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Why HR Can’t Solve All Your People Problems

Do you need HR?

After I tell leaders that they need to focus on their people and their culture, they turn to me and ask, “Moe, isn’t all that people stuff HR’s responsibility?”

And sure, I can see where they’re coming from. HR is responsible for managing “Human Resources,” right?


It’s not that the HR team doesn’t want to help you implement a kick-ass culture.

HR is responsible for a lot more, and that keeps them busy.

At its core, HR tends to the administrative and legal aspects of how you contract with employees. They’re focused on protecting both legal risk and compliance risk—and as we all know, “legalese” and “feeling good” don’t always go hand in hand.

In other words, HR makes sure you and the business are cared for, which doesn’t always mean making people feel well cared for.

While people—including you—get very important protections from HR, it’s not through HR that employees feel “what it’s like to work for you.”

We’ve always known that people feel their organization through their immediate supervisor.

People leave their jobs (or come to them) because of their boss.

Our entire experience at work is shaped and impacted by our relationships with our bosses—not with the HR department.

Top-of-the-chain leaders have the biggest impact on determining what it feels like to work at your org.

To demonstrate how HR and empowered leaders can work together, I want to talk through three misconceptions leaders have of their HR staff.

Each of these issues usually crops up at sensitive and pivotal moments in the evolution of an organization’s culture. Leaders need to step in at these moments, not outsource key decisions to HR.

  1. “When I have problems on my team, HR will ensure everyone gets along.”

    It’s inevitable that people will create conflict. Good leaders know how to navigate and resolve conflict. But can HR do it? Nope. Typically, there is one HR professional per 150 people, and even fewer as companies scale. HR cannot directly impact the health of your team. That’s your job. I like to think of healthy teams as a bicycle wheel. The hub is you, the leader. The spokes are the members of the team. The rim is the relationship between the team members that keeps social capital and trust high. How far would a bike go without its rim? Leaders must see the relationships between their team members as central to the performance of the team.
  2. “HR is responsible for setting the culture and keeping it healthy.”

    While HR certainly supports culture-based initiatives by implementing people-centered practices and messaging, it is not up to HR to set or maintain culture. Culture lives firmly in the stated values and how those are (or aren’t) expressed in practice. Culture usually starts from the actions and mindsets of the founders and flourishes from there. Leaders are culture keepers. Their role is to foster healthy cultural practices and reinforce the vibe. Waiting for HR to drive your culture means you will wait forever.
  3. “The growth of my staff and of my leaders will be managed and handled by HR. They do the training, right?”

    This fantasy is one of the most compelling. Training and education are only part of the employee growth experience. HR is often responsible for the systems you use to administer learning, and they frequently provide learning experiences. In a way, HR partners with leaders to help employees learn with your organization creatively throughout their tenure. But make no mistake, the day-to-day growth of your employees falls squarely in the realm of your relationship with each of them. Of course—and this is the real humdinger—employees are ultimately responsible for their development, career pathway, and growth. You can’t make them learn something they aren’t willing to. They need a leader’s help. You can help by cultivating possibilities for them to grow, exploring how they might do that, and talking with them frequently about where their job is taking them. Regular dialogue with your people about their learning and growth keeps them engaged and connected. You cannot delegate this to HR.

When leaders displace these three pivotal moments to HR, they miss the mark, and very soon, their employees will be disengaged, frustrated, and bored.

Activating the talents of your people starts with you.

You need to have an active role in your team’s health, culture, and employee development.

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