HR as a strategic partner: 2

 Last year Sharon Proberts conducted a training needs analysis for HPMA London Academy. The overriding message from HR deputy directors was that they wanted their HR teams to act strategically and be treated as a strategic partner by the rest of the organisation. In the second of a series of articles looking at how to make this happen, Sharon explores how to tackle invulnerability.

Managing vulnerability better
Vulnerability is not a weakness: it takes courage to be noticed and be honest. How many of our organisations have words like creativity, innovation and change threaded through strategy statements and documents? Without the space to be vulnerable, to know it’s OK to take risks and work through the uncertainty of not knowing if it will work, how can we expect people to be creative, innovative change agents?
Invulnerability, along with its associated lack of trust and high levels of blame, has a much darker side, called shame. It’s that voice that tells us we are not worthy or not strong enough. It just needs three things to thrive: secrecy, silence and judgement. It’s an ideal environment for bullying and harassment to exist, for the perpetrators as well as the victims. Brené Brown recently gave a fascinating talk about shame.
A recent paper on voice aversion was my Eureka! moment. The idea of ‘ego-defensiveness’ perfectly explained what I was noticing through coaching and training managers. If people don’t feel confident or competent in their management role and trust is absent, it’s not surprising that those managers would act defensively to protect their ego and self-esteem. In this team, the manager will close down ideas and limit contributions. They believe they should have the big ideas. Some will seek to become indispensable, the holder of all knowledge. That supports their ego but dramatically quietens and damages the employee voice. They also unconsciously limit their ability to learn and improve their management skills.
Adapted from Theory of Cognitive Dissonance, Festinger 1957
Cognitive dissonance is at the root of this counter-intuitive behaviour. In those situations, where our self-esteem and ego is bound up with our competence, we will unconsciously reframe the evidence to support our actions.


Deputy directors told me that they wanted to see ‘HR professionals act more collaboratively and move away from silo working and mentality’. Is the silo a symptom of HR’s invulnerability?


Consider how we report appraisal outcomes – simply the percentage that have been completed, not how effective they have been. We need to collect different data to work out what’s working and what’s not. We need to be sure that we are measuring the right things, seeking to discover what we don’t know (working with risk and uncertainty) rather than confirming what we already know (cognitive dissonance).


The book ‘Black-box Thinking: the surprising truth about success’ by Matthew Syed offers great insights into cognitive dissonance and how people react when things don’t go to plan. It also examines how successful organisations and individuals have created mind sets that genuinely foster creativity, innovation and change by developing the capacity to think both big and small. Thinking small is all about tweaking the fine detail for improved performance and thinking big is the transformational change that alters how we approach what we do. Here are four key aspects of this type of thinking:


·      What’s the motivation to change? There has to be a driver for the change – where is the pain, the frustration and failure? It has to be specific to the organisation, department or team in order to engage their commitment and focus.


·      Synthesis: Become connecting agents, linking and merging approaches. Someone has probably already done something similar. Look beyond the NHS perimeter, read widely and make use of social media. Breakthroughs often happen as a result of fierce debate, challenge and diverse ideas; it forces us to think differently about the problem and our assumptions but we have to be open to the vulnerability that comes when others challenge our ideas. Seek out your most critical friends.


·      Disciplined focus: The imagination to see the big picture and the focus to see the fine detail. Know the outcome you want to achieve; move beyond the need to deliver a new policy or process and work out why it is necessary. Thinking time is work.


·      Bottom-up iteration: Get the data and use it, even if it is telling you the ‘wrong’ story. Test out your assumptions and solutions with end users and your critical friends then use that data and feedback to iterate your policy, process etc. Look for the little things, the unintended consequences, that are getting in the way. It is our learning from this iterative process that will lead to the best solution.


Trust is implicit in those in these actions. To understand where the marginal gains are to be found or where to look for the transformational change, teams and individuals must believe that nothing ‘bad’ will happen to them if it doesn’t go right first time around.


The Mercedes F1 team recently completed a pit stop in 1.95 seconds. In the time it takes to read this sentence, four wheels were changed. The team and individuals achieved this because they believe that failure is learning. Each individual’s performance is closely monitored: the pressure applied to the wheel nuts, the angle at which the air gun is held – the list goes on. No one is blamed for getting it ‘wrong’; the focus is on finding the optimum approach, and people feel psychologically safe and supported to open up to the process. The team practise constantly and tweak every aspect of the process, learning from their failures and re-iterating the process until it is perfect. In the scheme of things, this is tiny but F1 teams know that it can be the difference between winning or losing a World Championship.


If we want to increase engagement and improve well-being, then perhaps we need to start being open to our vulnerability. That’s our first step towards being a truly strategic partner.



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