The Importance of Whole People

Mark Herbert

I have long believed that one of the fundamental problems we have in our society is our reluctance to embrace and implement the concept of working with and managing "whole people." In fact, a couple of years ago I wrote a book about my experiences as a human resources professional, C-level executive, and management consultant and described how I had come to those conclusions and developed my own model for interacting with people and organizations.

In my opinion, I think the Industrial Revolution did a lot of harm to the notion of whole people. Frederick W. Taylor, his theory of "scientific management" and the creation of the concept of white collar and blue collar didn’t do anything to enhance the relationship.

When I was trained as a manager in the seventies, the model was planning, controlling, budgeting, etc. Those are all things you do to people and things – not with them. That model never "fit" for me.

A couple of events have transpired over the last week that causes me to revisit this topic again. One was a lively discussion I had with two colleagues about an upcoming roundtable we are going to do about why the current models aren’t working and the importance of esoteric concepts like culture, change, and other relationship-type behaviors have on enterprises of all kinds.

We are experiencing what I would call a relationship crisis. In the United States, things like employee engagement, trust in management, and job satisfaction are at all time lows. We also have huge issues with productivity, turnover, and the cost of managing and delivering health and health care. Health care is devouring a huge part of our GDP with most of the solutions I see being proposed still overlooking the relationship dimension.

The other events that I encountered were in the course of responding to some questions about the role of human resources in organizations and the importance of fit in hiring and selection.

The first question dealt with whether or not HR as a function should align itself with management or employees in an enterprise. I indicated my response as neither; HR should focus on helping management and leadership with what I see as the three key elements of healthy, functioning relationships.

  • Clarity- what is the mission or value proposition of the organization. Why does it exist?
  • Context- how does the role of the individual employee fit into the larger mission and how do they know they are performing appropriately.
  • Alignment- creating systems so that line of sight is both very clear and reinforced by other organizational systems. I believe a big part of the role of "new" HR is to train and reinforce those elements as being essential to everyone in management not just leadership and human resources.

This approach requires some recalibration and new skills. Alignment is about execution. Organizations don’t exist to "fulfill" individuals they exist to meet the expectations of their stakeholders; that is how I define effective execution. Everything else is secondary.

One colleague indicated that if we were to ask CEOs, they would tell us the primary value of human resources is compliance. I shared my belief that that is precisely why we have the engagement, productivity, and trust issues we are "enjoying".

The other colleague took us to the proverbial woodshed over our obsession with "fit." She even went so far as to indicate that focusing on fit was likely discriminatory and creating an environment of adverse impact. Fit in her mind is way too nebulous and subjective. Recruitment and selection is all about skills and tasks. When I indicated I had successfully hired for fit for years without ever having my methods or outcomes questioned relative to compliance or impact, she indicated I represented an attorney’s wet dream- I simply had been sued yet. My reaction was a combination of being slightly annoyed by her condescension, but mostly amused.

I have in fact encountered the legal profession a number times ranging from government agencies to plaintiff’s attorneys. In fact I have been retained as a plaintiff’s expert witness on best practices. To date my track record of prevailing without settling is in the high 90thpercentile.

At the risk of generalizing I suspect that like my other colleague she has a compliance bias. When I commented that most new managers who fail (40 percent in their first 18 months), she indicated that she had never had to replace a candidate she placed.

That is a great track record. I rather suspect that somewhere on an intuitive level her process includes some consideration for fit.

Today I had a chance to read an exceptionally good blog post from Thomas Stewart about the difference between brand and branding. He describes branding as the marketing, sales and other strategies we use to try to position ourselves in a certain way with our customers, communities, and shareholders. Brand, on the other hand, is how they see us. That is what I describe as alignment or true engagement. I believe strongly that building that into the fabric of your organization is much better strategy than trying to bolt it on.

I think organizations like Starbucks, Zappo's, Google, Virgin Airlines, and a few others have real definable brands. I also believe that fit is an important component of their hiring processes, and that their human resources professionals look beyond skills and attributes in their hiring and selection processes. I will go even further out on the limb and say that compliance is not their primary mandate or value proposition.

People aren’t assets, per se. Their efforts and contributions, when they are aligned with the interests of the enterprise, become powerful assets, but the ownership of that contribution always rests with them. I don’t think we can extract those efforts and contributions; we can only create an environment where they share them.

In his cult book Why This Horse Won’t Drink, Ken Matejka describes commitment as when "employees feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled. They voluntarily give up other options."

Perhaps I don’t have a full appreciation for capital or technology, but I have yet to encounter a situation where I saw either become physically, psychologically, or emotionally impelled. Come to think of it, I don’t think I ever saw a brand or an organization become impelled either-- only people.

So I guess until I see a better model, I will continue to try to work with whole people and to try to create environments and relationships where they feel physically, psychologically, and emotionally impelled toward the goals of the organization-- because as leaders, we have provided them with clarity, context, and alignment.

For me that defines effective execution, and that is what impels me. What do you find impelling?