Don’t Forget the “Human” in Human Resources

Within organizations, employees are resources in the way that technology or capital or equipment are resources. They are tools that, when properly utilized and organized, allow organizations to accomplish operational or financial objectives. In fact, much of what happens within “human resources” and personnel management is geared toward optimizing employee productivity, i.e., fully leveraging the contribution that people make toward organizational objectives. Again, this is not that different from how we work toward optimizing technology, or capital, or physical plant, etc.

However, and this is a big however, employees are also human beings. You might think that is stating the obvious, but it is not always reflected in how leaders behave. As important as it is for us as managers to ensure that, through compensation plans and scheduling and training and supporting technology, etc. that we get as much value as possible out of our employees, it is at least as critical that we empathize with our employees as human beings. Frankly, empathy is not a management characteristic that you will see in management textbooks or manager performance evaluations. It is not something that is typically rewarded by compensation plans. In fact, in my entire career, I have never seen a manager win an award or a promotion for empathy!

Having said that, there are two very important reasons for managing from the heart as much as from the head. From a position of altruism, giving an employee time or space when they need it; being patient and supportive when a family crisis or health issue impacts their performance and engagement; supporting them when they make a big mistake on the job, etc. may not pay immediate dividends relative to business metrics, but you will benefit personally from helping someone else. Moreover, you may not get “credit” within the organization for being a caring person, but in the scorecard of life, it matters.

The second reason for managing from the heart when an employee needs some special care is pragmatically connected to achieving organizational outcomes. Because employees are human beings, they will inevitably experience situations in which they are unable to perform at the level expected of them. However, as a leader, you and your organization have invested significant time and resources in each and every employee—and they have acquired knowledge, skills, and insights that are critical for the organization—things that can’t be bought or immediately recreated. When we have the patience and foresight to provide employees time and space to get through challenges, we not only preserve the hard won skills and experience and insights those individuals have gained over time in the organization, we also tend to build long term loyalty and commitment in those same employees that cannot be achieved with typical incentives.

Some of the challenges that employees face are beyond our capacity to effectively address or their capacity to manage while also meeting their work obligations. In those cases, helping someone transition out of the organization may be an appropriate course of action, but even, or especially in those cases, treating folks with kindness and empathy is a win-win. The simple reality is that the organization always has more bandwidth, more resources, and more options than an individual person does. There is simply no reason to treat someone less generously or less kindly than the organization can afford.

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