THE BLOG

Is This the End of Human Resources?

04/17/2015 05:21 pm ET | Updated Jun 17, 2015

The term "human resources" is paradoxical at best. Humans are living beings of arguably the highest order. They have complex emotional, physical, and mental systems that must be understood and nurtured in order to facilitate their self-actualization. Resources on the other hand are valuable company assets that must be maintained, catalogued, and put to use in a way that proves their worth or they are quickly replaced.

Our profit-focused paradigm is facing a crisis, because management tends to focus on the resource, not on the human. People come with aspects of self that are incompatible with traditional command and control management styles -- personal and professional desires like creating interpersonal relationships, and achieving one's potential. So how is management shifting to meet the demands of the modern workforce?

According to Gallup's 2014 Employee Engagement Poll, only 31.5 percent of U.S. employees are engaged and thriving. The other 68-ish percent aren't lazy, their disconnectedness stems from feeling unsupported and disempowered at work. They don't feel valued, have no clear direction and purpose, their accomplishments are unrecognized, and are often times blamed for things beyond their control.

The 31.5 percent who are engaged are those who actively care about the health and success of the company -- even during difficult times. These are the people that managers want to hire, but those employees know their value and won't be treated like cogs in a well-oiled machine.

Cogs show up and do the work, but they don't propel companies forward, offer extra support to management, or innovate the next multi-billion dollar idea. To capitalize on human potential, businesses must treat people like they matter.

'Thank You, Salad Bowls'

Treating employees as assets instead of people dehumanizes them and strips them of any motivation to contribute their unique strengths to the company.

One of my valued employees shared one of the most influential experiences from his days working for a well-known restaurant group. Their incredible success was based partially on their ability to develop a teamwork system where everyone contributed equally. When an employee replenished items to the service line, the manager would say, "Thank you, salad bowls" or "Thank you forks" instead of acknowledging the performer by name.

The manager was trying to equalize employees so that they operated as a group of homogeneous machines rather than unique individuals. In the process, he made employees feel devalued and unfulfilled. True fulfillment in the workplace starts by engaging with team members, valuing their opinions, and supporting their efforts so they will feel engaged with their work.

There's No Crying in Baseball!

The Society for Human Resource Management determined that the top five most important factors in job satisfaction included employees' relationships with immediate supervisors and communication between employees and senior managers.

When employees trust their managers and believe that company leaders care about them, they will be self-motivated and productive.

Remember the film A League of Their Own? Tom Hanks plays alcoholic baseball manager Jimmy Dugan, who supplies the perfect example of why gentle encouragement helps leaders foster better results from employees.

In one scene, Dugan virulently reprimands a player for making an error, causing her to break down in tears and leading to the famous line, "There's no crying in baseball!" In a later scene, Dugan takes a breath and calmly explains what the player did wrong, coaching her to become her best.

It's easy to fall into a similarly shortsighted trap when running a business. In their quest for high performance, leaders become laser-focused on outcomes. They dole out rewards for good work and frightening consequences for mistakes.

Right out of college, I experienced this working as a technical analyst at a massive consulting firm. I was promoted twice and doubled my salary in a very short time, but everyone there was just working for a paycheck, and I felt completely disconnected from the work.

Rewarding people with raises is fantastic, but incomplete. To be their most creative and productive, employees need connection to a higher purpose and work that is aligned with their unique strengths. When management is aware of their strengths and supports their growth, every employee can become more evolved versions of themselves.

Re-humanizing Business

Setting goals towards profitable outcomes is a necessary part of any business strategy, but the focus should be primarily on supporting employees. When people feel that their efforts are cantilevered by management's desire to see them succeed, they will be naturally aligned with achieving that success.

Here are five simple ways to demonstrate deep commitment to employee success:

1. Ask questions. What are your triumphs? Where are you stuck? Do you feel recognized and valued? How is your energy? These questions make people feel more human and nurture an organic desire to contribute.

2. Give feedback. Recognition of triumphs and guiding growth must be hallmarks of every organization. Employee appreciation boosts morale, and mentorship allows people to develop skills that increase their effectiveness and ability to achieve goals.

3. Create space and grant trust. Provide people with opportunities to problem-solve on their own. Giving employees autonomy demonstrates trust and helps them feel fulfilled. When employees know that a leader has their back, they show up in amazing ways. They naturally become more accountable, which leads to increased loyalty and lower turnover.

4. Invest in personal goals. Leaders worry outside projects draw focus away from work, but in reality, they make people feel motivated and fulfilled. At my company, every employee receives $500 for their birthday to spend on any personal development course. This may not relate directly to what they do at the office, but they show-up feeling more fulfilled, supported, and energized.

5. Change the language. It's possible that the historical paradigm of Human Resources has exceeded its useful life. Using new language lets us create a new paradigm. Consider renaming your Human Resources department "People & Culture" instead, and relate to your employees as whole human beings rather than simply tools or resources.

Unlike resources which have static predictable and fixed properties, human beings increase in value through support and recognition. When people are treated as assets, they will be unable to access their highest levels of performance and will be unwilling to contribute in a way that leads to growth and success. When people feel valued as people -- instead of cogs -- there is no limit to what they can accomplish.

This post originally appeared on the 15Five Blog.

David Hassell is Founder & CEO of 15Five, web-based communication software that elevates the performance of managers, employees and entire organizations by initiating weekly conversations that quickly uncover achievements, challenges, and risks. Learn how David and his team are helping companies inspire greatness in their people at www.15five.com.