Hacking HR to Build an Adaptability Advantage

stephen-frost's picture

People are the biggest obstacle to adaptability – and also the solution

By Stephen Frost on May 20, 2022

The world outside the organization is changing faster than the world within the organization.  Without adapting to reflect that world, an organization will fail to connect with its customers, will lose market share, and may die.

The world outside the organization is changing faster than the world within the organization.  Without adapting to reflect that world, an organization will fail to connect with its customers, will lose market share, and may die. 

I am not talking here about an organisation such as traditional furniture carving business whose very core mission is to maintain ‘traditions’ often in the face of change.  Or an antiques dealer whose value may actually increase in the face of change and people’s dislike of it.  I am talking here about the majority of homogenous organisations who are being outpaced by their increasingly diverse customers.

Many current organizations are completely unprepared for the next few years.  China will soon be the largest English speaking country in the world.  The top quarter of India’s population as measured by IQ is greater in number than the entire population of the United States. Facebook has a billion users, is available in seventy languages and would be the third biggest country behind India and China. 

Without adapting to reflect that world, an organization will fail to connect with its customers, will lose market share, and may die.  People increasingly understand this, yet they persist in opposing adaptation.  Why?

When adaptability means change, people are not opposed for the sake of it.  There are very emotional, personal and valuable issues at stake and we need to be respectful of that.  A change in boss, role or location can be unsettling.  Any manager knows the drama that can result from the change in a shift pattern, computer system or even desk location.  But as the Greek philosopher Heraclitus forewarned us, “change is the only constant”.  People might not like change, but they can live with it.

When adaptability means loss, people are more understandably opposed, and we need to be compassionate in understanding this.  Loss is all around us, be it the loss of ‘tradition’, the loss of an organisation, or the loss of a job.  Traditions can be sacred, colleagues can become lifelong friends.  A job is not just a job, it is about providing for family, with education, shelter and food. 

Unlike change, loss is not inevitable.  Yet too often, adaptability is positioned as loss rather than change.  A zero-sum game.  That you must somehow jettison everything in order to progress, rather than maintain those aspects of your culture that will be supportive, even helpful, in the ‘new world’.  I would argue that this misconception is less the fault of adaptability per se and more often than not a failure of leadership.

In some ways, it’s human nature to resist change.  We all have emotional, physical and financial commitments to the past, we all have biases based on the cumulative experience of our careers to date, and we like to associate with people that look like us.  “Relational demography” demonstrates that people like to associate with people like themselves and resist newcomers (Riordan 2000, Williams and O’Reilly 1998).  Change can lead to lower motivation, commitment and happiness in the job. 

Yet demographic shifts mean that change is inevitable and the best talent doesn’t necessarily look like it used to.  The talent pool is increasingly international and increasingly diverse.  Most of the new entrants into labour markets in US, Canada and Europe are minorities. 

The market for talent is in flux as never before; the top ten in-demand jobs in 2010 did not even exist in 2004.  The US Department of Labor estimates that the average current student will have 10-14 jobs by the time they are 38 years old.  1 in 4 current workers has been with their employer for less than one year.  In this mobile market staid organizations will not be able to attract or retain the right talent. 

I would argue that this disconnect between a changing reality and people’s desire for stability is not new, but the urgency of addressing it is.  This disconnect is an urgent organisational leadership issue.  We need to differentiate between adaptive change (which is manageable and often positive) and adaptive loss (which is avoidable or can be mitigated).  We need to educate people about how change can be used to enlarge the pie for everyone, rather than it being played out as a zero sum game.    

It’s a natural, human reaction to oppose change.  Yet it may well be in our own best interests.  Is HR going to lead people to greater consciousness of human nature and a discussion about how we deal with it?  Or is HR going to be a victim of change itself?

Stephen J Frost is Vice President, Diversity, CIPD; Visiting Fellow at Harvard University; and Young Global Leader with the World Economic Forum.  Stephen@frostincluded.com

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andy-lippok's picture

People do not resist change, they simply resist being forced to change by other people - usually those in positions of traditional power, command & control. People also resist the transition to a new state unless they are enabled to make the changes themselves.

heidi-de-wolf's picture

Andy, I agree with your quote about forced change. At times of uncertainty some organisations go with the flow and some insist on taking even more control over that which makes the organisation tick, namely people.

Uncertain times requires leaders who are resilient, trusting and brave enough to be humble and let go of the reins. Only this type of trust will break fear and learned dependency and will lead to the enablement of a new state.

malcolm-oneal's picture

HR, as a steward of the organizational culture, has the unique ability to create community as companies are really just small communities themselves. We have the opportunity to create something special – a culture that can serve as a shining example of how we should live and act.

With a view that leadership is about serving, in addition to building a strong business; HR can enable a company of care and compassion.This is done by doing good things for the employees and the local communities, all with a great love for people.

