HR needs to become more disruptive. Here’s how.


In a disrupted world of work, people leaders risk falling behind. Lucy Adams explains how HR can catch up through a new, agile approach.

HR is stuck in the 1980s. That’s the view of Lucy Adams, founder and CEO of London-based consulting firm Disruptive HR.

“I speak as a recovering HR director myself,” she says. “Everything I criticise about HR are things I’ve done in the past.”

Adams thinks HR is too bureaucratic: the annual performance reviews, lengthy management processes and prescriptive policies that see employees graded from one to five and teams burdened with mountains of paperwork. She also refers to language which she thinks can pit people leaders in an adversarial role within an organisation.

“We use ‘probation’ to describe the first few months of a new starter at an organisation, as if we’re referring to a criminal,” she says. “‘Performance reviews’ and ‘exit interviews’ imply the employee is going to be assessed and judged. It creates an environment where people automatically feel defensive.”

However, HR doesn’t have to be this way, she says. As a keynote speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August, Adams plans to unpack what alternative, agile HR can look like, and how it can serve employers in a disrupted world.

“There are different ways that HR can be done – and it doesn’t have to be so process-heavy,” she says. “Ultimately, HR’s primary function should be to create environments that enable people to do their best work: where they can be agile, productive, collaborative and innovative.”

She notes that many of HR’s familiar practices and processes came to be at least 30 years ago.

“Performance and talent management, annual employee objectives and engagement surveys from then are still used to this day,” says Adams, who has more than a decade’s experience in board-level HR roles, most recently at the BBC. “They probably didn’t work well decades ago – and they certainly don’t work well now.”

HR’s evolving relationship with the workforce

As organisations hired more HR personnel, red tape and formal company policies became more embedded in organisations, she says. The aim, says Adams, was to prop up poor managers and ultimately safeguard the employer. 

“We began believing that if we treated everyone the same, then consistency meant fairness. It would help reduce complaints against bad managers and minimise the risk of employee tribunals. So, HR began implementing workplace rules, policies and processes to protect the organisation from rogue employees and avoid any legal trouble.”

As HR grew in stature at the turn of the century, it moved from employee support to more of an executive function. Qualifications in the field emerged and people leaders increasingly became board members.

“We use ‘probation’ to describe the first few months of a new starter at an organisation, as if we’re referring to a criminal.” Lucy Adams, Founder and CEO of Disruptive HR

However, it’s Adams’s view that the role of HR to shelter the organisation continued and that people leaders became akin to parental figures. Rather than treat employees as adults, says Adams, the onus was on HR to nurture workers – or constrain them. 

“This behaviour manifests in terms of not trusting employees enough to use their own judgment. Instead, we use critical parenting techniques, like making them adhere to prescriptive workplace policies. Or we choose to nurture. We try to do everything for them and help out over the smallest issues.”

Of course, caring for employees comes from a good place. But Adams says that rather than enabling people to perform their best work, HR sometimes ends up treating them as children, depriving them of their right to make adult choices in the workplace.

“It manifests in things like patronising notices in the bathrooms [reminding] employees to wash their hands; health and wellbeing becomes arranging yoga classes over Zoom, or providing free cereal bars.”

The biggest issue, says Adams, is that HR sometimes fails to accept the reality of a post-pandemic knowledge worker. 

“Our relationship with employees shouldn’t be treating them as our family – they’re adult individuals. We focus so much on retention that we feel betrayed if someone chooses to leave the organisation. But people moving to a new opportunity is inevitable in life.”

Adams believes that by being a parental figure, HR prevents employees from producing their best work – ultimately harming the organisation in the long run.

“Rather than have honest conversations, we try to protect everyone,” says Adams. 

“In doing so, we end up with passive, compliant workforces. It prevents people from being willing to speak up, take calculated risks and embrace change. We try to create lovely work environments, but fail to acknowledge that what drives employee engagement is [giving employees] autonomy and flexibility to work in ways that are most productive for them.”

Equipping staff with agility and autonomy

Borne from her frustrations, Adams founded Disruptive HR in 2014. Her firm offers training, advice and consulting services to CEOs and people leaders, built upon a different framework. It’s been coined ‘EACH’: employees as adults, consumers and humans.

Instead of perceiving employees as co-operative or rebellious, and choosing to nurture or criticise in response, people leaders should treat them as adults, says Adams. Ultimately, that means affording workers trust and relinquishing control.

“It comes down to adopting light-touch principles and allowing employees to use their own judgment, own their own career development and pursue independent performance management. It should be done without detailed policies in place.”

