Why the 'latest thinking' in people management is hurting your business.

As someone who is pathologically contrary, I love anything that questions conventional wisdom or ‘best practice’. I imagine there are some professions where there is a ‘right’ way to do things (hello surgeons) but when it comes to how to engage and manage people nothing, and I mean nothing, can be simply boiled down to “the way”.

I want you to think about the best experiences you have had in work and life? Did any of them pan out that way because someone treated you like a set of letters (hello personality testing), or give you feedback in a prescribed and mechanistic way? Did you feel you truly seen by the high-tech performance appraisal system in your consulting company? Do you really feel you learned more in a gamified training session than you would have with some interaction with a person?

In the past, I have always stumbled on questions about what I think the future of HR is, because, frankly I think the expected answer – i.e. the use of increasingly sophisticated technology and neuroscience to pinpoint, engage and harness talent – is bunkum.

Let’s take Neuroscience. Try googling neuroscience + talent and scroll through the pages of of ‘experts’ expounding on why neuroscience is the key to unlocking your peoples’ talents. And yet, according to Avgusta Shestyuk, a neuroscience Fellow at Berkley, if you ask 100 neuroscientists for the definition of thinking, you’ll get 100 different answers. That isn’t old news. That’s a quote from a June 2019 New Scientist.

The brain is the most unknown object in the universe. We know a lot about how neural circuits function, yet “we don’t know how the information of how to ride a bicycle, or fly a helicopter, or speak Japanese, is stored in the brain”. However, we’re expected to believe (do believe, given the amount of $$$ spent on this stuff), that we know what kinds of words we should say to elicit 'x' or 'y' or 'z' response or “why some learners reject feedback”. Walk away people, you’re being sold snake oil.

The same goes for psychometric testing run by recruitment companies – yes, if you’ve read any of my previous posts you’ll know this is my bugbear (I am happy to admit that maybe, maybe there is some value in using peer-reviewed and accepted tools administered by qualified psychologists. But even then you as a business need to understand what it is you actually are testing for - what personality traits/abilities/values are actually going to get you your required outcome? How do you know? (spoiler, there's more on that below) And even then, will the person actually get to use those capabilities and traits in your particular cultural and commercial context? I can't tell you how many leaders I have worked with who hire great process people, or innovators or ... fill in the blank ... and then quash those skills because they don't understand them.

Perhaps it will be no surprise then, to learn that my favourite book on this topic is the recently released “Nine Lies About Work: A Freethinking Leader’s Guide to the Real World”. In it the authors debunk some of the myths that prevent us from really getting the outcomes we seek. Things like:

- That any of us can reliably rate other people’s performance.

Let me guess, you’re the exception? I was pretty sure I was too. Read the book.

- That people need feedback. Not so much as it turns out. In one of those moments that makes you think ‘of course’, the authors point how that how you make sense of the world is not how the person you’re talking to makes sense of the world (just think about it in terms of all that useful feedback your spouse provides, except that at work your boss doesn't know you as well and you’re obligated to smile and nod so you don’t get fired). It turns out asking staff how they’d solve their own problems and pointing out – regularly and intentionally - what they do well – that stuff’s gold (that one’s probably one to take home too!)

- Perhaps my favourite busted myth is the idea that capability frameworks are in any way useful for identifying and building talent. The only thing the authors’ research showed high performers do consistently is ... be completely unique in the makeup of the areas they excel in, even where they were in the same role. In other words, no two high performers are alike (another nail in the coffin of psychometric testing, just sayin').

The book obviously covers more than this; the problem with cascading goals, why planning provides nothing more than the articulation of the current state, that leadership isn’t actually a ‘thing’ and so on. And I get it - it would be hugely efficient, it would save us cash, it would make us highly competitive if we could tap the secret formula to finding, engaging and keeping the best talent (well, at least it would until everyone else was doing it too). But there isn’t one. Which means finding your own secret sauce to great talent management is always going to give you a competitive advantage. According to Buckingham and Goodall the couple of decades of research they drew from showed there are two things that build high engagement and performance:

“What we, as team members want from you, our team leader, is firstly that you make us feel part of something bigger, that you show us how what we are doing together is important and meaningful; and secondly, that you make us feel that you can see us, in a way that recognises who we are as individuals”

Happily, how you do this is pretty much by listening, by not being an a*sehole, by constantly communicating, and by seeking (as opposed to giving) feedback on what's going on for your team. You don't have to do this in any special or formulaic way. No product, no system, no framework can do this for you. Only constant communication and healthy relationships. It’s as simple and as complex as that.