Don’t Always Ask “Why?”
This is a trick, but it works: don’t ask “why?”. I know – we love to ask “why?”. It’s the most fundamental of questions, the one that gets us to the bottom of things, the root. If we don’t know “why”, then we don’t know what we’re doing.
So when we want to understand the reasons behind the behavior of a person, or team at work, we naturally ask: “why did that happen?”, “why is the report late?”, “why is the release buggy?”, “why is your team leaving early?”.
Last week I came across this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose. It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” – the organizational analogue of technical debt.
Coincidentally, a day later, I then walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and general difficulty of getting things set to rights. The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful. Good!
We can describe technical debt as the literal cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way. In the short term, the company saves money by, for example, not fixing a legacy architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, or just not fixing known bugs (feel free to provide your own list).
Our new term, HR Debt, is exactly analogous: by putting off dealing with a problem employee, or dysfunctional team, the organization saves disruption in the short term, but pays, every day, in the time and attention the team is putting in to make things work. As Jes puts it:
“Having your team build informal processes to work around bad actors creates an environment where additional time and energy costs are included in all team activities”
Not only that, but when the time comes to fix it, just like technical debt, the cost is far higher than it would have been originally: people need to be moved, or fired, teams rearranged, salaries re-worked, relationships repaired.
So what to do? Well, Radical Candor is a toolkit for saying hard things so that they are heard. If we boil Radical Candor down to its essence, it is a model for confronting and dealing with difficult conversations well. It encourages us not to drift into “Ruinous Empathy”, where our HR Debt will continue to accumulate as we avoid fixing people problems. It asks us to “just say it”, whilst respecting the humanity of the person on the receiving end.
The concept of “HR Debt” gives us a way of estimating the cost of staying in “Ruinous Empathy”: how many management hours will be dribbled away by patching over poor behavior? how much money will be spent on a team which we’re pretty sure will have to be reworked? how much would we save over time if we took on the hard conversations now?
So we can look at Radical Candor as a toolkit for reducing HR Debt – not just doing the right thing, but saving money, time and the precious attention of the organization.
Useful models that fit together! Have to love that 🙂
We get stuck. Somebody won’t listen – they just won’t. We’ve tried explaining what we want, why we think they’re wrong, what they should be doing better, and nothing happens, nothing changes. The decisions keep being delayed, the advice ignored, the obvious (to us) reality avoided.
Or there’s a problem, a big one: we’re about to be out of money, we’re definitely going to miss the deadline, our very best, world-class, go-to engineering lead is quitting. We’re going over a cliff. Tomorrow. And it feels inevitable, immovable – we can’t see another path.