“Ultimately, HR’s primary function should be to create environments that enable people to do their best work: where they can be agile, productive, collaborative and innovative.” – Lucy Adams, Founder and CEO of Disruptive HR

This doesn’t mean offering workers superficial perks like free food or meditation apps. Instead, says Adams, it’s a shift in mindset: recognising that each person is different, with their own individual needs, wants and purposes. 

“It’s about realising there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the employee experience. We expect choice everywhere in life in terms of our individual needs, so we should in the workplace, too. Rather than focus on a process, it’s about starting with the end user and their needs, wants and preferences.”

This could be asking a new starter when they felt most recognised at work in terms of their contribution to an organisation, she says. 

“By doing so, you can provide insights to their line manager into what that person values and what they would best respond to – a big shout-out in a meeting or a handwritten note thanking them.”

It’s about putting the human back into HR, she adds.

“While great HR doesn’t mean having to be a psychologist, it does mean that we should recognise ourselves as human experts. Rather than processes, it’s placing the person first.”

Out with the old, in with the new

Traditional HR practices were already outdated by the time the pandemic hit, says Adams. In the new world of work, she argues that they’re dysfunctional to a business. 

Adams cites the example of current learning and development programs.

“We often place employees on one-day courses, which doesn’t reflect that people are more adept at learning in bite-sized formats. We’re better off watching a three-minute video than trying to absorb hours-long training courses.”

Organisational rewards also fail to factor in the human element, says Adams.

“We focus too much on annual bonuses when there’s no real joy in receiving a small sum of money, minus tax, three months after year’s end. 

“Instead, people are more likely to respond to smaller rewards that occur more often. And moving from individual rewards to ones that recognise shared contribution can massively help.” 

An added benefit in treating employees as adults is a heavy reduction in paperwork.

“We should move performance management away from an inhumane system rating employees out of five, to frequent check-ins in which you have adult-to-adult, honest conversations. 

“In doing so, you’re reducing the load for time-poor managers. Instead of making them go through lengthy processes to get things done, you allow them to take more innovative approaches,” she says.

The end result, says Adams, is that HR shifts to a genuine understanding of how humans work and flourish, bringing huge benefits to working lives and the organisations they serve.

“By embracing a new, agile way of HR, you have a deeper appreciation of how people learn and stay motivated. You improve performance and working habits so employees feel more included and appreciated. And you eliminate all these policies and processes that were initially designed to compensate for poor managers. 

“You’re left with really effective, high-impact approaches that tap into the human experience.” 

This article was first featured in the May 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


Don’t miss out on hearing from Lucy Adams on the power of disruptive HR at this year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in August. Book your spot today.


 

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Homeless
Homeless
11 months ago

Referring to this statement from this article: “ Instead, people are more likely to respond to smaller rewards that occur more often. And moving from individual rewards to ones that recognise shared contribution can massively help.” While I respect to the opinion of person in the article, in my own personal view maybe this method might be useful for ‘dog training’ and specifically might not be helpful as generalised term for all ‘people’. It might be helpful to talk to ‘people’ individually in a good faith, without using damaging methods like so-called resilience or so-called mental challenges and without playing… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 months ago

“Adams thinks HR is too bureaucratic”….. of course it is. Has she seen Australia’s workplace and health and safety laws? We live in a compliance world, which is only getting worse.

Adams sounds like one of these new age thinkers who believes we can run the world on sunshine and unicorns.

Anyway, wait for the biggest recession we’ve had since the Great Depression to hit late this year/early next. That will change a few perspectives.

Michael Loiret
Michael Loiret
10 months ago

Interesting article . HR has become “over-pervasive” over-opinionated with too many competing theories with what is good or best practice. It has, sadly, become a bloated bureaucracy in touch with itself and increasingly out of touch with its core mission.

Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw
10 months ago

While I agree with Homeless, Sarah, Chantal, and Michael, for almost 25 years I have been helping businesses remove the complexity from HR processes (such as OH&S) and replace them with simple alternatives. This results in talking to people in good faith, reducing HR bureaucracy, stops wasting time writing complex policies, and helps HR get back in touch with its core missions. When it comes to Lucy Adam’s core message, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, implement proven solutions that work within our currently overly-complex world.

John
John
10 months ago

“So, HR began implementing workplace rules, policies and processes to protect the organisation from rogue employees and avoid any legal trouble.”

As Sarah has rightly pointed out, has anything changed, or has it in fact gotten worse?

I would love to implement “HR” like this article suggests, but imagine a Fair Work hearing without policies and compliance in place.

More on HRM
Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.

HR needs to become more disruptive. Here’s how.


In a disrupted world of work, people leaders risk falling behind. Lucy Adams explains how HR can catch up through a new, agile approach.

