Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

Joe Gerstandt, HRExaminer Editorial Advisory Board Contributor.

I read a lot of stuff about what H.R. needs to do. H.R. needs to be more strategic. H.R. needs to learn the business. H.R. needs to be more innovative. H.R. needs new metrics. H.R. needs to get analytics. Immediately! H.R. needs to get big data. H.R. needs to get social. H.R. needs to get ready for the robots. H.R. needs to be more like marketing, needs to be more like finance, needs to be less like H.R. You have read the same stuff, especially this time of year. And, if you are like me, you have even spent some time riding a few of those bandwagons.

I do not know what the future holds for the H.R. profession, it is clearly pulled in a number of different directions. The needs of people and the people needs of business are ever evolving, H.R. is surely going to have to evolve with them.

But there is a real disconnect for me in this conversation about the role of H.R.

I have worked with and for a lot of different kinds of organizations over the years and one of the most glaring and consistent takeaways for me is that organizations do not really understand human beings. They stubbornly refuse to apply the most basic understanding of human nature and human behavior toward interactions with clients and are even worse when it comes to employees.

It seems to me that organizations could benefit greatly from an updated and actionable understanding of human beings, and if someone is going to have expertise on human beings, could it not be H.R.?

Unfortunately, H.R. doesn’t understand human beings either.

A few years ago, I started poking around in the world of User Experience / User Experience Design / Experience Design, a growing and amorphous field focused primarily on creating better technology interactions. What I have found there is a real effort to integrate a fuller and fresher understanding of human behavior. Before I start to apply my experience, expertise and creativity toward the design of this website or app, what do I know about the human beings that might interact with it?

One of the first books I read was 100 Things Every Designer Needs to Know About People, by Susan M. Weinschenk, Ph.D. As you may have guessed, this book consists of 100 insights regarding human behavior, specifically:

  • how we see things (e.g. People Identify Objects by Recognizing Patterns)
  • how we think (e.g. People are Driven to Create Categories)
  • how we focus our attention (e.g. People Can’t Actually Multitask)
  • how we are social animals (e.g. Doing Things Together Bonds People Together)
  • how we feel (e.g. Anecdotes Persuade More Than Data)
  • how we make mistakes (e.g. People Make Errors When They Are Under Stress)
  • how we decide (e.g. People Make Most Decisions Unconsciously)

Each point receives 1-3 pages with supporting research and key takeaways. This is a pretty simple and straightforward book for people designing interactions with technology and some of what is discussed has little or no relevance toward H.R., but while reading this book, I kept asking myself “why isn’t there a book like this for H.R.?

Maybe there is a book like this for H.R. and I have just not encountered it. If that book does exist it is clearly not being read.

Maybe this is not the role for H.R. Maybe I am too invested in the “human,” in human resources. It certainly has applications beyond H.R., and human – centered design is starting to be applied in designing products and experiences for customers, but what about employees? You know, that “most valuable asset?” Part of it is simply about H.R. doing a better job of taking on a people perspective as Josh Bersin recommends, part of it is about better advocating on behalf of employees, a point Steve Browne makes well, but it is also about a better understanding of human beings, behavior and performance.

Would meetings be different if we designed them first and foremost for human beings, starting with what we know about human behavior? Would your workspace look different if it were designed for human behavior? We all know that the answer is yes, as there are some outliers who are doing it and we all know what those workplaces look like. Would onboarding be different, feedback, the role of management? I would suggest there is a bunch of stuff we do that does not work terribly well because we are constantly fighting human nature.

Before any of the other roles that H.R. will need to play, could it not be the in house expertise on the fundamentals of human behavior; the role and impact of norms and networks, cognitive bias, ingroup-outgroup dynamics, authority, conformity, groupthink, trust, emotion, etc.? I see very little of this stuff on the agenda at the H.R. conferences I attend.

My work is primarily focused on diversity and inclusion, and it is pretty rare that I bump into an H.R. practitioner (or for that matter, a business leader, a teacher or a law enforcement officer) with grasp of the very basics of how stereotypes and bias actually work…which makes it really difficult to mitigate their impact. Understanding bias as naturally occurring in all human beings awake and in the presence of other human beings, leads to much more effective practices and solutions than the faulty good person / bad person construct, which still exists in most organizations and generally lights the entire conversation on fire.

If I were going to design a “human resources professional,” I would begin with a strong foundation on human beings, including lots of psychology, cognition, social psychology, neuroscience and behavioral economics. David D’Souza offers up a nice reading list to get started.

It seems to me that far too many organizations are flying blind today when it comes to human behavior. Someone needs to speak for the humans and they need to know what they are talking about.

