7 tips for better HR practice

  1. Express a view – don’t fall into the trap of, “it’s my position to advise, you make the choice”. Not only does this annoy managers, it also disempowers you and makes you inessential. Why bother asking you if that’s all you do? Don’t be afraid to express a view and explain why you feel that way, even if others don’t agree no-one will ever disrespect you for having an opinion.
  2. See the person – its easy to get into the view that you need to be commercial, tough and driving the agenda of “the business” and forget about the primary aspect of your role. You can be all of these things and still see the human impact. Never forget to see the person in all choices and decisions, that is your unique lens.
  3. Don’t hide behind policy – similarly to “only advising”, hiding behind policy disempowers you. We know that there are good reasons to have policies, but you need to be able to explain why they’re appropriate and useful, not just quote them. Most decisions will always lie in the margins.
  4. Avoid the gossip – you will be party to important, confidential information throughout your career and how you use it and react to it will determine your professionalism. Avoid gossip at all costs, lead with integrity and dignity and never ever use knowledge as power.
  5. Write for your mum – when you commit anything into writing, ask yourself how you would feel if your mum or dad, or significant other were to receive the letter. Is it clear, does it show the tone and warmth you want it to? Could someone understand it who had no technical knowledge or background? Does it make sense?
  6. Seek to understand – in pretty much any situation there will be information and then THE information. Seeking to understand, to explore and asking good questions will help you to better lead a situation. Assume not only makes an ass out of u and me, it also leads to poor decisions.
  7. Language matters – You are not HR and they are not THE BUSINESS. End of.

Incongruence and forward motion

I wouldn’t mind betting that if I were to grant any of us supreme power and the ability to redesign the world in which we live, to recreate the moral, economic and social fabric of society, we would all have pretty clear views on some of our base fundamentals. We would make assertions about equality, or opportunity, or fairness or competition. We would be able to identify principles that we believe to be core to our vision of a “good society”.

I’m also pretty sure that as we delved deeper into our thinking, we’d identify naturally arising tensions when two principles came into conflict. Do we mean fair or equal? Do we mean the opportunity for success, or the chance to compete for success?

If these moral dilemmas occur in a theoretical “blank sheet” society, what are the chances that they are also likely to occur in real life, “in the game” life? These trade offs and tensions are an inevitable by product of sentient beings, they’ve formed the foundations of philosophy for thousands of years.  And they’re also the tensions that present to leaders in any walk of life.

Like him or loathe him, Nick Clegg talks about the realisation, during his time in office as Deputy Prime Minister, that compromise was seen as weakness. It was perceived to be stronger to be stuck in inaction through a dogmatic and principled approach, than to progress through discussion, diplomacy and compromise. On a much grander scale we can see the opposite argument in the achievement of the Good Friday peace talks, where diametrically opposed groups agreed on a way forward.

Our world is full of incongruence and our job as leaders is to be ok with that. We have to be able to hold conflicting positions, and be aware of the tension that this brings, in order to move forward and progress. Sometimes the smallest steps towards improvement can be the most valuable, sometimes we have to embrace the things we dislike in order to shape and improve them. Sometimes we have to be ok with…ok.

Forward action is everything, we have little enough time as it is without spending large proportions of it stuck in an endless cycle of righteous indignation and ideological tailspin. We are all eminently capable of identifying what’s wrong and pointing out the faults in others, only some are truly capable of going to them and helping to move things forward in a positive direction.

Gauging the speed of change

We’ve all been there, the conversation where the speed of change is, “just not quick enough”. I’ve probably uttered the words myself. One of the biggest tricks for any leader in this circumstance is being able to differentiate between the input activity and the desired output. Or, the things we need to do in order to get the results we want to see.

It’s a wonderfully alluring concept to equate the speed of delivering the first with the achievement of the second, but sadly there is no direct line between the two. Regardless of their experience, leaders will be told to reduce the time to implement, to condense the programme of activities to realise results much more quickly.  And many will happily comply to demonstrate the activities have been done, ahead of schedule. Which is good, right?

Except the desired change doesn’t happen as we wanted.

But that’s ok, because it must be the fault of someone else, somewhere else. We absolutely nailed our contribution – they just didn’t do what we needed.

The inescapable issue is that there is an optimum rate of change in any organisation and in any situation and it won’t always be the same, dependent on context. The key to successful change is twofold –

  • Understanding the contextual climate for change
  • Measuring success on outputs and inputs

To give a simple example, let’s imagine a bottle of organisational goodness (aka water) which we trying to unlock and set free into a new organisational design (aka a bowl). On one end of the spectrum, we could hold the bottle upside down and shake it frantically, the water will probably come out pretty quickly, the chance of splashing, missing the bowl and causing a mess though are high. At the other end the spectrum, we could tip it slightly below horizontal, place the neck against the lip of the bowl and transfer all the water. It will be super slow, but highly effective.

The reality is that somewhere between the two is the most effective spot, based on the deign of the bottle and the bowl.

Ultimately, the answer to success lies in the name itself – “change”. If all we were interested in was the activity, we’d probably call it “stuff”. One of the key skills of any leader is to be able to articulate the importance of the embedding and sustaining of change and not get caught into the organisational pressure to do some stuff quickly. It won’t always be the answer people want to hear, it won’t always make you the most popular, but if you’re genuinely keen on delivering success, you need to be sure everyone knows and agree what it actually looks like.

Note: Having researched the optimum way to extract water from a bottle at speed, I’m led to believe that in principle it is to swirl the bottle in a circular motion, creating a vortex through the centre that allows water to extract via the sides whilst air rises through the vortex. Sounds complicated.

SMART objectives are stupid

I don’t think there are many employees, managers or people professionals in business that won’t, at some point in time, have been told to make their objectives SMART.  It’s the 101 of management training and something that has spread through organisations like Japanese bindweed.

If you’ve just landed from another planet, have been having a particularly long snooze, or are just very lucky and haven’t had the pleasure yet, SMART stands for:

Specific

Measurable

Achievable/Attainable

Realistic

Time-bound/Timely

The idea being that if you want to set a goal/objective then it should be all of these things – which is cute, but wrong.

My major issue is, that by the very nature of their construct, they’re limiting. They focus you on committing to do one thing, when another – which you may not have come across yet – might be three, four or five times better. The evidence to this is in the million plus performance conversations that happen each year when an employee is explaining that they didn’t do the five objectives they agreed, but have delivered x amount of other things that have added greater value.

Next, they’re entirely left brain and play to a Taylorian vision of business and process. They are the antithesis of creativity, innovation, and the search for exponential value add. It is hard to get passionate, emotional or excited about a SMART goal, because they’re intended to lock down your energy, rather than unleash it.

Finally, they’re linked to a performance management culture and approach that we’ve all pretty much decided is dead, done and buried – I know, I’ve been writing about it for ten years. The idea that there are such things as performance cycles, that we have the level of predictability and that we can improve organisational performance by setting a bunch of spurious goals and having a bad conversation once, twice or even four times a year through a “performance” review is nothing more than a hopeful, collective misnomer.

Let me tell you what works better – a shared and understood vision of success, empowered teams and individuals who are committed to creating that vision and leaders that coach, develop and support their teams. And whilst in one sense achieving this may not be SMART, it is sure to be the cleverest thing you could possibly do.