How our need to predict, control and prove ourselves is slowly eroding the cultures we are struggling so hard to build
A few months ago, while on holiday, I was catching up with a friend. The sun, the breeze and a couple of cocktails eased the talking. He was incredibly excited about his job and his colleagues. Loud and happy, you could tell how engaged he was and how much fun he was having at work. He kept praising his direct manager and sharing the accomplishments they’d had as a team in the past year. Then, as he remembered I’m HR, his face contorted into a frown. Obviously I had to understand why, so eventually, he started sharing his recent first “interaction” with his newly appointed HRBP.
Early one morning, his entire team found a small note from HR on each of their desks: “Work in silence. Let the results shout for you!”. And that was it. No further communication came their way. They were all stunned about what just happened. It must have felt like there was some kind of Big Brother hovering over their heads.
I was wondering if there was any business reason behind such a strong reaction – so I started asking if they were bothering anyone or not doing the work and falling behind. But, the more details I got, I could still not find any hint as to why their behavior would be a disturbance. There were no missed targets and no other people that could be directly impacted.
As there was no way to find the root cause for the chosen approach without talking to the HR person involved and being passionate about corporate culture and team dynamics – I found myself wondering more about the message that people got and how it could influence their future behavior. And I came up with a couple of hypotheses regarding potential lessons learned by my friend’s team.
1. We are expected to conform and act like everyone else
Looking back at the tens of organizations I have interacted with, I have not met a single one that puts mindless abiding by the rules at the top of their priority list and manages to succeed and have happy and engaged people working there. But more and more, I see organizations that seem open, fun and transparent if you look from afar, with great “fun@work” activities and other employee engagement projects, that impose control to a worrying degree, when you take a closer look at people practices.
2. HR is the “person” responsible with behavior and feedback around here, and not our direct manager
In our desperate hunt to prove ourselves as HR professionals and convince business of how needed HR is, we make ourselves overly responsible for people’s behavior, acting like disapproving boarding school teachers that slap children to make them behave. We don’t partner with business and support managers do THEIR work better, we substitute them – and end up complaining about how overworked we are and how much hand-holding they need. Yet this makes us feel all-powerful. We are needed.
3. “Hit and run” is an acceptable method of dealing with issues.
I get it. Confrontation is not everyone’s favorite method of dealing with issues. We want to be liked and accepted, but we also want to show power and authority. But doing a “hit and run” only creates more passive-aggressive dynamics and in no way helps to build a trusting relationship. Or your authority, for that matter.
The thing is, with an understandable desire to predict and control – as it’s getting harder and harder to do so – we’ve managed to create one size fits all organizations and practices that, like T-shirts, really don’t fit anyone.
We ignore our humanity and individuality, all that messy stuff – because it just does not fit into our sterile view of business life. We create new and more complicated ways to increase engagement by giving people longer leashes while making sure they are tight enough. We don’t trust – we tame.
Maybe it’s time we start thinking about adapting our people practices more. Just like we customize everything else to suit the individual – from iPhone covers to clothing and applications, we as HR people need to get off our high horse and treat people as individual human beings. Maybe it’s time to remember that people are not the object, but the subject of our work.