HR must be unafraid when setting the cultural tone

Because almost every business is smart you need to master behaviours if you want to succeed, says Patrick Lencioni. Just don’t get touchy-feely about it.

All fads seem silly in hindsight, so it’s easy to forget that when ‘fun’ employee perks such as ping-pong and foosball tables first popped up over a decade ago, people were amazed.

Executives pointed to the Silicon Valley companies offering them and said, that’s what we need.

These perks are now widely derided as ineffective; more a reflection of the tastes of a certain kind of tech worker than a true workforce strategy. But perhaps the fad should instead be seen as the first wave of a larger sea change in HR.

Because today those same companies are among the world’s largest, and they’ve only expanded on those perks. They break out every weapon available – from onsite barbers to egg-freezing fertility programs for women employees – in a war to secure the best people. They’re tech companies that focus as much on recruitment and culture as on technology.

That is wise, and the key variable of success, says Patrick Lencioni, a best-selling author and the founder of consulting firm The Table Group. Lencioni spoke to HRM ahead of one-day summits he’s holding in Sydney and Melbourne in March 2019. He thinks ping-pong tables and the like are “crap”. But he also says there are far too many organisations concentrating solely on their intelligence.

“Every organisation in the world these days is smart enough to be successful,” he says. “Think about what it was like 20 years ago, when a trade secret was something you could protect. Today, information changes hands quickly and it’s ubiquitous. Strategic, technical and financial insight can be learned by anyone.

“What sets great companies apart from others now is their behaviours. How they tap into that intelligence, extract it from people and put it to good use through better collaboration and better operational behaviours.”

Fulfilling work

Lencioni frequently talks about culture. His theories often grapple with how to manage the messier parts of human nature. Take for example his thoughts on the importance of self.

“Human beings come to work fully human. To engage your employees, you have to know them. An employee who feels that their manager isn’t interested in them as a human being – I don’t care how much you pay them or how interesting their job is – that employee is not going to be fulfilled.”

“Something doesn’t have to be a metric to be practical. Measurement is a tricky animal.”

Lencioni says he knows of athletes who earn millions to play sports, who are miserable; and marketing managers who earn far less and love life.

“The best companies in the world take an active, supportive interest in the person as a whole, and that changes everything.”

Given this line of thinking, when Lencioni writes “being smart is only half the equation” you might expect him to reference the dichotomy between the head and the heart. But that’s not him.

Being healthy’ finishes the equation, and ‘organisational health’ is the name of his theory. The author’s choice of such dry terms tells you a lot about his philosophy. Lencioni believes our emotions affect work, and that they must be accounted for, but he doesn’t aim for organisational happiness. His goal is business success.

So yes, he has a book called Getting Naked, and he deftly teaches readers the ins and outs of vulnerability-based trust and personality profiling. But another of his books is about effective meetings – a romantic he is not.

No hugging

“At its core,” Lencioni writes in The Advantage, “health is about integrity, but not in the ethical or moral way that integrity is defined so often today. An organisation has integrity… when it is whole, consistent and complete.”

He breaks it down into what you should see in a healthy organisation. When talking to clients, he presents it this way: “We help your organisation have less politics and confusion; higher degrees of morale and productivity; more clarity and alignment; and you’re going to keep your best employees.”

Lencioni points out that after he presents his vision, “no executive says that’s touchy-feely”. It’s the third time he’s used the phrase touchy-feely. When asked why he’s at such pains to avoid any hint of mawkishness, he says it’s the only way to get executives over the line.

“This is golden era for HR, if they do it right…but to do that they must be experts, and they have to be unafraid.”

“If we say, ‘I want to do team building with you. I want to have a two-day offsite where we’re going to talk about our team dynamics,’ it’s so easy for people to say, ‘Yeah listen, we’ve got real work to do here.’ I like to tell them we’re not going to hug, get naked, sing songs, hold hands or anything like that.”

He says the most common objection to cultural programs isn’t their cost; that’s ranked a distant third among leaders’ concerns. Number one is that it’s a waste of time. The second is that they’re going to lose credibility among their team.

A key lesson Lencioni is eager to impart to HR is the need to anticipate leadership objections before presenting them with any ideas. To do that you need to know what they are. Just as importantly, you need to know what questions you won’t be able to answer.

In our ever more data-driven world, HR has been asked to track everything and provide analytics to back up its proposals. Lencioni agrees this is important, with a caveat.

“Something doesn’t have to be a metric to be practical. Measurement is a tricky animal.

“Lots of executives say, ‘Tell me what the ROI of this activity is.’ There’s nothing wrong with responding, ‘Calculating the ROI of this is really difficult. In fact, it might be impossible. Because you can’t isolate any one variable. But the ROI is massive nonetheless.’

“I’ve gone to CEOs and said, ‘If you ask me to tell you exactly how much this clarity and cohesiveness is going to affect your bottom line, I would be lying if I told you I had a number. But I’d also be lying if I told you that you’re not going to look at this six months down the road and say, it changed everything.’

“It’s as if my wife said, ‘What’s the ROI of us improving our marriage? Will the kids’ grades be higher? Are we going to have a better financial outcome?’” he says, laughing.

“Some things are so fundamental that we have to do them because we know they impact everything. And just because we can’t accurately measure it, doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it. I say anticipate their objections about that, and don’t be bashful.”

Being unafraid

Answering the final question of our interview, one about HR professionals in Australia, Lencioni is true to form. He mixes poetic sentiment with a plainspoken focus on business.

“This is golden era for HR, if they do it right. If you really commit to saying, ‘I want to help the leaders I work with make their organisations healthier in a very practical way,’ [HR professionals] can become such an immensely valuable resource.

“But to do that they must be experts, and they have to be unafraid.”

This article was originally published in the December/January 2019 edition of HRM magazine.


Discover how you can build a cohesive and successful team with best-selling author, Patrick Lencioni in a one-day summit in Sydney (13 March) and Melbourne (15 March). AHRI members get $200 off registration with the promo code HRMonthly.

The post HR must be unafraid when setting the cultural tone appeared first on HRM online.

Leave a Reply