It’s never been easier to get employees and managers to adopt change

Or why the trends in HR are the biggest opportunity to elevate manager performance you’ve ever had

For as long as i’ve been working in Human Resources there has been an inherent tension in the profession. The research basis for what it takes to make employees perform at a higher level has been in place and available since the 1960’s but has somehow not been widely adopted.

Why is this good practice lying unused by so many?

I believe there is a design problem and a relationship problem.

First the problem of design. HR faces the classic problem of R&D. Academics have generated insights into what management practices improve performance across multiple decades. They have proven and re-proven the need for leaders to adopt certain approaches. However, the adoption rate remains low if you read the Gallup research. I believe this is, in part, due to the inability of HR to lower the cost and complexity of spreading and implementing these practices among managers enough to get widespread adoption. HR’s products and user experiences can often be pretty awful or high quality and too expensive for widespread use. Great ideas need to be turned into a suitably low cost, easily used set of tools for people to have the time and interest to adopt them.

We can probably assume that, like all other forms of R&D, the process of translating talent management insights into technologies or techniques that can be easily deployed to a non-expert audience is difficult enough that it may never happen to some of the insights.

The other factor to consider is the human side of implementations. For years, the barriers to change have simply been too high and so has the risk for HR leaders to experiment. The reputation of a HR leader has generally been critical to the ability to drive adoption of an insight into a company’s management practices. In my experience, HR change has often been driven based on good will from the CEO, shared passion for a way of working between HR and the CEO or by borrowing authority of experts (e.g. HBR studies)or consultants to support a business case. Implementation of a new approach has typically come at a high cost of relationship capital, time and with a high risk of failure due to implementation methods of the past. Making a new management idea work could often feel like an ‘all or nothing’ gamble for a CHRO’s credibility.

Here’s some good news

There has never been more ways to make implementations of good practice possible than there are now and at less inherent risk for the change agent. The traditional problems of implementations are rapidly becoming less permanent barriers to change.

What’s making things easier?

  1. The social context of our workplace is forcing managers to open their minds

The multi generational workforce (a moving target of a problem) is forcing change. A deluge of rhetoric, op-eds and research have shifted the consensus that a critical mass of employees today do not respond well to traditional forms of command and control and need more sensitive direction and management.

Add to this the fact that there are currently 4 broad ‘generations’ and attitudes in the workplace today and the complexity requires managers to be more flexible than in the past. This has meant leaders cannot be dogmatic in their approach and must embrace multiple approaches to management, allowing the innovative approaches in the back door of what previously had been a ‘winner takes all’ argument of management philosophies.

2. Data and technology is transforming what we can see and prove about management behavior

As HR technology platforms improve, our ability to measure, analyze and capture data on employee behavior is transforming. Talent analytics is the biggest thing happening to talent management today with break throughs happening every six months as our ability to predict employee and manager behavior improves.

Technology is allowing us to peel back the veil on the down stream effects of manager decisions on attrition, to track information both inside and outside of the workplace with predictive power. Proof points on the impact of talent decisions are multiplying and more easily available than ever.

Effectively this new capability is allowing basic forms of in house R&D on talent practices. Google leads the way here in role modelling what’s possible. The cost of in house R&D for your own company is dropping rapidly and tailored insights and feedback on real time trends in your specific work environment are becoming more available and replacing gut instinct and pattern recognition of practitioners — an asset traditionally heavily utilized but very expensive and risky to use.

3. Implementation methods are improving — Going beyond a pilot approach to experimentation and testing methods

The days of big bang implementations of new talent processes are receding. In the same way Agile processes for software implementation have replaced waterfall implementation, Pilot phases that precede a big bang are also looking to be less useful in the current context. The risk factors of big implementations of new management processes have been reduced as a result.

An adoption of the philosophy of experimentation has made the bitter pill of change much easier for leaders to swallow and far less risky for HR leaders to implement change. Why roll out an ‘all or nothing’ change to your annual performance management system when you simply don’t have to do so anymore?

The current good practice allows you to increase insight into the impact of individual change components and risk far less in the process. You can break down the performance management process change you want to make into sub components and then run tests of each component of change in isolation across multiple sub groups of your employee population, collect feedback on each change and determine which of the elements to implement in the next annual cycle.

Employees like it, you build a local data set for each component of the change that local leaders cannot throw a ‘not invented here’ argument at and you don’t lose the value of the successful components in the noise of a big bang holistic change effort.

Once you add onto this experimentation approach the idea of implementing change sequentially over multiple process cycles and you reduce the resistance of the managers and risk of a failed implementation. Call it marginal gains, continuous improvement or anything else but it leverages a key insight on making change digestible to increase adoption rates.

A huge opportunity to elevate your impact

There is an opportunity here to lower the cost and risk of change and improve the work environment like never before. Who knows where it will lead but it certainly seems to be providing HR and leaders with an opportunity to be more creative and address long standing barriers to employee and leader performance in the workplace.