Overcoming Nervousness Around HR

By Gordon Dmytriw written about 2 weeks ago

Are you more likely to notice who’s in the closed-door meeting if HR is part of it? Does your heart skip a beat when you get a meeting request from your HR Director?

I often ask the HR professionals I work with how they think they are perceived by their colleagues. Without fail, the answer is almost always some variation of, “people are nervous when I’m around.” There is much irony here, given how, as a group, HR folks are among the nicest, most caring people in the organization.

Nevertheless, it's true that their interactions are fraught with emotional issues - discussions around job performance, job descriptions, compensation packages, interpersonal conflict, discipline and a host of other things that, more often than not, go to the heart of our sense of self at work. Where the ego is involved, HR is surely nearby, usually behind an intimidating closed door, waiting to hijack the amygdala within.

In a recent Food for Thought, our Chairman Dr. Balaji Krishnamurthy asks: how much transparency is too much? Balaji proposes that when transparency serves accountability, and where people have a need and/or a right to know, the culture should demand that people say what they think. I’d like to suggest a similar bias towards transparency can serve as a tool to help HR fight the nervousness that accompanies their daily interactions.

We all subconsciously carry around two baskets of thoughts with us. The first basket holds those thoughts which lead us to believe we can influence our circumstances. Call this basket our circle of influence - the sense we have of agency and the ability to make things happen. We also have a second basket of thoughts, which is typically much larger than the first. Call this basket our circle of concern - all those issues that we are emotionally attached to but can't do anything about - those outside our circle of influence.

The difference in size between these two circles is called the Donut of Worry, which turns out to be where our nervousness about HR springs from. Why? Because every employee understands they are a cog in a larger machine, and certain aspects of employment are outside their control. They intuitively understand their circle of influence is smaller than their circle of concern.

Given this framework, HR can use a bias towards transparency to shrink the donut of worry and help alleviate nervousness. They can do so in one of two ways:

1. Expand the Circle of Influence through empowerment.
We propose that it is HR’s role to lead discussions throughout the organization about what empowerment means and how to inculcate behaviors that encourage employees to exercise more influence. Being an advocate for structural empowerment and helping employees exercise agency increases their circle of influence and shrinks their donut of worry. The result will most likely be an HR team viewed as advocates for employees, rather than agents of management policy.

How can HR support structural empowerment? In working with one of our clients, we discovered a correlation between the systemic use of victim language within one of their service teams (a classic symptom of a large donut of worry) and the lack of regular management feedback. We helped their HR team develop a simple two-step strategy to address this. The first step was to make the case to managers to have regular one-on-ones, as this idea was not obvious to them. The second step was to use the one-on-ones to help their direct reports develop and and work towards both short- and long-term goals. By making their one-on-ones less about performance and more about regular discussion and celebration of goals set and met, employees effectively expanded their circle of influence. Team members were gently and systematically reminded of their agency at work. In time, the blame-game behaviors and victim language that was once endemic decreased.

2. Reduce the Circle of Concern through increased communication.

The human mind doesn’t deal with a lack of information very well. In fact, in the absence of a story, we’ll make one up just to fill in the gaps: one guaranteed to be the kind that will expand, not reduce, the circle of concern. So it is incumbent that HR be a force for more, not less, communication. HR should advocate for a bias to transparency as a means of reducing the circle of concern and shrinking the donut of worry. They should hold managers accountable to more conversations about performance, not less, so employees always know where they stand. They should look for ways to challenge leaders to be more transparent with business results, to invite them to have more open and candid conversations, even to publish leadership meeting agendas and minutes. They should always be on the lookout for simple but impactful ways to undercut the very human tendency to make up stories that inevitably expand the donut of worry.

Of course, there is no single, magic bullet that can fix the nervousness that follows HR as they darken the hallways, dogged by the expectation they’re about to swing their scythe and lop off another limb from the corporate corpus (yes, that was an exaggeration for dramatic effect). But there is a sensibility that can help….that sunlight is the best disinfectant; that transparency undercuts nervousness. It’s incumbent on HR to shrink the donut of worry by demanding transparency from managers and ensuring that communication about performance is consistent and compassionate. They should also make it their mission to find ways to empower employees and challenge leadership to find ways to communicate more, not less.

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