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Editorial Staff

Helping Managers with People Issues
David Creelman

HR professionals spend most of their time delivering services (such as recruiting and training) and handling administration (such as benefits). Important as these activities are they tend to leave HR one step removed from the business; more like a third party contractor than a full partner in driving the organisation forward. A more fulfilling role for HR is to be the group that plays an essential role in problem solving by using your expertise in people matters—”applying the people lens”.

I have always been struck by how often professionals, from finance managers to architects to endocrinologists, say (with regret) that their difficult problems are not those in their area of expertise; their difficult problems are all about people. Engineers in particular are notorious for believing their perfect plans were undone by imperfect people. HR is the one group that doesn't find people issues derail their goals. Dealing with people issues is the goal. It's hard to imagine any manager who would not be delighted if HR could help them with their people issues.

HR Planet
Helping managers with people issues is hard because people issues are hard. There is a tendency for HR to leap in with a solution from their tool kit (a new training program, a competency model, an incentive scheme): HR spends a few minutes in the business to ‘find out what they need’, then runs back to HR planet where they get back to the comfortable world of delivering a service. If the issue is people not working on the right priorities HR may think “Change the incentive scheme!”, then hurry back to their office to do just that.

Some managers put up with this because it costs them little in time or effort, they are not used to anything different, and they don't have a good alternative. But they know that it is rare for any people problem to be simple enough that it can be fixed with an incentive plan or training program or any other kind of quick HR fix. Other managers have given up on HR and do not ask them for help when people issues arise. Managers may go through an intermediate phase of asking HR for ideas and shooting one down after another with the declaration “That would never work!”

Here is a chasm that clearly needs to be bridged. Managers struggle with people issues, and HR offers fixes from the tool kit that do not get to the root of the problem. HR does have the needed expertise, but it's buried under the habit of delivering tools or programs or processes. HR needs to shift from being the deliverer of services to a partner in problem solving.

A Useful Discussion
The right mode of operation for HR is not to be offering to solve the problem for managers, but to give them insight into the issues so they can solve it themselves. In this kind of conversation HR is listening more than talking, and asking questions more than offering solutions.

The office has all the wrong dynamics for this kind of discussion. Lunch, a chat in a café or even going for a walk are far better venues to play the role of a trusted advisor. You can only do this kind of thing when you have a good relationship with a manager or a good reputation. Neither relationships nor reputations are built over night.

This leaves us without a simple three-step model for getting out of the habit of simply providing services and administration, and into the mindset of being a problem solving partner. Providing real help to managers requires investing time to build relationships and building your own skill with leading this kind of conversation.

The payoff is that you end up doing work that is more interesting and adds more value. Particularly as you mature in your career, simply changing the performance appraisal form or updating the competency model begins to feel removed from the real problems managers face. Becoming a trusted advisor to your managers so that they can handle their own people issues is a worthy goal for anyone in HR.

David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at

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