Therapy sessions for Human Resources Directors? I think I’ve been doing them. And it’s the same Cri de Coeur ...

“They just pay lip service to people issues.”
“They’re so task-oriented.”
“They’re only focused on the short-term, and don’t see the long-term implications for people development.”

wordle image for Gaining Management Commitment - To WhatSounds familiar? The same heartfelt statements also come from other ‘non-line’ functions such as Quality, Customer Services, and Corporate Communications.

If there is a solution, it’s located in exploring the relationship between us and ‘they’, and also considering exactly what it is ‘they’ need to be committed to. Here are four principles that can help.

1. Philosophy and Plumbing

It’s said that to change an organization you need both of the above. Even the most hard-nosed commercial types don’t disagree with the intrinsic philosophy of focusing on people. In fact I usually have to leave the conference room when they start talking about people being their greatest asset, as on hearing these vapid statements my body language might lose me a few clients!

The most difficult task is to turn the intangible into tangible ‘plumbing’: systems, processes, procedures, repeated actions that make the noble intentions come alive in the day-to-day workings of the organization. This is one of the areas where numbers are useful to people developers. How many hours a week, for instance, does the Marketing Director spend coaching his or her people? How many days of self-development he or she experience annually? How much time is spent on appraisals – and what proportion of that time is future-oriented as opposed to judging the past?

The trick is to answer the question ‘What is it I am committed to?’ I once spoke at a conference with a man sitting in front wearing a large badge saying ‘I like my dog more than most people’. He was being honest – few would admit to not giving a damn, but may need to be confronted with the gap between intentions and practice.

2. Sorcery and Shibboleths

It’s been said that accountancy is not hard, except in the hands of professional accountants. The same may be said of Human Resources, and what can create this perception is divisive language. Language that marks you out as a different party or sect from those you are dealing with. This kind of language is called a shibboleth – a catch word.

Here are some catch words or phrases that indicate that someone is from the HR/Consultancy/People Development world:

  • ‘There are some issues AROUND trust here.’ (About? Concerning? Related to?)
  • ‘What are the behaviourS/learningS we want here?’ (The plural of sheep is sheep.)
  • ‘Let’s SHARE with the group.’ (No thanks. I’m British and I’ll keep it to myself.)

Yes, I can be accused of pedantry here, but whether you agree with these examples or not I would recommend that you consider the telltale signs that make hairy, hands-on line people – or those who perceive themselves this way – keep their distance and reject the valuable knowledge you have. It might seem like small beer, but language is important.

3. Paradox and Passion

F. Scott Fitzgerald remarked that the sign of a first-rate mind is the ability to hold two apparently contradictory ideas in one’s head at the same time. I ask you to do this when I propose that the opposite to Point 2 above, is also true (please don’t ask me to explain a paradox – it’s a word consultants use when we don’t know what the hell is going on either, but we’re trying to get to grips with something complex! Instead, I’ll demonstrate one . . .)

Every field needs to have its own useful shared language, even if the outside world considers this to be mere faddish jargon. So don’t go overboard on trying to use macho allusions to ‘the bottom line,’ ’people resources’, etc.

Arguably, the success of every aspect of the business is as much an act of faith (or intuition, or passion) as objectivity and rationality. Not wishing to defame Austrian economists, but even they have reached the same intuitive conclusion:

“Business is a creative activity involving inspired hunches and leaps of faith.”

Financial Times on Ludwig von Mises and the Austrian School of Economics

The message, therefore, is not to be afraid of expressing your passionate belief in the softer aspects of the business equation. Indeed, as a client of mine in the tough world of refining once remarked:

“The soft stuff is hard – but it really drives the business.”

So perhaps this is the place once and for all to jump on the biggest cliché of all – ‘people are our greatest resource’. Once and for all, let’s remember that organizations are fictions – albeit useful fictions – created by people, for people, and if anything the organization has to be a resource to those people, both employees, customers, and the wider society the company operates within. No further discussion needed!

4. They And I Are Both OK

I saw someone on a beach recently reading the book Ich bin OK, Du bist nein Ok? (Somehow it seems to have a stronger impact in German.)

Whenever you start referring to ‘them’, it’s clear that there’s not only distance but a judgement conveyed. ‘They’ are somehow not OK.

It’s become fashionable among both consultants and those involved in people development generally to scratch their heads at the primitive nature of the other tribe that doesn’t share or reflect. Or do much, really – other than managing a 1,000-people plant or a 400-person 24/7 call centre, for example! Could you do their job? I’m constantly humbled by realizing what decent human beings most people running organizations are, and how many complex people decisions they instinctively handle in their working day.

Commitment to shared goals is also dependent upon commitment to each other. This more human form of commitment stems from mutual appreciation. Look to what your line partners are good at and relearn, as we all must do every day, how powerful it is to deeply appreciate others. They are OK, too.

Also, they are not ‘internal customers’. They’re partners. It feels different, doesn’t it?

Originally published: 19 Jun 2006


Copyright © 2015 Nigel Barlow. All Rights Reserved.