The Seismic Shift: Focusing on HR’s Mindsets

April 26, 2016

The Seismic Shift: Focusing on HR’s Mindsets

More than 75 percent of human resource departments are currently undergoing significant change because HR is out of sync with the needs of the business. Businesses now face a speed of change that is blinding and unparalleled; blink and entire industries can be disrupted or even disappear. Internal functions such as IT, finance and HR, do not face such immediate pressure, but they should. The ultimate question should be: Is HR changing fast enough to meet the turbulent demands and requirements of the business?

Over the years, there have been several ways to characterize the needed adjustments that HR must make to be more closely aligned to the business. Dave Ulrich’s 4P model generally encapsulates HR’s various historical roles: from polite to police to partner to player. He makes the point that polite and the police are still important, but they are no longer sufficient by themselves. Value is delivered as HR becomes a true partner and then a leader in the business. Another often uttered phrase is that HR needs to be more strategic. The problem is that the word “strategic” has so many meanings and is so value-laden that it has become virtually meaningless. While these distinctions are useful, there must be other ways to describe the changes HR professionals must make in order to provide more meaningful and consistent contributions to the business.

The work of Carol Dweck is highly regarded in the learning and development community, and I think it has strong implications for HR. Dweck has studied mindsets and their impact on peoples’ behavior and daily activities. She has identified two primary mindsets pertaining to people’s deep-seated views about their own personal abilities and skills. A Fixed Mindset maintains that abilities and skills are carved in stone and not changeable, while a Growth Mindset implies that these qualities can be developed though experience and application. In one case, potential is already determined, and in the other, it can evolve and change. Furthermore, she identifies how these basic beliefs (i.e., mindsets) shape subsequent behaviors, set expectations, and define success or failure.

Extending Dweck’s findings to HR, I think there are two basic mindsets that apply to most people in the HR profession today. These mindsets help to determine how people see their jobs—despite what the job description or company transformation model says—and what defines success in their eyes. The first is the Risk Mitigation Mindset in which HR values process execution, anticipates risk, and protects the company. This is HR’s historic watchdog role, it is internally-facing and in the comfort zone for many HR professionals. This role provides many benefits to the company including the avoidance of risky situations, costly lawsuits, and contentious labor negotiations.

The second mindset is the newer Capability Builder Mindset. HR professionals with this perspective think first about architecting and building a context in which talent and innovation can flourish. This role is business-facing, risky, and harder to control because many people can be key stakeholders. But this approach is often quickly embraced by those who see the huge potential the Builder Mindset presents, especially in companies that value innovation, agility, and resiliency. Do these two HR mindsets make sense to you?

It may not be as simple as Protector or Builder, but there is an elegant simplicity to Dweck’s model of two mindsets. It is something we can all remember, and it’s not overly abstract, academic, or emotive. It also reflects the reality that people hold beliefs, often long-held ones, about what they should be doing—and their subsequent behavior is driven by these views. Mindsets really do matter and are often the root cause for differing expectations and performance. As William Bridges has reminded us: “Before organizations can transform, people must first transition.” And because mindsets focus on internal beliefs, they play a vital role in personal transitions, especially ones involving values and sense of worth. If we really want HR professionals to perform differently, we need to focus on deeply-rooted mindsets, not just tweak a competency or two.  

I believe that for HR to advance, it must embrace the Capability Builder Mindset and make a commitment to finding the right skills, talent, and support for this view.The business continues to need some who are focused on protection, but this should not be the primary emphasis of HR in the 21st century. If HR is to build on its past and lead, it must assume the mantle of building an environment in which the workforce and workplace are both in sync with the business and actually drive business results. Our job is to guide HR professionals out of their traditional comfort zone, make the transition to the Capability Builder Mindset easier, support the risks that come with this role, and lead the way forward.


The Authors: 

David Forman is president of Sage Learning Systems and former chief learning officer at the Human Capital Institute. The courses he has developed and taught for HCI have been taken by thousands of HR professionals around the world. Dave has spent more than 25 years in the training industry, working with large global organizations to improve the knowledge, skills, and performance of their people. Major clients include FedEx, IBM, DuPont, Microsoft, SAP, American Express, PwC, Ford, Prudential, Apple, Scripps Healthcare, and Allstate. He has written more than 40 articles on talent management, analytics, strategic human resources, learning systems, high-performance cultures, and leadership. He has also spoken at a variety of national and global tale and leadership conferences. David is the author of Fearless HR: Driving Business Results. He can be reached at

Comments (1)

I think the "Fearless HR" theme and it's related tools provide a functional context for approaching specific opportunities for improvement in the workplace, in this case talent development. I think that the "Capability Builder Mindset," as Dave describes it, can be a key lever in the efforts to move beyond employees just embracing change and innovation to actually driving measurable business results. Good Stuff!