HR and Psychological safety

Reading Time: 4 minutes

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.

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