I don’t know who first balked at calling HR “soft.” It may have been HR executives who were tired of working their fingers to the bone to build productive cultures, only to have their efforts trivialized. Or it may have been savvy consultants, who realized if they could position their “people” solutions on par with financial and supply chain solutions, their fees could go up. Either way, calling HR soft today will get you an earful.
And in part, an earful is justified. Managing people well is the hardest part of running an organization. So, in that sense, what an HR department does is anything but soft.
But, in positioning HR solutions as “hard”—as data driven, scientific, and accounting for only what is observable about human behavior—the solutions themselves have become hard. Rigid. Binary. Disconnected from the organic, nuanced, and inherently unmeasurable experience of humans in the workplace.
If you don’t understand a person’s value system—what their core values are and how they rank in relation to one another—their behaviors can seem unpredictable.
How’s that disconnect working out for us?
Despite companies spending billions on HR solutions each year, engagement is declining, with less than two thirds of the global workforce currently engaged.
To help you reverse the trend, consider the following wisdom about managing people that was lost in HR’s campaign to become hard, scientific, and data driven. Then ask yourself, how might you put this wisdom to good use in your organization?
1. Measuring behavior doesn’t tell you why people behave the way they do. See if this sounds familiar to you. You need to improve engagement, leadership skills, or how change is being managed. You look around and ask around, and you find an expert who’s created a data-driven, scientific solution to your specific challenge. They’ve pinpointed a set of observable, measurable behaviors that, if practiced by your people, will dramatically improve teamwork, collaboration—you name it— in your organization.
And, they’ve got a whole system for you. They’ll teach your people a set of behaviors and demonstrate how to practice them. You’ll be able to measure your people’s progress as they adopt the behaviors and even get armed with behavioral data for your next report with the CHRO/CEO/CFO.
Excited, you bring the system in. And, for a while, it seems to work. People do practice the “new” behaviors. After all, they want to solve the challenges they’re facing just as much as you do. They want to do their best work and don’t want to be held back—just like you.
But then, bit by bit, the wheels start to come off. The system stops working its magic. People stop practicing the “approved” list of behaviors and revert back into old, comfortable, unproductive behaviors and habits. The consultant says you need a booster session, so you bring them back in. For a while, the booster helps, but eventually the pattern repeats itself. Things stop getting better, then fall apart again.
What’s most aggravating to you is that the employees and managers who know better—your best people—lapse into practicing unproductive behaviors that erode your culture and results.
Have you ever wondered why that is? Of course you have. It’s your job to wonder. You likely lay awake at night, beating your head against the wall, wondering why people are no longer modeling those “perfect behaviors.”
2. Human behavior is driven by a changeable, unmeasurable values structure. Behavioral change initiatives don’t unravel because people are careless, lazy, or unmotivated to change. And they don’t fail because change is hard. Your people surmount hard challenges all the time.
The reason why so many HR solutions fail to produce lasting results is because in the clamor to identify, categorize, and systematize human behavior, they’ve lost track of why people behave they way they do in the first place. It’s not about behaviors alone. It’s about the root of our behaviors: our values.
Consultants may vary in which behaviors they espouse, but according to psychologists, people adapt their behaviors (a process called self-regulation) most effectively when those actions align to their personal values. Unless under extreme duress, people prefer to act in accordance with their core beliefs and values about what is most important in life and how things ought to be done.
If that sounds straightforward, it’s not. Values are subtle and changeable. We each hold values that inherently conflict with other values we also hold. And the value people place on their values can change, given the circumstances, which means that if you don’t understand a person’s value system—what their core values are and how they rank in relation to one another—their behaviors can seem unpredictable.
Like when the people who were previously your best performers suddenly withhold positive behaviors for no discernable reason. There is a reason. It’s simply a values conflict that’s too subtle to be picked up by superficial behavioral systems, which only address the what and not the why of your people’s actions.
3. Values do have one constant you can bet your career on. Despite the complexity of values, they do (thankfully) have a constant. They eat behavioral training, behavioral data, and the latest management trends for lunch.
Nothing on earth can force a person to behave “positively” when their values are being stepped on—at least not for long. The cognitive dissonance that’s created for the person is simply too uncomfortable to endure.
This is great news for you, because the converse is also true: When people are living their values, positive behaviors come easily and naturally.
You get to stop trying to motivate people to behave according to behavioral lists and data. Instead, you get to align them and rally them around something much deeper than observable behavior—the core values from which all their behaviors flow.
To do this, your first step is to engage a process of discovery in which you pinpoint your organization’s three to four core values. These are the values that already drive the people in your organization to perform well under nearly every circumstance.
There is no predetermined list of values here. It’s simply an organization-wide conversation about the handful of core principles that matter most to your people. Just as the collection of people in your organization is different than in any other organization, so are the values driving them. Superimposing a “one-size-fits-all” list of values wouldn't work.
Once you do that work of identifying your people’s values—which are reflective of your organization’s core values—you can capture the values using an organizational constitution. Just like it sounds, this is a written document that everyone in your organization signs in good faith – and that everyone promises to demonstrate in day-to-day interactions. (So yes, behaviors do come into play, but only tangentially, after the drivers of those behaviors are established.)
Can it really be that straightforward? Yes. In my decades in the trenches supporting HR leaders like you, I can tell you with absolute certainty that people aspire to greater heights when they’re liberated to live their values, instead of confined to behavioral data points.