Lucy Adams: “We need to be experts in human behaviour, not process”

28 Mar 2019 By Emily Burt

The speaker and author on the right way to manage change – and how not to criminalise employees

Once an HR director who made headlines for her stint at the BBC, Lucy Adams has carved out a new career talking and writing about the need to reinvent her former profession for the future. With her new book, The HR Change Toolkit, already picking up plaudits, People Management asked her for more on emphasising the human in the way we interact at work.

Why is it so hard, as you point out in your new book, to make change happen?

Change has been sold on the basis of initiatives and transformation programmes. That’s the problem – you can’t keep flogging the message of a big, linear change programme, because it sounds exhausting, painful and confusing. More successful change initiatives are actually doing the opposite: investing in more granular tweaks that encourage people to change their behaviours. Programmes that aren’t badged as a big, scary thing tend to produce better results. 

Does bureaucracy get in the way of effective change? 

I think HR have become process experts rather than human behavioural experts. There is very little in the realm of performance management, for example, that genuinely works with good human behaviour. Talk to any line manager and they will say they have great conversations with their team, but the minute it comes down to saying ‘…and you’re a 2’, those expectations become very clinical. 

What’s positive is that we’re seeing a greater focus on conversations and showing managers what good looks like: ultimately, our role is to understand how human beings think, feel, behave and are intrinsically motivated, and to use that insight to design organisational processes. 

You talk about learning from the marketing department. Does HR need to get better at marketing itself? 

I don’t think we help ourselves with some of the language we use. We talk about having conversations with people with terms like ‘probationary reviews,’ as if our staff are criminals. So changing that language would be a useful starter – and what we could learn from marketing is the ability to use data to build narratives. When I look back on my old board reports they were always a bit dry; accurate, but not telling any kind of story. 

What gives you cause for optimism? 

I’m seeing a real evolution of the employee experience, not just as a series of initiatives in the way HR teams are structured, but how they manage design and implementation, and how they are achieving their goals. There’s a real energy among organisations who are thinking about the profession in new ways, and designing products that enable organisations to be more agile. 

Your book is a toolkit. What’s the best practical advice you would offer? 

We are so used to doing HR on a big scale that everything must be rolled out universally and perfected. Actually, I think we need to just focus on starting stuff. It doesn’t matter if pilots don’t always work out. To be more innovative, get going rather than thinking it must be perfect and apply to everyone overnight.

Hear more from Lucy Adams on the latest episode of That HR Podcast

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