HR’s Roads Are Paved With Good Intentions. Where Will They Lead?


“There are no side effects, just effects.”

– John Sterman, MIT

We all know that bad things happen to good people, so many of us divide our world into two spheres: the controllable and the uncontrollable. While there is certainly wisdom in this perspective, it also blinds us to the ways in which our individual and collective actions have in fact contributed to seemingly uncontrollable events and situations.

Observations from the broader world are instructive. For example, tax policies intended to increase tax revenue can actually discourage economic activity, drive businesses to other regions, and increase questionable accounting practices or outright tax evasion. The result? Reduced tax revenue.

Increased airport security and longer lines? More driving and increased vehicular deaths.

Evolutionary and historical challenges of food security? A modern economy that provides so many calories so cheaply that obesity has become the leading health issue in the developed world.

What does this have to do HR and analytics? In all these examples, the negative outcomes are an unintended consequence of well-intended (and broadly positive) actions. Similarly, most HR activities are genuinely aimed at helping others and helping the business, but too often they contribute to undesirable outcomes.

Exhibit A: Pin the Tail on the Performance Review

Consideration of the annual performance review bears this out. Let’s first remember the intention at its root: to provide a metric for performance, a thoughtful basis of talent evaluation, and a pathway to career and succession planning. How could something so great go so wrong?

Despite these good intentions, many organizations (most prominently Adobe and Deloitte) have since come to realize that leaders spend a disproportionate amount of time planning and executing performance reviews, not mentoring, developing, or leading. For many (though not all), the review process has become more of an exercise in selective recall than an accurate and comprehensive assessment of talent. Throw in the inherent delay of infrequent leader feedback and you have a time sink that fails to further the goals of the individual or the organization.

But note that virtually none of these problems are due to incompetence or inactivity. Indeed, the more intentional and dedicated organizations are to the annual performance review, the more they are subject to precisely these negative outcomes.

Exhibit B: If It’s Figures You Want, Then Figures You’ll Get

A second area for consideration is HR analytics. Despite the promise of his brave new analytics world (or perhaps because of it), all of us should critically reconsider and constantly question the use of data and figures in the current analytics craze. Between PowerPoint, Tableau, R, Python, SAS, and a growing pile of other tools, it takes little time to run some analyses, toss out some figures, and have some discussion.

Sadly, it is precisely this easy flow of data access and analyses that overwhelms our brain’s ability to identify, attend to, and weigh the right information.

Seen in this light, the cycle is predictable: the more “information” we create, the more confused our decision-making becomes. The more unintentional confusion we sow, the greater the uncertainty and the greater the desire for more “information”. Again, the problem is not incompetence or inactivity; the problem is trying ever harder on the wrong tasks.

An Ounce of Prevention

Unforeseen side effects are an inherent part of individual and organizational actions, but there are some basic questions we can ask to reduce their frequency over the long haul.

Prevention Question 1:  “And then what?”

Russ Roberts of Stanford University once remarked that the job of an economist is to ask “And then what?” The job of the thoughtful HR professional is similar.

Asking “And then what?” means thinking concretely and actually envisioning the specific set of follow-on actions that new processes or new data may entail. If you are having trouble seeing how this might work, narrow things down further by asking:

  • “What exactly should [NAME A REAL PERSON] do differently as a result of this information/ suggestion?”
  • “Who else will [NAME A REAL PERSON] need to work with to get this done?”
  • “How much time will it take [NAME A REAL PERSON] to accomplish this?”

Be concrete and specific, see the actions, name the people, and guesstimate the hours. Doing so will provide a whole new level of clarity.

Prevention Question 2: “What are we choosing NOT to do?”

When we choose to work on one thing, we are necessarily choosing to NOT work on something else. If we have a new idea, even one that is clearly actionable and with obvious benefits, we still need to ask what activity we will remove from our list.

The next time someone makes a request or suggestion, ask what task, job, or project that will displace.

  • Actually say to yourself “If I do _________, then I will not do ________.”
  • If you are a leader, ask your direct reports “If you do _________, then what will you not do?”

Are these the correct priorities?

Prevention Question 3: “Who cares?”

Asking “Who cares?” at least 10 times a day as most us do is a good start but usually we ask this when we are thinking about someone else’s work. We need to ask this more often and more broadly on behalf of others.

  • Start by asking “Who cares?” when it comes to your own work. You might suddenly realize some of your pet projects are not really that important.
  • Next, apply a gentle variant of “Who cares?” to the work of others. Something softer but no less direct such as “What is the impact of this insight?” or “What are the benefits of your proposal?” moves us in the right direction without being uncivil. It will either help someone realize their pet project is not that critical or help us see value that we did not see before.

When It’s All Said and Done…

The world is full of good ideas but merely working harder on seemingly sound ideas does not guarantee positive outcomes. Asking these basic preventive questions will help us focus on specific outcomes at the level of the real individual in the real world. In doing so, we will also be forced to consider possible downstream “side effects” of our well-intended activities and ultimately the role we directly play in our immediate and future circumstances.

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