promoted into a management role they often didn’t perform well.
High Potentials Programmes are inherently divisive
These programmes create a group of perceived favourites, who now have the additional burden of high expectation on their shoulders. What’s more, these anointed ones can become frustrated by a lack of immediate promotional rewards now they’ve been earmarked as ‘special’. This results in a group of pressured, insecure leaders and managers with an insatiable appetite for reward and success — a toxic combination. If you need any convincing that focusing on the ‘stars’ is damaging, check out this wonderful TEDTalk by Margaret Heffernan.
The programmes lack transparency
Leaders worry about the neglected 90 percent discovering they’re not in the elite group. According to CEB, this results in up to a third of businesses concealing from the high potentials that they’ve been identified as such, creating the crazy situation in which the organisations have a group the members don’t even know they’re in!
Like many of our traditional HR talent tools, the High Potentials Programme belongs to a different age — when careers were more linear and predictable, when structures were less flat and when ‘career paths’ made sense. Fortunately, we’re seeing talent management evolving to recognise that we have to widen our focus away from a tiny minority including:
HR teams are beginning to cater for the majority rather than an elite few. The truth is our best people will always be okay, ensuring their voices are heard and pushing for the best opportunities. We don’t have to worry about them too much.
Not letting the Rogues run the show
On the other hand, there’s a danger inherent in designing change around the rogue minority. When we do this, we inflict constraining policies and processes on people who are capable of more, and who have no intention of behaving in the same way as the bottom 10 percent in any case. It’s tempting to tell ourselves if the policy or process doesn’t apply to the 90 percent they can just ignore it, but there are three main reasons why this isn’t good enough.
It discourages innovation and pro-activity
When we force people in the majority to carry out a process designed for the lowest common denominator, we patronise them and — even worse — sap their ability to think for themselves. How irritating is it to be treated as a poor performer when you know you’re not? Does it make you feel like you want to do your best work? Do you feel confident taking a risk that might result in a mistake, when you know the outcome will be a tutting re-write of the company’s procedures manual? This is not a recipe for encouraging people to be brilliant.
It deters poor performers from improving
A brilliant article in the Harvard Business Review refers to this as the Pygmalion Effect. In George Bernard Shaw’s play, Eliza Doolittle famously says: ‘You see, really and truly… the difference between a lady and a flower girl is not how she behaves but how she’s treated. I shall always be a flower girl to Professor Higgins because he always treats me as a flower girl and always will; but I know I can be a lady to you because you always treat me as a lady and always will.’ If we design HR services around people with the assumption they can’t do something, the chances are they won’t; in other words, if we assume they’re useless managers that’s how they’ll behave. On the other hand, if our starting point is they’re capable of managing well rather than us constantly compensating for poor behaviour, we’ll most likely see an improvement.
It rewards poor behaviour
When about to launch a new HR product or approach, most of my energy went into trying to persuade the most negative managers or employees that it was a good idea. Every roadblock they put in the way resulted in delays, compromises or occasionally, giving up. When we spend lots of time on our ‘problem children’, when we lavish them with our undivided support and attention, where’s the incentive for them to change? Why didn’t I simply exclude them? I was recently working on the introduction of a new form of bonus within a media company. Most of the managers liked the idea. It meant they would have their own budget to make discretionary and timely rewards rather than having to be part of an annual and centrally organised bonus scheme. The ones who resisted were worried that having to explain to people in their team why they had chosen to give a reward to one person but not another would be too difficult. Instead of compromising and creating lots more rules and guidance for managers (which would have diluted the positive impact), we decided just to leave the objectors out of the new scheme on the grounds that this was their choice. The impact was fascinating. Many of them changed their mind – worried about being left out. By treating them as adults and ignoring rather than rewarding their negative behaviour, the better managers got the scheme they wanted.
So let’s not worry about the outliers. The best will be fine with or without your help, and if you gear your actions towards the worst you’ll only stifle the rest. That doesn’t mean you shouldn’t have any policies or procedures aimed at these groups, only that they’re best left as back seat passengers rather than being in the driving seat of our HR ambitions. It’s the 80 percent in the middle who should be the main focus of our attention; our job is to cater for everybody, not to nanny and control the minority.
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.