Five Ways to Honor the Employee Iceberg

by Gary Markle

How to see the “human” in human resources

As an HR generalist in a series of Fortune 500 corporations, I was instructed to treat employees more like “resources” than “humans.” We went to great lengths to focus on “the worker” while avoiding (as much as possible) anything personal.

The Employee IcebergBut what I soon discovered is this: When you go to the market looking for employees, people show up. And they bring with them their families, their health, their financial challenges, their hobbies – even their pets. Here’s the problem. When you sail past “the worker” and everything that’s part of their identity, you inevitably hit the employee iceberg. Truth is, awareness of that stuff below the waterline is essential to understanding why people do the things they do.

Getting to know what’s below the waterline

In addition to explaining otherwise illogical actions, treating people as three-dimensional human beings also helps with engagement and retention. The default position for most kind-hearted managers is to treat direct reports like they wanted to be treated when they held a similar post. Here’s a word of caution: This strategy may work with many, but seldom with all.

Over the last three decades, I’ve accumulated hundreds of stories that underscore the importance of knowing the human being behind the worker. For instance, take the high potential 38-year old engineer who was tactfully avoiding her manager’s encouragement to seek promotion. She clearly had the skill set to take on more responsibility and had held her current job long enough to move on. Any longer in her current role and she’d likely be bypassed by less stellar peers. Her boss was pushing her (as he had been pushed himself) to help her achieve her true career potential. So why the illogical failure to launch?

The real reason was that she was ready to start a family. She assumed it would be easier for the organization if she took a temporary leave from her current position rather than from an elevated post. She hadn’t talked with her manager about it – because frankly, it was none of his business. But when she was introduced to the Catalytic Coaching process and she had the opportunity to talk about her hopes and dreams for the future, she quickly volunteered her heartfelt and pragmatic reasoning. She literally cried in relief that she could talk openly with her manager about her most significant life goals. He responded almost immediately with a plan that would successfully accommodate both her personal needs as well as the organization’s business needs.

In the real world, empathy wins

Getting to know the whole human worker goes against the grain of what many – just like me – were taught in the finest HR institutions. We’re cautioned to be objective and dispassionate. We’re trained to take out “rater bias” and focus on how each individual compares to an ideal norm. But in the real world, that approach doesn’t encourage behavior change. And it almost never keeps you safe from a legal perspective.

Our quest for objectivity inevitably fails. Ratings and evaluations are – and always will be – inherently subjective despite the requirement to avoid both “discriminant intent” and “discriminant impact.” That means we’ve got to normalize ratings for race, sex, age, religion, medical needs, and the like. You couldn’t be objective if you wanted to. It’s illegal.

The key to minimizing legal exposure has little to do with stuffing files with documentation of norm violations. Rather, the best strategy is to curb righteous indignation. The people who sue you are angry. They’re hurt, embarrassed, and surprised. They don’t feel understood, appreciated, or acknowledged as a whole human being. Because they hurt, they want you to hurt. And they’ll use everything you’ve put down in writing to extort pain from those who gave pain to them.

Five ways to honor the employee iceberg

How can you demonstrate that you understand human resources are, well, human?

  1. Seek first to understand: Stephen Covey’s Habit of listening before speaking is key to recognizing the humanity in others. Far too often we find ourselves acting on illogical, observable behavior that has much deeper, logical roots.
  2. Ask the five “whys”: Ask employees why they’re doing things that are counterintuitive. Expect superficial responses at first, but you’ll break through after asking “Why?” several times. Keep the tissues handy.
  3. An attitude of abundance: You rent talented workers, you don’t own them. Do your best to keep them tied to you for as long as the situation supports a mutual win. When things change, make transitions easy and natural.
  4. Systemized scalability: Create a culture where understanding individuals is the norm rather than the exception. Utilize a process such as Catalytic Coaching that’s based on open communication and connection.
  5. Earn trust: You can’t require people to tell you about their personal lives. They must believe and experience that it’s safe to do so. Look for a few brave souls to do it first. After some success stories spread, others will open up. Trust will build over time.

When you honor the employee iceberg, you may not end every conversation with a hug or a high five. Ultimately, you may have to let some people go, and they probably won’t send you a Christmas card after you walk them to the door. But if you acknowledge their humanity while confronting them about performance gaps, they won’t file a lawsuit, either. You’ll understand and optimize more and damage less. Understanding what is below the waterline is both a better and safer way to run a business that runs on people.