HR and Commitment-phobia

Josh Liebner, Gershon Mader, and I ended up on an interesting tangent about the role of human resources in driving strategic commitment (previous posts here and here).  Both authors shared my frustration about HR’s inertia when it comes to transformation efforts.  In no small measure, this frustration comes from believing that HR should be in a unique position to drive change because they often know “what is really going on” or “what people really believe/think”.

We kept coming back to one question:  Does the human resources field attract people who can’t or don’t want to lead?  Our answer was “too often” and the discussion identified three drivers:

  1. The reputation of HR as a leadership backwater is an on-going barrier to attracting risk-taking leaders.  Many people recognize that HR could be more, but ultimately…
  2. The transactional nature of many core HR functions shapes its own org design.  What parts of HR must be done?  Well, they are the compliance, recruiting, and benefits administration functions.  Therefore, there is something about the work that attracts…
  3. Gatekeepers.  Compliance-heavy functions require formal and structured lines of authority, which are quite easy to hide behind or to substitute for business decisions.

This last point highlights the position that HR has gotten itself into: gatekeeping may give it formal authority, but strategic imperatives don’t respect formal authority.  Emergent and adaptive systems will almost always find workarounds.

To that end, Josh and Gershon both suggested that a coaching and mentoring model is the best way for HR to engage in strategy.  This approach leverages the strength of HR — knowing the lay of the land — with a softer, less rules-bound style.  Acknowledging and shaping emergent behavior will be more fruitful than trying to ban or control it.

Commitment-phobic organizations

The contrast between consensus and commitment has fascinated me ever since I first heard that distinction made.  During my conversation on strategic commitment,  Josh Leibner and Gershon Mader laid out some of the challenges of relying on consensus:

  • There will always be “the unforeseen” when executing strategy.   Those who only give consent feel free to remain spectators.  The committed become partners in fixing, adapting, etc. to the unforeseen.
  • Consensus devolves into choosing the “least-offensive” solution.  I forget whether this came from Josh or Gershon, but struck me as an excellent turn of phrase.
  • Commitment means that you give up the right to second guess.  More importantly, the truly committed don’t want to second guess.

This last point gets to some of the symptoms of a less-than-committed organization.  None are surprising, but they make a a nice checklist:

  • Existing dysfunctions resume immediately after meetings/workshops/agreements to proceed in a different direction.
  • No change in communication styles or channels… collaboration patterns and alliances persist.
  • Excuses about the lack of change abound.  Hallway meetings and sidebars arethe only places where the true causes are aired (rather than public forums).
  • Silence may equal consent, but it doesn’t equal commitment. 

Power of Strategic Commitment — Interview Intro

I’m catching up on some great material — at least great IMHO — that has been locked away in my notebook. Last month, I got a chance to talk strategy with Josh Leibner and Gershon Mader, founding partners of Quantum Performance, Inc.   They have worked with Fortune 500 companies around the world including: Capital One, Cisco, The United Way, AT&T, Campbell Soup, and others. 

What prompted our discussion was the recent release of their book (with co-author Alan Weiss), The Power of Strategic Commitment: Achieving Extraordinary Results Through TOTAL Alignment and Engagement.  We had an excellent chat that centered on four topics:

  1. What are the symptoms of a commitment-phobic initiative or organization?
  2. How can one maintain motivation and ownership across diverse groups of stakeholders?
  3. What should new managers focus on to be “strategic”?
  4. Why hasn’t HR been able to play a more constructive role in strategy?
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