Sunday, January 6, 2013

Truth and Beauty: Motivations and Elegance in HR

“I am an old man. I don’t have time for these kinds of HR interventions now”, said the senior consultant.

We had requested this gentleman to come to our office for an exploratory meeting – to identify possible HR initiatives to improve organizational effectiveness. He came for the meeting ‘unarmed’ - he did not bring any of the typical consultant weapons like brochures and presentations. He did not even have a laptop with him!

He listened to us for a long time while we were giving him a detailed account of the organization context & the challenges we were facing. Then he asked a few questions and we had a discussion on the same. Then he went to the whiteboard and in a simple diagram he captured his understanding of our situation and the levels at which interventions can be done and the basic details of those interventions. After that he asked us what we wanted to do and we gave our opinion. That was when he made the above statement.

The way he said it shook me. He was not just saying that he was busy. He meant that he no longer had the time to do these kinds of work (interventions at ‘not- so- deep’ levels) regardless of how much value the organization saw in them, how good he was in that kind of work, or even how much he will be paid. At that stage in his life, he wanted to work only on those projects that he found to be personally meaningful. Of course, this does not mean that other types of interventions do not add value. It was just that he did not want to get involved!

I recall this encounter quite often. Apart from making me think about the kind of work I really want to do, it also prompts me to think about the 'basic motivations' for HR professionals.

It does not make sense to do ‘HR for HR function’ (taking up initiatives to make the HR function look good) or to do ‘HR for HR professionals’ ("I want to do some HR interventions and I will somehow convince the business for it").  HR exists to support the business and hence HR has to be aligned to business. But the issue of business alignment of HR is a complex one (See 'Paradox of Business Orientation of HR'). After all, most of us want HR to mean something more than ‘making people do more work without paying them too much and without risking disruptions to the business operations’!!!

One way to think about ‘what motivates HR professionals’ is to take the approach that HR professionals are human beings first and hence what motivates them can be understood in terms of theories of human motivation – as they play out in the context of the roles in HR/careers of HR professionals.

For example, if we assume some sort of need fulfillment (say based on a hierarchy of needs like Maslow’s hierarchy of needs/'Existence-Relatedness-Growth' needs in Alderfer's ERG framework) is the basic driver for motivation, we can easily explain the behavior of the senior consultant featured at the beginning of this post by saying that as his lower order needs had been fulfilled and hence what motivated his behavior in that situation was the urge to find opportunities for fulfilling his higher order needs (growth/self-actualization needs). While this looks like a very neat explanation, it might be a rather simplistic one (see ‘The power of carrot and stick’). Similarly we can look at the motivations of HR professionals in terms of other frameworks like personality profiles/types (e.g. OPQ, MBTI etc.), Talents/Strengths, Career Anchors etc.

Another set of motivations can result from the alignment to (or belief in) a particular 'philosophy of HR' (See ‘Towards a philosophy of HR’). Of course, individual vision, mission and values of the HR professional can also be sources of very strong motivations. Since these can be very individual specific, we can get a wide range of dimensions here (see 'Daydreams of an OD Mechanic' for a personal example). Finding meaning in their work (see 'Do we need a new defining myth for HR?') is important for all professionals - including HR professionals! Actually, I would go one step beyond and suggest that considering the role of HR managers as 'architects of meaning' (See 'Architects of meaning : From CHRO to CMO'), this becomes even more relevant for HR professionals from a professional integrity (in the sense of achieving integration/alignment between one's thoughts/feelings, speech and action) point of view. Also, talking about food (including 'food for the soul' that can be called 'meaning') often makes one more aware of one's own hunger - unless this 'talking about food/meaning' is more of a 'displacement activity'!!!Again, as I have said earlier, 'hanging around in HR for too long' without a compelling reason, can be a risky business - especially for personal happiness!

HR professionals who have taken their behavior science education seriously (see ‘HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder’) might suffer from some of the ‘motivational complications’ that social scientists suffer. For example, many social scientists suffer some sort of ‘physics envy’ and this along with other things might create a compulsion for them to work on those initiatives that are research based. However, as I have said earlier (See 'Research and a three-year old' &  'Truths stretched too far' for the details), this might not be possible in HR the way it is feasible in physics. We can still derive a lot of value from these research findings (and behavior science principles/theories), if we look at them mainly as a source of ideas (and not as absolute objective truth)!

Going back to our discussion on business alignment of HR, it has to be noted that there exist significant differences across organizations when it comes to the ‘picture of success’ (See ‘On what good looks like’). Hence it makes sense for an individual (HR professional) to work for organizations where there will be a good degree of agreement between the definitions of the organization and that of the individual (on what is required/what good looks like).

This leads to an interesting situation. If the choice of the HR interventions can’t be made in an algorithmic manner (or based on conclusive evidence), then the choice will be governed by ‘some sort of judgment’ made by the HR professional. Often, the choice becomes a matter of aesthetics (and that is where beauty and elegance comes in). The beauty we are talking about is a special kind of beauty – that manifests in terms of fit (with the context) and coherence (internal consistency among the various dimensions of the intervention), parsimony of unproven assumptions (Occam's razor), parsimony of effort (understanding and using 'leverage points' - where the application of a small input can lead to a high output) and of course 'Simplicity on the other side of Complexity' (See 'U-curve and simplicity at the other side of complexity').

While the biological evolution has given us the natural ability to make high quality judgments about aspects in the natural environment, some sort of a professional evolution  of the HR professional (based on years of struggle with the paradoxes in the HR domain)is required to make the type of high quality judgments that we are talking about here (See ‘Wisdom-level consulting’). Yes, often ‘less is more’ and sometimes, the best HR intervention might be to do nothing for the time being (remember - 'first do no harm')! One of the useful 'side effects' of the 'struggle with the paradoxes in the HR domain' mentioned above is that the HR professional develops a better appreciation of  'what won't work' in a given situation and this can be a great help in dealing with the common temptation for HR managers 'to try too many things' !!!

So, my fellow HR professionals – What are the factors that motivate you?!! What role does elegance/beauty play in your HR related decision-making?!!!

Note: It can be argued that the title of the post itself is a case of physics envy as it is similar to the title of a book by S Chandrasekhar (the famous physicist). While I do admit that Physics was my first love, I am quite sure that I had grown out of it when I realized years ago that, at advanced levels, the exploration of physical reality becomes a highly mathematical exercise. Hence I would like to think of it more as a case of ‘inspired by Physics’ and not that of ‘Physics envy’!!!