HR Roundtable: How to Handle and Cope With Workplace Behavior

Oct 20, 2014

The October HR Roundtable in Cincinnati gathered to discuss a factor of the workplace which is too often overlooked.

What is that factor? Behavior.

The reality of HR is that we are constantly surrounded by, and have to work with and/or address, the behavior of others. The Roundtable wanted to delve into this so that HR people would no longer overlook behavior, but own it and work with it.

To get started the initial questions were:

  1. How is behavior viewed at work by management and supervision?
  2. Why do we approach behavior in this way?
  3. How can we frame our approach, and the approach of others, differently?

The room became quiet and more intense than in past sessions. The attendees were intrigued with the information that was being shared.

When everyone reconvened, this is what they had to share.

How is behavior viewed by management and supervision?

  • We fear behaviors that are “different.” Most workplaces are built on norms. We want employees to behave within those norms in order to have a sense of stability and stasis. If someone’s behavior falls outside of those norms, we react. It usually isn’t positive when we do. So much time and effort is put into intentional or assumed conformity in our companies. We feel that if people are similar there’s less likely to be something “different” that we have to handle.
  • Things are either acceptable or unacceptable. This is similar to the first point, but with a twist. Here we face the challenge of personal preference and bias. One manager may feel that certain behaviors are acceptable while another may not. An example is flexible schedules. One department leader may feel that being flexible is allowing people to come in at 8:05 am, while another may not keep track at all. When these labels are put on behavior, there tends to be more conflict vs. understanding.
  • Behavior is to be controlled. This is exceedingly true and dominates how we treat most staff. These are the systems that HR clings to whether they are effective or not. Everything from attendance systems to performance management systems exist as vehicles to keep things in line so that they can be managed. You may want to see if the intent of your systems is more control based or performance based.
  • We view behavior negatively – especially by HR. How many positive stories do you get each day? Is it less than zero? At times it must feel that way. Whenever we even hear the word “behavior” it has a negative connotation. It’s presented as something that needs to be addressed and fixed. From an HR practitioner’s perspective, this is draining. When the majority of our interactions are negative, it can definitely taint your view of people.
  • We just want people to produce. It’s staggering that in 2014, the Theory X model of management – Shut up and do what I say! – is still so prevalent. As much as we state that people are the No. 1 asset in our companies, our actions say that people are more in the way. If people are viewed as obstacles, they will be one. We need to keep that in mind when we work with the great people around us!

Why do we approach behavior in this way?

  • It’s how we were “raised.” Companies are built on assumed culture. We have a hidden set of norms that we hold people to but rarely communicate to them. The tradition and history of the company is such a powerful force that it’s very difficult to shift, alter or reinvent. Take a look at your culture to see how it views behavior before you make your next change. Understand all of the culture – visible and assumed.
  • We only see what we want to see. Our personal filters take in what we want to deal with. If we are frustrated with others, they will be the obstacles we already think they are. If we think people are great, we will tend to see the good that they do each and every day. This is a personal choice, and HR has the opportunity to give people new lenses to use when viewing others.
  • We’re unaware of our own behavior. No one likes admitting they have blind spots. We all have them, but it stings a bit when they are pointed out. It doesn’t mean that our blind spots are negatives. It takes discipline and a willingness to be reflective to stretch outside your preconceived notions of your actions and let others give input on what they see. It’s also something we tend to shy away from because we assume it will result in conflict. So, if you show a mirror on others, make sure that you have the mirror shined your way as well.
  • We aren’t trained in this area. This is extremely ironic that we have such a lack of training in this area. If behavior is what HR is founded on, then there should be training that helps people understand that spectrum of behaviors in people and how that works. You can’t ever get enough “real world” interpersonal skills training. It’s not a soft skill, it’s a business reality and companies would benefit from treating this training with more importance.

How can we frame our approach differently?

  • Determine what you want the culture to be. This is an HR thing. We don’t think it is, but it is. Human Resources has the ability to create, define and frame a culture which allows diversity of thought and account for a wide variety of behaviors. HR can foster a company’s ability to have parameters where people can perform versus having policies that must be enforced.
  • Create a framework for communication. Teach people to be aware of their personal approach towards others. Don’t settle for argumentative and confrontational approaches. Show people how to interact with each other. Even in the most heated situations, your approach can dictate successful interactions. This is tough because each situation people face is unique. However, having some tools on how to frame conversations will benefit people and how they treat each other.
  • Give people a bigger picture. Most people aren’t “big picture” thinkers. This isn’t meant to be derogatory, it’s just that people tend to want to work in their niche and be content. It’s up to HR to pull back a few steps to look at mitigating factors and discuss things from a broader base. Don’t get stuck with your head down in the weeds because you’ll tend to react emotionally, and that may not always work well.
  • Show a pathway to progress. Help people work through situations with steps moving forward instead of trying to land on concrete absolutes. When it comes to behavior, there are not absolutes. Giving people some steps to work through situations gives them a better chance for them to be personally engaged. They will probably come up with ideas and solutions you hadn’t considered going in.
  • Be excited. It sounds simple, but few of us are when it comes to people. This is directed to HR pros. Think what your day would be like if you were excited to see them? How would people’s behaviors be if they knew that at least one person was truly excited to see them each and every day? I think it would transform you and the workplace. You should consider it!

It was great to take the time to look at the main characteristic that HR works with on a daily basis. Hopefully the people who came will step back now and realize that we have a chance to shape and mold the behaviors of others and make them, and our companies, great to work with!