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Maya is a Hindu term for the delusion of life. I like the term because it describes how pursuing one goal can often ensure it will never be obtained. The maya of HR policies is that the underlying assumptions about people upon which they are based are often wrong. Here are three common HR assumptions that miss the mark.

The Maya of Human Resource Policies

Posted  on 11/13/09

Road leading off into clouds on the horizonMaya is a term from Hinduism that refers to the great delusion of life into which we are born, a delusion that worldly success and objects will bring us happiness. In order to achieve true happiness, people must free themselves of their worldly desires and detach themselves from such pursuits.

I like this term because I often see how pursuits of specific goals end up ensuring that those goals are never obtained. Although this website is full of examples of maya in the work place, the place where I think it has its strongest hold is in human resource policies.  Many of the accepted human resource practices intended to increase people's productivity and organizational alignment have, in actuality, the opposite effect of increasing self-interest and lowering performance.

The three areas where this is most evident are pay for performance, otherwise known and management by objectives, promotions based on performance, and the implementation of core competences. I'll discuss each of these in separate articles, but first I just want to explore some of the assumptions around which HR policies are based and challenge whether those assumptions are truth or maya.

1. People behave logically and objectively

Ha, ha, ha, ha, ha! Now that the economy is in shambles, people are starting to realize that markets and economies do not behave rationally. A whole field of behavioral economics is studying all the ways in which people act illogically. Just look at fads, bubbles, busts, fashion, and marketing as evidence that people are not logical. We are also not very good at being objective. If your views agree with mine than I am more likely to think you are being fair than if your views are opposite of mine (look at Fox News' Fair and Balanced policy.) Many HR policies try to instill logic and objectivity into human behavior, and it's like trying to make a duck ride a bicycle. It's just not part of our nature to be detached and rational. Performance appraisals will never be objective because the people who work for me are better than the people who work for you. And I am in every way  smarter and better than you are, even though I've never met you. Every attempt to make people policies fair and objective will be countered by new ways to game the system in one's favor. Just look at how our tax and regulatory laws are constantly being gamed. So why don't we stop pretending to be fair and rational and just accept that we aren't and probably never will be.

2. People can be optimized

I love reading HR newsletters and websites that talk about optimizing your human capital or your people assets. Have you ever been optimized? What does that feel like? How does one go about optimizing a person? Efforts at automating processes that have traditionally been people-based really show how difficult it is to standardize and codify, yet alone, optimize people. Is reviewing a knowledge base really as helpful as asking an expert? Does navigating the automated help desk really take the place of being helped by a customer service representative? People cannot be optimized or standardized or codified. People are messy and complicated and don't actually fall neatly into types, despite what Myers-Briggs advocates say. What you can do is try to create an optimal environment for people to work in and you can give them tools to help with their jobs, but how do you make people efficient? Getting enough rest and eating right definitely help, but that is not what these HR articles talk about. They talk about motivation, incentives, development, competencies, etc. However, the truth is you can't actually make people do anything at all. The best you can hope for is to create an environment that values people and hope that they value the company in response. So let's stop talking about optimizing our human capital and start talking about creating an environment where people can thrive. It's a very different conversation.

3. The people element can be separated from the business element

I was once part of a team that was developing a career ladder with job positions for our department. We were led by an HR consultant and during the first meeting, she told us that one of our ground rules was to describe the job and not the people in the job. That's when I mentioned that I didn't believe the job could be separated from the person in the job, and I got a response along the lines of, "Don't be absurd, of course they are separate." Now, yes, to some extent you can write down job responsibilities and they will apply to anyone in the job, but in all practicality,  jobs are shaped by the people in them. A job will change depending on that person's strengths, weaknesses,  likes, dislikes, values and priorities. Both Bill Gates and Steven Jobs were CEOs of major computer companies. Do you think they had the same approach to being CEO? Speaking of CEOs, why do companies launch herculean efforts to find the right CEO if the job is different from the person in it?

The same holds true for business processes. If you have a very hands-on leader who wants to approve everything, your business processes contain lots of review and approval steps. They can go away when that person is replaced with someone more hands-off. Business is not some entity in and of itself, just like the economy is not its own, self-regulating entity. Businesses are people. You can take away the office equipment, or the manufacturing plant, or the distribution center and you can still have a business. You cannot take away the people and still have a business. You cannot separate out the people element from the people.

Now, given the conditions that businesses are people who behave irrationally and subjectively and cannot be optimized, where does that leave our standard slate of HR policies? The next article will discuss pay for performance.

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Got Ideas?

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