Solving Real HR Problems

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By David Creelman

One of my favourite HR stories comes from Kenny Moore, author of The CEO and the Monk. One of the managers in Kenny’s firm asked for help because he had a conflict with another manager. Kenny had a book of astrology and let the manager read about his own astrological sign and the sign of the opposing manger. After reading this the manager laughed and said “Oh look, we’re so different we’ll never get along. Thanks Kenny.”

Now, I don’t mean to suggest astrology works and it’s not what Moore was suggesting either. What Moore had accomplished was helping the manager recognize this was not a problem that could be solved, just one of those predicaments you have to manage. Moore’s intervention was fast, effective, cheap and satisfied the manager. Moore was doing real HR, applying his knowledge of people to resolve a specific situation.

If only all HR interventions went so well!

HR Good at Processes, Bad at Management
Professional HR departments are good at recruiting and good at training; they know how to efficiently run compensation and benefits; they understand labour law and keep their organization in compliance. However, too often HR managers are poor at solving the problems managers face. We are good at processes, but bad at solving managers’ problems.

In fact, it’s worse than HR just saying “I have no idea what to do”; we may propose actions that are expensive, time consuming and ultimately useless. HR likes the idea of doing a diagnostic, having meetings, giving workshops…anything to be seen as doing something. There are times when this is the right approach, but those times are infrequent. HR, for all its knowledge of people and organizations, is too often ill-equipped to help with the sorts of problems managers face: unmotivated staff, low productivity, a toxic culture, conflicts with other managers, and good employees leaving—to name just a few.

How to Get Good at Helping Managers
To get good at helping managers, a first step is to throw out all those things you know won’t work. If employees are unmotivated don’t offer to bring in a motivational speaker; that would feel as if you were doing something to help, but you know it is a waste of time. So it is better to admit, “I’d love to help, but I don’t think there’s any straightforward HR solution. What do you think is at the root of this?” If you recognize the situation really has no solution then follow the lead of Kenny Moore and help the manager come to terms with that.

Yet hopefully we can actually solve some problems, not just act responsibly when we can’t. The single most powerful tool for solving a manager’s problems is courage. It is not your excellence in diagnosis that will save the day because most managers already know the problem. It’s not your excellence in delivery that will save the day because the standard HR interventions don’t work. What works is sitting beside the manager and saying “Look, you’ve got to fire her” and help them face up to the dreaded decision. Or it may be that “Stop complaining about that other department. You need to sit down with your counterpart and hash out how you are going to work together. It won’t be pleasant but it’s got to be done.”

If HR can develop a reputation for avoiding interventions that don’t work, and for helping managers find the courage to do the tough things that will work, then you’ll have achieved a lot.

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. He can be reached at dcreelman@creelmanresearch.com

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  1. Nice article. I often find that a one on one coaching session with the manager yields great dividends. I’ve taken whole HR departments through brain science workshops and now they better understand when a problem is caused by ‘cognitive dissonance’ and can be easily solved. It’s not perfect but it’s often the ’80 percent solution.’

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