Human Resources Should Be About Improving What Works

by Michael Haberman on January 26, 2010 · 0 comments


In HR we quite often get caught up in discussions about the disciplinary process. What to do with poor or marginal performers? Sometimes we even discuss firing “adequate” performers, see The HR Capitalist’s discussion entitled More than Jack Welch: Should We Fire Everyone Who’s Doing an “Adequate” Job? Typically in HR we advise supervisors to counsel, warn and then terminate because the employees have not abided by the rules or are not producing at the level we expect or require. We sit down and tell them what they are doing wrong and then tell them to correct it. Often they don’t and so we terminate their employment. Sometimes we work on a PIP, a performance improvement plan, and detail the steps we want to see change. Most often these things do not work and termination results.

Dick Grote, consultant and author of Discipline Without Punishment, has advocated for an approach which he says will turn poor performers into superior performers. He uses a “responsibility” based system with the employee himself “owning” his improvement or lack there of, as the case may be.

Two things I have just read made me think along a different line of thought about discipline and the role of HR. Neither reading dealt with HR or discipline. Rather they dealt with either personal or organization improvement. Alan Weiss, in Thrive! talks about personal growth and development, but he makes the statement that “We all grow by exploiting strengths, not by correcting weakness…” (pg. 125). In  the February 2010 issue of Fast Company Chip Heath and Dan Heath publish an adaption of their book Switch, called Find A Bright Spot and Clone It.  They discuss successfully dealing with change by focusing not on a problem but by focusing on what works. They state that we have a tendency to focus on a problem, whether it is in our business life or our personal life. We don’t look at the A’s and B’s on our report card, but instead focus on the D’s and F’s. They state that “We need to ask ourselves a question that sounds simple but is, in fact, deeply unnatural: What’s working and how can we do more of it?”

I think these two approaches are a good way to think of improving employee performance. Focus on what they do well, what is working about them, and try to improve that. The Heaths do point out that “knowledge does not change behavior.” And as Weiss states “…the strengths need to be identified, codified, and replicated. Unless we know why we’re good, it’s very hard to replicate the behavior.” Thus a counseling session with a “problem” employee must go beyond pointing out the failing behavior. It must point out to the employee what they do well and focus on getting more of that behavior. And Grote’s program points out that the employee must accept the personal responsibility for that improvement.

Will it work? Does it work? Probably, but like anything else it will require change and work on behalf of the organization and management and HR. Are you willing to do it? Is there a payoff? The Heaths state “If you are a manager, ask yourself, What is the ratio of the time you spend on solving problems versus scaling successes?” The answer to that may come down to the 80/20 rule. So the reversal of that may end up paying big dividends, such as improved performance, improved morale, improved retention, and lowered costs.

Just my $0.02 worth. Who is working this successfully? Anyone? Bueller…

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