Leadership coach Anja van Beek on how to handle the tricky situations that no one tells you about before taking on an HR executive role.
As an HR leader, you may have experienced various challenging scenarios in your career. One of my coaching clients shared this specific dilemma with me: She has recently been appointed as the HR director, and within the first few weeks at the company, one of their clients contacted her. The client attended a social event hosted by their company and the client made a complaint against the CEO and stated the CEO consumed too much alcohol and was inappropriate and out of line.
How’s that for a tricky situation?
Where do you start this discussion with your CEO? How do you address this in a respectful yet candid way? HR execs face many interactions that require candid discussions. As the head of the people function, you are expected to lead the way by having conversations with your C-suite colleagues. Holding them accountable, not only for the business results but also for walking the talk and setting the tone for the culture you want to create.
In my role as an HR leader in a multi-national, tech company, I have dealt with many tricky situations. Here are a few scenarios that HR leaders face and some suggestions on how to handle them.
Divisions not reaching their transformation commitment
Diversity and Inclusion remains a strategic focus area for most businesses. Some members of the exco will agree with these (non-financial) goals and say they understand the importance of increased diversity, especially when prioritising innovative cultures. Yet, they often don’t keep their team accountable for actively keeping to the commitments and putting plans in place to support this. How do you address the matter when divisional directors didn’t reach their transformation commitments for the second year in a row?
Tip #1 – Don’t talk for the sake of talking. Ensure you address all the relevant issues at hand.
This seems to be a shared challenging area for HR leaders. As a starting point, I think it's best to list all the issues at hand. At first, it might seem like a discussion around missed commitments, but, if this is the second year that a division failed to achieve its non-financial targets, it could signal a trend, especially financial targets for the same period are being met. Figure out if not walking the talk and not leading by example a broader issue you need to address.
If so, ensure you tackle all the relevant issues. Be clear on the ideal outcome and what you hope to accomplish. During the discussion, keep your intention and motive in mind as it will keep your behaviour on track. Be curious and ask questions to get their perceptive. Lastly, co-create a solution that all can agree on. It might be stating the obvious but document the conversation. This might be needed for a future discussion and to track progress against the commitment.
Expansion into a new geographical area doesn’t seem to be above board
As the HR leader, we are expected to continue making a radical shift towards bigger and broader thinking. The best professionals in this field can contribute to conversations and business decisions around new revenue streams, options to expand or shrink operations and not only people-related matters. In this discussion relating to geographical expansion, how do you handle the situation when you realise the expansion and the sales deal seem not to go as planned? In some case, it may seem like a grey area, touching on the borders of corruption. What if the sales manager has a reputation of (slightly) bending the rules, usually in such a way that it is challenging to pinpoint the exact bending of the rule?
Tip #2 – Identify your judgement, the stories and the opinion towards the person and topic before the conversation is held.
The term “backstories” is often used in movies and refers to the point that we might be more emotional about the topic than the situation warrants. Before starting any conversation we need to check (and edit) our stories. Is there a previous interaction with this person or issue at hand that could be triggering you? Be aware of your “backstories” - consider how the opinions or judgements might influence your behaviour during the conversation. Edit and adjust your stories where necessary to ensure you get the most out of that discussion.
Once this is done, you can start the conversation. It is critical to start with facts, what you have seen or heard about the issue. You can then share your conclusion about these facts. Get their input and show a genuine interest in others’ point of view, their concerns, and even criticisms during the discussion. Practice the conversation in your mind; see how you handle challenging possibilities with ease. More importantly, envision the result where it is a win-win solution for both.
When there is a huge disconnect between HR and the line managers
Many managers underestimate and don’t understand the importance of their contribution to the people processes – how they manage their team, their involvement in the onboarding of new colleagues, or conversations around career growth and options. To provide value to the business, the HR and line managers should partner in various areas because a siloed way of working doesn’t work at all.
Let’s use the talent acquisition team, as an example. When there is a vacancy that needs to be filled, managers often don’t provide specific behavioural or other requirements and only when the candidates are presented at the interview stage, managers then share critical information. This leads to frustration on both ends, and valuable time wasted. Usually, it is the recruitment team that needs to go back to step one.
