The Human Touch

Over the last year, there’s been talk about the role of HR in the direction organisations choose to take. The HR blogosphere has been quite impressive in what it’s put out there, and it certainly gets the brain thinking. Organisations mainly in the banking sectors, various financial institutions, and more recently the G4S scandal with regards to the security resourcing at the Olympics, or the LIBOR scandal and Barclays, have all had questions asked about why the bad things were allowed to happen.

There have been a few questions banded about by HR specifically. Who should be the conscience of the organisation? Why should it fall to HR? How are companies allowed to just follow policy and not think about the human consequence? At what point did the human part of the equation just fail to be a factor?

There’s two things I’d like to write about which will help give some insight to these things. The first is about the organic growth organisations go through. At some point, successful organisation merge or acquire other organisations and the business grows. At some point, successful organisations who relied on the brilliance of their people realised that that alone wasn’t enough and efficiencies needed to be made. At some point, departments needed to be created who at first hold administrative relevance (HR, Operations, Finance) but soon grow to needing to have seats on the board because of broader responsibilities.

This natural growth means we start to see the benefit of having an efficient system. Why waste time and effort when a process can help eliminate that time and waste? We start to value less the people who made things happen, and instead start investing in systems to make the process happen. Indeed this is where systems like Six Sigma came about. Reduce a production operation by X percentage by getting rid of the waste and investing in the resources which will create gain.

What we’ve known for at least the last ten-fifteen years is that in trusting the process, we forget that people need to talk. A whole industry of consultants and experts in creating dialogue have stepped in to help this happen. Where internal teams have the capacity to do this, they are tasked with the same – help people talk. It’s odd to think that at one time talking was the easy part, and then suddenly getting people to talk was burdened with such politicking.

In psychology we learn about personality theories and the likes. They’re very useful in helping to understand the human condition and what motivates people, how to get them to be their best, and how to lead people. All manners of things from unconditional positive regard to rewarding behaviours to ergonomics have meant we poke and prod people in interesting ways when they come to work.

In everyday life we see around us structures that help us to navigate our way in this world. Religion gives a large population their moral compass in guiding their way. It acts as their conscience and as their saviour in some cases. The Criminal Justice system helps us to keep on the straight and narrow and ensures we understand the consequences of doing harm in various ways to others. The Armed Forces help give us a sense of security from threats (either potential or real). The governments of most developed lands provide us with a set of rules and policies by which we lead our lives. In life, we’ve figured out we need people to be these things otherwise anarchy would reign. In organisations, what we’ve figured out (mostly) is that we can’t engage our people otherwise we risk anarchy with those carefully developed processes.

Should HR be responsible for the conscience of the organisation? Abso-bloody-lutely. It’s an unfortunate truth that as organisations naturally grow, they just become less human. No matter the awards on the shelf that may claim they’re a great place to work. It’s the people in an organisation who make it a great place to work, because they know what that looks like. Policies and processes help to give people the structures necessary to keep things moving along. When you look beyond those, it’s the people who are making things happen.

On Friday 17th August I’m running an event called Positive Psychology in Application. It’s going to cover a range of topics to do with Positive Psychology. Book now to attend and learn more.

Published by

Sukh Pabial

I'm an occupational psychologist by profession and am passionate about all things learning and development, creating holistic learning solutions and using positive psychology in the workforce.

9 thoughts on “The Human Touch”

  1. This is possibly the kind of discussion that could take up a whole conference!

    Anyway, I don’t HR should be responsible for the conscience of the organisation. It would be like saying all recruitment or staff appraisal is the responsibility of HR… oh sorry we’ve done that haven’t we – didn’t turn out too well did it… it devolved responsibility, created more administration and impacted on the reputation of HR… beyond that are HR actually capable of working with the consciences of the organisation?

    Wouldn’t a better shift be moving away from “responsible for…” towards “responsible for coaching the organisation on…”? More enabling, doesn’t devolve responsibility, and positions HR as a supportive but challenging partner, not an Audit function.

    Still there’s the question of what has to happen for HR to work effectively as coach & a challenging partner. It’s probably the question we should all be dealing with anyway… Now that is something I’d like to see a conference on!

    1. See, if HR doesn’t take the charge and be responsible for making an organisation look at itself in the mirror, I’m not seeing any other function able to make it happen. Legal just make sure we stay on the right side of the law and exercise caution.

      My concern is that organisations keep hiding behind policy and process and fool themselves into thinking they’re acting ethically, when they’re not.

      1. I’d say that “conscience” is not something to be fulfilled by a function – that’s the old world talk isn’t it?

        The conscience we’re talking about sits with every individual – we all have choice. When we’re talking about collective, corporate conscience I see HR as being able to do much more but the responsibility sits with those who make and manage the collective, corporate conscience – leadership teams, boards, shareholders. In most cases these are the powers that govern HR within an organisation…

        Find the change leaders who can coach, challenge and maintain the respect of those whose individual choice will make the collective difference… build that capability naturally. Don’t “dump” this in HR as their “function” and expect it to get fixed – it won’t and HR will alienate itself in the process.

        To my mind, it’s the only way to work with people in power who are already fooling themselves…

  2. Hi Sukh, great post as ever and thanks for starting a great conversation.

    It is interesting this idea of ‘organisational conscience’ and in turn where the reposnsibility for it should sit.

    For what it is worth, I agree HR has a role to play in this and at the same time they cannot be wholly responsible. We could get into semantics about accountability vs responsibility and say that the Main Board (or equivalent) of an organisation is accountable and they may then make HR responsible for driving this area forward.

    I also whole heatedly and completely agree with David’s point that we are all individuals and therefore have a choice in this area. Whether we act in one way or another is ultimately our choice. I get angry at the ‘I just did it coz everyone else was’ type statements that occur. We all have a moral compass that drives our responses and no function or group can manage that.

    I agree that HR has a role to play and as Mr Goddin said, there could be a conference on that topic all on its own.

    1. As per Doug’s point below, there’s some resonance here with ‘organisational conscience’ and ‘collective conscience’. Well worth the debate right there.

  3. I’ve read this post several times and on each reading of it I feel slightly angrier. I will try and restrain myself as I scribble on a while…

    Trying to make any one part of an organisation somehow responsible for a collective conscience is, in my opinion, flawed. Every individual in the company should own their own conscience and feel OK to call out something wrong. To try and somehow make HR responsible is an abdication of responsibility.

    One of the weakest senior managers I worked for saw anything to do with people as ‘HR’s job’, so pretty much nothing useful got done unless you could put it in an Excel spreadsheet or a mega dull PowerPoint. Under his leadership and thanks to his total lack of regard for HR, the department became a joke. That kind of guy would love to make HR ‘responsible for conscience’, and I don’t want to work anywhere near someone like him ever again.

    I’m off to punch a wall now – see ya later.

    1. ‘Collective conscience’. I like that. I guess what I remain conscious of is most organisations want someone to ‘own’ that responsibility. Sure people get that they can speak out if they see something wrong, but what we’ve seen is that people just don’t do that.

      I want there to be a collective conscience, but maybe as David says, instead of HR being responsible for it, they help educate the organisation to what this looks like.

      I feel sorry for the wall.

      1. There’s already a model at work for collective conscience… rubbish bins, manners, hierarchy, queues… there’s a system (culture) in each organisation but we all find the norm pretty quickly and adopt it. We also hold each other accountable to it don’t we? We can do it, sometimes folk just need to know what the norm should be…

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