How HR Leaders Can Adapt to Uncertain Times

Today, HR leaders are working around the clock, taking unprecedented measures to keep their employees safe and ensure that their organizations survive. They are navigating furloughs, layoffs, and reductions in force. They are adjusting to mass remote work. They are creating business continuity plans, drafting emergency communication procedures, and preventing the spread of germs in the office.

All of these issues are being addressed through a familiar process: defining the problem, addressing the variables that make it complicated, and agreeing on the best way forward. But when we consider that today’s greatest challenges are ones that many leaders have never faced before, it becomes clear that they are not just complicated (predictable) but complex (unknown). Traditional problem-solving, which is aimed at addressing the complicated as opposed to the complex, will not establish the most effective solutions.

As we’ve seen through our work, many HR teams aim to resolve issues by developing new policies and procedures. Unfortunately, once created, those same policies are rarely revisited, ultimately leading to additional problems — especially now, when the landscape is changing so fast. At the same time, a “one-size-fits-all” approach won’t allow for the kind of individual thinking and creativity that result in the most innovative solutions.

To be truly effective in this “new normal,” then, we believe HR leaders need to adjust and develop a new core capability: a complexity mindset.

Shifting From Complicated to Complex

This mindset change requires shifting away from complicated thinking and embracing a complexity consciousness. Simply stated, complicated problems require linear thinking — they can often be predicted or avoided and can benefit from expert input. We’ve experienced this kind of problem-solving time and again. It’s familiar.

In stark contrast, complex problems live in the realm of the unknown. There are no best practices to solve complex problems because we’ve never experienced them before and, therefore, could not have predicted them. In this framework, it’s crucial to tap into your organization’s collective intelligence, prioritize company values, and allow solutions to emerge.

This means that HR leaders will need to start collaborating more with employees at every level. Now is the time to focus on interpersonal relationships rather than control, standards, and hierarchy. Adopting a complexity mindset starts by accepting that complexity exists and needs to be accounted for differently. Here’s how HR leaders can embrace this mindset.

Tap into the power of collective intelligence. When complex problems arise, don’t overlook your most valuable resource: the genius of your own employees. The majority of the workforce consists of smart, trustworthy people who know their jobs better than their leaders do. Given everything on HR leaders’ plates today, they will not succeed if they don’t trust their employees to help them brainstorm solutions for remote work accommodations, continued engagement, and additional support. In other words, they won’t succeed if they don’t embrace collective intelligence.

Collective intelligence is group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, efforts, and engagement of diverse teams. In his book The Wisdom of Crowds, journalist and writer James Surowiecki states that collective intelligence needs four conditions to flourish: (1) diversity of opinion to guard against groupthink; (2) independent thinking that frees each person to express their own opinions without judgment or pressure to conform; (3) decentralization, which means that the closer a person is to the problem or the customer, the likelier they are to offer a meaningful contribution; and (4) a good method for aggregating results.

For years, I’ve taught leaders the mechanics of harnessing collective intelligence within their teams. It requires excellent facilitation skills, clear parameters, and lots of flip charts and yellow sticky notes. Teams love it because they get to share real, meaningful input on important issues. The results are innovative ideas, diversity of thought with alignment (paradoxically), and walking away with stronger teams.

One recent complex problem that requires this approach is the growing practice of “virtual onboarding.” LinkedIn offers a graceful example of how to solve it using collective intelligence. To be successfully executed, virtual onboarding requires collaboration between HR and IT departments. According to SHRM, LinkedIn’s IT team developed a set of credentials that their HR team could use to load internally used software remotely in order to assist them with training new employees. To accomplish this, however, their HR team first needed to flatten the hierarchy and invite team members outside of their department to share their ideas around how to best communicate with new team members.

By promoting engagement between diverse workers and departments, companies can overcome obstacles that initially seem overwhelming or insurmountable. Put the humanity back into human resources. For an excellent example of complicated versus complex, consider performance management. Traditional thinking is that employee behavior must be guided by the rules of compliance. In my experience, corporate attorneys consistently tell HR leaders that they must adopt a mindset of risk mitigation in order to avoid lawsuits. This mindset translates into a culture of bureaucracy: rules, policies, and practices for every bad apple ever encountered. To make matters worse, HR leaders are continuously reminded to “treat everyone the same” which, given that every person and every situation is different, results in a lack of fairness and good judgment.

