“Touch-savvy” HR leaders: Caring, daring and sharing

Monday, 3 July 2017 00:15 -     - {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}}

The National HR Conference (NHRC) 2017, organised by the Institute of Personnel Management (IPM), Sri Lanka was a thriving success with loads of positive feedback received. With participation exceeding one thousand, the conference focused on possible high-tech and high touch harmony for future leaders, particularly in the field of HR. My session was after several “tech-savvy” sessions and I focused on the “touch-savvy” requirement for future leaders. 

Figure 1. HR Professional as a Paradox Navigator




The term “touch-savvy” is relatively unknown. It highlights the complementary dimension to being “tech-savvy”. HR Professionals need to ensure proper harmony between being “tech-savvy” and “touch-savvy”. You need to be responsive in embracing new technology on one hand. You also need to be receptive to others’ actions and reactions in engaging in human interactions. The essential requirement is to be “emotionally intelligent”. 

It was Daniel Goleman who first wrote about the link between emotional intelligence and business results. He argued that leaders have to be 70% more emotional intelligent than the others. Whether we see this in the Sri Lankan scenario is a big question.

Figure 2. Yin and Yang for HR Leaders 



Revisiting Emotional Intelligence 

There are many myths about emotional intelligence (EI). Some say it has been invented by Daniel Goleman. In fact, it existed with human beings since time immemorial. All great religious leaders were obviously emotionally intelligent. 

Take the case of the Buddha, who kept on meditating whilst three wild women (Thanha, Rathi, Raga) were doing a luring dance in front of him. Same with Jesus when self-pity was overcame in carrying the cross to Calvary. Great leaders such as Mahatma Gandhi, Nelson Mandela and Mother Theresa amply demonstrated EI in many ways. 

It was Charles Darwin who first wrote about emotions from a Western perspective. He published a book titled ‘The Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals’ way back in 1872, highlighting genetically determined aspects of behaviour. 

The way I see, EI was re-packaged in the West as a management concept. “People high in EI are expected to progress more quickly through the abilities designated and to master more of them,” so said John Mayer of New Hampshire University and Peter Salovey of Yale University, who are regarded as the co-founders of EI in its new form. 

Credit should go to Daniel Goleman for bring the sharing the concept of EI to a wider audience. His several books on EI have shed a lot light. “Rational intelligence and technical skills are important, but emotional intelligence is the sine qua non of leadership,” opined Goleman. 

As he comprehensively mentions, “EI can be viewed as a capacity for recognising our own feelings and those of others, for motivating ourselves, and for managing emotions well in ourselves and in our relationships”. Initially, there were five key components of EI advocated by Goleman. They are self-awareness, self-regulation, self-motivation, empathy and effective relationships. In a recent article to Harvard Business Review, he speaks of EI elements within broad four areas connect to self and others. 1

Self-awareness: This refers to the awareness of one’s emotional state. It means the ability to recognise and understand your emotions and their effects on others. As Goleman observes a high degree of self-confidence and a realistic self-assessment can be considered as hallmarks of people having high level of self-awareness. I think it is directly relevant to mindfulness. “Sathiya” or “Sihiya” in local vernacular could be the best descriptors. 

Self-management: This is logically the second step. It refers to the ability to control or redirect disruptive impulses, in taking charge of you. It highlights emotional self-control, achievement orientation and a positive outlook. 

Social awareness: This includes empathy and organisational awareness. It is the ability to understand the emotional makeup of other people. Empathy, in essence, it involves walking with “their shoes on”. Stephen Covey in his popular Seven Habits of Highly Effective People refers to this as “seek first to understand and then to be understood”. In fact, he says it is one of the often neglected aspects of managerial behaviour around the world. 

Relationship management: It refers to building lasting relationships. Being friendly, trustworthy and genuine may result in good social networks and solid teams. The acid test of EI is how good you are in successful and sustained relationships. 

