Make HR More About Humans

We hear the term HR so much that it’s easy to forget what it stands for.

What if we would focus the profession more on humans and less on the resources - more on figuring out the best way to accommodate the psychological side of organizations, and less on the programs, systems and logistics?

This is what Lucy Adams, former BBC HR director and author of ‘The HR Change Toolkit’, said in a recent interview:

“I think HR have become process experts rather than human behavioural experts. There is very little in the realm of performance management, for example, that genuinely works with good human behaviour.”

It’s understandable why programs, systems and procedures dominate the HR agenda, as they provide the measurability, accountability and predictability that most people and organizations long for. But if these processes are not designed to support good human behavior, that feeling of control is merely an illusion.

As Lucy Adams suggests, HR leaders should spend more time thinking about their own species rather than the processes. And maybe they should then use these newly acquired insights to facilitate better listening, more productive conversations and improved collaboration. Because, in the end, the effectiveness of an organization’s culture boils down to the quality of human interactions and relationships in the workplace.

From the Hospital to the Political Arena: Examples of Productive Power

Power has the potential to ruin our interactions with others. But it can also be used productively.

Here are a few examples

  • Power can be used to encourage everyone to speak up. As I mentioned in a previous post, surgeon and author Atul Gawande offers a powerful example from the hospital where he works:

Each surgery is preceded by a discussion of the patient’s case. At the start, all attendants who are new to the meeting – from the anaesthesiologist to the nurse, to the clinician and the surgeon – have to introduce themselves by stating their name and role…

If you’ve actually been able to hear yourself in the room say: ‘I’m here, this is who I am’. That removes your barrier of wondering whether you’re even allowed to speak.”

  • Power can be used to ensure that meetings stick to their original purpose and finish on time. In this post, I discuss a simple but effective method from journalist and author Celeste Headlee.

  • Another example comes from New York Times columnist David Leonhardt. In his column about yesterday’s Democratic debate, he suggests putting ground rules in place to prevent men from interrupting women. This is a very important issue, which doesn’t only occur in politics but also in business settings.

Each candidate, for example, could be told they would be permitted one — and only one — chance to jump into the conversation, without being asked a question or directly criticized, during the night. After that, any attempt to do so would be cut off.

In summary, power is not necessarily evil. It can also be used to ensure that meetings stick to their purpose, finish on time and provide equal opportunity to everyone involved.

The Key to More Effective Decision-Making in Meetings

How can leaders balance brainstorming and decision-making, so meetings finish on time and people still feel heard?

Celeste Headlee, a journalist and the author of ‘We Need to Talk’, offers a simple but effective two-step solution:

  1. Introduce the topic and open the floor for discussion. At the end of this step, it’s probably a good idea to summarize what you’ve heard and use the powerful ‘Anything else?’ question to make sure everyone feels heard.

  2. Use your power to make a decision and delegate the tasks.

The bottomline is that you shouldn’t multitask in meetings. As Headlee explains in this episode of the Coaching for Leaders podcast:

“When you are both trying to be present and just listening and taking in information, you cannot at the same time be pursuing an agenda.”

In other words, you have to separate discussion from decision-making, which leads to better decisions and also helps you save time.

This reminds me of Amy Edmondson’s concept of duality in leadership, which I talk about in this episode of the Meeting Strategist podcast.

Here's Why Even Egalitarian Leaders Should Care About Power

How can leaders use their power more productively, starting with their everyday meetings and conversations? This is the central question of the new series of the Meeting Strategist podcast.

You might think: “What on earth does this topic have to do with me? I’m not Machiavelli, I’m a modern-day egalitarian leader who doesn’t use any power.”

Here's why no leader can afford to ignore this topic:

  1. Power plays a huge role in our daily interactions, which in turn shape the culture of the organizations we work in.

  2. Power is in the eye of the beholder. Even if you don’t consciously use any power, you might still be powerful in the eyes of other people.

  3. Power can be used as a force for good, but it also has the potential to ruin your interactions and seriously affect your ability to lead.

  4. On a more positive note, power is a choice. There are strategies you can use to neutralize it in order to create a more productive and meaningful discussion with the people you lead.

I share a few of those strategies in Episode #8, which you can listen to here.

New Podcast Series Focusing on Power in Meetings

In the second series of the Meeting Strategist podcast, I will explore a topic that most leaders dread talking about: power and, more specifically, power in meetings and conversations.

In the coming episodes, I will talk with leaders from the investment and business world as well as communication experts, coaches and other extraordinary professionals about their experiences with power in meetings.

The central question: how can leaders use power more productively, starting with their everyday interactions and meetings?

The first two episodes will be available later this week.