Bureaucracy and “fairness” are simple solutions that won’t solve complex problems. For a case in point, consider the video game company Activision Blizzard. Their HR leaders were forced to confront just how inflexible their remote work policy was when faced with the reality of Covid-19. Parents balancing work and childcare, and employees managing health concerns, weren’t properly accommodated. Instead of sticking to rigid rules, the company implemented quick solutions like flexible hours and remote system access to support their employees in ways they had never considered before.

Complexity conscious HR leaders view company performance as the result of open and clear communication, positive assumptions, and self-management. Instead of taking a matrix approach, aligning infraction with corresponding punishment, communicate with your teams about the specific problem and the impact. An approach that uses emotional intelligence will lead to increased productivity and higher engagement levels.
In practice, this means that when a team or employee comes to you with a problem, probe for the underlying cause instead of jumping to a rulebook solution. Ask open-ended questions such as “What is holding you back?” or “How would you handle this?” Throughout, assume that the vast majority of employees are good people who will want to solve a problem once it’s brought to their attention. Now you’re free to facilitate a lasting solution rather than dispensing discipline.

Foster a trust culture. As we navigate our current landscape, we need trust to serve as our foundation in order to create teams comfortable grappling together with the unknown. So much has been written about the need for organizations to improve communication, recognize employees, and practice transparency, but real change has been slow. As this crisis unfolds, it’s my hope that organizations will see the benefits of creating respectful, trusting workplaces and act with more urgency than before.

From an employee perspective, consider that more than 60% of workers say senior management-employee trust is paramount to their satisfaction. That’s because high-trust environments allow people to be their true selves, and when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are not only more creative, but more productive as well.

Building a high-trust culture starts with cultivating positive beliefs about employees, because assumptions drive behavior. If you assume your employees work hard, care about the company’s success, and have integrity, they are likelier to act accordingly (as long as they know what’s expected of them). “Getting culture right is crucial across all levels of business at any time — but it’s particularly important in times of crisis,” Diane Adams, Chief Culture and Talent Officer at Sprinklr, recently wrote. “When we’re happy, we’re at our best personally and professionally, and everyone wins.”

For HR leaders, this means rewarding exceptional performance with public recognition and individual growth opportunities, encouraging employee autonomy by letting workers set their own habits and mold their roles, and fostering transparency through open communication and evolving relationships. The goal is to develop leader-employee relationships based on genuineness and vulnerability, and debunk the notion that managers should keep their distance from a personal standpoint.

HR leaders who adopt a complexity conscious mindset recognize that trust is key to getting through this present crisis. Thankfully, many realize this and have already begun to build cultures of trust trustworthy: Edelman research shows that people trust their employers more than the government or media when it comes to coronavirus-related communication.

Make your company values foundational. Fear and panic give rise to knee-jerk reactions during crises. Even progressive organizations backslide to traditional thinking. Sadly, under greater amounts of pressure, it’s not unusual to see leaders of all kinds, including HR teams, make autocratic decisions without regard to their impact on employees. Moving forward, HR leaders can help fight this instinct by putting a greater focus on demonstrating fairness and a passion for their people.

Adopting a mindset of complexity means returning to the values of the company and allowing those values to become a filter for decision-making in high-pressure situations. Every successful company has a set of fundamental beliefs upon which the business and its behavior are based. But too often, they are words on a wall, when they should be the very basis for how the organization executes its mission during good times and bad times. This one concept has the potential to profoundly transform organizations. Eighty-eight percent of employees believe that a positive work culture is the result of a value- and mission-oriented foundation.

How do you use your values as a guide for decisions? Here are some questions to guide you based on commonly held values.

Value: Communication

Questions to consider:

  • What information do we or could we share that would increase transparency?
  • What information do employees need and want?
  • What information would make employees feel more involved?

Value: Trust

Questions to consider:

  • If we had trust in the vast majority of employees, what would we do differently?
  • What’s getting in the way of trust?
  • What personal behaviors can we demonstrate that would help build even more trust?

Value: Employee engagement

Questions to consider:

  • To what extent are employees affected by this situation?
  • What experience or knowledge do they have that will be valuable regarding this topic?
  • Have we made some topics taboo for employee engagement? If so, what assumptions are enforcing the taboo?

Applying this approach yields other powerful benefits as well: Using your values as a filter means less stress, more time, and better results. In fact, B Corporations, which commit to more than just profitability or growth, are 63% more likely to survive the pandemic than similar-sized businesses.

If you work in Human Resources, remember that your role — always, but especially today — is to be your company’s moral conscience. I know leaders in major companies who are willing to step up and challenge their organizations to act in alignment with their values. This can (and should) be your role, too. Adopting a complexity mindset will help you fulfill it.

September 21, 2020

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