Placing the emphasis on relationships rather than roles, says Dave Ulrich

Roles matter, but they matter less than relationships

Debate continues about how to organize HR departments. Should HR work be centralized (functionally driven across an enterprise), decentralized (uniquely applied to each business), or delivered in some combination of the two (shared services)? I have tried to define the roles that HR professionals play to achieve an optimal HR operating model. We have proposed that the HR structure should match business strategy and structure.

In many cases, where a diverse business strategy has a divisional, networked, matrix, hybrid, or allied structure, we have proposed an HR operating model with service centres focused on technology-enabled transaction capability; centres of expertise with deep specialized HR knowledge and insight; embedded HR generalists who adapt HR services to deliver business needs; and corporate HR leaders who set overall policy. With the best of intentions, many keep tweaking these HR roles to help the HR department and professionals deliver increased business value.

In our research looking at 12 key focuses of an HR department, we found that having “clear roles and responsibilities for each of the groups within HR (for example, service centres, centres of expertise, embedded HR)” is one of the strategies that is most often carried out but which has the least impact on business. By contrast, “connecting HR activities to external stakeholder expectations (customers, investors)” and “tracking and measuring the impact of HR” are the two activities with highest business impact, but are done least often.

I have concluded that upgrades to the HR operating model will come less from roles defined on organization charts and more from improved relationships. Imagine a family which is not getting along and tries to improve things by buying only the best appliances from or is buying some exotic furniture. Most of us realize that new furnishings or floor plans won’t help family members get along better. Likewise, in HR, new tools and technologies are unlikely to improve operations; merely changing boxes on organization charts won’t help HR professionals work more collaboratively.

For families to function better, they need to learn to belong and to focus on relationships. For HR operating models to deliver greater value, once the basic roles are satisfied (for example, matching HR structure to business strategy and structure), there should be a focus on relationships rather than roles.

Many people have studied what makes relationships work within friendships, couples, families, and communities. John Gottman, a relationship scholar, has been able to predict, with more than 90% accuracy, which couples will stay together. Synthesizing relationship research, let me propose six principles that, when applied to HR, may improve the operating models more than debates about roles.

1. Share a common purpose

Partners in a relationship have different roles, but succeed when they realize they are stronger together than apart because they have binding, superordinate goals (such as raising children). Couples stay together when they share dreams, find meaning together, and create a culture of joint rituals and goals, while respecting individual skills.

Likewise, in HR, each role represents unique expertise (service centres with technology-driven efficiency, centres of expertise with specialized HR insights, embedded HR with business insights). The challenge is to find a unifying purpose, such as business performance (strategic HR) or improving customer or investor value (HR from the outside in). Each component of HR operations contributes unique value to serving customers, improving market value, and delivering business results.

2. Respect differences

In couples therapy, each partner is encouraged to identify and appreciate the other’s strengths. Gottman found a 5:1 ratio of positive to negative comments in happy couples. In work settings, it has been found that leaders are more successful with a 3:1 positive to negative relationship ratio. Couples also succeed when they know and respond to their partner’s “love maps” – or what matters to their partner.

While it might be awkward to talk about “HR’s love maps”, the same logic applies. Different parts of the HR operating model focus on different activities, with HR service centres emphasizing standardized, consistent, and cost-efficient solutions and embedded HR generalists working to create tailored HR solutions for unique business requirements. Embedded HR professionals define the talent, leadership, and cultural requirements to deliver business goals. Those working in centres of expertise have pride in their deep functional knowledge. Service centre HR professionals ensure systems do what they should.

When these different groups respect one another, focus on what is right, more than on what is wrong, and yield to influence, they can form relationships that supersede their separate roles. When differences are respected, dissent becomes a positive, not a negative. Each of the groups within an HR operating model is a “partner” because each brings unique value.

3. Govern, accept, connect

Researchers have found that 65% to 70% of relationship problems are never “solved” but “managed.” Most problems early in a relationship are worked around (for example, spending habits; division of household chores). It is important to solve solvable problems and not obsess about those that persist.

Likewise, in HR, realistic expectations recognize that the processes used to govern HR will be more important than the solutions. For example, managing decision rights is less about who makes a decision and more about a process for who makes a decision. When different parts of an HR operating function can focus on creating a growth mindset, they worry less about the right answer and more about learning to negotiate and discuss. Managing differences with calmness, curiosity, and caring will help build connection among HR parts.

4. Care for one another

In relationship therapy, the most important questions that solidify a relationship are: “Can I rely on you?” “Are you safe?” “Will you be there for me when I need you?” Without positive answers to these questions, relationships will crumble under pressure. With positive answers, partners build trust and delight in, and celebrate, others’ success.

In HR departments, it is important that different components of the operating model care for one another. There must be confidence that HR transaction work will be done on time and accurately. Centres of expertise should not impose answers, but collaborate to discover innovative solutions.

Embedded HR professionals should be able to diagnose current and future business problems accurately. Trust in the HR function should be high due to each area being predictable, dependable, available, accessible, and reliable. Groups should be aware of each other’s scorecards and delight in each other’s success. “We” language should replace “my” language and unity replace working in silos.

5. Share experiences together

Personal or professional disappointments or stressful events can pull partners apart. To build stronger relationships, partners are encouraged to turn to each other in times of difficulty, to make bids to one another and to be emotionally vulnerable so as to share deeper feelings with each other.

In the HR operating model, it is easy to isolate oneself in one’s group. It is more helpful to have individuals work across groups. This may mean career rotation; group HR meetings or calls where the groups share concerns and celebrate successes; problem-solving groups with representatives from each HR group; or informal contacts where HR bids are quickly addressed. When things go wrong in the HR operating model, and they will, it is important to have the emotional confidence to admit a problem and seek a joint solution rather than pointing the finger of blame.

6. Grow together

Relationships morph and each partner learns and grows from constantly learning, focusing on the future and what could be, from letting go of grievances, recognizing vicious cycles and breaking them. Couples with positive relationships recognize growth by looking backwards and anticipate future growth looking forwards.

HR departments must learn from the past. Stories of HR success can be woven together into an historical narrative and this should underpin future growth. When the growth of the HR department focuses on the shared purpose of delivering sustainable business value; when differences are respected; when governance is managed; when caring occurs; when HR professionals share time and energy; growth is likely to be sustained.

For the HR operating model to deliver real value, HR roles matter, but they matter less than relationships. Maybe it is time for our discussions of the HR operating model to focus more on relationships than roles.

Dave Ulrich is Rensis Likert Professor at the University of Michigan and partner at the RBL Group