Transforming HR With the Right Questions

Are you familiar with the axiom “words create worlds?” The words we use to describe what’s happening around us shape what we believe and influence the direction of our conversation. Our conversations, then, are gauges of our attitudes. The good news is we have the power to steer our conversations, and our attitudes, in a direction of our choosing.

Creating a world in which issues are approached with openness, hope, creativity, and value requires that we intentionally select language – and questions – that move us toward this type of dialogue. David Cooperrider, the founder of the Appreciative Inquiry method, put it this way: “We live in the world our questions create.”

We spend a lot of time talking about problems in our workplaces. We speak of what’s broken, what is lacking, and what is failing. These are important discussions, to be sure, but do we give equal attention to what is going well? To what we want to see more of? To what gives life and meaning?

Cooperrider builds on the earlier statement to say, “We create our organizations based on our anticipation of the future. The image of the future guides the current behavior of any system.” In other words, when we view the organizational system as a problem to be solved, both now and in the future, we miss an opportunity to create from a positive frame of mind.

To create a positive future for the human resources function we must lead the conversation and take the advice of Peter Drucker: “If you want to know what the future is, be part of its development.” But often we are trapped in a sea of tasks and crises that the future gets little thought.

The human resources department is often swamped with the activity of non-stop hiring, complying, performance managing, and payroll processing. Has our busy-ness prevented us from shaping and influencing culture in a more deliberate and purposeful way? Warren Berger writes in A More Beautiful Question, “As everyday life becomes more jam-packed with tasks, activities, diversions, and distractions, ‘stepping back and questioning’ is unlikely to get a slot on the schedule. Which means some of the most important questions – about why we’re engaging in all those activities in the first place – never get raised.”

Scheduling time to shape the future is important. But often our strategic planning sessions are uninspiring as we carry forward everything we didn’t get done last year to the next 12 months and hope things will be different. We need to ask different questions.

Our first questions, then, have to center on what we want the future to look like as a profession, as well as specifically within our organizations.

            What if human resources was sought after for innovative ideas?

What if human resources didn’t exist?

What does the organization need most that we are uniquely able to provide?

How might we foster a culture of celebration and positivity?

Who can partner with us to influence the organization in the right direction?

I’ve often used an Appreciative Inquiry (AI) summit to kick off a strategic planning process because it gets to the heart – or positive core – of an organization, function, or issue. The first phase of AI is Discovery, which happens through drawing out stories of the group at its best. Some AI questions, asked in an interview setting among stakeholders, that spark meaningful and powerful stories are,

Tell me about the most exceptional partnership that you’ve ever been part of. What made it exceptional? What values and circumstances were necessary to make it successful? What did you bring to the partnership?

Good organizations know how to “preserve the core” of what they do best and are able to let go of things that are no longer needed. In transforming human resources, what are the three things – core strengths, values, qualities, and ways of working – you want to see preserved and leveraged as we move into the future?

By exercising active listening and two-way communication, we secure our future as a fair and open organization where every voice is heard. Describe the best example that you have experienced of open two-way communication. What did you learn from that experience? How have you applied this to your daily interactions (for example: with your supervisor, co-workers, other business units, customers and suppliers)?

Asking questions at the strategic level is important – it gives us a chance to reflect, dream, and consider outside the constraints of day-to-day routine. But we also need to hone our ability to ask questions in the moment – to reframe an issue in a way that changes our perspective, gives us deeper insight, and allows us to make wiser decisions. And asking powerful questions provides the human resources function with strong influence within the organization.'

Author: Todd Conkright

Todd is a human capital strategist, human performance analyst, instructional designer and learning facilitator helping organizations maximize their greatest asset: their people. He has designed a variety of learning solutions using a blended approach of classroom, online and on-the-job methods. Todd has consulted for companies of 200 to 25,000, implementing creative solutions to challenging performance and knowledge transfer issues. Todd has been instrumental in reducing turnover, improving talent sourcing, increasing knowledge retention and optimizing the customer experience.

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