Time to trade in HR Bling?

In recent decades, HR has accumulated a fearsome array of processes and procedures, all meant to make it more effective in supporting organisations and more respected for doing so. New methodologies are embraced enthusiastically, imported into the HR catalogue and imposed on increasingly wary line managers.

Like bling, many (perhaps most) of these processes look shiny, but do they actually achieve anything? Or are they the equivalent of the fake Rolex – flashy but worthless?

In my recent researches, I have been encouraged by how many thinking HR professionals have started to question the value of the processes they use. What, they ask, is the evidence that they work? And they feel a sense of relief when they realise that, where credible evidence exists, they don’t work. Take a few examples:

The nine-box grid, promoted heavily by the leadership pipeline movement, claims to be an accurate way of assessing talent and identifying high potential employees. Nice idea, if managers could assess performance and potential (the two axes of the grid), without bias or with any significant degree of accuracy. But the weight of evidence suggests that they can’t and that putting people into boxes does more harm than good – not least, because it creates self-fulfilling prophecies, which reinforce the illusion that good choices were made.

Leadership competency frameworks might be useful, if we could define what leadership is. After several tens of thousands of studies, books and articles, all we can say for sure is that it varies with context. Certainly, the concept of the single, heroic leader has little validity. If leadership is usually a collective activity, trying to assess individual leaders is largely pointless. Competency frameworks favour those employees most able to manipulate the system (including the psychopaths).

Succession planning. Surveys show that line managers, including top management, have little faith in succession planning processes. Here’s a simple example of how they don’t work. According to research, women outscore men on nine out of ten leadership traits. Yet men are twice as likely to be promoted at any point in their career than women.

Annual appraisals have little evidenced value and are generally seen as an irritation by both managers and direct reports alike. Forced ranking swiftly becomes “forced rankling”, as people react negatively to being told they “meet requirements”. What could be more patronising? There is some evidence, however, that continuous appraisal has positive impact. 360-degree feedback is often seen as a counterbalance to line manager bias, but the evidence base suggests that managers, who rule by fear, tend to score substantially higher than they should, while participative managers score lower than average, because others know they will value constructive criticism.

So should we throw all the HR bling away, recognising that, like the Emperor’s new clothes, they did little to conceal HR’s essential nakedness anyway? A more pragmatic approach, I suggest, is to adopt a three-part strategy:

  • Seek genuine evidence that HR processes deliver what they promise. Seek the perspective of people on the receiving end and question how your need to impress line managers might affect how you weight evidence.
  • Use processes not as decision-making tools, but as part of a much wider body of evidence about people and their abilities
  • Wherever possible, replace or supplement HR processes with high quality of dialogue

Here’s a quote from an HR director, who gained my immediate respect: “We spend a lot of time exhorting our leaders to be authentic. Then we try to convince them that we are in control, by blitzing them with statistics they don’t understand (and often don’t believe). If we took our own medicine, we’d place a higher priority on our own authenticity and we’d take a hard look at whether HR processes enhance or detract from that.”

© David Clutterbuck, 2011

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