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Got People Problems? Don’t Blame Your Dog!

By Diane Bock

Let’s say you are the CEO of a big company. What would you do if the sales force wasn’t hitting its revenue targets? Or if your manufacturing plants made defective products? How about if your customer complaints suddenly spiked?

Dog chewing pillowI think you’d see it as your job to drive the organization to understand and solve these issues. You’d announce a focus on improvement. You’d get key people to investigate, define root causes, and find solutions. You’d encourage out-of-the-box thinking. You’d lend your own knowledge and get experts to help where needed. You’d make sure the improvements included creating new metrics, new processes, new training, and investments in new technology. You’d establish accountability for change. You’d...well, you just wouldn’t rest until it was fixed. And your board of directors and shareholders would be ever so grateful.

But maybe I’m wrong about you. Maybe instead you would say, “Oh well! It’s obvious that the people who work in the under-performing group(s) aren’t good enough. It’s time to cut their budget, reduce their staff, and decrease their decision-making authority. Who really needs that group anyway?”

Oh? You wouldn’t say that? I’m sorry, I must have hit my head on something. Of course, you wouldn’t say that.

But then why do CEOs and other key business leaders throw up their hands when they aren’t getting enough value out of their human resources departments. Why are they so ready to blame, defund, diminish, or wonder aloud if they should get rid of HR?

Why would there not be the same kind of investigation, support, and rigor applied to surface and address shortfalls in the HR function’s results?

Think of all the amazing advances and radical changes that have been made in the fields of sales, manufacturing, and customer service in the last decade or two. No executive has ever been dismissive of or uninterested in those areas.

I don’t want to name names, but in my travels, I’ve seen more than one HR function that was simultaneously unsupported or undermined by company leadership and blamed for all the people problems in the company. Now come on, is that fair? It’s like when a kid blames his failure to turn in homework on his dog. Fido ate it. Right.

But you know what? I’m not mad at those CEO’s and executives. While they may be the most hardworking, dedicated, and brilliant minds we have, they shouldn’t be expected to walk on water. Yeah, having a more human workplace applies to them, too. (We all want that, don’t we?). But once they see the issue, they will need to have a key role in fixing it.

What or who can we blame, if not Fido?

Just as the accounting departments of the 1970s morphed into the strategic high value-adding finance functions of today, HR can do so much more to support the success of our organizations. We know this because some already do. But what is getting in the way of rallying support to make it happen in all organizations?

First, I’d say it’s the classic problem that executives “don’t know what they don’t know.” Business schools don’t teach much about what the role of human resources should or could be, let alone the bodies of knowledge needed to ensure the function reaches its full potential. What most people think of when they identify the duties of HR is benefits, compensation, people development, performance management policy, compliance with labor laws, and assisting with hiring and firing. Those responsibilities haven’t changed much in forever (except for being downsized and outsourced). Yet, they aren’t the only things HR can do.

Second, many executives place HR in the same category as other corporate functions, such as legal and IT. This is the category you might call “I don’t really need to know what they know to do my job.” When they have an IT or legal issue, a smart leader will call in the experts and depend on them to handle it. However, it’s a mistake to categorize HR in the same way. You might call IT to fix your computer. You might call legal to fix the language in a contract. And the temptation with HR is to call them in to implement your idea for a solution or to “fix my people.” That’s where the problem starts.

Here’s an example. Let’s say members of your team aren’t getting along. You see evidence of mistrust and a lack of collaboration. Goals aren’t being met. What to do? You likely will do what you and others in your position have done for decades: call HR and have them put your team through some training on teamwork. When the training doesn’t work, you can blame HR.

What would be a better approach? How about this: You can still call HR, but what you initially ask them to do is help you diagnose the situation. For a challenge such as this, you need an advisor, not an order taker. And the right solution more than likely is about adjusting your leadership practices as opposed to addressing your team’s skills or personalities.

Yes, I work for a company that sells training programs, but I’m here to tell you that many situations are not solved by training. Often, there are other levers that can be pulled to get results, such as making goals clearer, establishing team ground rules and communication protocols, removing barriers and disincentives, revising work processes, defining clear roles, and making sure everyone feels supported and appreciated. If HR can’t help you with building your leadership knowledge and expertise to solve a real challenge you face, then I’m all in with blaming HR.

But once HR transfers the knowledge or helps you develop the skills you need, you may be able to diagnose future challenges yourself. Even better, you can pay it forward by coaching other leaders who report to you. If you gain more knowledge about the science of human performance and the best ways to act on that science, you’ll become a better leader. And the whole blame game will be over. Fido can rest easy.

What HR knowledge do leaders need?

As a leader, you must ditch the old mindset that people performance belongs to HR. Yes, even if you are a scientist or an engineer. You also need to have a much deeper understanding, much earlier in your career, of the practice of leadership. You need to go into it believing you don’t know everything about being a leader and there is always something new to learn; the same way you view the ongoing process of becoming an expert about your company, industry, technology, or function.

It might not be your job to make sure your HR function can support the business in more strategic ways, but there does need to be at least one executive in or out of HR that has enough knowledge to know what those more strategic ways are.

That’s a big subject for another day. For now, let’s see where you can build your own capability in the leadership-related areas in which a great HR function should have expertise. Focus your learning on areas that relate to a real challenge in front of you. Below are examples of questions you’ll want to be able to answer as a masterful and wise leader.

  • What factors contribute to or detract from human performance, engagement, and real behavior change?
  • What’s the difference between management and leadership?
  • What do I need to do to avoid hiring mistakes?
  • What’s a leadership strategy and why do we need one?
  • How do I know what skills are most important for the jobs that report to me?
  • When my organization changes, how do I know what new skills my team needs to develop?
  • What personal attributes are needed for success in the jobs that report to me? And, which attributes are very difficult to change in a person?
  • What is the right way to define potential and how do I activate it in my team?
  • If my team isn’t getting along, how can I figure out what the root causes are?
  • What kind of coaching delivers the highest pay-off?

Developing this kind of expertise (in addition to everything else you do, know, and are) is not only good for your own professional success, it’s good for your very well-being and happiness. After all, it feels great to be a great leader. And I’m sure Fido will thank you.

PS: Come here, Fido! Fido! Over here boy! Aw, such a good dog.

Diane BockDiane Bock is a senior consultant for DDI’s Leadership Solutions Group and is passionate about helping organizations drive business results through people. She likes food to be French, shoes to be comfortable, and wisdom to be cheeky.

Posted: 27 Sep, 2017,
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