HR is stuck in the 1980s. That’s the view of Lucy Adams, founder and CEO of London-based consulting firm Disruptive HR.

“I speak as a recovering HR director myself,” she says. “Everything I criticise about HR are things I’ve done in the past.”

Adams thinks HR is too bureaucratic: the annual performance reviews, lengthy management processes and prescriptive policies that see employees graded from one to five and teams burdened with mountains of paperwork. She also refers to language which she thinks can pit people leaders in an adversarial role within an organisation.

“We use ‘probation’ to describe the first few months of a new starter at an organisation, as if we’re referring to a criminal,” she says. “‘Performance reviews’ and ‘exit interviews’ imply the employee is going to be assessed and judged. It creates an environment where people automatically feel defensive.”

However, HR doesn’t have to be this way, she says. As a keynote speaker at AHRI’s National Convention and Exhibition in August, Adams plans to unpack what alternative, agile HR can look like, and how it can serve employers in a disrupted world.

“There are different ways that HR can be done – and it doesn’t have to be so process-heavy,” she says. “Ultimately, HR’s primary function should be to create environments that enable people to do their best work: where they can be agile, productive, collaborative and innovative.”

She notes that many of HR’s familiar practices and processes came to be at least 30 years ago.

“Performance and talent management, annual employee objectives and engagement surveys from then are still used to this day,” says Adams, who has more than a decade’s experience in board-level HR roles, most recently at the BBC. “They probably didn’t work well decades ago – and they certainly don’t work well now.”

HR’s evolving relationship with the workforce

As organisations hired more HR personnel, red tape and formal company policies became more embedded in organisations, she says. The aim, says Adams, was to prop up poor managers and ultimately safeguard the employer. 

“We began believing that if we treated everyone the same, then consistency meant fairness. It would help reduce complaints against bad managers and minimise the risk of employee tribunals. So, HR began implementing workplace rules, policies and processes to protect the organisation from rogue employees and avoid any legal trouble.”

As HR grew in stature at the turn of the century, it moved from employee support to more of an executive function. Qualifications in the field emerged and people leaders increasingly became board members.

“We use ‘probation’ to describe the first few months of a new starter at an organisation, as if we’re referring to a criminal.” Lucy Adams, Founder and CEO of Disruptive HR

However, it’s Adams’s view that the role of HR to shelter the organisation continued and that people leaders became akin to parental figures. Rather than treat employees as adults, says Adams, the onus was on HR to nurture workers – or constrain them. 

“This behaviour manifests in terms of not trusting employees enough to use their own judgment. Instead, we use critical parenting techniques, like making them adhere to prescriptive workplace policies. Or we choose to nurture. We try to do everything for them and help out over the smallest issues.”

Of course, caring for employees comes from a good place. But Adams says that rather than enabling people to perform their best work, HR sometimes ends up treating them as children, depriving them of their right to make adult choices in the workplace.

“It manifests in things like patronising notices in the bathrooms [reminding] employees to wash their hands; health and wellbeing becomes arranging yoga classes over Zoom, or providing free cereal bars.”

The biggest issue, says Adams, is that HR sometimes fails to accept the reality of a post-pandemic knowledge worker. 

“Our relationship with employees shouldn’t be treating them as our family – they’re adult individuals. We focus so much on retention that we feel betrayed if someone chooses to leave the organisation. But people moving to a new opportunity is inevitable in life.”

Adams believes that by being a parental figure, HR prevents employees from producing their best work – ultimately harming the organisation in the long run.

“Rather than have honest conversations, we try to protect everyone,” says Adams. 

“In doing so, we end up with passive, compliant workforces. It prevents people from being willing to speak up, take calculated risks and embrace change. We try to create lovely work environments, but fail to acknowledge that what drives employee engagement is [giving employees] autonomy and flexibility to work in ways that are most productive for them.”

Equipping staff with agility and autonomy

Borne from her frustrations, Adams founded Disruptive HR in 2014. Her firm offers training, advice and consulting services to CEOs and people leaders, built upon a different framework. It’s been coined ‘EACH’: employees as adults, consumers and humans.

Instead of perceiving employees as co-operative or rebellious, and choosing to nurture or criticise in response, people leaders should treat them as adults, says Adams. Ultimately, that means affording workers trust and relinquishing control.

“It comes down to adopting light-touch principles and allowing employees to use their own judgment, own their own career development and pursue independent performance management. It should be done without detailed policies in place.”

“Ultimately, HR’s primary function should be to create environments that enable people to do their best work: where they can be agile, productive, collaborative and innovative.” – Lucy Adams, Founder and CEO of Disruptive HR

This doesn’t mean offering workers superficial perks like free food or meditation apps. Instead, says Adams, it’s a shift in mindset: recognising that each person is different, with their own individual needs, wants and purposes. 

