Over the years the HR profession has been urged to be more professional at presenting an evidence-based case for proposed HR activity. No-one is going to allocate time and resources on the basis that something is ‘HR best practice’, and rightly so. They expect evidence of ROI for what is proposed.
Many good HR professionals and teams therefore now regularly assemble good business cases for action based on clear, rational evidence. But more still needs to be done as there is significantly more data available to bolster the HR case – for example breaking down silos across the organisation could increase profitability by up to 50%.
However, too often HR assumes that a rational business case will deliver successful implementation. This totally misses the other critical factor in delivering success: emotional resonance. I have even seen engagement initiatives presented in such a rational process-driven way, devoid of any emotion, that they subsequently engaged no-one and had little impact.
We must remember that HR stands for human resources. Human beings are essentially as much emotional as rational. We can present the best rational case for action. But to deliver implementation it must also ‘feel’ right and genuinely engage people at all levels to want to make it happen. Repeated failure to do this is the reason probably 70% to 80% of initiatives launched – not just HR but across the board – never get fully and successfully implemented.
What Brexit and Trump’s election proved was that often emotional feelings can beat rational argument. The psychology supports this, and our own experiences and personal responses confirm it. It’s the ‘what’s in it for me?’ or the ‘what’s the inspiring journey you want me to join you on?’ question. So while we can use the rational case to get the attention of decision makers and the approval to succeed in implementation, we have to bring in a powerful emotional resonance. This acts as a multiplier to the rational to engage everyone to optimise the chances of success.
Too often there is an assumption in HR that the rational is enough. It is necessary but not sufficient for success. A Corporate Executive Board (CEB) study confirms this: ‘an employee’s decision to give high performance is 60% rational and 40% emotional’. Thus missing out the emotional driver in implementation loses 40% of the chances of success even if a good rational case is being presented.
That leads us to HR’s greatest challenge. While it has to ensure the emotional driver is activated among employees effectively, HR cannot do this itself. It has to be done via the individual employee’s boss. The CEB suggests that 80% of emotional drivers come from the immediate boss. Thus HR has to help line management to be inspirational as well as ensuring line managers present a rational case for action.
If HR, from the start, sets out a case for action that has an emotional resonance as well as a rational foundation, it will significantly increase the chances of both agreement and implementation success. Every HR initiative project plan must answer the simple emotional question that every employee will ask: ‘yes it makes sense but does it inspire me to want to do it?’ You are effectively selling an idea to line management and employees. They are your consumers and they decide if they buy and then implement the idea. Just ‘buying’ is not enough – implementation is the objective or your proposal becomes another rational but uninspiring initiative consigned to the dustbin of history as a ‘good idea that was killed off by apathy’. So for HR to succeed more often we need to be more emotionally focused. But isn’t it because we are inspired to inspire others that we joined HR anyway?
Chris Roebuck is visiting professor of transformational leadership at Cass Business School