If HR Execs Want More Power, They Should Change The Way They Talk

For decades, HR conferences have conducted sessions on “getting a seat at the table” or “how HR can get more power and influence.” While we TLNT readers likely agree that most companies would be better off with more human resources and talent management influence, there are still CEOs, CFOs, and CIOs who don’t feel similarly.

Some of HR’s influence deficit is the result of an economic system driven by short-term financial results. When CEOs and CFOs face unrelenting pressure to hit tough financial targets, their focus on people issues will naturally take a back seat.  But bottom-line pressure isn’t the only reason HR doesn’t have all the influence it desires; some of the deficit stems from the way HR communicates.

More than 1 million people have taken the test “What’s Your Communication Style?” And newly-released data from this test identifies a serious communication gap between HR and functions like Finance, IT, and Operations.

Communication Gaps

There are four fundamental communication styles. 

  • Analytical communicators like hard data and real numbers and tend to be suspicious of people who aren’t in command of the facts and data. 
  • Intuitive communicators like the big picture, avoid getting bogged down in details, and cut right to the chase.  
  • Functional communicators like process, detail, timelines, and well-thought-out plans. 
  • Personal communicators value interpersonal connection and use emotional language in an informal, friendly, and warm way.

Here’s where we see a communication gap. In HR, 37% of people are personal communicators, and 25% are functional. In other words, the language in HR departments heavily skews toward feelings and then toward process.

By contrast, in Finance departments, 30% are intuitive, and 30% are analytical communicators. The language in Finance will skew toward data, numbers, and cutting to the chase. Information Technology departments have a similar preference, with 35% of people possessing an intuitive style and 28% an analytical style.

Analytical and personal communication styles aren’t just different; they’re direct opposites. So too are the intuitive and functional styles.

When an HR executive with a personal communication style says, “I’m worried that our employees are feeling stressed,” a CFO with an analytical style will likely struggle to hear those words. It’s not that it’s a complicated sentence, but there are literally three emotional words in an eight-word sentence (worried, feeling, and stressed). 

Remember that analytical communicators are often suspicious of people who don’t evidence firm control of hard data and detailed numbers. And feeling words, like “worried,” “feeling,” and “stressed,” are quick ways to trigger an analytical communicator’s suspicions.

The irony here is that one of HR’s strengths is the ability to assess and articulate the emotional dimension of organizations. While every company says, “People are our most important asset,” most executive team members struggle to articulate any aspect of the emotional lives of those supposedly important people.

Yet, if HR executives don’t do a better job of translating feelings into language that the CEO, CFO, and CIO understand, human resources conferences will be rerunning “getting a seat at the table” speeches for the next 10 years.

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Words That Matter

Here are two practical tips to start translating your insights into words that other executives will understand.

First, the next time you’re preparing to speak with executives from other departments, look for ways to substitute data or numbers for some of your emotional words. Among the emotive words I hear used most often by HR executives are worried, stressed, unhappy, happy, satisfied, passionate, angry, afraid, exhausted, enthusiastic, dislike, delighted, and concerned.

Remember that even though your employees may be exhausted, stressed, and worried, we need to communicate those sentiments in ways that an analytical communicator will hear more clearly. Is there data that supports our sense that employees are stressed? Have we seen an increase in errors or turnover? Do we have any data showing decreased productivity?

Second, once we’ve bolstered our message with some data and numbers, prepare to communicate this insight succinctly. HR employs more functional communicators than do Finance or IT. While the functional style likes process and communicating in a step-by-step linear fashion, many of your colleagues would prefer you skip to the end and cut to the chase.

Here’s how the functional style might describe employee burnout: “Two months ago, we began a study of employee burnout. Each week we sampled a small number of employees with a short survey. We compiled these results and created a trend analysis. And as a result, we know that employee burnout has increased by 17%.” Now, here’s how an intuitive communicator might deliver the same message: “In the past two months, employee burnout has increased by 17%.” Notice the difference?

I’m not suggesting that there’s anything inherently wrong with the way that HR communicates or with having personal or functional styles. In fact, there are organizations where those are the predominant styles, and power and influence will accrue to those who can speak that language. However, if you’re someone who worries that your influence doesn’t quite match the importance of your role, I’d respectfully suggest that you rethink how you communicate. If the power in your organization resides with analytical or intuitive communicators, it’ll be worth translating your message into words more likely to be heard.

Mark Murphy is the CEO of Leadership IQ and a New York Times bestselling author. His books include Hiring For Attitude, Hundred Percenters, HARD Goals, and Managing Narcissists, Blamers, Dramatics and More. Mark’s groundbreaking leadership studies have appeared in The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Fortune, Forbes, Bloomberg BusinessWeek, and U.S. News & World Report. Mark has also appeared on CNN, NPR, CBS News Sunday Morning, and ABC’s 20/20. He’s trained leaders at the United Nations, Harvard Business School, Microsoft, Mastercard, and hundreds more.

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