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Using HR as the Navigator Through Complex Times

This article summarises the main ideas and findings of an article published in Harvard Business Review written by Sue Bingham.

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In these difficult times, the job of Human Resource departments is more challenging than ever. In fact, more than 50% of HR leaders have struggled with ensuring that all of their employees were able to navigate a predominantly digital workplace during Covid-19. The severe importance of optimizing the digital habituation process has only grown since the pandemic. But this is “just” a complicated (predictable) problem. When adapting to uncertain times, we are met by complex (unknown) problems. This article seeks to give a potential answer to the question: how do we equip ourselves for the unknown?

Most HR leaders of today are addressing the new, complex issues of the pandemic through an old familiar process: defining the problem, addressing the variables that make it complicated, and agreeing on the best way forward. Considering that the issues occurring during these uncertain times are ones we have never faced before, this traditional model of problem-solving might not be the most effective way of tackling the new normal. Instead, HR leaders must seek to develop a complexity mindset. When facing unpredictable issues, there are three crucial focus points: Tapping into the collective intelligence of the organization, allowing creative solutions to emerge, and prioritizing company values.

Including employees more in problem-solving and the process of finding new creative solutions is key. Remember, your most valuable resource in problem-solving is your employees. Include employees from all levels of the organization in brainstorming ideas. They’ll have great inputs on how to make working remotely easier, how to improve employee motivation, and how to strengthen engagement.

Collective intelligence is group intelligence built on the collaboration, efforts, and engagement of a diverse team. The American journalist James Surowiecki states four conditions for collective intelligence to flourish in his book Wisdom of Crowds:

  1. Diversity, to avoid group thinking.
  2. Independence, giving the space and freedom for each person to express their ideas and opinions without judgement.
  3. Decentralization, the closer a person is to the problem, the likelier they are to have a meaningful contribution.
  4. A good method for aggregating results.

A recent well-known and complex problem is the sudden need of onboarding new employees virtually. LinkedIn shows a great example of how to do this the best way, by using collective intelligence. The practice required a strong collaboration between HR and IT, which the company facilitated by inviting employees from both in and outside of their departments to share ideas on how to communicate with newcomers. The collaboration resulted in a new set of credentials that the IT department developed so that the HR team could load internally used software remotely when training their new colleagues.

In other words, the results of tapping into the collective intelligence of the organization is a much stronger team. The increased involvement of employees produces more innovative ideas, diversity of thought and strengthens the engagement between colleagues. Bureaucracy will not solve complex problems. When an employee comes to you with one, don’t jump to rulebook-solutions. Instead, ask open-ended questions such as “What’s holding you back?” or “How would you handle this?”. This gives you both insights and the freedom to facilitate a lasting solution, rather than fitting the issue into an old dusty box.

It almost goes without saying that working as a team in our current landscape of uncertainty needs a trustful culture. We need to improve communication, recognize employees more often and practice transparency to foster comfortability. And we need to do it faster! Step forward and see the benefits of creating a respectful, trusting and urgent workplace. High-trust environments allow people to bring their personalities to work, which will not only make them more creative but more productive as well.

When building a high-trust environment it is essential to cultivate positive beliefs about employees and to set clear and high expectations, because assumptions drive behavior. If you assume that your employees will deliver their greatest and never doubt their ability to achieve the company goals, then they will rarely disappoint you. This also calls for rewarding great performances with public recognition, as a part of cultivating positivity and motivating your employees. Encouraging employee autonomy also contributes to a more trustful culture. This can be done by letting them set their own habits and shape their own roles. It demonstrates inclusion and shows that you confide in your employees.

Finally, trust and transparency walk hand in hand. Fostering transparency is, especially during Covid-19, of great importance. HR leaders need to communicate openly and to evolve relationships with the people of the organization. Debunk the notion that managers should stay objective, bring the personal standpoint closer. The goal is to build a leader-employee relationship on genuineness and vulnerability. Adopting a complexity-conscious mindset is recognizing that trust is key to getting through a crisis like the pandemic.

Prioritizing company values is the last crucial focus point. These must be made foundational. During crises, we tend to fall on our knees and backslide right into traditional thinking. It is almost instinctive for many leaders to make autocratic decisions and forget about the impact on their employees. Fight this instinct with the power of your company values and focus on demonstrating fairness and passion for the people.

Don’t let the fundamental beliefs be words on a wall, let them be the guide for your decisions. If one of your values is communication, ask “what information can we share to increase transparency?”. If it is trust, ask “what behavior can we demonstrate that would help us build trust?”. If it is employee engagement, ask “what experience do they have that would be valuable regarding this topic?”.

Remember, when working in HR, your role is being your company’s moral conscience, now more than ever. Strive to challenge your organization to act more aligned with its values. Adopting a complexity mindset will help you towards it.

Primary Sources: HRtechX & Harvard Business Review

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