From Mailbox To Lighthouse: The HR Growth Curve

School was rough for me at times. This is not an “oh poor me” story, but I did need serious guidance at one point; not that I was asking. Old school reinforcement of the rules and lectures at school about the right way to behave were kind of doing the opposite of what a sane observer would call “helping”. I knew the rules. They were simple enough, but they were not what I needed to get back on track.

Thankfully my parents were there to guide me. Nothing was clinically wrong with me — let’s assume 😉 — but nevertheless I was well on track to fall off. Imagine they would outsource that conversation to a friend, teacher, or anyone else for that matter. I needed my leaders to step in and engage in dialogue  to make sure I would turn out a (somewhat) productive member of society.

Mailbox Syndrome

Surprisingly few managers apply this simple logic to their life at the office. Too busy with work, they rely on HR colleagues to do the talking, especially when things get challenging, outsourcing career advice, exit interviews, evaluations, and other “difficult” conversations. Most of them fail to notice that they’re handing over crucial opportunities to connect with their colleagues and to grow themselves.

HR professionals, on the other hand, are often eager enough to take these tasks off the managers’ hands. Meeting employees, listening to their concerns and feedback, providing career guidance, etc. is what satisfies many HR professionals in their job. By doing this, however, they quickly become the frustrated, but mostly unproductive, “mailbox” in which people-related letters pile up without next steps to show for.

The Fool’s Choice

Mailbox syndrome — or its ugly cousin gossip — is something that spreads easily in organizations and it’s not just HR related. In general you could say that it’s a human condition to talk more about people than to them, especially in situations with no overt authority. Researchers have called not speaking to someone because of potential painful consequences “the fool’s choice”.

Just this basic insight alone has helped many managers do what they know in their heart needs to be done. The next step is to teach people how to communicate. Sometimes a book like “Thanks for the feedback” is all they need, sometimes they will need conversational training and coaching to reach the level that they are required to operate on. Whatever it is, it’s never an excuse for HR to step in.

Show The Way

HR professionals are in a perfect position to make the first move, as well they should. Instead of stepping into the role of temporary conversational surrogate, they should coach and prepare aforementioned managers for meaningful dialogue. They should burn down that old mailbox and become a beacon of organizational health that helps others navigate the darkness of human interaction. A lighthouse, if you will :).

And they don’t have to wait on aynone or anything or write up a policy to allow for this healthy behavior. Next time the right people are not having the conversation that needs to be had, don’t have it for them, even when asked, but help them have it themselves. Why? Because they are not your people, you won’t be able to decide on next steps, and you will rob everyone, including the company of long-term growth.

“Remember, to know and not to do is really not to know.” — Kerry Patterson

Interesting related books

Stone, D., & Heen, S. (2014). Thanks for the Feedback: The Science and Art of Receiving Feedback Well. Viking.

Patterson, K., Grenny, J., McMillan, R., & Switzler, A. (2002). Crucial Conversations: Tools for Talking When Stakes Are High. McGraw-Hill.

Kofman, F. (2006). Conscious Business: How to Build Value Through Values. Sounds True.

Stanier Bungay, M. (2016). The Coaching Habit: Say Less, Ask More & Change the Way You Lead Forever. Box of Crayons.

Rosenburg, M. B. (1999). Nonviolent Communication: A Language of Life. Puddledancer Press