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The Problem with People Science

People Science is the world of the rational, of evidence and categories, systems and equations. We all know and evidence-based research confirms, that people aren’t rational. They are unique and emotional and, unlike machines, don’t perform in an unbiased way. They find it difficult to be informed decision makers – preferring heuristics – which makes assessing risk difficult for most people in their daily as well as working lives. With this knowledge we should be asking different questions about people working in organisations. This article explains how we can better understand our employees and develop support systems to increase their ability and confidence to assess risk so their levels of informed decision-making improves.

People Engagement has become the buzzword to describe a motivated and switched-on team of workers. Cast your mind back twenty plus years ago and people wouldn’t understand what the term meant let alone how to go about influencing it. What we now speak of as people engagement was historically referred to as Industrial Relations – an adversarial environment with winners and losers.

Fast forward to 2018 and, whilst the term industrial relations may have been deleted from the lexicon of ‘leadership speak’ its legacy remains a defining undercurrent in ‘leadership behaviour’. Many of today’s leaders are ‘baby boomers’ weaned into the world of work on the back of a hierarchical, command and control working environment. Often with a background in old-fashioned industries, such leaders learnt their trade at a time when manual labour was more prevalent than today.

So it shouldn’t come as a surprise to learn that people engagement hasn’t yet permeated the consciousness of leadership thinking let alone into their resultant behaviours.

As we are frequently reminded the world is changing fast and with it new practices and fads appear on our radar; people science, big data and artificial intelligence being three of the current favourites. We operate in a world where data, be that metrics of activity or behavioural patterns, informs our future actions. So before we’ve even embedded a leadership culture that lives and breathes people engagement we’re now being asked to embrace people science and the use of data analytics to assist our engagement practices!

The problem with data is not the data itself; it’s our approach to it. We treat it as a fast-track medium to certain knowledge. It serves us well when tracking and scoping movement, but is bereft of emotional and environmental clues so vital when considering people. We then aggregate data such that we can attribute a benchmark score against which our resultant actions are assessed.

When looking at aggregates it’s impossible to identify individual responses thereby making it impossible to tailor improvement actions at a personal level. We fall into the trap of targeting groups with homogenous actions in the hope that something might stick. Invariably little does stick and despite leaderships sense of well-being in implementing a series of well thought through actions the score remains largely unmoved. It does so because we end up doing things to our people en masse rather than doing things with our people at an individual level. Check out your own ESi or CSi scores!

People data can help pinpoint areas requiring attention and assist leaders and their direct reports to frame discussions, but armed with this data we still need to sit down with our people, share our interpretations and reach agreement as to how best to use the information going forward for the benefit of all.

As leaders we undervalue the personal contribution we can make to the lives of those that we lead and overlook our responsibility for their development. While everyone talks a good story about people being their ‘most important asset’, we have little comprehension about what this actually means in practice.

The impact a leader has on the commitment and contribution of his or her team is grossly underestimated. Numerous studies conclude the quality of the relationship between a leader and a direct report to be the biggest influencer on performance and ultimately, continuing employment. Perhaps it’s convenient to undervalue this link as to see it otherwise is to put us very much in the spotlight. We’re happy to be centre stage to receive the plaudits, but are more likely to use the spotlight to identify the culprits when the whiff of blame is in the air.

If we think back to our school days we might just remember those teachers that inspired us to perform beyond our ability, if not in the classroom, then perhaps on the sports field. It wasn’t their subject matter expertise that we found inspirational, more likely it was the way in which they engaged us in their subject matter. The converse is true for those teachers who assumed our engagement simply through our attendance.

The responsibility for people engagement and development starts with the leader.
It’s the leader who creates the working environment in which his or her people operate and who observes them at work, facing the expected and unexpected challenges. It’s the leader who is closest and most able to identify with the development needs of an individual to perform well within a role and to reconcile their appetite and ambition for future roles. For this to happen requires resetting your priorities, to believing you are there to serve your people and are personally engaged in their development.

Relationships are not a science, and as we’re not uniform in our behaviour there is no substitute for observing, and reflecting the humanness in others on a daily basis. That’s a vantage point from which a coach leader can offer developmental support and growth.

We possess observational and intuitive sensing skills and it is these skills that over time allow us to assess situations in real time with increasing accuracy. Of course, we may benefit from data that provide additional information about a person and their preferences, but ultimately it’s our ability to observe individuals as they go about their working day that enables us to form a more accurate picture of what makes them ‘tick’. After all, isn’t that what humanness is all about?

People development is an uncomfortable area for many leaders. It’s far easier to discuss more tangible topics such as strategy or performance and, with the help of data, to focus on facts. To discuss someone’s development requires a confidence and empathy that few leaders innately possess. Scene setting requires an openness to discuss areas of strength as well as those in need of improvement. Both positions need to be agreed before progress can be made. In many cases, evidence is required to identify gaps in the current role as well as perceived gaps for future roles. As human beings we’re uncomfortable in highlighting shortfalls and even less confident in knowing what to do about it.

For this to happen we need coach leaders to emerge, leaders who make people development a priority of their role and recognise it as a key driver to improving performance. In this environment people will feel more valued and more encouraged to give their best to the evolving demands of your business. In a world where people are our only differentiator, this coach leadership capability is urgently needed.

This is not to point the finger of blame at our leadership population. We wrongly assume that those already in leadership roles possess the know-how and confidence to engage. However, those leaders having grown-up in a command and control environment resonant with our industrial heritage may feel ill-equipped to lead differently. And, in an age where corporate conformity is much prized, those recently promoted to their first leadership roles may feel more comfortable exerting greater direct control until they understand what leadership is all about.

The expectations we place on our leadership population have grown exponentially. Yet, when we send leaders off to hone their craft on the same old diet. Business schools and training providers offer a leadership curriculum that dissects subjects such as strategy, financial planning, project and change management. While popular leadership development options they are the default choice of those that pay lip-service to people development. They don’t focus on the core challenge facing the leadership role – the impact on others.

Many leaders have honed their ‘craft’ experientially and, whilst there can be no substitute for experience it doesn’t, on its own, yield the finished article. Failure to develop leadership skills is endemic in all businesses and, of those that prepare their next generation of leaders to lead, the focus is on ‘good housekeeping’ rather than the complexities of leading people.

This lack of preparation shows a lack of respect for the role and for those being led. You are now responsible for the lives of others. Decisions you take will impact their daily activity; recommendations you make will advantage some and disadvantage others and the preferences and biases you hold will strengthen and diminish the self-esteem of those you lead. In your role you need to know which people fall into which category and why.

Leadership is much more about behaviours than subject matter expertise. It’s about engaging with people, developing them as individuals and harnessing their skills within a team. It’s about managing uncertainty and risk, communicating decisions that won’t always work or be unanimously popular and it’s about giving hope and encouragement to the endeavours of others. At all times we must remember our uniqueness and everyone’s capacity to respond to identical situations differently from one another and from one day to the next. Failure to prepare for these challenges can quickly undermine the effectiveness and confidence of any leader.

A version of this article appeared in the October issue of HRD.

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