In businesses throughout the world, the function and role of human resources departments have developed significantly in the last 30-35 years. Job descriptions for employees working in these departments have diversified, resulting in more active and effective responsibilities within a range of organizations. However, despite their on-going development, human resources departments continue to be perceived as unpopular units whose existence and importance are often questioned.
In defense of the important and necessary work they do, many human resources departments have worked to disseminate these criticisms. Unfortunately, many corporate employees still disrespect the functions and the people working human resources jobs, going so far as to make defamatory charges individuals in these positions are trying to create their own tasks as the control units of the boss(es). Interestingly, in a recent survey conducted at a major, multinational company, it was revealed that many participants defined human resources as “the department protecting the company from the employees.”
This not-so-nice picture is likely the result of an insufficient development of human resources departments since their inception, not only in local/national organizations but also in many global companies. Human resources departments became the target of these criticisms after being stuck in strictly functional areas, such as recruiting, salary management, union relations and procedure management, among others. Tasked as a company’s watchdog, a great deal of employees outside of this department have come to view HR as a “hire and fire” unit.
Historically, most companies were formed with only three main departments—production, sales and accounting made up the sine qua non of an organization. But as businesses grew, in part due to an increase in competition, a number of support departments were established to aid in the success of these three main units. From these departments, marketing and information technology sectors have flourished, rising to the top as two of the most vital functions of many organizations. The rest, which include departments like HR, fail to exhibit the same growth and for that reason are subject to harsher scrutiny. Throughout this time, HR departments have functioned largely as task forces established to seek out problems, establish authority, enforce rules and head disciplinary teams. Though the model for strict disciplinary committees feels outdated, units like this are still active in many corporations.
In our current economic environment, in which most companies are forced to tighten their belts, human resources departments that fail to keep up with the times, that do not reflect the needs of modern workers and that are unable foster a more open, communicative relationship with other departments will continue to see a decrease in their power, breadth and role.
A SOLUTION: MODERNIZING HR DEPARTMENTS
To fix this potential downgrade, human resources departments should turn themselves into proactive and strategic units immediately. Current human resources roles appear to cover less than a quarter of the positions that would more comprehensively contribute to a corporation’s success.
One possible evolution of human resources positions would be to modernize their role within a business and make them responsible for the management of more strategic areas—such as goal setting, development and deployment of new systems, organization restructuring, streamlining, planning, management change and crisis management. In light of this growth, ancient and outdated systems, procedures and rules could be left behind, and these newly designed strategic human resources departments would be on course to become one of the most indispensable and respected units of any organization.
It would not be too difficult to reappropriate the administrative tasks that most human resources departments currently cover. Salary management any payroll could be shifted to a finance or accounting department, union relations and legal issues could be absorbed by law firms or the legal aid on retainer and recruitment could be handed off to outside companies. To avoid rendering themselves obsolete, human resources departments should focus on ways to turn this problem into an opportunity and grow into a new, more adaptable role.
About 10 years ago, I mentored a young engineer who was an exceptionally strong informal leader who wanted to break into management. As we sat in my office discussing his career path, the feedback I offered ran along these lines.
“You’ve been trained to gather and analyze all the relevant information about a problem before you make a decision. You need to learn to trust your gut as you take on a formal leadership role.”
The engineer thought about the statement and obviously had trouble internalizing the idea. A lot of us do. People like to think of themselves as rational—especially in the workplace. But neuroscience shows that for every situation, the emotional brain kicks in and makes a snap judgement. The rational brain follows and can override one’s initial response. The funny thing is, when we override the emotional brain in everyday circumstances, we often make the wrong decisions.
For example, the rational brain can only consider 6-7 pieces of information at a time. Comparing features and benefits of a new product? If there’s a long list of things to consider, chances are you’ll talk yourself into buying the wrong product. That’s how market leading companies retain their positions. Remember the saying, “No one ever got fired for buying IBM?” Their products were reliable. That’s not synonymous with innovative or best product for your needs. (No offense intended, IBM. It’s hard to knock a company for being the industry standard.)