“It’s about realising there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach when it comes to the employee experience. We expect choice everywhere in life in terms of our individual needs, so we should in the workplace, too. Rather than focus on a process, it’s about starting with the end user and their needs, wants and preferences.”

This could be asking a new starter when they felt most recognised at work in terms of their contribution to an organisation, she says. 

“By doing so, you can provide insights to their line manager into what that person values and what they would best respond to – a big shout-out in a meeting or a handwritten note thanking them.”

It’s about putting the human back into HR, she adds.

“While great HR doesn’t mean having to be a psychologist, it does mean that we should recognise ourselves as human experts. Rather than processes, it’s placing the person first.”

Out with the old, in with the new

Traditional HR practices were already outdated by the time the pandemic hit, says Adams. In the new world of work, she argues that they’re dysfunctional to a business. 

Adams cites the example of current learning and development programs.

“We often place employees on one-day courses, which doesn’t reflect that people are more adept at learning in bite-sized formats. We’re better off watching a three-minute video than trying to absorb hours-long training courses.”

Organisational rewards also fail to factor in the human element, says Adams.

“We focus too much on annual bonuses when there’s no real joy in receiving a small sum of money, minus tax, three months after year’s end. 

“Instead, people are more likely to respond to smaller rewards that occur more often. And moving from individual rewards to ones that recognise shared contribution can massively help.” 

An added benefit in treating employees as adults is a heavy reduction in paperwork.

“We should move performance management away from an inhumane system rating employees out of five, to frequent check-ins in which you have adult-to-adult, honest conversations. 

“In doing so, you’re reducing the load for time-poor managers. Instead of making them go through lengthy processes to get things done, you allow them to take more innovative approaches,” she says.

The end result, says Adams, is that HR shifts to a genuine understanding of how humans work and flourish, bringing huge benefits to working lives and the organisations they serve.

“By embracing a new, agile way of HR, you have a deeper appreciation of how people learn and stay motivated. You improve performance and working habits so employees feel more included and appreciated. And you eliminate all these policies and processes that were initially designed to compensate for poor managers. 

“You’re left with really effective, high-impact approaches that tap into the human experience.” 

This article was first featured in the May 2023 edition of HRM Magazine.


Don’t miss out on hearing from Lucy Adams on the power of disruptive HR at this year’s AHRI National Convention and Exhibition in August. Book your spot today.


 

Subscribe to receive comments
Notify me of
guest

11 Comments
Inline Feedbacks
View all comments
Homeless
Homeless
11 months ago

Referring to this statement from this article: “ Instead, people are more likely to respond to smaller rewards that occur more often. And moving from individual rewards to ones that recognise shared contribution can massively help.” While I respect to the opinion of person in the article, in my own personal view maybe this method might be useful for ‘dog training’ and specifically might not be helpful as generalised term for all ‘people’. It might be helpful to talk to ‘people’ individually in a good faith, without using damaging methods like so-called resilience or so-called mental challenges and without playing… Read more »

Sarah
Sarah
10 months ago

“Adams thinks HR is too bureaucratic”….. of course it is. Has she seen Australia’s workplace and health and safety laws? We live in a compliance world, which is only getting worse.

Adams sounds like one of these new age thinkers who believes we can run the world on sunshine and unicorns.

Anyway, wait for the biggest recession we’ve had since the Great Depression to hit late this year/early next. That will change a few perspectives.

Michael Loiret
Michael Loiret
10 months ago

Interesting article . HR has become “over-pervasive” over-opinionated with too many competing theories with what is good or best practice. It has, sadly, become a bloated bureaucracy in touch with itself and increasingly out of touch with its core mission.

Mark Shaw
Mark Shaw
10 months ago

While I agree with Homeless, Sarah, Chantal, and Michael, for almost 25 years I have been helping businesses remove the complexity from HR processes (such as OH&S) and replace them with simple alternatives. This results in talking to people in good faith, reducing HR bureaucracy, stops wasting time writing complex policies, and helps HR get back in touch with its core missions. When it comes to Lucy Adam’s core message, let’s not throw out the baby with the bathwater. Instead, implement proven solutions that work within our currently overly-complex world.

John
John
10 months ago

“So, HR began implementing workplace rules, policies and processes to protect the organisation from rogue employees and avoid any legal trouble.”

As Sarah has rightly pointed out, has anything changed, or has it in fact gotten worse?

I would love to implement “HR” like this article suggests, but imagine a Fair Work hearing without policies and compliance in place.

Sorry, no posts matched your criteria.
More on HRM