Schools all around the world teach children it is important to be smart and get the right answer. This serves people well in the world of education and even in many entry level jobs. Certainly you want your young accountants and engineers to take pride in getting the right answer. However, when you get into more senior roles and particularly in human resources what matters is not being right, it’s being helpful.
David Maister, the professional services firm guru who taught me this concept uses the example of someone wanting to lose weight. If you want to lose weight you don’t need a smart person who has the right answer. The right answer is easy: eat healthy foods and exercise. The tough part is actually doing it. What you really need is someone who will offer on-going encouragement, perhaps an occasional admonishment and moral support. You need someone who is helpful.
In the corporate world, imagine a manager who ought to fire an underperforming employee but hesitates because the employee is a personal friend. Giving them the right answer, ‘Yes fire him,’ isn’t enough. The question the HR leader needs to ask themselves is “What would be helpful?” In this case it might be helpful for the manager to go for a walk by a river to compose his thoughts and build courage. It’s hard to describe that advice as the ‘right’ answer, but it certainly is a helpful answer.
Very often, when managing people, having the right answer isn’t the point. You may know that a particular job is pivotal to the successful execution of strategy. But if you just tell the management team that you’ve figured out the right answer there is a good chance they will ignore you. They need to think it through themselves. Once they have figured out in their own heads that a job is pivotal then they’ll follow through with appropriate action. So what HR often has to do is a sort of process consulting. In process consulting the consultant’s expertise is not in finding the right answer; their expertise is in getting an individual or group to find the right answer themselves. What is helpful for the management team is to have HR pull them into a meeting, ask the right questions, move the discussion along, and reach the point where they have an insight about which particular job is pivotal to success.
To an experienced manager the advantages of process consulting may seem quite obvious, but this approach goes completely against what years of education have taught us: that all that matters is being the smart person who has the right answer.
Kenny Moore, a VP of HR at Keyspan Energy knows all about being helpful. At Keyspan deregulation was forcing dramatic changes to the culture. Here there was no issue of being right, it was self-evident that things were going to change. There was nothing the employees could do about that. And yet, Kenny wanted to do something helpful. What might that be? Well the employees were sad and anxious. They liked the ways things had been. They were depressed that the old ways were coming to an end. So Kenny held a special meeting for the employees. They had a little ceremonial funeral for the old company. It created an ending, so that the employees could move on to celebrating the birth of something new. It helped them and it helped the organization successfully change the culture.
Asking “What would be helpful?” instead of “What’s the right answer?” makes for a profound change in how you manage. It’s one of those tiny great ideas that mark the transition into wisdom.
David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and commentary on human-capital management. He is investing much of his time in helping HR VPs report to the Board about human capital.
He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in the U.S., Japan, Canada and China.
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