Let’s dig a little deeper here. What would happen if we felt a little more free to let intuition guide decision-making in the workplace? With respect to research, discovery, and innovation, I believe it would go a long way to producing breakthrough or disruptive inventions. People learn best by doing, and that means trial and error. When we try something new and it goes well, dopamine flows and we feel terrific! Make a mistake and you get that sinking feeling in the pit of your stomach because dopamine production is repressed. The cycle of success and failure builds human intuition and sharpens ‘gut’ feeling.
Taken a step further, then, what would happen if we focused on personal areas of strength and let intuition guide how we did our work?
Last week I had an opportunity few people get. A friend of mine lectured at the Cajal Institute in Madrid. I tagged along. The Cajal Institute is is the oldest neurobiology research center in Spain. And, it is way cool. The people who work there were very generous with their time and we gained insight into how Ramon y Cajal made breakthroughs in the field of neuroscience when optics were relatively poor (by modern standards).
Cajal was a natural born artist. The paintings he did as an 8-year-old outdistance anything most of us could ever hope to do. Depth perception and proportions looked perfect. As Cajal matured, his artwork transitioned from depicting the world as the rest of us see it to an impressionistic representation of the world he saw.
Professionally, Cajal wanted to be an artist. His father, a doctor, wanted him to become a doctor. Cajal did both. He looked at slide… after slide… after slide under the microscope and was able to envision how neurons from the different slides would look in 3-D when put into the same picture. And then he painted what he imagined. His work in neuroscience won the Nobel Prize for Physiology and Medicine in 1906.
Cajal won the prize because of his unique ability to intuit what he saw on the slides. Just imagine what breakthroughs you might have if you, like he, worked to your strengths and allowed your intuition to guide you. This is a particularly effective approach to when bridging disciplines as Cajal did. The possibilities for what humankind could achieve are truly limited only by our imaginations. And that’s why there’s a STEM to STEAM movement gearing up in education right now. That STEAM will help drive innovation and economic recovery if we let it.
If you want to learn more about my friend, who by the way, rocks the house when she lectures on the connections she’s made about how art education improves interpretation of scientific research, please check out today’s news.
A special thank you to Cajal Institute Director, Ignacio Torres Alemán, Juan de Carlos, Ph.D., and Maria de Ceballos, Ph.D. We are grateful for your generosity and for sharing Cajal’s insights with us.
According to Dr. Mike Bechtle, most people stop pursuing their New Year’s resolutions on January 17. Why? By then we have transitioned from focusing on a specific goal to gutting it through a new routine that has yet to become habit. And thus, people lose sight of their purpose and the energy to pursue it.
If you want to beat the odds, then perhaps you’d like to join Caroline Adams Miller and Positive Business DC for Creating Your Best Life for Success. Miller, an internationally known coach who speaks frequently on the topic of goal accomplishment and its connection with happiness, holds a Master’s degree in Applied Positive Psychology. She is recognized as one of the world’s subject matter experts on the relationship between goal setting and positive psychology, and released a book under the same title a year ago.
On January 31, Miller will share how people can apply the latest research on goal attainment and well-being at Positive Business DC’s second Well-being in The Workplace event. The group draws on the latest research in neuroscience, neuroleadership, and positive psychology to teach how the science of well-being can improve companies, corporate culture, and the bottom line. The Meetup will be held at Teqcorner (1616 Anderson Road, McLean, VA). Networking begins at 6:00 and Miller will begin her presentation at 6:45. Food and beverages will be provided.
Registration for Creating Your Best Life for Success is free. There are only a few seats left, so don’t wait to snag one!
For the third time in the last three years, a client I provided consultation to a few years ago e-mailed me this morning to tell me she had sold her business for a price she had never dreamed possible. All three of them had hired me to improve their profitability and, with 20/20 hindsight, it’s now clear they had done so in order to drive the value of their business as high as possible in anticipation of the sale.
I’m thrilled for them, but it shouldn’t take the sale of your business to motivate you to optimize your pricing, eliminate waste, re-allocate expenditures towards the most productive investments and improve your profitability. The more profitable your business, the more you can invest in growth, attract and reward superb employees and the more cash you can take home. The most profitable companies are also the best-run and the best ones to work for.
