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Resolving the HR personality clash

Richard MacKinnon , 14 Feb 2013

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Do you experience misunderstandings or conflict when dealing with your internal clients? If so, a simple personality clash may be to blame.

When examining the personality traits of 5,000 people in financial services employers, we found that the 'typical' professional in the sector is a competitive, achievement-oriented, persuasive communicator who likes data, evidence, structure and detail. Not surprising, you might think. What's interesting is that these traits are very different from those of the typical HR practitioner, who is more consultative, more willing to allow others to take the lead and less likely to rigidly adhere to rules, processes and deadlines.

This means that, in financial services employers, an HR practitioner has a fundamentally different working style to a typical line manager. Confusion and disagreements can therefore occur when the two parties interact with each other because HR practitioners are essentially trying to be collaborative and supportive in a world which values being forceful and direct.

True, our study concentrated on the world of financial services but perhaps this is a wider problem that exists in other sectors too. If that's the case, then many HR practitioners are likely to be working outside of their 'comfort zone', for example by adhering to strict procedures rather than being more spontaneous, which would be their natural preference. It's no wonder that some practitioners claim that a lack of understanding exists internally about their role and about the expertise they bring to the business.

So, what can be done? Given the differences in working style, the only real option for HR practitioners who want to become more influential, and want to deal more effectively with internal stakeholders, is to change their role. They need to shift their focus - and develop their technical, interpersonal and professional skills - to become 'HR Entrepreneurs'.

An HR Entrepreneur is someone who line managers want to work with: a confident advisor and a trusted expert who can simplify HR processes and align with the business strategy, because they have a clear and up-to-date understanding of the talent management environment and the industry in which they work. They can provide a more articulate and confident HR influence - through their technical prowess, diplomacy and improved client management - which can bring greater objectivity and fairness to recruitment and talent management processes.

A change may also be needed in the way that HR practitioners are selected. Many organisations currently select practitioners based on the relevant experience gained in their sector. However, this over-emphasises the importance of domain knowledge and industry awareness, all of which can be taught. Recruiters can also make the mistake of trying 'clone' the organisation's existing HR practitioners but this will only compound the problem. What's really needed is an overhaul of the processes for selecting and developing HR practitioners.

The place to start is to articulate what 'good' looks like. That means understanding which personality traits are valuable for HR in the business. A validated competency framework should be created and used as a benchmark; psychometric assessments and clearly defined performance data should be used to identify appropriate candidates. Greater emphasis should be placed on the core abilities and aptitude of the individuals. Modular development interventions should then be used to develop the skills of an HR Entrepreneur, with a robust evaluation framework.

Development programmes designed to nurture and improve the skills of an HR Entrepreneur are now available. They could prove to be a lifeline. Ultimately, if HR is unable to reconcile its fundamental personality clash with the business, more organisations may look to resolve this problem themselves by completely outsourcing their HR operations.

Richard MacKinnon is head of learning and development solutions at development provider Talent Q

3 comments on this article

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Personality versus culture

Quentin Millington 15 Feb 2013

Thank you, Richard, for the thought-provoking article. I agree that there are likely to be personality differences across individuals attracted to various functional areas. However, it seems that the challenge to tackle is rather a cultural one: what it takes to be successful in HR is not (or rather historically has not been) the same as on the trading floor. I suggest that only when the culturally accepted norms of HR behaviour become aligned with those of the business will it be possible to attract like-minded characters. That said, a further benefit of dealing directly with culture is that by aligning behaviours, values and assumptions, it may be possible actually to embrace *greater* variation of personality. This will afford creative innovation and prevent future stagnation of the new culture, which is a risk of having similar personalities across all functions.

Personality or behaviour?

Richard Rudman 18 Feb 2013

I'm not very concerned about personality. I'm not a psychiatrist or a neuro-surgeon, which means that I can't do anything about other people's personalities. But I can influence their behaviour. So I set out my expectations of other people's behaviour, explaining what is effective and why, and what is acceptable or not. I don't use the term 'personality clash', because I see it as an excuse not to act on someone else's (or my own" ineffective or unacceptable behaviour.

In response...

Richard MacKinnon 22 Feb 2013

Thanks for the comments so far! I definitely agree that organisational culture is a core component here and must be considered alongside the factors outlined in the article. Indeed the culture impacts everything from who is hired to join the organisation through to what behaviour is rewarded and how teams interact. However, culture can also be impacted (positively) by conscious changes in behaviour. Behaviour is indeed key - but it influenced to a large degree by underlying personality, hence its central place in our research. Thanks again for your comments and feedback.

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