Are HR leaders too busy to change themselves?

4 minute read

For HR leaders to wield genuine credibility as advisors on leadership and culture, they must be exemplars themselves. But here's the rub – with busier schedules than ever before many leaders admit to often running on autopilot, leaving little room for thoughtful consideration. Leadership experts and authors Nik Kinley & Shlomo Ben-Hur check out the research and offer three practical steps to becoming a role model

Illustration of woman piling bags with letters HR onto back of male colleague

It is an old refrain: Physician, heal thyself. But recently, we've heard it more and more aimed squarely at HR leaders. The accusation often seems to come in response to HR advocating the need for leadership development or culture change. And the charge – usually from pressured or stressed leaders – is that before HR starts telling everyone else how to get the best from people, they should maybe get their own house in order. 

As reactions go it's obviously defensive. But it has a point. Because to have serious credibility as an advisor on leadership and culture HR needs to be a role model. Which is why it is such a shame that being a role model is a lot harder than it used to be.

The core reason for this is that just about all leaders are busier, more stretched and more stressed than they used to be. Average spans of control and responsibility have nearly doubled over the past 30 years. Even before COVID studies showed that the pace of change in most industries was increasing, while the predictability of the economic environment was decreasing. And nearly three-quarters of leaders say the number of decisions they make every day has increased over the past five years. So, the job of a leader is just busier and more complex than it used to be.

In fact, in surveys we've conducted with leaders from different industries across the globe 98% say that at some point on most days they find themselves running on automatic, with little or no time to think things through. And, on average, they say about 72% of their time is spent like this.

The impact of all this is known and measurable. Stress levels continue to increase, as nearly two-thirds of leaders say they feel uncertain about a decision at least once per day. The number of reported mistakes is on the up. And  direct reports' ratings of the quality of their relationships with their bosses is going the other way, decreasing as leaders have less time for their people and are perceived as less consistent in their behaviour. There is also some evidence to suggest that all these effects may be accentuated in teams containing people who are more sensitive to the emotional currents of the business. And at the risk of stereotyping that often includes HR.

What makes these challenges worse for HR leaders is not just that they are supposed to remain role models in the face of it, but that, as a service function, they are naturally focused on their customers. And that means looking outwards at the rest of the business and away from themselves and their teams. So, as defensive as the challenge to go heal themselves may be, it really isn't that surprising.

So, what to do? The answer lies in layers. 

Step one: pick a fight

Not a literal fight, of course, but to pick one thing that you – as an HR leader – would like to change or improve in your team. And not a general capability, but a specific behaviour or element of culture, and preferably one that would help you and your team better manage and cope with your undoubtedly busy workloads. For example, the degree to which your team is proactive is identifying issues, how collaborative with each other they are, or their focus on the commercial value of what they do. Whatever it is, just make sure it's specific.

Step two: change the team environment

That was the easy bit. Step two gets more complex because it involves identifying how the environment of the team needs to change for them to behave more in the way you've identified. If it's proactivity, maybe they'd be more likely to behave this way if there was a 10-minute slot in a regular team meeting where they had to report issues they had proactively identified. Or with collaboration, maybe having shared goals might help. Or, with a greater commercial focus, perhaps simply requiring a value to be articulated in every activity would help drive the behaviour.

Whatever it is you want to change in your team, rather than thinking about changing them think about how you could change their environment in order for them to naturally behave the way you want. Because, if you do that you'll get to step three, which is what you personally need to change in order for your team's environment to.

Step three: Your own behaviour

The biggest contributor to team environment – by far – is the behaviour of the team's leader. This is because every leader – all of us – tends to trigger certain reactions in the people around us. We're like big mountains generating our own weather systems. And there will be degrees to which these systems help our people, and degrees to which they don't.

Consider the HR leader we worked with who told us they felt frustrated that their team didn't take greater ownership of things. Investigating, we discovered they had a relatively directive management style, a tendency to commit themselves and their teams to doing too much,  and a reputation for being publicly critical of people. And in that environment their people were understandably reactive and cautious of stepping forward and showing initiative. The solution involved prioritising more carefully, delineating clear boundaries in which they expected people to show initiative, and stopping publicly chastising  people.

Note that none of this was rocket science. It just required a systematic look at their team, and then questioning how they may contribute to things they would like to change.

So yes, physicians, we do really need to heal ourselves. We need to lead by example and be role models. And no, that may not be fair and may not be easy. But it is what it is, and we're the only ones who can do anything about it. All of us – every single HR leader – should have for every half year one thing we want to change in our teams, and thereby, something we need to change in their environments and what we do to create these environments. And the key is to begin by focusing on the things that frustrate us or our teams, and to identify something that will make managing the pressures and stresses we and they face easier. 

Shlomo Ben-Hur is professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at IMD business school in Switzerland. Nik Kinley is a London-based consultant and coach specialising in leadership and culture. The second edition of Changing Employee Behavior was published in October 2023. Their new book, Rewriting your leadership code: How your childhood made you the leader you are and what you can do about it, will be published in April 2024.

Sholomo Ben-Hur, professor of leadership and organisational behaviour at IMD business school, and Nik Kinley, leadership and culture consultant and coach



Published 17 January 2024

98% of leaders from different industries across the globe say that at some point on most days they find themselves running on automatic, with little or no time to think things through

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