“Original Thinking and HR” Is Not an Oxymoron

“Are you someone who speaks up, or stays silent? I’ve always been the person who stays silent.” Adam Grant opened his keynote speech at HR Redefined 2018 with a confession. He too has been guilty of the pervasive mentality that is so detrimental to original thinking.

He recounted a time when he spoke up for a colleague who was treated unfairly. As a result, his boss pulled him aside (into the women’s restroom, no less) and warned him that if he ever spoke up again, he would be fired. This marked a turning point in his career and led him to pursue a career in organizational psychology with a focus on workplace culture.

Grant has spent extensive time studying how to nurture originality, and he affirms—with no hesitation—that HR is the lifeblood of this effort. “Original thinking and HR are not an oxymoron,” says Grant. “You have the power to drive real change and define culture more than anyone else in your organization.” In a landscape where job candidates have more leverage than ever, HR is tasked to create a culture that supports employees who challenge the status quo.

Here are four ways Grant suggests HR can create a work environment where original thinking thrives.

Source Original Talent

Grant cautions that HR should be as analytic and rigorous as possible in the recruiting process. He spoke from the direct experience of helping a client get to the bottom of their turnover problem. In the process, Grant ended up disproving the client’s idea that Ivy league graduates were most valuable to the company. Looking at nine years in performance data, they found no difference between Ivy league employees and high performers from state universities.

Even more interesting, they found that when it came to high performers, Ivy league grads were significantly more likely to leave the company after a few years than top performers from state schools. The learning that employees from less elite schools were ultimately more loyal led the company to completely rethink their talent sourcing model.

In your HR practice, don’t be afraid to challenge the status quo. When it comes to talent acquisition, HR has the power to drive organization-wide success. In Grant’s words: “The most leverage you have in an organization is who you let in a door.”

Help us write the future of HR and build a better workplace—Join Namely this year at HR Redefined 2019!

Weed Out Detractors

Grant has dedicated a large part of his career to identifying givers and takers in the workplace. While givers always look for ways to help others, takers tend to focus on how to help themselves. According to Grant, takers can be detrimental to a team and detract from the overall culture, leading to a toxic work environment. To avoid mis-hires from the get-go, it’s crucial to manage impressions during the interview process.

References rarely provide critical feedback on an applicant, so Grant encourages HR to ask the better questions that get at how the candidate will impact the rest of the team. How? Try pushing references to choose between two negative traits, asking whether the candidate is more likely to be self-serving or stepped on. “I’m more likely to hire someone who is likely to get stepped on and be kind, than someone who is only focused on themself,” Grant explains.

By asking the right questions, you can better understand who is a good fit, and get the wrong people off the bus before your culture pays the price.

Seek Feedback on Leadership

“Fill in the blanks,” says Grant: “Don’t bring me ________, bring me _________.” If you said “problems,” and “solutions,” you’ve probably had a manager make this demand. However, Grant argues that this sentence is a dangerous philosophy. If you don’t encourage employees to speak up about problems, you won’t hear about them until it’s too late—which can be especially harmful when the problem is too big for any one individual to solve.

When an employee leaves the company, an exit interview is already too late. Companies should instead invert the idea of exit interviews and turn them into entry interviews. Doing so does two amazing things: first, it tells you exactly what motivates your workforce, and second, it shows applicants that their voice is important from day one.

To build this culture, HR has to create a psychologically safe environment where everyone in the company is comfortable with admitting their shortcomings. Grant says it starts from the top down, and it’s important for leadership to show that they too are open to criticism and suggestions. When leaders acknowledge their mistakes and take the initiative to improve, you’ll see a stronger sense of trust increase throughout the organization.

Tailor Jobs to People, Not People to Jobs

In reality, most jobs were not designed for the people that do them. “Job crafting is what you do to take ownership of those jobs,” says Grant. Right now, this is happening at the individual level, with employees taking the initiative to reshape how they do their work. Unfortunately, it doesn’t happen as often as it should at the organizational level.

Why should organizations take on this problem? If you ask employees to map their current job duties to what they want their job to look like, you start to see that it’s not an individual problem. Grant says a great way to visualize this is through word clouds. When you compare how employees spend their days (often emails and meetings) with what they’d like to be doing, you can easily pinpoint the disconnect. “In HR, you have a 30,000 foot view of what everyone is doing,” says Grant. “Often managers are too in the weeds to identify a problem across the organization, but HR has the power to connect those dots.”

When you encourage employees to share their problems and concerns, you begin to build a more agile and forward-thinking culture. Grant affirms that the HR department is well positioned to drive a culture of givers and original thinkers. “I would love every single organization in the world to see HR as the most important strategic part of the company.”

But you probably already knew that, so follow these tips to get the buy-in and the voice to make a real impact.


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