Wendy Tan, PhD, CSP
Author, Keynote Speaker & Managing Partner of Flame Centre | Future Skills Institute
First published in Human Capital
Updated 16 Aug 2023
In my meetings with HR professionals and consulting practice, I notice three scenarios:
Scenario 1: Speak Truth to Power?
A HR director is aware of his new CEO’s negative impact on the organization. His style is 180º different from the previous CEO – much more result oriented and tough. Employees are burnt out from the constant pressure and some wonder if this is still the right place for them. The HR direction wonders, “How should I give him feedback, when I don’t have rapport with him yet?”
Scenario 2: Who is the Client?
A group of HR professionals were attending a workshop on facilitation skills. They are expected to facilitate management meetings in their organization, but the CEO controls the meetings. Their question was, “Why am I the facilitator when the CEO is doing it?” My question to them, “Who wants you there to facilitate the meetings?” Their response was, “My HR director.” I continued, “Does the CEO know your role?” The HR professionals looked at each other, puzzled and uncertain.
Scenario 3: Gaining Commitment
A HR manager presented a list of action items arising from an employee opinion survey to his management. The management did not raise many objections then and moved to the next agenda item. The minutes of the meeting indicated that the management approved the action items. The HR manager left the meeting wondering, “If the management agreed, does it mean I have their commitment to act in the follow-up actions?” Subsequently, he realised - HR was expected to implement all the action items without bothering the frontline people. So much for mutual commitment!
Do these scenarios sound similar? They all relate to how the HR professional gets his expertise used. HR technical knowledge, such as succession planning and performance management, and interpersonal skills, such as listening and empathy are widely accepted as essential competencies of the HR professional. However, there is one more critical domain; consulting skills, being authentic and compassionate to ourselves and our clients.
What are consulting skills?
Consulting skills are the means to get your expertise used when you have no control. It is how you become influential partners to the line. You may not have the word “consultant” in your title, but as long as you have expertise and add value through your expertise, you're playing a consulting role.
What if you have Flawless Consulting skills?
In scenario 1, there are two levels in resolving this problem. The first level is the technical skills involved in giving sensitive feedback. The second level is the choice to give sensitive feedback and risk the CEO’s displeasure. I suspect the first level is commonly taught in many workshops, so I shall not bore you here.
Let’s discuss the second level. As a strategic HR partner, you provide unique value by helping your managers see themselves and the situation differently. Yes, this is risky, but it's a unique value we can provide.
There are two principles: be authentic and compassionate. Being authentic is to be direct and state the situation simply. The HR director might say,
“Mr CEO, you have been pushing the sales figures very hard, the people have been feeling the pressure and getting burnt out. This results in less attention to customers’ needs and this is hurting the sales numbers.”
Now, you might think that this sounds confrontational. Yes, the words confront, but the tone is supportive. Being compassionate sounds like a touchy-feely word, but when a person knows it comes from a position of care and not judgment, they are less likely to take it personally.
While it seems risky to be direct, the anxiety we experience is ours and not the CEO’s. Too often, we project our anxieties to the outer world when it is within ourselves. A result-oriented CEO will want to do something differently to improve sales and you are telling him how by being direct.
Here the lack of contracting between the HR facilitators and the CEO is the problem. Contracting is the agreement between parties on how you will work together. It can be simply done by asking what do we want from one another. The HR facilitators want the CEO to know that they are facilitating the meetings and probably also feedback from him on how they are doing.
Similarly, the CEO may want to hear all views before making a decision. Or, the CEO may not want any facilitators at all. So in having this contracting conversation with the CEO, the HR facilitators get clear about where and how they add value. The key is to know who is your client and agree on what you want from each other.
As I say this, I hear the objections from the HR community – “We rarely have the chance to meet the CEO and won’t we be bypassing our HR director then?” In these cases, you can contract with your HR director to have an agreement with the CEO. It is less direct this way, but some form of contracting is better than none.
Can you see the problem in scenario 3? It is the lack of commitment from the management. The presentation by the HR manager was glossed over without any discussion of concerns. Don’t be fooled by silence, it can be a subtle form of resistance. Other forms of resistance include asking for lots of details, challenging the data, asking who said what, insisting this is not their job, the difficulties involved, saying ‘yes’ but meaning ‘no’, and emotional outbursts etc.
Part of consulting skills is to surface resistance, so that we can begin to have real conversations to our recommendations. It is like uncovering the pins below a surface. If you don’t uncover it, it will prick you. But in the process of uncovering it, it could be delicate or even painful.
So what could the HR manager do differently? In surfacing resistance, you can ask questions such as, “What are your concerns, doubts, or reservations?” If it doesn’t work, one way is to name the resistance, for example, “You are quiet about these recommendations.” Pause. Create space for them to respond and then deal with their concerns.
Consulting Skills with Authenticity and Compassion
Consulting skills include identifying your client(s), creating clear agreements with them, surfacing resistance, and giving personal feedback. These actions are done in the spirit of authenticity and compassion. The Chinese word for authenticity is “誠”; it means words become action. What you say is what you do; it is a quality of honesty and realness.
The Chinese word for compassion is “善”; it is made up of the Chinese word ‘lamb’ above the word ‘speech’. Put together, it means to be gentle with your speech. Authenticity and compassion are like the combination of yin and yang; be direct and gentle.
An authentic and compassionate HR professional says what needs to be said in a direct and gentle manner. In this way, he becomes a strategic partner to the line.