The Biggest Cliché in HR

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Nov 29, 2021

Have you ever heard a leader say, “Our people are our greatest asset”? Maybe you’ve said it yourself. Some part of you may have even believed it. 

I’m a huge fan of irony, and in these few words the irony is rich. The very comparison of people to other corporate assets — physical, financial, technical, etc. — dehumanizes them. It demonstrates precisely the lack of regard for individuals that this platitude is intended to alleviate. 

If people were indeed the greatest asset of an organization, leaders would treat them very differently. In the vast majority of organizations, people are not the greatest asset, but rather the most underutilized asset. 

If you value your assets, you treat them with the respect they deserve. You know how to get the most out of them. You don’t run them into the ground — you maintain them well to preserve their useful life. You figure out how to leverage them to gain competitive advantage. You understand the value that they’re capable of creating and spend deliberate effort thinking about how to capture that value. 

If we’re going to compare our people to other organizational assets, then we at least need to treat them with the same level of importance, don’t we? 

Imagine this scenario. You report to me as a direct manager, and you’re conducting a negotiation on behalf of the organization. One day, you walk into my office and say, without the faintest hint of embarrassment:

“Martin, you know that deal I’m negotiating? Well, we’ve done a thorough analysis of the risk and value drivers and understand our counterpart’s position. We’re confident that the value of the transaction is $100 million. But I was thinking last night… It’s going to be really difficult to convince the other party of our position, and it’ll take a lot of time and effort to get the deal done. Why don’t we just settle now for $75 million and move on?” 

That would be virtually unthinkable. To suggest leaving $25 million on the table, just because it looked as though capturing that value might be hard? As your boss, I’d be so shocked that I might even consider freeing you up to be successful in another organization (preferably, one of our competitors). 

But often, when it comes to our people, leaving value on the table is exactly what we do. I’ve had senior executives say to me, with a straight face:

“Martin, you know that vice president who’s running our Atlantic region? Well, he isn’t making the progress I expected. The culture of his team is very poor, and the results in his region aren’t improving. I know you’ve been pushing me to do something about this. But I was thinking last night… The last time we filled that role, we found it really difficult to find the right person. At least the current VP has the right industry experience. Performance management would be difficult and time consuming, and I’m not sure it will change anything. Besides, I’ve got truckloads of other important things I need to focus on, so I’m not going to take any action at the moment.”

For some strange reason, this doesn’t sound quite as ridiculous as the first example. What would be unthinkable behavior in terms of financial outcomes (where results are tangible and quantitative) often appears acceptable when it comes to people, leadership, and culture (where measuring outcomes is more difficult). 

And to compound the felony, in the next breath that same executive will tell me that his own leadership performance is excellent. 

Until we stop believing our own B.S. about leadership, culture, and people, we’ll never achieve the results we should. 

Adapted from No Bullsh!t Leadership by Martin G. Moore. RosettaBooks © 2021