Why Let Your Managers Blubber?

figure_no_talking_symbol_400_clr_11004 2Why do otherwise confident and caring people turn into blubbering idiots when delivering bad news?

John Grisham’s new book – Gray Mountain – set in 2008. Three Ivy League attorneys working for a large and prestigious law firm in Manhattan are called to a partner’s office and told they no longer have a job.  Lehman Brothers and Bear Stearns collapsed and the economy has begun its rapid descent into the Great Recession. Everyone is scared, and everything is chaotic.

The partner begins by explaining in nauseous detail the current economic condition, while thought bubbles appear in the young attorneys’ minds – “okay, we know this – get to the point.”  He then tells them that the entire division has been cut. They ask, “You too?” He tells them he’s being “shoved over to tax,” and launches into a speech about how nothing is guaranteed and he too may be in a soup kitchen line before it is all over. Thought bubble: “sure, with the millions you’ve earned as partner safely stored away.”

thanks for sharing 2After the partner explains the furlough arrangement (which forms the plot for the book) for the three young attorneys, he closes by telling them that some of the partners offered to reduce their own pay rather than let attorneys go, but not enough of them voted to do so. Thought bubble: “gee, thanks for sharing that.”

While this may be a work of fiction, I’ve seen this (and worse) time and time again. Otherwise good people try to soften the blow, and in reality make things worse.  We come out of the horrid business cycles, and go back to business as usual. We don’t seem to learn that there will always be bad news to deliver; it is inevitable.

Why not go on the offensive and develop the skills to deliver bad news instead?

Let’s explore the business rationale first. An organization’s reputation is crucial to business success. A reputation is enhanced or destroyed by people. Those people may be customers, or they may be employees – past, present and future. Does it not, then, make good business sense to protect the organization’s reputation by treating people authentically?

How can we go on the offensive to treat people authentically and avoid the blubbering idiot syndrome? I see three steps.

Clarify the manager’s role.

Everyone wants to be a manager, right? It is the career step that says “I’ve made it.”  A manager has an office, gets a pay bump, and is “in the know” about the business.  A key element of any managerial role is clear, honest and authentic communication to the employees within their scope of responsibility, whether the new is good or bad. If new managers are not willing to accept this critical responsibility, they should rethink their career path.

Develop consistent communication skills.

Everyone comes to the manager role with different experiences and different styles. Those differences can result in communicating different messages, whether openly, or through non-verbal communication.

There is a delicate balance between scripting managerial communication, and developing the skills to communicate authentically. When the manager’s personal values conflict with the organization’s decision, it demands that the manager communicate authentically, balancing her own feelings with the message that needs to take place.  This is very hard, and made more difficult because of relationships.

Practice, practice, practice

Rather than providing talking points or scripts, what if we provided an opportunity for managers to be presented with communication challenges, and have to deliver the news in a safe space, with helpful feedback about what worked and what didn’t? Awkward, sure. Effective, absolutely.

We would not let a nurse hear a lecture about inserting an IV, and then immediately allow him to place an IV in a patient? Instead, we provide basic content delivery (what must you know about the veins, the equipment, the risks), then we provide a simulated experience (with a mannequin or other equipment), and only after much practice can the nurse actually tend to a patient.

If we agree that a manager’s role can make or break the reputation of the organization, through effective or ineffective communication to employees, why not provide a similar learning and practice experience? How much more confidence would a manager have if they’ve practiced, made mistakes and learned?

Chances are that the partner in Grisham’s book would have learned through practice and feedback to deliver a succinct and clear message at the beginning, to not share stories that only rub salt in the wound, and to present the information authentically honoring the organization’s decision, along with his personal feelings.

I am always amazed at how organizations leave something as crucial as managerial communication to chance. Talking points and scripts do not generate authentic communication. In my experience, they create a risky number of blubbering idiots who don’t help the organization’s reputation. Only honesty and authenticity will do that, but in our complex worlds, we have to have both the permission and skill to speak honestly and authentically.

Bad news will always be with us. How we handle it determines our credibility and trust.

What is the Business of HR?

Have you noticed? HR is making headlines!

gauge_custom_red_15312 3We’re in Fast Company, Forbes and Harvard Business Review. We’re in dozens of business books hitting the market, providing competency models, new analytical tools, and metrics that will help us to gain the credibility we would like to have.

We are all over LinkedIn, in groups, in discussion threads and in “The Pulse.” Prominent business thinkers like Ram Charan are opining on the profession, and suggesting how it can be “fixed.”

One of the best (in my opinion at least) online publications about HR calls itself “tlnt.com: the business of HR” with a focus on the huge amount of knowledge required in the Human Resources profession.

But what is the business of HR? Unfortunately, those articles and books are not terribly complimentary about the work of HR, and many propose that the answer is to increase to HR’s business acumen.

I was speaking with an HR friend recently who serves as an HR partner to a line of business in a large manufacturing organization. In a business meeting, she chimed into the conversation about which other companies might be good acquisition targets with a thoughtful and knowledgeable analysis of the options. Those business people at the table had to pick their chins up off the table. Why? They didn’t expect someone from HR to know anything about the business. She showed them – you go, girl!

But is the business of HR knowing the business? Partly. HR needs to understand the financial, operational, marketing and other business levers of their organization and industry in order to have the credibility to influence operational leaders.

Is that enough? What if I suggested that “the business of HR” is the business of serving its customers? Would that shift the paradigm of HR from being an overhead department to serving a real and necessary purpose in the organization?

I think it would.

As an overhead department we think about what has to be done. As a business provider, we focus on what the customer needs and wants or our services won’t be continued (or we’ll create a lot of grumbling customers who have no option because they are stuck with us.) There is a subtle but important distinction here. What would it look like to approach HR as if we were selling (and re-selling) our services to our customers?

We would know who are customers are,

We would research our customers’ needs and wants,

We would have a strong, cohesive and solid marketing plan,

We would educate our customers on our area of expertise,

We would involve our customers in developing our products and services, and seek their feedback,

We would understand how much it costs for us to produce our products and services, and build an equation to ensure that the value exceeds the cost,

We would continuously evaluate our levels of service to ensure their satisfaction,

We would not tolerate shoddy service or inaccurate business intelligence; we would take immediate steps to fix the problem and let the customer know.

How is this different?

Well, I sense that we are not always sure who our customer are. More importantly, however, we tell our customers what they must do and then hope they will do it. We build programs that are cumbersome and often seen as a waste of time, and perpetuate these programs over and over. We are constantly challenged to reduce expenses because our customers do not understand the equation of cost to value, or worse – they don’t see the value.

Is this a harsh indictment of my own profession? Perhaps it is.

I challenge you though to think carefully about these customer focused statements, and place a mirror up against your own HR team. Do you know your customers, your costs, your value and your customer satisfaction? You should.

When we think about the business of HR, let’s broaden that focus to include creating an intentional, well-conceived business plan for the products and services we provide to our customers. I suspect that, if we do this right, it will measurably improve our credibility.

I would love to hear your thoughts on this concept.

Grateful for HR Incompetence!

facebook hr_SMALLImagine the pride I feel for my profession when a friend of mine posts this on Facebook!

Sorry. Forgive the sarcasm.

But it’s a valid point. I hate the fact that, in many organizations, the Human Resources department is seen as an obstacle and anything other than helpful.

What is interesting to think about is that we (HR) spend so much time bemoaning not being allowed to be strategic, that we miss opportunities to do some of the tactical stuff right. Continue reading