If your organization has been undergoing a long-term HR transformation initiative, you are not alone. Mercer’s 2011 EMEA HR Transformation report indicated more than 50% of respondents were either planning or in the midst of an HR Transformation, and those efforts continue today. In fact, most global HR organizations have been involved in some large-scale transformation initiative on and off since Ulrich set forth his model in the mid 90’s. Within the past couple years, the term “HR Transformation 2.0” has emerged, ostensibly in response to questions regarding why so many businesses haven’t yet been able to complete a transformation process that was set into motion nearly 20 years ago.

Of course, there are many reasons why enterprise initiatives stall or fail to live up to expectations. Success requires just the right blend of People, Process, and Technology. Business typically does a pretty good job with providing the right tools (Technology) and training on what to do and how to do it (Process). But the People side of the equation is tricky – especially in a people-focused initiative such as HR Transformation.

People require regular communication and motivation in order to trust that they are on the right track. Communication disconnects are inevitable in an HR organization that is not fully integrated and aligned with the strategic goals of the business. How ironic, when HR is charged with meeting the organization’s strategic objectives through hiring, training, and development of its people!

Training alone – ensuring people know what to do and how to do it – is not enough. As Master Performance Consultant Judy Hale once told me, throwing a training intervention at a broken system is a recipe for creating a passive aggressive workplace. If you work with people who nod their head and bite their tongue but don’t always follow through with appropriate actions, then you know exactly what I’m talking about.

Words Make or Break Trust

Words matter. I came from a home where, when a family member was wounded or displeased, hurtful language was used liberally, loudly, and punitively. When my own daughter was young, she would often, as children do, express her anger in a litany of verbal assaults aimed at herself or others. Throughout the years, the objects of her scorn included her hair, her clothes, her school, [insert name of bully/teacher/mean girl], her life, her middle name – and even, on more than one occasion, my husband and I, her parents.

After the tempest died down, I would work to help her put the real source of her anger into words, and redirect the energy taken up by her hurt and frustration into working hard toward a positive goal (“try” being the operative word). It was important to me that I helped my girl understand that the words that came out of her mouth had power, and that the negative expressions we throw around without thinking can do great harm.

“Words are powerful,” I taught my daughter. “Your brain hears what your mouth says and believes it.”

Changing behavior – our own or others’ – requires repeated trial and feedback over time. Beyond juggling the carrots and sticks we offer, the actions our workers choose to take are guided by their own deepest values. They measure their alignment to the values of the business by what we say and how we say it, which they later evaluate against our actions as evidence of the truth, good or bad. And when our words and actions don’t jibe over time, even in subtle ways, we erode trust.

In a business context, experience tells me that this communication disconnect is one of the greatest reasons business transformation initiatives stall or fail. “The Business” sends the workforce one message, but the actions of leadership, and the day to day work life and culture, are too often saying something else altogether. Frankly, to paraphrase the words I taught my daughter, many workers’ brains simply no longer believe what the business is telling them.

Align Words and Actions

One might think that HR, being the people organization of the business, would be exemplary in choosing words that are aligned with business strategy. But, sadly, this is often not the case. In fact, HR, as the direct conduit of action between leadership and the workforce, can be one of the worst offenders.

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Today’s Workers Expect Transparency

Do your people trust the business? Stop and ask yourself whether your organization’s people:

  • truly understand the big picture transformation goals, and why they matter to the organization?
  • know their role in making transformation happen?
  • are motivated and empowered to move the organization forward?
  • expect that success in the transformation effort won’t mean the end of their job?
  • believe that your organization is even capable of achieving its transformation goals?

If the answer to any of these questions is anything but a resounding “yes!” your organization is suffering from a trust gap. And if you don’t take action to close that gap, it will prevent the People side of the transformation from moving in the right direction.

Today’s workers expect transparency. That doesn’t always mean they will be happy with what they hear, but they will be relieved to have a story that rings true. Start by working with leadership to ensure that the “official” words that are communicated on behalf of the organization align with the actions that follow. The trust you build through aligned actions over time will go a long way toward building a resilient and engaged workforce.

Which is precisely why HR must work harder than ever to make a case for true business partnership. In a knowledge economy, where an organization’s people are intertwined with its brand and are, in many cases, synonymous with its “product offering,” business will no longer have the luxury of alienating its workforce, whether by design or default. The time is now for HR Transformation to transcend initiatives to cut costs through efficiency in workforce transactions. It is time for the “people people” of the business to find a voice that stretches beyond compliance and filling the talent pipeline. HR touches every worker, and has the ability to help align strategy with internal branding and communication. Borrowing learnings from marketing, HR has the ability to carefully communicate truth to the workforce and shape a more positive, strategically aligned, and empowered future.

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