What a Few Handshakes Told Me About HR’s Ability to Drive Change

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Jan 21, 2016
This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.

My dad wanted a boy. He had me, and only me: a girl.

It took me a while to figure that dynamic out. I guess it finally hit as I headed off to Marine Corps Officer Candidate School — his idea.

But, thanks Dad, because the lessons you taught me have served me well in my career.

Two lasting life lessons

Dad was a businessman – a salesman really. He traveled internationally, and was a stickler for protocol. There were two things he drilled into me:

  1. Learn to sip scotch so that you don’t get tipsy at a business meeting; and,
  2. Always have a firm handshake. He used to make me practice shaking hands. He told me, “Offer your hand firmly, make eye contact, introduce yourself and listen as the other person does the same.”

Thankfully, business today frowns (for the most part) on drinking during work hours because I never did develop a taste or tolerance for scotch. But today more than ever, a firm handshake is still important and I still hear my dad’s advice whenever I meet new people.

I had the privilege of speaking to a group of human resources professionals this week.

I like to get to speaking engagements early, both to make sure the room setup is comfortable, and to meet and talk with the participants. It gives me a chance to learn a little about my audience and feel like I have connected just a little before I even start.

Weak handshakes and HR

As often happens, I was surprised how many weak handshakes I encountered. Some hands felt like jelly, some I actually had to move forward to reach, and many people looked down even as they held out their hands.

The irony here is that I was talking about HR having the confidence to influence leadership.

I gave them some tips on getting buy in from their operational leadership, and in transferring the ownership of leadership work back to the organizational leaders. For too long, HR has accepted the role of policing the messy and often missing leadership behaviors that are so important to performance results. HR can’t do it; it has to be the leaders who lead.

But HR needs to be confident in order to credibly influence this change. Presenting your knowledge and data with confidence grabs attention and establishes your credibility.

A wimpy handshake carries a very loud message: “I am not confident enough to fully put myself out there.” And anyone who cannot confidently offer a firm handshake will probably struggle with being able to influence behavior change at the leadership level.

Changing behavior

But, influencing behavior change is exactly what HR must learn to do.

All work that is done in organizations is done by people, and peoples’ work must align to the operational strategy or time and money are wasted. Employees’ behavior is shaped by leadership, and HR must create the infrastructure to facilitate behavior change. That takes knowledge, data and a good dose of confidence.

Come on, HR. Firm up that handshake, look the other person directly in the eyes, and show that you are a confident business leader.

This originally appeared on Carol Anderson’s blog @the intersection of learning & performance. Her new book is Repurposing HR: From a Cost Center to a Business Accelerator.

This article is part of a series called Editor's Pick.
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