Challenges for HR leaders 

As much as it had in the past, and having in the present, the function of HR will have many challenges in the future. It reminds me of seven Gs of HRM in relation to talent, the framework I used in my textbook, ‘HRM for Managers: A Learning Guide’. They refer to goal, get, give, grow, glue, glow and guard, each representing a specific function of HR. 

The world of HR is full of jargons. My attempt is not to complicate it by adding more terms. As Shakespeare vividly wrote in Romeo and Juliet, “What’s in a name? That which we call a rose, by any other name would smell as sweet.” Whether we call critical competencies or core capabilities or by any other name, the reality is the need to deliver promptly. That is where HR professionals have to act as “thinking performers”, in taking the profession forward. 

There had been numerous discussions on why HR professionals are “at the tap” and not “at the top”. Prof. Dave Ulrich and his team of researchers have been working on an evolving model on the cutting-edge competencies required by the HR professionals. They started identifying the need to play the roles of strategic partner, employee champion, administrative expert and change agent. The seventh revision that came last year which was termed as HR Competency Model of 2016 is revolving around “paradox navigation”. Figure 1 contains the details.

The typical dictionary meaning of paradox is that it is “a seemingly absurd or contradictory statement or proposition which when investigated may prove to be well founded or true.” Navigation on the other hand means “the process or activity of accurately ascertaining one’s position and planning and following a route”. This is the acute need in front of HR professionals. 

As Prof. Ulrich explains, “navigating paradox means accepting, exploring, and dealing with the inevitable tensions in a business. They have to help the business to be both short and long term, top/down and bottom/up, global and local, divergent and convergent, strategic and operational, etc. By navigating these paradoxes, organisations are more able to respond to the demands of change in today’s business context.”

In essence, “paradox navigation” is the ability to steer amidst the many embedded tensions in complex organisational operations. We can raise a few vital questions here. Does the HR professional effectively manage the tensions between high-level strategic issues and operational details? Does he/she effectively manage the tensions between internal focus on employees and external focus on customers and investors? Does he/she effectively manage the tension between taking time to gather information and making timely decisions? Does he/she effectively manage the tensions between global and local business demands? Does he/she effectively manage the tensions between the need for change (flexibility, adaptability) and stability (standardisation)? 

The reality is that the HR professionals are constantly wrestling with embedded tensions that must be resolved in some circumstances and cultivated in other circumstances in order to help the business move forward. Wisely navigating through these surrounded strains becomes one of the central challenges for modern HR professionals.

In digging deeper, I see a parallel between paradox navigation by western HR researchers and the Yin-Yang concept of eastern wisdom. In simple terms, yin is characterised as slow, soft, yielding, diffuse, cold, wet, and passive; and is associated with water, earth, the moon, femininity and night-time. Yang, by contrast, is fast, hard, solid, focused, hot, dry, and aggressive; and is associated with fire, sky, the sun, masculinity and daytime.

To put even more precisely, yin and yang are complementary opposites that interact within a greater whole, as part of a dynamic system. Everything has both yin and yang aspects, but either of these aspects may manifest more strongly in particular objects, and may ebb or flow over time. This is the nature of HRM in reality, where managing employee concerns as well as employer concerns need to take place with synergy and harmony. Figure 2 contains the details.

In other words, showcasing paradox navigation is one way of accepting the eastern duality. This is very much pertinent in the context of change where we are increasingly moving into a Volatile, Uncertain, Chaotic and Ambiguous (VUCA) World. Paradox navigation can in fact move beyond HR. In practical sense, every manager has to do so in some way or the other. In other words, it is challenge of balancing the harmony between yin and yang. 

Way forward 

Having discussed all above details, the emerging need of HR leaders to be “touch-savvy” is evident. It is essential for HR professionals to play the key role of paradox navigation with yin and yang balance. It is a clear way of demonstrating the emotionally intelligent leadership in being a servant, synergist and a strategist. The need of the hour is that they respond proactively in caring, sharing and daring with much needed confidence and competence.

(Prof. Ajantha Dharmasiri can be reached through director@pim.sjp.ac.lk, president@ipmlk.org, ajantha@ou.edu or www.ajanthadharmasiri.info)

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