Human Resource – A Complexity Mindset

Human Resource Leaders always had a difficult job even prior to the pandemic, as out of all resources that an organisation has the human resource was always the most difficult one to manage. Covid-19 has now changed the playing field. Today, HR leaders are working around the clock, taking unprecedented measures to keep their employees safe and ensure that their organisations survive. They are navigating layoffs and reductions in wages, dealing with various stakeholders under a very stressful environment. They are also adjusting to mass remote work. They are creating business continuity plans, drafting emergency communication procedures and preventing the spread of germs in the office.

All of these issues are being addressed through a familiar process: defining the problem, addressing the variables that make it complicated and agreeing on the best way forward. But when we consider that today’s greatest challenges are ones that many leaders have never faced before, it becomes clear that they are not just complicated (predictable) but complex (unknown). Traditional problem-solving, which is aimed at addressing the complicated as opposed to the complex, will not establish the most effective solutions.

Many HR teams aim to resolve issues by developing new policies and procedures. Unfortunately, once created, those same policies are rarely revisited, ultimately leading to additional problems — especially now, when the landscape is changing so fast. At the same time, a “one-size-fits-all” approach won’t allow for the kind of individual thinking and creativity that result in the most innovative solutions.

To be truly effective in this “new normal” HR leaders need to adjust and develop a new core capability: A complexity mindset.

Shifting From Complicated to Complex
This mindset change requires shifting away from complicated thinking and embracing a complexity consciousness. Simply stated, complicated problems require linear thinking — they can often be predicted or avoided and can benefit from expert input. In stark contrast, complex problems live in the realm of the unknown. There are no best practices to solve complex problems because we’ve never experienced them before and, therefore, could not have predicted them. In this framework, it’s crucial to tap into your organisation’s collective intelligence, prioritise company values and allow solutions to emerge.

This means that HR leaders will need to start collaborating more with employees at every level. Now is the time to focus on interpersonal relationships rather than control, standards and hierarchy. Adopting a complexity mindset starts by accepting that complexity exists and needs to be accounted for differently. Here’s how HR leaders can embrace this mindset:

Tap into the power of collective intelligence. When complex problems arise, don’t overlook your most valuable resource: the genius of your own employees. The majority of the workforce consists of smart, trustworthy people who know their jobs better than their leaders do. Given everything on HR leaders’ plates today, they will not succeed if they don’t trust their employees to help them brainstorm solutions for remote work accommodations, continued engagement and additional support. In other words, they won’t succeed if they don’t embrace collective intelligence. Collective intelligence is group intelligence that emerges from the collaboration, efforts, and engagement of diverse teams.

Foster a trust culture. As we navigate our current landscape, we need trust to serve as our foundation in order to create teams comfortable grappling together with the unknown. So much has been written about the need for organisations to improve communication, recognise employees and practice transparency, but real change has been slow. As this crisis unfolds, I sincerely hope that organisations will see the benefits of creating respectful, trusting workplaces and act with more urgency than before. From an employee perspective, research indicates that more than 60% of workers say senior management-employee trust is paramount to their satisfaction. That’s because high-trust environments allow people to be their true selves and when people can bring their whole selves to work, they are not only more creative, but more productive as well.Building a high-trust culture starts with cultivating positive beliefs about employees, because assumptions drive behavior. If you assume your employees work hard, care about the company’s success and have integrity, they are likelier to act accordingly (as long as they know what’s expected of them). Getting culture right is crucial across all levels of business at any time — but it’s particularly important in times of crisis.For HR leaders, this means rewarding exceptional performance with public recognition and individual growth opportunities, encouraging employee autonomy by letting workers set their own habits and mold their roles and fostering transparency through open communication and evolving relationships. The goal is to develop leader-employee relationships based on genuineness and vulnerability and debunk the notion that managers should keep their distance from a personal standpoint. HR leaders who adopt a complexity conscious mindset recognise that trust is key to getting through this present crisis.

Make your company values foundational. Fear and panic give rise to knee-jerk reactions during crises. Even progressive organisations backslide to traditional thinking. Sadly, under greater amounts of pressure, it’s not unusual to see leaders of all kinds, including HR teams, make autocratic decisions without regard to their impact on employees. Moving forward, HR leaders can help fight this instinct by putting a greater focus on demonstrating fairness and a passion for their people. Adopting a mindset of complexity means returning to the values of the company and allowing those values to become a filter for decision-making in high-pressure situations. Every successful company has a set of fundamental beliefs upon which the business and its behaviour are based. But too often, they are words on a wall, when they should be the very basis for how the organisation executes its mission during good times and bad times. Hence every business and HR leader should be asking himself/herself – How do you use our values as a guide for decisions? Here are some questions to guide you in trying to answer this question:

What information do we or could we share that would increase transparency?
What information do employees need and want?
What information would make employees feel more involved?
If we had trust in the vast majority of employees, what would we do differently?
What’s getting in the way of trust?
What personal behaviors can we demonstrate as an organisation that would help build even more trust?
Have we made some topics taboo for employee engagement? If so, what assumptions are enforcing the taboo?

If you work in Human Resources, remember that your role — always, but especially today — is to be your company’s moral conscience. Ultimately your role as HR leader is to step up and challenge the organisations you work in, to act in alignment with their professed values. Adopting a complexity mindset will help any HR leader fulfill this role.

At EMCS, we specialise in doing organisational reviews of various organisations to make sure that organisational structures and internal cultures support the response needed by such companies during such complex times. Feel free to contact me for just a chat on

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