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Why HR and line managers smack heads

Personality differences can create problems when HR practitioners interact with line managers, says Richard MacKinnon, Head of Learning & Development at Talent Q. HR has to take the initiative and be more entrepreneurial.

A simple personality clash could account for the confusion, disagreements and even conflict that can sometimes occur when HR practitioners liaise closely with line managers. According to our latest study into personality traits, a ‘typical’ HR practitioner is intuitive, consultative, supportive and willing to let others take the lead. He or she has a genuine desire to understand and help others and is less likely to rigidly adhere to rules, processes and deadlines. In contrast, a ‘typical’ line manager in a financial services company is an achievement-oriented, socially confident, persuasive communicator who likes data, evidence, structure and detail. He or she is competitive, methodical and wants to take charge of situations.

When HR practitioners and line managers are forced to work together, the fundamental differences in their working style can cause frustrations and misunderstandings. Indeed, a line manager’s forceful and direct style can sometimes overpower the more collaborative and supportive HR practitioner. What then happens is that HR practitioners end up working outside of their ‘comfort zone’ and against their natural preferences. This not only jeopardises their effectiveness, it can also leave a bitter taste in the mouths of line managers, who may start to question the benefits of involving HR or even the value that HR brings to the business. For HR practitioners who want to become more influential, achieve mutual understanding and deal more effectively with internal stakeholders, the only real option is to change their role. In other words, they need to shift their focus and up-skill to become “HR Entrepreneurs”, someone who line managers want to work with a confident advisor and a trusted expert who can simplify HR processes and align with the business strategy, because they have a clear and up-to-date understanding of the talent management environment and the industry in which they work. They can provide a more articulate and confident HR influence, through their technical prowess, diplomacy and improved client management – which can bring greater objectivity and fairness to HR and talent management processes.

Take recruitment, for example. Many organisations select staff with a high level of subjectivity, believing that talent can be ‘spotted’ at an interview, with a few ‘killer questions’. Psychological research has consistently demonstrated that people are notoriously poor at evaluating others’ capability and they frequently fall prey to their own conscious and unconscious biases. Also, there’s a degree of inefficiency. For example, candidates can be subjected to multiple interviews, purely to appease the number of internal stakeholders who seem to feel they should be consulted in the appointment process. This is particularly the case with senior positions. The HR Entrepreneur approach would clearly articulate what ‘good’ looks like. That means understanding which personality traits should be brought into the business. An HR Entrepreneur would create a validated competency framework, as a benchmark, and then use scientific assessments and clearly defined performance data to recruit appropriate candidates. Psychometric tests offer as pure as possible a measurement of a job applicant’s suitability for the role, thus minimising subjectivity. The data gathered from selection assessments would be joined up with development needs analysis activities, to ensure that new hires are clear on their development needs.

When it comes to development, some organisations still routinely run “sheep dip” development programmes for cohorts of employees, with little regard to their individual development needs. This has real opportunity costs, as key contributors are absent from the workplace for training which may not significantly benefit them. The same development programmes are often deployed over several years, without evaluation data, making them more of a rite of passage than a significant developmental journey. The HR Entrepreneur approach would be to use greater objectivity and to always measure development. Online assessments would be deployed, to identify individual and shared development needs, and assessment centres would be used for senior roles. The emphasis for implementation would be on focused, modular interventions. By using a robust evaluation framework for all development activity, an HR Entrepreneur would be able to demonstrate the effectiveness of learning and behavioural change to senior stakeholders. To evolve into the role of an HR Entrepreneur, many HR practitioners will need to develop their technical, interpersonal and professional skills. Development programmes designed to nurture and improve these skills are now available. One thing is for sure: ‘business as usual’ is no longer an option for HR in many industry sectors, including financial services. Ultimately, if HR is unable to reconcile its fundamental personality clash with the business, more organisations may look to resolve this problem themselves by completely outsourcing their HR operations.

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