What are you waiting for?
TechFlash reports that Google and Microsoft have begun to battle over the mobile browser. The best solution for everyone else would be an upstart that begins with the users’ needs and a great interface.
Over time, Google has focused so closely on how to capture data, profile users, and monetize data that the company has lost sight of the users’ needs. Sifting through all the gunk Google serves up has become extremely frustrating. So has the fact that the search engine predetermines what to display based on past behaviors. Over time, users get access to less and less ‘real’ data. The problem here is confirmation bias. Rather than offering up a vast array of results, the search engines junk up the interface with results that support their business models while also narrowing a person’s access to information.
Part of the “improvements” currently under development include targeting that enables businesses to “get local” for the holidays. According to Search Engine Land, up to 90% of online consumers conduct research before heading out the door to make a brick and mortar purchase. So, now your mobile device will show places that sell the things for which you’ve searched. That seems like a zero sum game if you think about all of the companies that sell commodity products. Competing on price has never looked so grim. Or so intrusive. Hey Google… I’ll just ask Siri if I want to know where to find something.
There’s a new kid’s toy store called Spriggle on the block… figuratively speaking. The company sells toys designed to inspire children aged 10 and under in the areas of science, technology, engineering, and math (STEM). Spriggle’s founders, Susie and Carolina, selected toys based on their ability to inspire creativity and imagination in the process of helping kids hone logic and problem solving skills.
Spriggle uses a ‘try before you buy’ business model. Sales consultants coordinate play dates, which enable parents to see which toys hold their kids’ attention while offering shop at home convenience. The company is currently in beta and is looking for sales consultants.
Spriggle has developed an interesting business model, and the focus on STEM is an important one. Even so, the company’s founders may want to consider expanding the product offering. Art has also proven to be critical to the development of creativity and problem solving skills (via nick). In fact, a number of academic institutions have begun to integrate art into STEM curricula because artistic endeavors improve one’s ability to solve problems in other disciplines—especially STEM. Let’s add an “A” and put some STEAM in Spriggle’s product mix.
Friday night I went to the Washington West Film Festival to see I AM, a documentary by Tom Shadyac. You know… the guy who directed Ace Ventura: Pet Detective, Liar Liar, Patch Adams, and a host of other popular comedies. After an accident that left him suffering with Post Concussion Syndrome and facing the possibility death, Shadyac came to grips with how his values and the way he lived his life differed. Vastly.
The discomfort spurred Shaydac to make a movie about his journey to reconcile core values with personal actions. Ultimately, I AM seeks to answer two fundamental questions:
- What’s wrong with our world?
- What can we do about it?
The movie just may have answered one of the burning questions I’ve been pondering for some time now: Why do America’s business leaders continue to fail to build healthy workplaces? After all, research has long demonstrated that a strengths-based methodology taught by organizations like The Marcus Buckingham Company can create engaging work environments that enable people to dig deep into their potential and find fulfillment on the job.
And yet the vast majority of Americans hate their jobs. Only about 10% of employees achieve a state of deep satisfaction at work. I’ve consistently viewed this phenomenon—the seeming inability to kick the authoritarian management style to the curb—as a failure in leadership. Elements within I AM enabled me see that the failure point may, in fact, be more deeply rooted in culture.
Among other things, the movie posits that a culture which values an economic system based on competition for the sake of consumption is inherently flawed. Taken back to its root, then, the way we structure our businesses and encourage people to climb the corporate ladder is also flawed.
Inherently I think we sense this fundamentally false value. Otherwise we would not refer to working in a “dog-eat-dog world.” Or entering the “rat race.” If the majority of our businesses adhered to a healthy model we wouldn’t take such glee in reading Dilbert or watching The Office.
There appears to be no question that we’ve built our economic future on a model that cannot support sustained growth because of its inherent flaws. So it’s time to acknowledge that management as we know it is broken. For now. The good news: We have begun to find ways to formally transition from the old management model to one grounded in the science of positivity and well-being.
While the well-being in the workplace movement is still early stage, there are signs it’s gaining momentum. For example, Positivity and Positive Business DC both launched recently. These, and organizations like them, seek to teach businesses how to create healthy, rewarding environments. (Heightened profitability becomes a byproduct of engaged employees.)