Imagine how good it could be if, when our local communities and neighbors begin to notice a company's community engagement, they ask themselves, why is this company so motivated to help? What is at the core of these people and this company? Imagine how we might inspire others to join us.

monique-jordan_1's picture

Whenever I read how hard change is for people, I ask myself if it is really as hard as we think it is? Everyone changes and goes through changes throughout their life. After all, our life is nothing but change from birth to death and change is probably most rapid during the first years of our lives as we mature to adulthood. Everything from what we like to eat, who we prefer to spend time with, how we look, what we know etc changes and not only do we not resist it (well at least not until we feel we are getting old) we welcome and embrace it, as we are naturally adaptable. I wonder how is it that we cope so well with change all of our lives and struggle so much with organizational changes? We even respond quickly to sudden changes such as natural disasters that frequently include 'real' loss. I was shocked to see how quickly many of the businesses along Jersey Shore have recovered less than a year after hurricane Sandy. Again I wonder why people were not paralyzed when faced with all the changes required to rebuild and in fact seemed inspired to rebuild and did so in record time -- another example of people's ability to adapt. So why then are our organizations struggling? How is it that we have so much research and intelligence around leadership and building adaptive organizations yet are unable to consistently execute what we know? I won't pretend to know the answers because I don't. I do though suspect that we haven't properly framed the problem. Maybe it's not an issue of adaptability but rather meaningfulness. Maybe when change has real meaning it inspires us to adapt. I am not sure. And while we are exploring the role of HR in improving organizational adaptability (change) I wonder if HR is the right leverage point for business systems (organizations). It feels like the more responses I read, from experienced and passionate hackers, the more questions I have.

Change is not the only constant in my view. Human nature has not changed over the ages - read the Old Testament. The history of "progress" is about the battle between forces for change and human nature. Change is not always good because there are people who have political and selfish motives for attaching changes to their name - and not just in politics. A lot of changes bring little or even negative benefit. What about the current changes in the NHS? We await to see any benefits that balance the negatives. So we need to be intelligent and rational judges of the benefits of change. It will be ever present. I am reminded two things: when I joined P&G in the sixties, they told us "change is always with us....if we don't learn to manage it it will manage us"! - and of the Learning organisation mantra of the 90's (Reg Revans) - an organisation's rate of learning must be greater than the rate of change

paula-aamli's picture

I find it very helpful that this pulls us back to the realisation that change is a constant.

Stephen also states that 'unlike change, loss is not inevitable'.

I don't actually think we can make that position hold as framed (after all, death comes as the end and throughout our lives, events can be seen both as progressions into something new and loss of the thing that went before).

However I do agree with what I'm assuming to be the underlying sentiment - which I would express as:

change is inevitable but often not a bad thing, despite the fact - and sometimes BECAUSE of the fact - that we often have to lose something we are attached to NOW in order to gain the bigger benefit that change could offer us.

ian-davidson's picture

Ideology and power in organisations.

I agree with Stephen that the world is changing far faster than organisations. However, he goes on to state that “There are very emotional, personal and valuable issues at stake and we need to be respectful of that”. Agreed, but it goes much deeper than that. The vast majority of organizations have an ideology that supports the status quo. By ideology I mean “a comprehensive vision, a way of looking at things – a set of ideas proposed by the dominant class of a society; or an organization to all members of that society or organization (a received consciousness or product of socialization)” (adapted from Wikipedia) .
I would argue that it is in the perceived interests (false consciousness if you like) of those in power to keep and expand their power by maintenance of the status quo. One only has to look at the prime example of organisations buying other organisations, destroying shareholder value in the process but increasing their “power”. As I have noted before, people in organisations are rewarded for maintaining the status quo – even if that aspect of reward is implicit it is deep and fundamental in the ideology of most organisations.
As Stephen notes, change can be used to enlarge the pie for everyone, but inevitably the biggest slice of that pie gravitates at speed to those at the top of the food chain. It is noticeable that the lessons of history teach us that ideologies and ideas that seek to spread the pie around more fairly tend to be marginalised in to failure. I would argue that this means that if agility is accepted it is only on the basis of maintaining the ideology of power in organisations. As has been pointed out in the discussion, a fundamental paradox that it will be an interesting challenge to overcome. Provocatively I would argue that HR does not have the intellectual muscle, capability, competencies or resources to change the prevailing ideology because HR exists to maintain that very structure not as a vehicle of social change.

Ian introduces a very real factor that inhibits change. Integrity of intent of those in power can lead to the outcomes that Ian outlines. This also links into the poor success rates as highlighted in Peter Cheese's article "research since the 1980s suggests that as much as 70% of deals have destroyed rather than created value. A Cass Business School study, reported in CFO Magazine in June 2012, examined more than 3,000 UK acquisitions by UK companies between 1997 and 2010, and found that successful deals create more value than unsuccessful deals destroy, but still acknowledged that the failure rate was around 60%."

giuseppe-gerardo-ciarambino's picture

The world outside the company rapidly changing, the world within the company no. Yet the same people who are out, it is also inside .... is a paradox?
This is perhaps due to the fact that a company continues to be a closed system in which you struggle to gain power ...
Now the company needs to be adaptable, this is a revolution that must be addressed with logic, trying to identify what was wrong, with courage without trying not to see.
And many mistakes have been made ​​both in the organization of companies that in the organization of human society ............................

tojo-eapen's picture

The power vested in leaders and related actions has a huge influence and impact on promoting or discouraging a culture that supports adaptability, related individual behaviors etc. HR can play a key role by actively partnering with the leaders in ensuring that they understand the importance, impact of their decisions and actions, and to help build sustainable organizations. This will only be possible with high credibility and trust in HR (at a personal and professional level).