New episodes will be released monthly. To get notified as soon as new episodes go live, please sign up to my newsletter at the bottom of this screen or subscribe to the Meeting Strategist podcast in your favorite listening app.

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4 Levels of Conversational Awareness

“Whenever you are confronted with some specific problem - such as handling a child, winning your spouse to your way of thinking, or satisfying an irritated customer - hesitate about doing the natural thing, the impulsive thing. This is usually wrong.”

- Dale Carnegie

Whether it’s at work or at home, we often communicate on automatic pilot. To become a better communicator, you have to increase your awareness on four levels:

  1. You have to put yourself in the other person’s shoes. This means being more considerate and respectful of his or her time and opinion. Whether you are listening or talking, you should constantly remind yourself that you are having a conversation with a real human being with her own perspective, wants and needs.

  2. You have to meet with more intent. We complain about wasteful meetings, but we don’t ask the right questions to make them better. Start by asking yourself why you are meeting in the first place. If you can’t answer this question, you should probably cancel the meeting.

  3. You have to be mindful of the moment. Listening requires full commitment and deep focus. Beware of internal and external distractions. If you are in a rush or otherwise stressed, it’s better to suggest another time to talk.

  4. You have to be aware of your own emotions, biases and habits, because they affect how you listen and respond. As I suggested in a previous post, it could help to study yourself with a scientist’s eye and keep a journal of your observations. The same can be achieved through constructive feedback from colleagues, professional coaching or communication training with video analysis.

Neurological studies show that humans are not as rational as you might think. Most of our behavior in conversation is driven by unconscious processes, which could result in misunderstanding, disengaged staff, broken relationships and wasteful meetings. The first step to creating meaningful interactions is to become more aware of this blind spot.

Prepared Curiosity

I recently picked up the term prepared curiosity.

It sounds like the perfect state of mind when getting ready for an important conversation. You prepare as much as you can and then, when the moment is there, you throw it all away. It reminds me of this Charlie Parker quote:

You've got to learn your instrument. Then, you practice, practice, practice. And then, when you finally get up there on the bandstand, forget all that and just wail.

It also sounds like the perfect antidote for the preparation paradox, which I talked about with criminal defense attorney David Rudolf on my podcast. Preparation is crucial, but take it too far and it can easily become a distraction. You’ll be thinking about your prepared script, the next question on your list or the brilliant idea you came up with under the shower, while you should focus all your attention on being in the moment and connecting with the other person.

As I said in a previous blog:

The most important thing to do in your preparation is to ask yourself what you want to get from the meeting and why it matters. If you have clarity on your goals, you’ll find the appropriate words when needed to keep the conversation moving in the right direction.

In other words, you have to find out what you are curious about and why. Other than that, you are good to go.

A Bug Book for Meetings

In a recent podcast interview on The Tim Ferriss Show, management thinker Jim Collins shared an interesting concept. Early on in his successful career, he used to keep what he calls a bug book.

As he describes on the podcast, he studied himself “with dispassionate objectivity” as if he were a bug and kept a journal of his observations. One of the things he wrote about was what “the bug Jim” liked and disliked, which ultimately helped him find his passion in life.

When listening to this conversation, I started to wonder: what about a bug book for meetings? What if we would study ourselves in meetings with a scientist’s eye and keep notes of it?

For one thing, it would make sense to learn more about the creature that we are in meetings. Our actions in communication are often driven by impulse. Many of us tend to respond before the other person has finished speaking, and it’s much easier to criticize than to try to understand the other person’s perspective.

A bug book could be a tool to help you become more aware of your communication pitfalls. This will help you better manage your natural tendencies and become a more effective communicator.

To provide more structure to your bug book, you could focus your entries on the following questions, which are loosely inspired by this HBR article:

  • How do my emotions, assumptions and biases lead me to act in a certain way?

  • How do my actions in meetings affect other people?

  • How am I contributing to a misunderstanding, conflict or a wasteful meeting?

Here are more questions that provide direction: What do you want more and less of in meetings? When do meetings boost or drain your energy? When do you feel powerful in a meeting? What makes you lose your focus and wander off track? What prevents you from really listening?

It’s important to write about yourself in the third person, so you maintain a scientific distance. Here’s a fictitious example:

“The bug Marcel talked too much in today’s meeting. John tried to passionately explain something, but the bug felt the urgency to cut John off and share his own perspective. John didn’t say much in the remainder of the meeting.”

Of course, you regularly have to go back to these notes to discover patterns and formulate strategies to better manage your impulses.

Stephen Covey said: “Between stimulus and response, there is a space.”

If you understand how you tend to respond in certain situations, you can better use that space to choose your response and create a more productive interaction.