HR and Psychological safety

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In true Agile transformations of a company, we think about three cornerstones – Strategies, Capabilities and Cultures. All three need to be designed together, aligned, and enabling each other to create a true Agile transformation. Ideally, they walk together, but more than often I see culture as the last stone to come into place. Peter Drucker said, “culture eats strategy for breakfast”, and this is partially true. Ideally, we serve them all as three separate dishes for breakfast in harmony, and not separated for lunch and dinner. Think of an English breakfast with beans, eggs, and ham on the same plate. But often culture comes as a (too) late night meal, while the company already has lost their talented people due to bad or no culture. People are one of the four (besides Code, Customers and Brand) assets of a software company, and no doubt the most important.

HR was a new discipline during the industrial revolution when we acknowledged people as a core asset of a company. Its base came from the thinking of management as a command-and-control function to lead the work, while HR was supposed to keep people at bay while managers were busy commanding. Today HR are fully occupied with operational stuff, such as hiring, firing, and paying salaries and taxes, but are also accountable to work with personal development and motivation.

Companies today have a much shorter lifetime than twenty years ago. Four of five start-ups die within three years, and a start-up is said to have three years to prove its existence for the sponsors. For this reason, we must be much faster and more effective than before. So here in the twenty-first century we have Lean and Agile as the new standards for how to stay in business and become more effective, while HR still doesn’t have a clue! We need to keep this in mind when changing our way of working to become more effective. HR is not a strategic partner as we want them to be, it is an operational group of people doing traditional HR tasks with the lifecycle of an employee as a model. In this model Psychological Safety should live and thrive, but HR is busy with performance reviews…

Once I was hired by a small travel agency in Sweden, but soon the company was acquired by a big international German agency. When starting here I received one full day of training in Lean, “Gemba walks” out in the business to learn about the customer, mentorship from Kjell Enhager (Swedish mental- and leadership coaching guru) in leadership development and a buddy to reach out to when having questions. It was all about us people, not the company. Two years later the merger was completed, and our great People and culture department was renamed HR.  Now this German giant was in charge, and everything was about doing the HR work by the book and Ordnung. It was hiring and firing only except for a Christmas performance check. It was the best and worst HR department I have worked with at the same time. The new company culture needed small decisions made on top management level before execution, and a traditional hierarchical structure prevailed. Soon the Swedish CEO quit. One day I will ask him why, but I know he persisted in not wearing a tie at work and parked his Volvo far away from the other executives’ Mercedes at the international HQ. I tried hard for a year to align, then I quit as well.

A couple of years later I was hired as an Agile coach at a big, old Swedish company. We tried to do an Agile transformation without engaging HR. As a consultant fighting for Agile, people had trust in me and could come to me with complaints about the mismanagement. I emphasised this to my non-Swedish manager too hard, obviously – and was fired. In both cases it was a cultural clash. Motivation is why we stay in our companies regardless of culture. Swedes are motivated by quality of life while other nationalities often see their own success and performance as motivation. In both cases it was international managers involved, and if you mix them with Swedes there will be a clash in the cultural dimension called Masculinity by Hofstede, explained later in this book. Swedes work for a living (according to Hofstede) while others are more the opposite and that’s why Swedes don’t mix so well with internationals in an Agile setup. And HR should be on top of this but isn’t.

Finally, a closer look at the symbolism of the word HR – if we want to be more effective. Resources? If you google the word, you get a stock or supply of money, materials, staff, and other assets in an organisation in order to function well. I argue that, in order to do our work more effectively, people don’t want to be mixed up with organisational capital. Count me out, please, as a company resource along with servers, licences, and finances! Instead, we need to have values to live by, for example Honesty, Integrity, Trust, Loyalty and Fairness – typical Swedish core values. Perhaps I am overreacting and going too far on the semantics, but I think the choice of words are important when we want to implement a culture, which in my opinion disqualifies HR.

“Words are the mirrors of your culture.”

/ove holmberg

In my eagerness to understand what HR thinks about Psychological Safety and their role, I reached out to The Swedish HR organisation. They informed me that “HR is very broad and looks different depending on which organisation you are in. HR can work strategically, operationally and any way in between. So, there is no simple answer to what HR’s role is.”

Well, more support for my argument as to HR being reactionary when we talk about Psychological Safety. HR is the missing link in Psychological Safety – and they should own it! I often say that Agile transformations should be run by HR as it is 80% about people and 20% about processes. But HR is not involved. I have tried to onboard them, but at the end of the day they are busy with traditional HR tasks. They say, “this Psychological Safety and Agile is great stuff, but what do we know?”

This is a part of the book Psychological UNsafety from the trenches you can order or read more about here.

Ove Holmberg

Doubter, gaffer, author