Too much data, not enough humanity? Photo: Shutterstock

Thursday 25th June 2015

How HR lost its way

In the race towards measurability, has HR forgotten its true calling?

According to the jacket of her new book, Dr Shelley Reciniello is a ‘psychological detective’. She makes a living by using her knowledge of the mind to crack the human mysteries of the workplace.

Deutsche Bank, General Electric, Avon, Morgan Stanley and others have hired the New Yorker, keen to see their businesses, and the often problematic individuals within them, through her eyes.

The book’s called The Conscious Leader. (We ran an excerpt, focusing on the repetition of family dynamics, earlier this year.) Introduced by Dave Ulrich – he calls the book ‘wonderfully written’ – it’s winning numerous awards, not least the Best Business Book gong at the 2015 New York Book Festival.

As you’d expect from someone who corresponds regularly with Ulrich, and has worked with HR leaders for almost forty years, there’s a lot in Dr Shelley’s thinking that touches on people management.

In particular, she’s concerned that changes to the HR agenda – including those instigated by Ulrich himself – have led to HR losing touch with its true calling.

Business not people

‘The business partner model helped HR professionals bring more tangible and transparent contributions to the business,’ Dr Shelley tells me, one recent afternoon at The Goring Hotel in London. ‘But it’s possible for HR to overly focus on business.’

Yes, HR was a nanny service that needed to up its game commercially to survive. But the baby is now somewhere in the drains, along with its accompanying bath water. ‘The pendulum needs to swing back to the centre,’ Dr Shelley adds.

What’s being lost is the human part of human resources, she believes. New-world HR folk – especially BPs – are more about project management and data. Most have little time for, or interest in, the people side of business.

Dr Shelley: ‘Need introspection’

There’s also a danger that employees will stop trusting HR as independent advisors when their declared commitment is to the ‘business’, rather than to the individuals working within it.

And business itself doesn’t necessarily benefit from HR’s change of focus. ‘By just running projects for her boss, a BP might be doing him a disservice. For example, will she ever tell their boss to do more one-on-ones, and fewer group calls? Do conversations like that actually happen any more?’

Huge burden

The volume of work being slapped onto HR’s shoulders doesn’t help, Dr Shelley adds.

‘HR has a huge burden. Yes, HR needs to stay current with talent management, and so on. But what gets left out? The human part. The part that’s about the psychology of people. We need more introspection now, not less, because we move so fast and that’s dangerous. We need conversation. We need reflective space.’

So HR is doing a sound job as project management overspill, but a lousy job of working with individuals to explore their potential and resolve personal issues.

OK, we’ll buy that. But if that is the case, why is it?

One reason might be what Dr Shelley calls ‘secondary narcissism’. This essentially means ‘the greatness of my business leader and his success falls upon me’. In other words, why concern yourself with the tricky business of people when you can bask in the reflected glory of your leader’s quantified results?

But perhaps the bigger mistake HR makes is confusing measurability with value. Dr Shelley admits that it’s hard, maybe impossible, to attribute dollar value to some of the interventions on the traditional HR agenda. But that doesn’t make them unnecessary or unimportant.

She references the plane crash in the French Alps earlier this year, in which pilot Andreas Lubitz flew his Airbus into a mountain, killing all 150 people on board. ‘That crash was about human psychology,’ she says, ‘not data.’

In short, then: the worship of data is reductive. ‘Big data, small data – I hate it. It’s bottom line craziness’.

Rather than seeing metrics and data as a way to leave the support ghetto, HR should embrace the idea of support. ‘It’s good to be in support. If anyone doubts the importance of it, ask them to try running the business place without the lights’.

Idiosyncrasy idiocy

There’s a bigger trend in play, though, and that’s societal. Seemingly, we’re all forsaking sensible, proven psychological insights for novelty and gimmickry.

The Goring Hotel is much favoured by the Royals. (The Middletons stayed there the night before Kate’s wedding.) In Dr Shelley’s room is, naturally, a copy of Tatler, and one article in particular draws her ire.

It’s about something like ‘London’s Fifteen Best Therapists’, and those who have made the list appear to be pretty idiosyncratic operators. Dr Shelley suspects that these people, driven by the need to be different in order to gain attention, might be sacrificing good practice.

She’s also suspicious of the innovations employed by some organisations. ‘Yoga classes by themselves are not going to solve engagement problems,’ she says. Mindfulness, the current top of the spiritual pops, is not in itself a solution. ‘As Krishna says, you can be mindful and still do evil things. What we think can still be garbage.’

That garbage can be found at all levels. ‘I have a CEO who believes that because he sits on a cushion, he’s enlightened,’ she says.

Mindfulness has a place, of course, but it’s the roof of the house, not the house itself. ‘There’s no point being mindful, if you’re not conscious too,’ she adds, which brings us back to the book.

Gender agenda

It continues to sell. Unsurprising: it’s an impressive introduction to the unconscious actions that can govern a workplace. Along the way, it has interesting things to say about big HR themes such as diversity and change management.

One of the best chapters is about mental hygiene. In the section on ‘Daily Maintenance’, Dr Shelley writes:

Every day you will need to remind yourself of who you are. It has become very popular of late to have people craft a story of themselves in leadership development workshops… [This] can remind you where you have come from. But it’s important to keep your story honest, so that it doesn’t become a method for hiding from your own truth.

HR professionals, she doubtless hopes, will take good note.

About the author

Andrew Baird

Andrew is the CEO of HRville. He is also Employer Brand Director of Blackbridge Communications, Editorial Director of Professionals in Law and an associate of The Smarty Train. Previously, he was the MD of TCS Advertising.