Human resources is not just a name on a door or the department that handles the <em>people stuff.</em> Learn what you can do today give the human beings in your organization who happen to be employees what they need to perform, thrive and be glad they are there.
I worked at a chemical plant in the early Eighties. Many people were afraid they were going to break their computers or look stupid. I liked helping them get past that so they could feel confident and productive. About 7 years into my IT career I realized I didn’t love the technology enough to excel over the long haul. Yet I really enjoyed working with people.
I knew I wanted to make things better for people at work. I saw that we could engage people in a much different way. Projects could be more successful and deliver more quickly if we treated people like human beings. These realizations settled in, and having recently survived my first downsizing in IT, I chose to pursue a career in human resources.
Fast forward several years. I had my master’s in HR and was acting as HR manager at an R&D lab, with over 500 constituents. By this point I had a good idea of what being in HR meant. Those in charge expected me to push more employment-related tasks to employees and managers.
In R&D, organization members developed things to turn into products, presumably so our company could sell them and make more money. I thought being in HR meant it was my job to facilitate this. I didn’t like creating more work for them that was not related to developing the next new thing.
Manage those human resources in a way they can thrive
When you hear the term “human resources,” often the first thing that comes to mind is the department that handles the people stuff. But if you think about it, the name is about the “humans” who happen to be employees. I often talk about treating people at work humanly. The word “humanely” often gets fed back to me.
So, let’s clarify. For me, treating people humanely means providing access to water and toilets. Treating people humanly means addressing human needs for appreciation, belonging, and the need to make a meaningful contribution. Treating people humanly does not require a title or authority. You can start today.
Colleagues have told me they neither want to treat people more humanly, nor behave more humanly themselves. What?? Turns out that my use of the word “humanly” conjures up visions of over-sharing and awkward emotional moments.
No worries. I’m only suggesting to give humans at work what they need so they can perform—just like you would give a car the oil it needs on a regular basis, so it has what it needs to perform. You can meet human needs daily, starting simply with social exchanges. This can be interpreted as broadly as asking a question, giving an instruction or offering feedback.
What are those needs again?
There are many ways to describe “human” needs. I use the words appreciation, belonging and meaningful contribution—adapted from Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. David Rock, neuroscientist, uses the words status, autonomy, certainty, relatedness or fairness. He says that in a social interaction our human brains automatically assess whether any of these needs are threatened. To be effective, attend to whether the interaction is going to prompt others to feel threatened or “rewarded” (or engaged, or uplifted) by your interaction. Rock asserts:
Leaders who understand this dynamic can more effectively engage their employees’ best talents, support collaborative teams, and create an environment that fosters productive change. Indeed, the ability to intentionally address the social brain in the service of optimal performance will be a distinguishing leadership capability in the years ahead.
You can be human even if it’s not in your title
You don’t have to be a leader to engage people’s brains in a positive direction. You don’t have to be a leader to treat people more humanly, and engage your fellow humans at work in a way that supports optimal performance. Science and good sense make the case.
The principal of her own business, Mary Schaefer is an expert in empowerment and manager-employee interactions, particularly for organizations employing IT professionals, engineers and scientists. She coaches, trains and consults on talent development, performance management and change management. Her clients include Fortune 500 companies, small businesses, nonprofits and government agencies. Mary has a bachelor’s degree in computer science and a master's in human resources. She also holds an HR professional certification.
Previously, Mary worked at DuPont for 20 years, starting her career there as an information systems professional and concluding as an HR manager. Even though she started out in IT, Mary noticed over time that she was more interested in understanding people. She was more interested in helping people with their reactions to how their jobs were changing than in teaching them new computer programs. Mary then pursued a career in HR and obtained her master’s in HR.
As a human resources manager, Mary served a community of more than 500 employees and managers in areas such as performance management, interpersonal relations, leadership, teamwork, diversity and creating a respectful work environment. While at DuPont, Mary received the Crystal Award, designed to recognize “champions of people.”
Mary always found a way to be a part of diverse work assignments that involved helping people move through change. For example, she helped hundreds of survivors of corporate downsizing, through coaching and workshops, to see how they could make positive choices moving forward rather than be overwhelmed by constant job insecurity.
Mary’s speaking, coaching and training are all focused on making the most of what human resources can contribute to an organization through their energy and creativity, while at the same time helping people meet their own specific needs for meaningful work. She focuses on creating a more productive and collaborative work environments through honest, direct interactions. This could involve planning for a tough conversation about work performance or strategizing on how to manage employees’ reaction to changes in their jobs.
Mary has devoted hundreds of hours to coaching hundreds of managers, both as an HR manager and currently through her business, serving clients such as Xerox, Siemens, DuPont, Ahold USA and the State of Delaware.
Mary applies her fierce idealism to create work cultures where organizations and human beings can both thrive. She publishes on this topic and more at MarySchaefer.com, LeadChangeGroup.com and other sites. She is a co-author of the book The Character-Based Leader. In 2014, Mary delivered a presentation called “GPS Your Career: How to Get From Where You Are to Where You Want to Go” at the Inspiring Women in STEM Conference and another called “Putting the Human Back into Human Resources” at the 2014 TEDx Wilmington (Delaware) conference.
The opinions expressed in this blog are those of Mary Schaefer and do not necessarily represent those of IDG Communications Inc. or its parent, subsidiary or affiliated companies.