HR Roundtable: The Challenges in Building a “People First” Culture

Feb 23, 2015

The February HR Roundtable in Cincinnati gathered to discuss whether it truly was possible for a company to have a “People First” culture.

There are tons of mission statements and vision statements that say that people come first in an organization, but it is rarely practiced.

The traditional three questions to get the small groups started included:

  1. What components define/drive a company’s culture?
  2. Why is it so hard to put “people first?”
  3. How can we change, and see a culture like this come to life?

The attendees couldn’t wait to take this on and the energy in the room jumped up quite a bit. It was hard to reign everyone back in, but when they did come back together, they had some great input to share.

What components define/drive a company’s culture?

Please note that we weren’t trying to quantify if a company’s culture was “good” or not. We wanted to list the facets that make up cultures regardless of the type of company.

  • Executive team/senior management — This is foundational to a company’s culture. How the executives behave and the values they express have a huge impact on culture. It was noted that the behavior of people in these roles is far more evident and powerful than what is written in statements that hang on a wall.
  • Trust – existing or not — Trust is another critical component to culture. Is trust first given or is it expected to be earned? How this is positioned and acted upon will result in vastly different cultures. Trust that is given first, or if people feel they’re allowed to perform, is much healthier across an organization.
  • Profitability — This is the fact of all organizations. Companies are a “profit first” culture, and that isn’t bad. When companies are financially healthy, they exist, evolve and grow. When a company is not financially healthy, you’ll see an entirely different culture and focus around people. Profitability doesn’t mean that people can’t be “first.” In fact, they are intertwined, but we don’t treat it that way. We’ll cover this later …
  • Flexibility – or lack thereof — Flexibility is something that people have always wanted in a company’s culture. This isn’t a new discovery by the Millennials entering the workforce. The great thing about them is that they expect flexibility in their role and in company processes and procedures. The question is more about if a company is willing to be flexible or not.
  • Industry type, geographic location and demographics — Cultures are different based on these three factors alone. The ironic thing is that HR completely disregards these factors and treats them more like obstacles than realities. What your company does, where it’s located and the demographic make-up of your employees are important to evaluate – not ignore.

Why is it so hard to put people first?

  • People are messy and complicated — Isn’t this great? It really is. The challenge is that HR constantly strives for conformity and we’re fighting a losing battle. People are going to be unique whether we want them to be or not.
  • Impending doom and chaos — OK, that’s a bit overboard, but not that far off. Companies strive to continue to try to control people and their behaviors and work environments. We constantly build layers and layers of policies and procedures to keep people in line because we feat that if we don’t have these in place, then the impending doom and chaos is sure to occur.
  • Hard to quantify — In this day of Big Data and HR Analytics, we fall into the trap that absolutely everything has to be measured first in order for it to have validity and meaning in an organization. We forget that measurements are results. People aren’t results. They can generate results and they actually want to do that, but we can’t keep trying to quantify people into data and statistics. It’s soulless and not needed.
  • Individual needs vs. organizational needs — We assume that people have needs and desires that are contrary to the health of the business. This is not true, but it is a massive paradigm that people fiercely hold on to. People want to do good work. They really do. Try to see them from that positive viewpoint instead of thinking that they are just at work to misbehave and tear things down.
  • We don’t want this type of culture — The people who feel this way are in HR! We keep trying to have a “process first” culture and the people either fit in or they don’t. Until HR decides that people come first from their perspective, it will never have a chance of taking hold organizationally.

How can we change, and see a culture like this come to life?

  • HR has to lead the way — There is no good way to say this. HR has to get out of the 18th century and jump into the 22nd century (that doesn’t yet exist). HR has the opportunity to practice its art differently and with a forward-thinking approach. The choice is personal and not organizational. If an organization won’t support a non-traditional approach, then consider going to one that will.
  • Have parameters and not policies — Give employees the expectations to perform their jobs and eliminate the do’s/don’ts of rules. You won’t have chaos. Instead you’ll have people who can thrive in a constructive environment. This will be a huge effort towards sustainable retention. Change your focus!
  • Give people permission to do their job and also fail — Allow people to perform and remove the obstacles that keep them from doing their jobs well. If they make a mistake, give them the path and tools to learn from them so it’s less likely to happen again. You should be an enabler in your organization and not an enforcer.
  • Redefine “accountability” — Accountability in most companies is crime and punishment. We lose our mind when people don’t do what we expect (even though we rarely define expectations). HR is tasked to help keep people “accountable.” Try this instead. Accountability is that we expect you to do what you said you would. It’s that simple. Again, let people do their work. They will.
  • Align people with their strengths — This will mean another HR overhaul of your current systems. The vast majority of HR systems are built on negative behavior and weaknesses that need to be “fixed.” It’s never worked and it never will. People can perform when they’re allowed to utilize their strengths. Take a look at how you can recreate your environments to make this happen.

We just seemed to scratch the surface of this topic, but it was a good start. Changing a culture takes monumental effort and focus.

Most of all it takes people who are willing to be intentional. After the February Roundtable, the attendees felt a bit more equipped to take those first incremental steps.

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