I AM is worth seeing. It covers a range of topics far beyond the scope of this post.
Thank you for Tom Shadyac for challenging people to question basic assumptions about the world around them. Thank you also for taking the time to chat with the audience after Friday night’s viewing. The way you interacted with the audience, especially the kids, inspired us as much as the movie itself.
Finally, thank you to Brad Russell for founding the Washington West Film Festival. You had a terrific turnout for an event just now entering its second year. (It’s important to note that all of this year’s proceeds will go to Hurricane relief.) We can’t wait to see what you cook up for next year!
My mother and two of my children are teachers, and they are wary of the movement to assess teacher performance and to base pay and employment on the ratings that result. Yet I work in the business world where such assessments and rewards are routine, and considered the only logical way to operate. This dichotomy used to perplex me.
More recently I’ve come to understand that good teachers object not to being measured, but to poorly designed measurement systems. So I was pleased to hear an expert predict that the over-reliance on standardized tests and other numeric measures will fade over time, and that in fact it is already being de-emphasized in some places. In its place, principals are being allowed more discretion to rate teachers based on their own judgment and experience.
This is clearly the right answer, albeit an imperfect one. Leadership is all about making judgments, including judgments about people, that are only partially backed by data, and often not a whole lot of data. To those who object that such judgments can be political or unfair, the answer is that of course they can, but we live in the real world. As Churchill said about American democracy, if meritocracy by subjective judgment is a flawed way to manage people, then, it is less flawed than all the other ways.
This also means, by extension, that supervisors will have to up their game in selecting principals. But the stakes are high, and the effort is well worth it. And it’s worth it in your business, too.
The stereotype we often have of great leadership is of the brilliant and glib charmer whom people can’t resist following. Those pied pipers do come along from time to time, but they’re rare, and even when they do show up they often flame out relatively quickly, with their followers disillusioned.
You don’t need to be supremely charismatic, or great with one-liners, to be a strong and valuable leader. What you do need is:
• Solid and compelling business logic behind what you’re trying to do
• Candor and honesty
• Open, frequent, unambiguous and consistent communication
• The willingness to be make difficult decisions and to be selective — about investments, and about people
• The resolve to stick to these principles in the face of myriad, never-ending opportunities to be de-railed
The good news is that many more people can achieve this list than can develop extraordinary charm or charisma. And you can train yourself to do it.
Go for it.
The Times-Picayune will soon limit its print edition to three days a week, as it responds to shrinking population, readership and advertising in New Orleans. By doing so the Times-Picayune hopes to stay alive, unlike so many other newspapers around the country.
The paper’s readers have responded with protests, as they’ve failed to understand basic business economics. If these protests were successful, they would in fact speed the paper’s demise.
Airline passengers act similarly when they complain about fees to change reservations, check bags, or eat snacks onboard. They feel entitled to receive those services for free, even as airlines have teetered in and out of bankruptcy for decades. In fact, Warren Buffett has argued that in the century since the Wright Brothers the commercial airline industry has yet to turn a cumulative profit.
When you’re in an industry where the prevailing sentiment among your customer base runs counter to the economic necessity to earn a reasonable profit, you’ve got a problem. And the options you have to respond are limited.
You can try to change the prevailing sentiment, which is possible if you have a concentrated customer set, but extremely challenging if you sell to a mass market.
You can hope that you and your competitors will resist the pressure and keep prices where they need to be. But as time goes on someone often blinks, prompting others to do the same and leaving you back where you started.
If neither of those approaches works, then you have to ask and answer fundamental questions about your business model, strategy, and future investments. Can you change the model and strategy enough to re-orient your business away from the problem portion of the market? Or is it time to harvest or sell the business?
I wish I could teach mass markets like the Times-Picayune’s that they have to allow their suppliers to be profitable, but I don’t know how. The best I can do is encourage you, if you’re selling into such a market, to fully recognize what you’re up against, because the longer it takes you to face the truth the more it will cost you. And as you contemplate new investments in products or markets, remember to first answer this question: Will my customers let me make the profit I’m planning on?