Why HR needs to lead honest conversations

Written by
Tom Crawford

27 Nov 2015

27 Nov 2015 • by Tom Crawford

It’s that time of year when HR functions are looking at and then justifying their proposed budget spend for next year. I am sure that on the lists being written the world over right now are things like “change our performance management system”, “introduce a flex working strategy”, “Overhaul candidate care and experience”, “Implement exit interview process”, “roll out respect and inclusion”. I could go on. It doesn’t matter. They are all doomed and lots of fellow consultants will make money in the process.

Someone will add these as major milestones on their CV and trot off to the next organisation looking for a “strategic HR player who can operate to board level on organisational transformation,” and the square root of sod all will change. Why? Because there is one thing missing in most, if not all, organisations which prevents these noble projects standing any chance of success: the ability for people to have constructive, honest conversations in real time, every time. The kind of conversation that helps people learn and which drives respect and even belief.

“I cannot let you work from home because I don’t know how to tell you what I need from you and then tell you when you are or are not delivering it so it’s easier to have you sitting in front of me”

“80% of all people get the same performance rating because our leaders don’t want to disappoint them and are scared to be honest about their performance”

Stepping up to scary conversations

In most people, there is indeed an innate fear of telling the truth fast. Worse, I see a lot of executives who are so scared of being honest they over compensate with the niceties and give someone a completely false sense of their value and contribution. At the other end of the spectrum are the borderline bullies who continue to verbally shred colleagues in a disrespectful way and label it as “I am just being honest!”

I blame employee opinion surveys and the endless “best place to go to work if you’re still breathing” competitions. Another gravy train for we consultants. These tick box excuses for HR to have a gala night out and for CEOs to wave their willies at each other and drive the wrong management behaviours:

“I want to be in the Top 50 in the company and get a bonus so I am going to lead in order to be popular on the survey instead of driving performance.”

Because to lead for performance can often require difficult and unpopular conversations. As I’ve said, those are scary. Conversations of the type which occasionally put people on the pimple and make them feel uncomfortable, but that can also help them grow.

These types of vital conversations don’t boost the happy sheet scores. Do gold winning Olympians “like” their coaches? Probably not all of the time. Do they respect them? Well the clue is in the term “gold winning Olympians”.

Create systemic change - upskill your leaders

Most employees opinion surveys are a pointless exercise, and in many organisations the results can bear no resemblance to the reality of everyday life in those places. Isn’t it sad that you need a faceless annual questionnaire to voice your opinion and feel that you’re being listened to?

Lasting systemic change doesn’t always come from the results of the surveys because organisations can get into an endless cycle of reacting to the results. And do people really tell the truth on them anyway? Not always. In my view surveys are open to both manipulation (from managers feeling that they need to be popular) and exaggeration (from employees who have no other outlet to express themselves). The most comical are the organisations where employee happy sheet scores are going up but customer satisfaction is going down…

So if you spend your budget on one thing and one thing only, please focus on equipping and upskilling leaders to feel more confident in having vital conversations as and when needed. Equip them to be honest in a respectful and time appropriate manner. Partner them with someone who can help them build their confidence in communicating; someone who can help the shape the right type of conversations and help them realise the impact of their own personal brand. The cultural impact will be huge and all your other strategic HR projects will have a solid basis for success. I suppose all of this leads me onto the subject of coaching...