Tip #3 – Ensure you understand the business context. Create opportunities for timely discussions and clarify role expectations.
To ensure there isn’t a disconnect, the HR team should get as much context and key non-negotiable behaviours, skills or experience around the specific vacancy early in the process. This is achieved by having the right discussions with the relevant levels in the business. For example, if you are recruiting for a specific role, have a conversation with the direct manager as well as their manager to get the business receptive and context.
Tip #4 - Use every occasion to build strong connections and profitable partnerships with the business. Tell compelling stories and use business language to increase your influence.
HR team members must use every opportunity to talk to senior business leaders to gain insight into the business context. For example, some of the more junior HR team members usually don’t have lots of one-on-one time with senior business leaders. The recruitment process can be an opportunity for them to gain an understanding of the business and to influence the leaders. Remind them to speak persuasively during these interactions and to use business language talking about the challenges the leaders face and the issues they are trying to resolve. Data and analytics are an important tool – they can use data to tell compelling stories around market conditions and talent availability during recruitment discussions instead of just showing leaders some data with no insight.
Tip #5 – Build feedback into the process: What has worked well, what can we improve and what can we continue with in the process?
Create a habit of giving (and receiving) feedback regularly. To continuously examine what has worked well, what we can adjust to get to a better result is a good way of interacting.
We live in a world where change is the new normal. Business leaders are under pressure to show year-on-year growth and, therefore, are extremely focused on the business results and expect teams to be able to adjust and maintain high-performance levels.
I have been working with a client where rumours started to surface of a possible merger with another business. Their previous change project, the closing down of a remote office, left a bad taste for the colleagues and impacted the trust relationship between the leadership team and colleagues.
The impact? The business will experience a huge change initiative in the foreseeable future and the trust levels are at an ultimate low. Often leaders are very confident with strategic plans and processes and uncomfortable with people-related issues. This is an opportunity for HR to coach leaders and remind them to be authentic in times of change.
Tip #6: Communicate, communicate, communicate – ensure leaders’ communication is transparent and truthful. Even a simple acknowledgement, “I don’t have the answers, or I don’t know” will work.
As HR leaders, we can guide and lead leaders on these matters but also challenge and hold them accountable if they continue to overlook the human side of the business.
Tip #7: Remind colleagues that there is no such thing as a “problem-free plan”. The future is unpredictable, and one can’t plan for this; an adaptive approach works best.
As custodians of the people, we can guide the leaders to understand the impact of change on human behaviour. Show them it is a normal and a predictable curve that can be managed. Guide them to manage it effectively and remind them that during communication with their teams; transparency is critical. Coach them to be authentic and vulnerable in times of change.
Tip #8: Support leaders to help them provide the conditions for others to share their views (even if it is different from the leader’s views).
The leader’s actions and behaviours will encourage their teams to speak-up. Teach employees the skill to speak up even if the leader's actions aren’t encouraging this.
When preparing for tricky discussions.
It can be helpful to look at the SCARF model, designed by David Rock. The model is based around the notion that our brain experiences social threats with the same intensity as physical threats; this is very common and very real. This impacts people’s ability to resolve problems, collaborate and make decisions.
Tip #9: Ultimately, it all comes down to connections. Let’s remind ourselves that people crave connection the neuroscientist provides insights into this.
For the brain to survive, we need each other. Our sense of belonging, identity and meaningfulness is impacted by our interactions with others. The feeling that you belong at work is an essential part of brain performance. Healthy relationships help to develop the “trust hormone” oxytocin. These connections with others can be a solid foundation and can give you a jump start when having a tricky conversation.
When it comes to a challenging conversation, the HR leader should lead by example, tackle tricky matters head-on and handle them eloquently. This will help to build a legacy of being focused on the results and relationships in your business. Artificial Intelligence can’t emulate human skill and connection with teams and colleagues will remain as critical as the ability to have a tricky discussion respectfully in order to drive business performance whilst strengthening human connections.