In The Workplace

I’m an engineer tasked with performing the Human Resources (HR) function for our small company. Obviously, I have no technical background to perform my current assignment. The HR departments of our client-companies are headed by people with psychology, business management, accounting, and law degrees. I’m getting cold feet knowing this, though I try to do my best, except that I can’t understand how psychology can be applied to managing people. Could you please give me some examples? — Round Peg.

Psychiatrists say that in the process of thinking, blood is drawn from the feet to the brain, suggesting that this may explain why, when we think very long and hard about something, we get cold feet. Some people like you may quibble about doing something that is not in line with your training. There’s nothing wrong with that.

As long as you have the interest to learn, unlearn, and relearn, you can go a long way in understanding and even excelling in your work as HR head. It’s only a matter of time. That is if you would like to continue doing that job.

One of the best approaches to running an HR department is to read as much as you can about general management. You don’t have to limit yourself to HR topics. If you’ve taken management engineering or similar courses, then I believe that is a good starting point.

I will not confuse you with psychological terms to avoid intimidating you. I’m not a psychologist either, but I’d rather be practical than theoretical. Not only will this better prepare us for learning, but it may also help you to pinpoint areas where you want to improve your performance as an HR department head. You can explore the following uses of psychology in managing people:

One, promote and practice employee empowerment. When your workers come to you about an operational issue, tell them you know the solution (even if you don’t), because you don’t want to spoon-feed them. Ask for their top three recommendations in order of priority. That way, you’ll teach them how to analyze problems. You may be surprised to find your expectations exceeded while also identifying which workers can be relied upon.

Two, admit you don’t know many things. When you accept a weakness, people will understand and respect you for your humility. If a worker comes to you to challenge the rationale and practical application of a long-held management policy, accept that you don’t have a ready answer. Then, promise to review the contested policy, validate your conclusions, and with the consent of top management give the answer to the inquirer.

Three, be energetic and happy in talking to workers. If you do this habitually, your workers will view you as an approachable and positive person, instead of the corporate police. When you’ve established rapport and are conscious of your body language, it should be easy for you to establish two-way communication, which is essential in uncovering potential issues.

Four, ask for assistance from your timid workers. Such an approach will help you build their self-confidence. That way, people will feel valued. It’s a good way for you to fatten your emotional bank account with them. Ask for help even when you don’t need it. It’s also an excellent way to manifest your trust and break the ice with difficult personalities. It may be difficult at first, but it’s not exactly impossible.

Five, acknowledge a person for admitting his mistake. When a worker comes to you volunteering information about a blunder he made, say something like this: “Thank you for your admission. It’s a sign that you can be trusted and are willing to correct your errors.” Such a reply is better than saying “it’s OK” when deep in your heart and mind that it really is not. Your style will also encourage people to take calculated risks, instead of being reluctant to explore other things.

Six, encourage people to challenge your ideas. When giving out instructions, don’t just solicit questions. Instead, ask them if they have a better solution than the one you’re presenting. Or else, ask the workers about any potential problems they foresee. Some workers may feel uncomfortable giving an opposing view but others may take it as an opportunity to shine. Whatever they do, they will accept you as an effective HR leader.

Last, allow people to choose their work assignments. Give everyone many options suited to their capacity, style, taste, and timeline. Say something like this: “Here’s Easy Task A with a tight two-day deadline and Difficult Task B with a one-week deadline. Feel free to choose which one, then let me know.” They will feel in control; in reality, they don’t have much choice because you’ve limited their options.

People management is an act of kindness with an expiration date. You need to practice kindness to everyone until such time that they’ve shown they are not deserving of it. Every step of the way, as an HR specialist, you should be the first to create and maintain a work environment in which everyone respects everyone else. You can’t go wrong with this basic premise.

One good example of this is Toyota’s “Respect for People” mantra which is founded on the basic belief that they have to “build good people first, before we build good cars.” Even without Toyota in mind, you can readily understand this by allowing the workers to share their ideas, suggestions, even complaints to management as a matter of routine.

If you really want to succeed as an HR professional even with your engineering degree, one of the basic tools that you need to practice is active listening. It is an imperative element of participative management that eliminates the traditional one-sided flow of direction from top to bottom in some organizations. Indeed, you can’t have proactive, two-way communication unless you become an expert in active listening to people at all levels.


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