  • If we take a hint from Blake and Moulton there is a really creative tension between the concern for employees and the concern for outcomes. It is for each organisation to decide where the right point of balance lies. For my money the concern for outcomes is the priority, with the employees experience being considered within that objective. Thus for Bond University the student experience is paramount. The employee experience is then (hopefully) maximised within that primary objective. This article highlights aspects of human behaviour that help us understand how to improve the employee experience, and how to get the balance right.

  • Yuvarajah

    We (I refused to sign the termination letter) just sacked an employee for ‘alcohol abuse”. All he did, was drink off site and come smelling liquor!. It has nothing to do with “business outcomes”. In some places, outcomes include doing business all all costs, including at employee expense. That’s why layoffs happen before the Executives (who run the show called “Management”) volunteer to take a pay-cut. Adopting Machiavellian practices to serve the agenda of outcomes is a common survival model. Only a handful of leaders like Richard Brandson, Vineet Nayar, Tony Frenandez value the contribution of employees as being central and critical to the outcomes – serving customers. These leaders truly live out the servant leadership model. That makes 99% either giving lip service or perhaps, ridicule it as un-befitting country club style !!

  • Well said Joe. In my new book, ‘The Social Organization’ I do suggest that HR needs to get both strategic and social, but I spend a full chapter on social psychology, neuroscience and network science as otherwise how are HR pratitioners going to understand how to this? Great HR needs to align with the business but the difference that makes the difference is alignment with the people working in the business.

  • Jay Long

    Nice article Joe. “one of the most glaring and consistent takeaways for me is that organizations do not really understand human beings.” I could not agree with you more. It is not only vital to understand the psychology and biology of human nature but HR needs to understand how employees imbue Meaning and how it affects how they parse their daily experiences. I would like to recommend a new book by Danny Gutknecht called Meaning at Work, And Its Hidden Language. Anyone trying to understand these human connections and develop participatory, inclusive cultures will find Danny’s book fascinating. He reveals a process and structure for Meaning and provides a blueprint for how to tap into all it’s potential. You can find the book on Amazon or at

  • Richard Branson is a good example where ‘concern for employees’ is rated higher than other concerns. This can work well when employee screening at hiring brings together a pool of employees that share the vision. The point of balance is a strategic choice. There is nothing inherently wrong with an outcome focus, its the point of balance that will make or break the organization over the longer term.

  • Yuvarajah

    Chris, I honestly do not believe employees would want to join a company with intent to work in the opposite direction to the vision, mission, goals, objectives, initiatives, etc. Everyone comes in with high hopes to perform, deliver, earn, build a career and be happy. So, how come more than 70% say they are disengaged. “People leave because of managers” has become a popular phrase. If that point of balance is a “strategic choice”, to what extend does and can HR act to meet the outcomes within the values of integrity and ethics. Business is a team game but when the leader is not a strategic player, it’s foolish to expect HR to play a unilateral strategic role. HR strategies has to evolve from business strategies. HR can, through OD, most certainly help but the management has to LISTEN. Without collaboration there can be no integration and alignment, only (at best) silos. This is what I am going through, now.

  • Yuvarajah

    Ulrich has written a new book titled Victory Through Organisation”. He has expanded the HR role and come out with 9 competencies, including one called Paradox Navigator.

    It seems this high altitude “strategic” business partnering role seems to have position HR to be a Superman, instead of being more like Yoda.

    They say, you get the leader you deserve. The same works with the HR guy you hire. So, who is responsible for hiring the Strategic. There is suggestion that the traditional path no longer works, if you catch the latest HBR, “Why more Executives should consider becoming a CHRO”. Perhaps, it’s time to give this new idea a chance.

  • Virpi Oinonen

    I used to do (online) community management and digital campaigning – both of which rely heavily on recognising how humans actually think and behave. I think people who build systems that rely on digital interaction to work HAVE to learn to understand people. Otherwise you will fail. We use data, we see what works, and what doesn’t. It’s a constant feedback and iteration loop. But HR (and most corporate professions) live in some sort of naive rational systems dream land because they don’t get that feedback.

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  • Back in 2010 I penned a post for HRExaminer called: “Maintaining Human Machines” where I talk about how we spend all this time on machine maintenance but don’t require HR or more importantly – our managers have the same knowledge base for our employees…

    “Humans require a much different maintenance manual. For the future HR needs to be expert at psychology – not just a dusting off of old theories like Maslow but an understanding of evolutionary psychology, social psychology and all the theories. HR folks should know about Deci and Cialdini. Top level HR professionals should have a strong understanding of behavioral economics and the way in which humans make decisions – rationally and irrationally. Names like Airely, Tversky and Kahneman should roll off the tongues of new HR professionals as easily as EFCA and COBRA do today.”

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