How can HR help to lead the way in dealing with complex change

Consulting, Wellbeing Strategy

Can embracing complexity help HR departments build organisational resilience?

The last two years of the Pandemic have been hard for everyone in the workplace and at home. But certain workplace roles have at times found themselves facing tougher challenges than others. The regular conversations we have with HR Professionals about their day to day experiences, trying to manage through the pandemic, have shown us time and time again that they are one of the groups at the forefront of this list. 

We believe there are a number of ways that work life has been hard for HR team members and HR management . 

Most HR teams have been at the frontline of dealing with the impact of the pandemic on employee Mental Fitness (whilst very much being in the midst of the same stressful and draining experiences as everyone else).

HR have been responsible within organisations to manage the impact of the pandemic on staffing levels and everyday resourcing, trying to facilitate furlough schemes, staff absences and rostering, resignations and recruitment (read more on The Great Resignation). 

Additionally, it’s HR that senior management have turned to when trying to find the best solutions to restructuring working life around home or hybrid working (or now re-restructuring working life around the return to the office). 

In short, HR have frequently been the team of people who are expected to have the answers to huge new problems in a world where no one really has many answers to the unprecedented challenges we’ve faced over the last two years. 

This seems likely to continue. Much as there may be a hope that somehow things suddenly return to “the way things were pre-Covid” the reality even then was that the world of work was changing at a fast pace and the pandemic has simply accelerated trends around flexible working, employee resilience and Mental Fitness, workplace stress, work life balance and changing expectations of work. 

So how can HR begin to feel like they are strongly placed to be a source of “resilient support” during challenging and changing times?

We believe that one answer is to do with acknowledging and embracing the shift from dealing with complicated problems to complex problems. Embracing complexity rather than avoiding it. 

Complicated problems are difficult but can be predicted and have often been experienced before. They require linear or administrative thinking from the organisation. By contrast complex problems are unknown and have no precedents. We can’t predict them because they haven’t been experienced before. So they require a more innovative or entrepreneurial kind of thinking. 

Writing in the People and Strategy Journal, Michael J. Arena and Mary Uhl-Bien recognise that this means a HR shift from focussing mainly on investing in human capital (making sure the organisation has the right people in the right place able to perform the right roles) to a wider focus on investing in social capital (fostering connections and interrelationships within and beyond the organisation). In particular they see a need for HR to play a role in connecting together the “operational system” of any business with the “entrepreneurial system”. 

Put another way, HR need to worry less about “having the answer” and focus more on embracing complexity by bringing together different talents and experiences within the organisation so that “ideas people” can engage with “doing people” to rapidly develop answers and solutions that are achievable and can work. 

The author’s refer to this as “adaptive space”, creating spaces within the organisation that allow effective solutions to emerge. Writing in the Harvard Business Review, Sue Bingham refers to it as the power of collective intelligence – the wisdom that emerges from collaborations between diverse teams. 

“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.”

Dealing with Complex Problems

So how can HR leaders and managers begin to be part of embracing complexity? We chatted to a few of our Cognomie Coaches to get some useful advice. 

  1. Accept you don’t have answers. Worrying that you need to have an answer to every question simply moves the stress being experienced by the whole organisation onto your shoulders. Be comfortable saying that you don’t have the answer but that you do have tools that can bring people together to help find it. 
  2. Channel values. We believe that an organisation’s values can often be an incredibly valuable catalyst for bringing diverse people together and helping find solutions. If the organisation is clear on its values, be part of projecting and sharing them. If it isn’t, be part of shaping them. 
  3. Develop a shared language. We constantly see how one of the most powerful outcomes of transformational coaching programmes, that work across the organisation, is that they help create a shared language and understanding that can be built on to bring people together to problem solve.
  4. Create collaborative space. HR isn’t just about getting the right people in the role, it’s about bringing people together. This can be informal or formal. And it relates to point 1. Don’t expect to have the answer, but expect to know who you should bring together to be able to find it. 
  5. Be Bold. We may all be looking for “the right answer” but helping to initiate change confidently helps inspire confidence in others that more is possible than they might realise. Avoid fire fighting and focus on bringing people together to problem solve. 
  6. Look after yourself and model that for others. Put your own oxygen mask on first! Times were tough and challenging before Covid. Dealing with complexity and change takes huge powers of resilience. Make sure you understand your sources of resilience and have strategies in place to support and nurture them. And model these so others can sustain their resilience too. 

We are all going through tough and challenging times. If you’d like to talk to someone about embracing complexity and finding your own resilience and using it to become better and better at leading and supporting through complex change, our Cognomie coaches are always here to chat

We’re also offering coaching to those in HR during these un-navigated times, at a reduced or potentially free rate, complete the form here to find out if you might qualify.



by | 24 Jan 2022

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