My interest was piqued recently by sight of an article about anthropology at work suggesting that “leaders should consider themselves an anthropologist of human culture”. It lead me to ponder whether or not management is a science or an art. Obviously the answer is both, but I think Drucker may be spot on when he suggests “management is a practice rather than a science or a profession, though containing elements of both”.
Practice, that makes sense, we learn as we go, we hope to get better as we practice but we know that there is rarely a definitive answer and solid solution. Knowledge and technology are in a constant state of flux and we adapt our management practices and processes to suit the needs of our people, environment and market.
There are some well-tested management theories but there are also a plethora of fads and fashions at play in the workplace. Science is evidence-based, using systematic, organised and tested data to make observations that lead to theories. Universally applicable and valid scientific principles are generally not something we can use when looking at the management of people. It’s difficult to do a double-blind test of a management intervention using real people in the workplace.
Neuroscience not fashion
This doesn’t stop all sorts of assertions and claims being made for the latest HR theory and sometimes a correlation between factors is reported as a matter of cause and effect. People are not always that easy to work out and our goals, aspirations, drivers and motivations are individual. I firmly believe that staff want employers who show they care, who take time to engage in career conversations with staff and to provide development opportunities that will meet their aspirations. Not revolutionary, not fashionable but common sense management.
Sceptical managers who don’t like fluffy HR fads might consider neuroscience as more useful. Hilary Scarlett, author of Neuroscience for Organisational Change and Director at Scarlett & Grey says that “understanding what enables employees’ brains to focus, collaborate and be more innovative will help deliver greater productivity” adding “when HR can equip the organisation to work with the brain rather than despite it, this will promote emotional and mental wellbeing, so reducing stress and the toll that it takes. HR professionals need to understand what helps the brain and what gets in the way”.
A better understanding of how people work and how they react is particularly relevant to the design of L&D initiatives – we know that people who learn together benefit for the collaborative experience and interactive training courses stimulate innovative and creative thinking. A better understanding of neuroscience can help HR professionals cope with change more easily, develop leaders, design effective training and performance assessment systems that aid the efficient achievement of goals.
There is evidence that goal setting is helpful to workers, especially when you use SMART goals. There is also good evidence that mindfulness-based interventions are helpful with regards to stress and anxiety. I’m convinced of the evidence for using a strengths based formula when working with individuals and teams; a strengths-based approach that is goal oriented in asking staff to set themselves goals they would like to achieve.
We ought to base HR management on reliable data and design evidence-based interventions that will significantly improve performance over the long term. Jeffrey Pfeffer of Stanford School of Business suggests that “too often HR has been about programmes, not thinking.” What we need to tackle productivity and engagement problems are well designed HR programmes that enhance the employee experience not fads that alienate our greatest assets.