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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.

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