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Does Human Resources have a bad name?

Does ‘Human Resources’ have a bad name? On the surface can it be read as levelling humans to a commodity, a resource to be used and organised? Does the title create a suggestion of a focus on control that is both in opposition to, and undermines the work done by those within Human Resources (HR) seeking to build trust, growth and inclusion?

What if we simply switched the words around? To create a title that defines the outcome aligned to what is most important.

How about Resourcing Humans. A shift in meaning to that of resourcing every individual to thrive through a relentless pursuit of the optimal conditions for wellbeing and intrinsic motivation that lead to high performance and innovation. To embed truly inclusive environments and cultures of trust that are human fit. To accurately detail the purpose of the function, and the desire of those working within.

We are at a truly unique time in our history. The global pandemic has been unprecedented for us all and it collides with many other significant factors that were already affecting the way we live and work. As we try to find our way in this uncharted territory we have to carefully plan for the many challenges and risks ahead of us. But, in this new realm, we also have a huge opportunity to reshape our working world. To become conscious architects of the experience we want to have and want our people to have. To give rise to the human organisation.

We cannot and should not return. What was has gone. And because the way we were working was simply not working, we need to take this chance to change the trajectory we had set a course for. Productivity has not increased for decades. Workplace stress has increased and engagement levels have plummeted resulting in an estimated £73bn in lost productivity in the UK and $7 trillion worldwide[1]. The return on investment from engagement is well known, researched and documented. Engaged individuals are 87% less likely to leave and deliver greater innovation, better decisions and deepened collaboration. And, above all, because engagement is directly correlated to wellbeing, those intrinsically motivated by their roles are far less likely to become ill. Organisations, on the other hand, with disengaged staff experience up to 100 times more errors and significantly higher levels of safety incidents, greater levels of presenteeism, absenteeism and attrition. Workplace stress is now listed as the 5thleading cause of death. The combination of factors leading to this frightening statistic include long hours, uncontrollable workloads, work-family conflict and job insecurity[2]. Whist this has a huge impact on health care costs and the economy, by far the worst cost is to every life and every family affected due to, what has become for so many, a toxic way of working. But, one that is preventable.

We can do things better. We can start to ask the right questions. How can and should the workplace serve us? How can we best resource our people so they can be their best? What are the optimal conditions for human performance and wellbeing? How can we pursue stakeholder value rather than shareholder value, even for those without a voice such as the environment. We can apply the real science and DRIVERS® of human motivation to find and implement sustainable solutions.

We work tirelessly to find, attract and recruit the best talent. Once they arrive full of energy and enthusiasm we so often unintentionally cuff them. We place rules, policies, targets and performance metrics tightly around them limiting capacity to grow and deliver what we recruited them for. Their performance is unwittingly constricted to mitigate for potential disobedience. Creativity does not happen in confinement. We talk of trust, of inclusive cultures but we have accidently setup workplaces that are more often about control and only exacerbate exclusion. We have effectively established rational containment centres with many unintended consequences, rather than the optimal human health and performance spaces we need.

So much of the foundation for the current workplace performance management system (at least the pre-pandemic one) was borne from a past century that bought men from the farms into the factories. Control was deemed as paramount to ensure compliance and efficiency. Humans were dispensable and leaders were dictatorial. Central to much of economic theory at this time was a focus on the wrong doers and the rule breakers. It espoused that we are ultimately self-serving and self-interested. Rather than homo-sapiens we are described as homo-economicus, purely rational transactional beings. This theory promotes individualism rather than our inherent, and protective, social and communal nature. It’s teachings have seeped into our current workplace processes and procedures to curtail innovation rather than free it.

The unintended consequences of our legacy systems of performance measurement and management can be far reaching and often unseen. We think we are doing the right thing to support performance but we get the exact opposite. Just over 2 decades ago the Boston Firefighting department noticed they had a problem. Back then the firefighters had unlimited sick leave. The administrators noticed, as they analysed the sick time, that Fridays and Mondays were most often the days where individuals would call in. So they bought in a policy which ruled that firefighters could only have a limited number of days of sick leave annually. Any more time taken their pay would be docked. This led to widespread anger and resentment. In fact most had not been calling in sick when they were not ill, and felt that the trust in them had been unjustly removed. On Christmas day and New Year’s day masses of them protested by calling in sick only to have their bonuses removed. In the year following the policy’s inception, the number of sick days recorded more than doubled. Individuals started to see sick leave as part of their entitlement and would use up any outstanding days of leave towards the end of the year by calling in ill so as to not lose the time.  Something they would never have dreamt of doing in the past. The policy made good people do the exact thing it was written to stop. Whilst there were more than likely a small percentage of individuals calling in sick when they weren’t, the policy punished everyone, placed an assumption of distrust across the workforce leading to reduced moral and a diminished sense of obligation to the fire service. The Fire Chief removed the policy 18 months later, but whilst the policy was swiftly removed the damage remained.

‘Trust arrives on snails back and leaves on horseback’

I fully appreciate we have come a long way since the first industrial revolution style of leadership and management, but I argue that we have not come as far as we like to think we have. We still create rule upon rule through policies that unconsciously replicate outcomes akin to the Boston fire service’s experience. Take the flexible working policy for example. True flexibility is giving autonomy, choice and agency through trust to your people to deliver their work where, when and how they can best do so.  But each rule imposed, from how much working from home is allowed to the limits on types of flexible working, removes and undermines trust. If we have shown one thing through the Covid-19 crisis, we can and do deliver, self-organise and can be trusted to work. We don’t need rules in place to do so – we need trust.

Trust is the real performance currency. It is the basis of the psychologically safeworking environment that switches on our reward mechanism and sparks intrinsic motivation. We need to stop assuming people will abuse the system. We have built fences and blockers for the very small minority that may fall into this category by curbing everyone’s potential. Instead we need set up mindsets and pathways for success from the very start and trust that if the conditions are right the engagement will follow.

Human leadership is a messy art. We are not wholly rationally beings but, we are brilliant given the right conditions. We don’t have to go back, we can choose to reshape, reinvent and reimagine our working world for the better. We have the knowledge and the tools to make it happen, the rest is simply a choice to change.

So let’s switch to ‘Resourcing Humans’, because we can make workplaces fit for humans rather than keep trying to fit humans into the workplace.

Click here to learn about the Human Leadership talk and learning series, that delivers science based tools to establish truly inclusive cultures of trust and human-fit workplaces.

About the Author

Susanne Jacobs MBA, Chartered FCIPD, FCMI

Susanne Jacobs founder and CEO of The Seven. She is an organisational behaviour and performance specialist, focussing on trust and intrinsic motivation. Her work is based on over a decade of research into the neurobiology of human performance and what truly motivates people to think and act differently. Susanne delivers knowledge and practical tools that are easy to grasp and apply so an organisation can achieve cultural change and strengthen human leadership capability.

[1] Galllup. State of the Global Workforce 2019

[2] Dying for a Paycheck. Jeffery Pffefer. Harper Press 2018