HR Roundtable: How HR Approaches Behavior in the Workplace

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Apr 15, 2014

As attendees at the April HR Roundtable in Cincinnati began to gather for the monthly forum, you could tell they were excited about this month’s topic.

We were going to be discussing “Behavior at Work and HR’s Approach.” To get the ball rolling, Steve opened with the following questions:

  1. How do you define “behavior” in the workplace?
  2. Why do HR/Supervisors/Management struggle with behavior?
  3. How can we change our perspective and approach?

The small groups really took this topic to heart and there was a mix of behavior stories and ideas that truly tried to come out with some clarity and possible solutions. Let’s see what they shared:

How do you define “behavior” in the workplace?

  • Conformity: Behavior is expected – Nothing beats jumping right to the biggest descriptor of behavior! It’s the great “let’s make everyone the same” approach. Even though this is practiced in nearly every organization, and especially through HR, it is completely ineffective for a variety of reasons. The two primary ones are that,
    1. All people are different; and,
    2. onsistently.
  • Values – Another very interesting answer because there are values that a company expresses and does their best to follow. This isn’t to comment on individual values because those may, or may not, line up with company values.
  • Culture and sub-cultures — All organizations try to have a culture that describes the company’s identity and brand. Within that overarching culture there are an incredible number of sub-cultures which may be departmental, team based, shift based, etc. The learning to note here is that there are many forces at play when it comes to culture and not just one effort.
  • Attitude (otherwise known as the “rules”) — I love it when I hear HR folks talk about employee attitudes because they’re really only commenting on the people who don’t adhere to the established rules and/or policies. You don’t ever hear about positive attitudes, only negative ones. It should help us see why we tend to take on behavior from a negative position. Look at our focus!
  • Business Ethics — Ethics is such a large arena that is similar to behavior in that people want things to be black and white, when they are actually gray. People can be crystal clear in handbooks, policies and posters about ethics, but the fact of each situation that comes up each day forces us to be reflective of how we’d address it on a case-by-case basis.
  • Leadership — It was ironic that “Leadership” wasn’t mentioned earlier in this section of the report. Most HR discussions throw out the Senior Management arguments within seconds of any answer that tries to describe all occurrences in a company. The fact of the behavior that is modeled is compared to what is being communicated.
  • Depends on your level in the company — This is a very interesting, yet very true, aspect of behavior. There are different norms and expectations of behavior at every level of a company. It doesn’t mean that one is better or worse, but you can’t compare the levels. This is a struggle because we try to package all behavior into a corporate effort even though the dynamics don’t support that.
  • Our mindset and approach — This is probably the most accurate and telling aspect of behavior in a company. It’s slightly different from “culture” because how people think of others and how they choose to approach each other will absolutely influence the behavior that is exhibited.

Why do managers and HR struggle with behavior?

  • We avoid conflict — Many want to say how good they are with conflict and with confrontation. It’s not true. People seek to have balance and stability around them at all times. Even the thought of conflict will cause people to avoid conversations regardless of the level/position a person holds at a company.
  • Lack of knowledge and context — We tend to react emotionally to behavior (which is human and natural). However, in doing that we don’t take time to dig into behavioral situations or gather context. We push back when we’re pushed. Take the time to get to know what’s “really” happening and quit assuming you know.
  • Stupid decisions shut us down — If we think someone’s decision was dumb, we tend to turn them off. Any time this happens, we only drive distance between people who makes it even more of a challenge to work through things. Sometimes dumb things occur. Own up to it and you’ll see people be more understanding than you’d think.
  • Practices and expectations aren’t clear — Any time there is ambiguity you have challenges. This isn’t just because people are gray, it’s because people don’t know how to act if the practices and expectations in a company are unclear. You have to remember that if things are unclear, people will make up a direction or behavior in order to get back to that position of stability.
  • Traditional boundaries — All organizations have traditions. In fact, most will stick to traditions to the point of martyrdom. Traditions by themselves aren’t bad. You have to review to see if the tradition you fiercely hold onto is still relevant. If it is, keep on using it. If it isn’t, you should see how to move forward.
  • Conformity — I know this was in the first section, but we all so desperately want conformity because we believe the myth that if everyone is the same we’ll have cultural nirvana. We have to remember that when we force conformity, we eliminate diversity. Is that a good stance to take?
  • Lack of consistency — This is the bane of HR! We tend to follow, and rely on, policies to guide our every action. You can’t be consistent in doing this because you will have favorites. People say that we don’t, but that’s just not the case. Striving for consistency in HR is essential to a great culture. It’s also how we can teach Management and Leadership effectively.
  • We put out fires — This is a horrible mindset to follow and have. If all you do is extinguish fire after fire, your job must be miserable. Your approach going in is that things are wrong and you need to fix them. You really need to quit looking at people and work in this manner because you will ALWAYS get the negative reaction you are anticipating.

How can we change our perspective and approach?

  • Quit associating “behavior” with something bad — If you go into any situation thinking negative things, you’ll never get results that are positive. We are emotional beings who express ourselves in a variety of ways. Understanding that each situation gives HR an opportunity to observe, assess, analyze and act is a much healthier way to look at behavior.
  • Establish “Parameters” vs. Policies — Get out of the rules business. We spend so much time trying to enforce rules, that we get resistant behavior most of the time. If your environment is about compliance and adherence to rules, then behavior will most certainly be an ongoing challenge. Give people parameters to perform within. Just by readjusting your approach, you can direct the entire company in a positive way. Try it!
  • Build trust with employees — You can’t do this from a desk. It demands human face-to-face interaction and vulnerability. However, when people get to know you as a human, then their level of trust will have a better chance to grow. Also, give trust first. Don’t make people “earn” your respect and attention. Be the model of what you expect in others. You’ll be floored by the results!
  • Be genuine — Take off the corporate mask that others expect from HR. Put on the human one instead. People will respond positively to genuine people. All of us hate pretentious behavior, so drop it!
  • Understand the elephant and the rider — Steve closed the session by sharing the book Switch by Dan Heath and Chip Heath. In the book, they talk about how our emotions are like the elephant and our rational approach is like the rider. We tend to come at behavioral situations with a rational approach and don’t understand why people keep acting in a way contrary to our position. You need to really meet people emotionally first before you can even attempt to be rational. Get the book! You’ll love it!

We had another great HR Roundtable. These monthly meetings in Cincinnati truly are a great place to gather and discuss various aspect of our field.

I hope you make time in your schedule to attend more of them in the future.