HR must be able to take on uncomfortable new perspectives

14 Dec 2017 By Phil Renshaw and Jenny Robinson

A strictly evidence-based approach leads to poor decision-making

When you swim in one ocean there’s a risk you assume all oceans are the same. Taking different perspectives is valuable in most walks of life. But is HR’s perspective more limited than we might hope? Does the profession really use different approaches to help people develop new insight, or is it locked in the same way of doing things?

Working alongside Professor Emma Parry from Cranfield School of Management, our research shows how deeply we can be mired in habitual thinking and judgement. In a pilot piece of research, we challenged people to examine their current paradigm and temporarily adopt another. For example, we asked everyone to become Donald Trump for two minutes to see the world through his eyes – those results were both funny and frightening.

But Trump aside, when new perspectives were applied to their work, the academics and practitioners in our pilot found the exercise had a significant impact. Feedback included statements such as: ‘I have just had an epiphany’ and: ‘I realised that taking a different paradigm might… yield different findings.’

Every HR professional should ask themselves: what steps do I take every day to stretch my thinking to include new perspectives? How can I embrace new perspectives that make me uncomfortable?

For our test subjects, the most striking outcome was the radical change in their thinking – how they were researching their subject and the outcomes they might expect to uncover. While the participants in many cases were comfortable – in theory – with multiple perspectives, they were unaware of their singular stance. 

The implications of these findings are huge. From our research, there are two examples that demonstrate where HR actions seem misaligned with reality. Consider the widespread use of international assignments or expatriation of employees in global businesses. According to regular surveys, this practice continues to increase, despite the well-recognised high cost of sending such employees in comparison to alternatives such as local hires. The explanation given is usually around the value derived for organisations from these international assignments – yet the vast majority of employers admit that they make little or no attempt to measure this value.

Second, imagine a hospital that has reorganised and has found a new way to speed up decision- making, saving children’s lives. Despite sound empirical evidence of success, two years later the hospital management reverts to previous modes of decision-making. This appears inexplicable because the evidence is so strong that the new organisation was making a difference and saving lives. There has to be another explanation, that transcends life-saving, lying behind this seemingly contradictory decision. 

A strictly evidence-based approach to both these cases fails to explain human behaviour and fails us as HR professionals. So far, our research has been limited. Nevertheless, many of our research participants are advisers and consultants within HR.

We invite you to challenge yourself to radically and proactively reevaluate things. Notice the differences. Goldfish are blissfully unaware of the water within which they swim. We challenge you to investigate your water.

Phil Renshaw is a management and executive coach, leadership development facilitator and expert in the value of international assignments. He is a doctoral researcher at Cranfield University and a Henry Grunfeld Research Fellow at the London Institute of Banking and Finance. Jenny Robinson works in organisational behaviour as a facilitator and trainer. She is currently studying for a PhD in leadership

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