HR: Turning the Page on Going Through the Motions

By David Creelman

An important management concept is the distinction between “doing it” and “really, doing it”. This idea is a major element of GE’s talent management system and it is worth reflecting on the idea and integrating it into you core beliefs.

The idea is easy to understand: are you just going through the motions or are you really doing your best? Imagine a boyfriend buying a present for his girlfriend. Does he drop into the supermarket at the last minute to pick up a box of chocolates so he can say “Hey, I got her a gift” or does he spend time pondering what she would really like? Interestingly, the difference between “doing it” and “really doing it” will be clear to an observer (not to mention the girlfriend), but it is easy for the boyfriend to convince himself that what he did was good enough.

The man giving a gift example is a good one because it is something that many men find hard to do. It is hard in the same way behavioural event interviewing or succession planning is hard. It should be no surprise that we often “do it” rather than “really do it”.

Warning Signs
Failing to really do it is so common that we have a host of expressions that identify the problem. We say “it’s just a page turning exercise” indicating that people are dutifully looking through the presented information without really engaging with it. We will hear “They are just going through the motions.” or “It’s just a bureaucratic exercise.” When we hear any of these phrases it is a clear warning sign.

Other warning signs are when we start hearing excuses. Imagine the boyfriend again, “Hey I got her a box of chocolates. What does she expect? How was I supposed to know she’d hoped for flowers?” In HR we might hear “We spent as much time as wecould.” or “We did our best.” or “It was good enough.” It is not so much the words, as the tone where one can detect that the person did not devote much energy to the process.

A final warning sign is where a process feels overly comfortable. Let’s take succession planning as an example. Deciding who likely successors are is a difficult process and ought to generate a certain amount of controversy. Bill Conaty, former head of HR at GE and author of The Talent Masters, recounts how Jack Welch would throw out comments like “I hear that guy’s a jerk.” just to push people out of polite agreement and force them to defend their judgements.

In many cases if you “are really doing it” the process will be intense and generate anxiety and some controversy. This does not mean civility has to be abandoned. Yet if a process that should be intense is not, then that is an indication that people are probably not as committed to it as they should.

Problem areas and recommendations
The areas in HR where failing to ‘really do it’ are most prevalent are those dealing with assessing people. Here are six areas to keep a close eye on: interviews, talent reviews, succession planning, personal development plans, performance appraisals, and post-mortems after a project.

If you recognize people are not really doing it, there only three options: accept, abandon, or fix. There are times when accepting that “really doing it” isn’t going to happen is the right choice. Many a girlfriend has come to accept poorly chosen gifts rather than try to fix the boyfriend. We have to face the fact that both humans and our processes are imperfect, and sometimes it is better to accept a mediocre outcome rather than trying to change it.

Abandoning is the option that is often overlooked. USC’s Ed Lawler provides evidence that poorly done performance appraisals do more harm than good and recommends abandoning them if you can’t fix them. Similarly, if post-mortems after a project are just polite, hasty conversations they are best abandoned. It can take courage to abandon a process, but it is a great relief once that decision is made.

Clearly fixing is the ideal option. Fixing requires two things. First, analyse the process to understand the barriers that prevent people really doing it. For example, it is hard to have a fully honest discussion of someone’s potential in a group of 12 people whom you don’t know well. But don’t think that you will be able to fix this category of problem just by tweaking the process. You also need someone who will bring energy to the process, as Welch did to GE’s talent reviews. This is an area where the energy a leader brings does matter.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at

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