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Identify the root of people issues, don’t treat the symptoms

As HR business partners, we are relied upon to solve all manner of HR and people-related issues. Many of us have gained a reputation as the go-to people fixer within our organisations. At times, it can feel as if we carry a label stating ‘In case of emergency break glass and remove HR business partner’.

But do you ever feel like you’re playing whack-a-mole with the latest set of people-related issues facing you? No sooner have you dealt with one problem than another rises to take its place. Or maybe you’ve noticed the same pesky problem manifesting in many ways over a period.

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Perhaps dealing with reoccurring issues is just the nature of our roles as HR professionals. Or it’s an indication of a deeper problem, one which is entirely within our gift to solve, and one which holds us back from our desired strategic aims.

Perhaps the same issues reoccur because we are treating the symptoms instead of addressing the root cause.

The challenge is to distinguish the issues that are only a symptom of an underlying root cause. The ability to stand back from an array of seemingly random symptoms and identify the real root cause is how we begin to develop a strategic mindset, which we will need to successfully solve people challenges.

Conversely, if we are not able to identify and solve root cause issues, then we will find ourselves perpetually working at a tactical level and not becoming strategic-level people professionals.

So how do we unearth root-cause issues? First, we should train our minds to continually log and process all people-related issues as data points, so they can be assessed for potential underlying problems. The more data we have on a set of issues, the more likely we are to correctly discern the root cause of what we are experiencing.

To analyse this data, we will need to be relentless in asking ‘why is this happening?’ and pursuing the answer until we are satisfied we have reached the root. Pursuing the ‘why’ question will enable us to dig deeper into the systemic issues affecting the business and our people.

In doing this we act like a doctor. We must carefully test and observe the symptoms and potential causes, aggregating the data to establish a correct diagnosis.

Our next step is to build this diagnosis into a clear and compelling narrative which we can socialise with relevant others, get their views and refine it accordingly.

We do this to ensure that the diagnosis is a comprehensive and robust assessment of a deep-seated business challenge – one that is readily recognisable to those suffering from its symptoms.

It is our role to process all these human data points to produce the golden thread that everyone can agree is an accurate diagnosis of the problem faced – much more effective than continually treating symptoms.

Once this diagnosis is reached, we will be free to seek out a cure, throwing of treatments which only offer temporary relief in favour of total eradication of the issues affecting the progress of the organisation and its people. Hopefully that approach will lead to much less broken glass.


Glenn Templeman is HR management consultant to government and the public sector

The full article of the above first appeared in the March/April 2022 print issue. Subscribe today to have all our latest articles delivered right to your desk.