Father of modern HR, Dave Ulrich on top barriers to employee engagement

Father of modern HR, Dave Ulrich on top barriers to employee engagement
HR is not about HR but about creating value for all stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, communities, and others). 

Rendezvous with father of modern HR, Dave Ulrich on top barriers to employee engagement and HR challenges

Dave Ulrich is the Rensis Likert Professor of Business at the Ross School, University of Michigan, and a partner at the RBL Group a consulting firm focused on helping organizations and leaders deliver value.

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The father of Modern HR, Dave has published over 30 books on leadership, organization, and human resources. These ideas have shaped how people and organizations deliver value to customers, investors, and communities. 

He has consulted and done research with over half of the Fortune 200 and worked in over 80 countries.  He has received numerous public recognitions and lifetime awards for his work.

Q- What are the 3 biggest challenges in HR today?

In today’s world, there is more attention than ever to people and organization issues.  We see this increased attention through

  • Studies of CEO, senior business leader priorities in senior executive surveys
  • Conference topics (WEF, WOBI, etc.) where people, leadership, and organization are prominent
  • Government reporting as materiality with new regulatory requirements to report human capital
  • Board agenda where boards increasingly have members with people backgrounds
  • Intangible value where about 70 to 80% of a company’s market value comes from intangibles that include leadership (see book Leadership Capital Index)
  • ESG attention where the social side of the business is getting attention

With this increased attention, I see 3 trends or challenges

  1. HR is not about HR but about creating value for all stakeholders (employees, customers, investors, communities, and others). 
  2. HR is evolving into human capability with innovative initiatives and analytics in talent + leadership + organization + HR.  Human capability should create value for all stakeholders.
  • Partnering with business leaders, HR professionals, and functions should and can rise to increased opportunities to deliver value. 

Q- What are the top barriers to employee engagement, and to overcome?

We see an evolution in how employees feel about working at the organization (see chart):

Key concepts of employee:Definition and examples
Experience (user (employee) experience, particularly with technology; flexibility; employee life cycle)Working to create personalized, authentic experiences from the sum of everything related to the employee at work
Engagement (well-being, meaning, contribution, learning, healthy happiness, flourish)Having intrinsic attitudes that denote employees’ enthusiasm for their job so that employees give their best
Commitment (identity, high-commitment work systems)Being connected to (or binding one to) one’s job or teammates or goals of an organization
Satisfaction (affect, attitudes, equity)Identifying the extent to which an employee “likes” the job and aspects of the job (affect)
Motives (drives, self- determination)Motives (drives, self-determination)
Motivation (expectancy, behaviorism, goal setting, attribution, job characteristics)Exploring forces that originate both within as well as beyond an individual to initiate work-related behavior, and to determine the forces’ forms, directions, intensities, and durations

Employee experience (or well-being) is the latest way to think about employee sentiment  and we see it as composed of four elements: 

Q- How do you see the role of HR leaders in Employee Engagement and Retention?

HR professionals, along with business leaders, become effective caregivers to encourage employee experience by managing five resources.

Physical: HR professionals can become physical caregivers who encourage employees to care for their bodies through encouraging healthy eating, exercise, sleep, and regular medical attention. HR can establish healthy work environments that might include ergonomic settings, resources to promote wise personal finances, and employee control and flexibility over work time demands.

Emotional: HR professionals become emotional caregivers by helping employees play to their strengths and match skills to jobs, learn from past successes and failures to improve for the future, provide empathy by listening to employees’ concerns, and work in an affirming and positive setting.

Social: HR professionals can become social caregivers when they create a sense of community and belonging where people feel committed and attached to each other. This belonging may come from sourcing and developing relationships with trustworthy and competent people, high-performance teams where team members care for and nurture each other, and the right internal culture to match customer expectations so that the organization wins in the market place.

Intellectual: HR professionals can become intellectual caregivers by investing in employee learning. Learning helps employees face their unconscious biases and adapt over time.

Spiritual (Meaning or Purpose): HR professionals can become meaning caregivers by creating a purpose-driven organization that enables social citizenship. HR professionals can also help employees discover their personal values and how they fit (or not) with the organization.

Q- How do you stimulate employee work engagement and the growth mindset?

HR can facilitate learning or a growth mindset with three simple tips:

1- Put current events in the context of the past– Most topics in human capability (talent, leadership, organization, and HR) have a legacy of exploration. Learning means building on the past to create a better future. Seeing the evolution of an idea allows leaders to not spend time rediscovering or repackaging what was but shaping what can be. My commitment to learning and my guidance to aspiring

learners are to see a present idea in terms of waves of evolution, building on the past.

2. Discover patterns beyond events– Events trigger responses. Too often responses to events focus on symptoms and not underlying problems. Symptoms (what is happening) might include regrettable loss of key employees, slow cycle time for product innovation, falling customer satisfaction scores, quality problems, and so forth.

Learning means looking for patterns (why something is happening) behind events and trying to craft a framework or systemic approach to respond to the underlying problem. The underlying reasons for key employees leaving might be poor career opportunities, lack of company vision, poor leadership, or something else. Knowing the cause focuses attention on the right solution.

3. See challenges as opportunities to learn– If a leader or organization is not facing new challenges, they are not likely to stretch themselves to learn. To turn challenges into opportunities to learn, let me suggest ten simple behavioral maxims to follow:

  1. Be curious.
  2. Take risks.
  3. Experiment frequently.
  4. Be open to and seek feedback.
  5. Admit vulnerabilities.
  6. Run into mistakes (take the blame).
  7. Replicate success (share credit).
  8. Look forward.
  9. Keep moving.
  10. Be resilient.
  11. _________ (Add your own.)

I often ask those I coach to pick two to four of these behaviors to work on to maintain a growth mindset. 

At a personal level, consider a four-step reflection exercise on how to create a growth mindset by turning challenges into learning opportunities:

  1. Think of a time when you faced a personal crisis? Write it down.
  2. How did you feel at the time? Likely despondent, inadequate, lost, confused, etc.?
  3. Think now about what you learned from that experience? For example, “I can be resilient, capable, take risks and win, live my values, etc.”
  4. How have those lessons learned helped you respond to other challenges?

The same four steps could readily be adapted to an interpersonal, team, or organizational challenge.

Q- Any concluding remarks?

Simply state, now is a GREAT time to be in HR and the best is yet ahead.


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