Applying Psychology to People Management

II am an engineer in charge of performing the Human Resources (HR) function for our small company. Obviously, I have no technical training to carry out my current mission. The HR departments of our client companies are led by people with degrees in psychology, business management, accounting and law. I get cold feet knowing this, although I try my best, except I don’t understand how psychology can be applied to people management. Could you please give me some examples? — Round picket.

Psychiatrists say that in the process of thinking, blood is drawn from the feet to the brain, suggesting that this may explain why when we think about something for a very long time, our feet get cold. Some people like you may quibble about doing something that doesn’t fit your training. There is nothing wrong with that.

As long as you have the interest to learn, unlearn, and relearn, there is a lot you can do to understand and even excel in your job as an HR manager. It’s just a matter of time. That’s if you want to keep doing that job.

One of the best approaches to managing an HR department is to read as much as you can about general management. You don’t have to limit yourself to HR topics. If you have taken business engineering or similar courses, I think this is a good place to start.

I’m not going to confuse you with psychological terms so as not to intimidate you. I am not a psychologist either, but I prefer to be practical than theoretical. Not only will this prepare us better for learning, but it can also help you identify areas where you want to improve your performance as an HR manager. You can explore the following uses of psychology in people management:

First, promote and practice employee empowerment. When your employees tell you about an operational problem, tell them you know the solution (even if you don’t) because you don’t want to spoon-feed them. Ask for their top three recommendations in order of priority. This way, you will teach them to analyze problems. You might be surprised to see your expectations exceeded while identifying workers you can count on.

Two, admit that you don’t know much. When you accept a weakness, people will understand you and respect you for your humility. If a worker comes to you to challenge the rationale and practical application of a longstanding management policy, accept that you don’t have a ready answer. Then promise to review the disputed policy, validate your findings, and, with management’s agreement, provide the response to the requester.

Third, be energetic and happy to talk to workers. If you do this habitually, your employees will see you as an approachable and positive person, rather than the company police. When you’ve established rapport and are aware of your body language, it should be easy for you to establish two-way communication, which is essential for uncovering potential issues.

Fourth, enlist the help of your shy workers. Such an approach will help you build their self-confidence. So people will feel valued. It’s a good way for you to fatten your emotional bank account with them. Ask for help even when you don’t need it. It’s also a great way to show your confidence and break the ice with difficult personalities. It may be difficult at first, but it’s not exactly impossible.

Five, acknowledge a person for admitting their mistake. When a worker comes to you with information about a blunder they made, say something like this: “Thank you for your admission. It is a sign that you can be trusted and that you are ready to correct your mistakes. Such a response is better than saying “it’s OK” when deep down in your heart and mind, it really isn’t. Your style will also encourage people to take calculated risks, instead of being reluctant to explore other things.

Sixth, encourage people to challenge your ideas. When giving instructions, don’t just ask questions. Instead, ask them if they have a better solution than the one you’re presenting. Or, ask workers about potential problems they foresee. Some workers may feel uncomfortable giving an opposing point of view, but others may see it as an opportunity to shine. Whatever they do, they will accept you as an effective HR leader.

Finally, allow people to choose their work assignments. Give everyone plenty of options to suit their ability, style, taste and schedule. Say something like this: “Here is easy task A with a tight two-day deadline and difficult task B with a one-week deadline. Feel free to choose which one, then let me know. They will feel in control; in reality, they don’t have much choice because you have limited their options.

People management is an act of kindness with an expiration date. You have to practice being kind to everyone until they’ve shown they don’t deserve it. At every step, as an HR specialist, you must be the first to create and maintain a work environment in which everyone respects others. You can’t go wrong with this basic premise.

A good example of this is Toyota’s ‘Respect for People’ mantra, based on the fundamental belief that they must ‘build good people first, before building good cars’. Even without Toyota in mind, you can easily understand this by allowing workers to routinely share their ideas, suggestions and even complaints with management.

If you really want to succeed as an HR professional even with your engineering degree, one of the basic tools you need to practice is active listening. It is an imperative part of participatory management that eliminates the traditional unilateral top-down flow of leadership in some organizations. Indeed, you cannot have proactive, two-way communication unless you become an expert at actively listening to people at all levels.

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