HR needs the workplace more than most

Over the last few weeks I’ve written about the need to bring people back into the workplace and to find a new balance of flexibility. There are countless reasons why this makes sense, which I won’t repeat again, but you can read some of them here and here. Last week the same calls were made first by the CBI and then by the UK Government. Cue outrage from the normal quarters within the people profession, busy munching on their homemade granola.

Whilst the arguments for a gradual return to the workplace span all job types, for those in the HR profession there are particular concerns, which makes it doubly ironic that many in the ranks are championing their own demise. Once again, we have drunk the proverbial Kool Aid and not stopped to think through the implications of the arguments that we make.

Lets start with the administration that forms part of every HR function, no matter how we try to streamline it or remove it altogether. People need to get paid have changes made, get issued contracts, have records kept and a whole host of other activities. The arguments for systematization will only become stronger with teams absent from sight and if people are really necessary, why pay the higher wages of the UK when the work can be outsourced to other parts of the world? What difference does it make if the process is standardised and the only connection is digital?

Then we have the other aspects of the work that we do. If we are learning remotely, then why not buy the content in, we can digitalise the whole process allowing subject matter expects to buy directly in from providers, no need for costly intermediaries who only interact with the business online. Delivery can be recorded by and consumed at the time and need of the individual regardless of the business that they’re in. What value does the internal recruiter have, when interviews are scheduled by Zoom, following an advert automatically placed on a job board and they’ve never met the hiring manager?

The argument around widespread homeworking assumes that the value that we perceive we can add in this way is matched by the value of those that employ us. That’s a dangerous assumption to make and one that has, over the years, consistently shown to be mismatched. Our job now is to build on the fantastic work that HR professionals have delivered over the last six months, to demonstrate our knowledge of the broader societal and economic impact of organisations and work and to articulate the importance of culture and shared values. The overwhelming evidence is that this prospers better in person than online, we can choose to champion that agenda or to slip backwards at our peril.

When the going gets tough

Sometimes life as a leader just gets tough. You reach a point where you feel like you’re putting in more energy than the reward you’re getting out. It is hard to see the future, to plot a course, to be able to understand where you’re leading to. The whole thing feels tricky, challenging and relentless.

It is at these moments that we get an opportunity to better understand our character, to test ourselves, to learn who we really are.

Do we face into the challenges? Do we ride the wave? Or do we walk away, either physically or metaphorically, and leave the responsibility to someone else?

Give me ten successful leaders and I’ll guarantee all of them will be able to recount a moment where they’ve faced into a situation like the one I’ve described. Where they haven’t known the answers, felt alone, worried, lost. And I can guarantee that they’ll describe how they stuck it out, overcame and eventually found the clarity they needed.

They won’t talk about how they hid, disappeared, abdicated or absolved themselves of the responsibility for their team and themselves. They’ll talk about how they overcame.

Whatever challenge you’re facing into, there are people around that can support, people who’ve been through the same or something similar. People who are there to help. It doesn’t matter how senior or junior you are, we all sometimes need help to figure things out. There is always someone to ask.

But what others can’t do for you is bring the resolve, the grit, the resilience and the strength to see things through. That’s something only you can bring to the party and that is the part that determines the kind of leader you are.

So what’s it going to be?

 

Hold your nerve

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve arrived at an event, a dinner or a networking session and walking into the room it appears that everyone knows everyone else. And of course, I know no-one. My mind searches to try and understand which magic black book I don’t have access to, which club I’m not part of. And how on earth I’m going to cope with the next period of time amongst strangers.

A similar experience struck me recently when I joined a new fitness class. Everybody looked so adept, so well drilled and rehearsed and there was me flailing around like Bambi on ice. The dread of attending staying for the first four or five sessions, feeling that I would be the incompetent in the room compared to the others who clearly must practice every waking hour to be able to do so well.

And of course, joining a new organisation. The way in which people speak, the knowledge they have about how things are, how they were and how they need to be. Their confidence and understanding, the well rehearsed patterns and protocols and their seemingly effortless delivery. As a new starter, you just bounce around the edges feeling incompetent and out of your depth.

With the passing of time we realise that people are just making small talk at the event, there are others stood on their own, those that know one another are welcoming and inclusive, you can interact as much as you like. ¬†At the gym, the routines are known, but the execution is patchy, the guy catching his breath, or missing out a couple of reps because of fatigue. The new colleagues at work have a pattern, but they still have problems they can’t solve, they have a shared history which includes their collective mistakes.

As our brains seek to make sense of situations, they draw patterns, make assumptions and are drawn initially to simplicity. Our fears and concerns express themselves in worries of inadequacy that we need to control and contain. Time gives us data and data provides contradictions. There is no perfect system, or perfect individual, there are flaws and imperfections everywhere if we choose to observe.

At the end of the day, we’ve just spent longer with ourselves and observing our own, no wonder we notice them first.

Confidence and humility in leaders

One of the joys of my job is the ability to observe people performing in their roles as leaders. The psychologist in me loves the field study presented every day. Over the last 25 years I’ve had the fortune to observe a number of hugely successful leaders perform live in their roles and to see the rise (and sometimes fall) of many others.

Amongst the most successful, those that no only lead their organisation to success, but who manage to do it whilst remaining generally popular, liked and trusted, there exists the ability to manage one of the most important tensions in leadership. That between confidence and humility.

For decades, we’ve approached appointments into leadership with an unnatural focus on confidence. We base our assessments around it, we appraise and review people against it and, particularly in the West, we have made it a central part of our definition of a leader.

Given this, it is perhaps unsurprising that many of our corporate scandals have resulted from a level of over confidence bordering on arrogance. When you create a boardroom full of over confident (normally) white (normally) men, throw in a large dose of confirmation bias, the relentless pursuit of a collective goal is both a strength and a fundamental weakness.

What great leaders and leadership teams bring, is the counterbalance of humility. In fact, as we see public demands for greater transparency, better governance and a broader social purpose, it would be fair to argue that the need for humility becomes even greater.

The relentless pursuit needs to be balanced with collective responsibility, a constant awareness of strength and weakness, a collective conscious and the willingness to understand and accept when things have gone, or are going, wrong. Simply put, the best leaders are able to accept that they cannot, and will not, always be right. And they are ok with that.

For those of us that work in and around HR, recruitment, leadership assessment, our challenge is how we help to redefine the established norms in our organisations and work. We all need leaders that aspire us, who breed confidence and hope and who will follow over the top. But we also need those that are strong enough to admit that sometimes, they’ll get it wrong.