Insights

”HR Debt” Is The Cost of Putting Off Hard Conversations. Radical Candor is a Solution.

HR Debt — Like Technical Debt, But For Organizations

We all know, at some level, there’s a cost to dysfunctional teams, “problem employees”, broken relationships at work. There’s the super-brilliant engineer who nobody wants to work with, but nobody will confront. There’s the team from an acquisition of a year ago who still won’t talk to anybody who doesn’t do things “their way”. There’s the manager who is a lovely person but who keeps changing his mind and then blaming product management, or sales, or marketing, or sun spots. (Feel free to supply your own examples — have a rant! I don’t mind…).

We know this is happening. We know it’s not great. But it hasn’t had a name until now, which makes it hard to grapple with. Giving concepts a name gives us something to grasp on to — naming confers power.

Let’s Call It “HR Debt”

I recently 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 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 emotional difficulty of getting things set to rights. The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful in naming what we were wrestling with — a set of organizational and people issues that had been left to fester.

We can describe Technical Debt as the cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way in a codebase. In the short term, the company saves money by not fixing a known architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, not fixing bugs that have “been there forever”, and so on (feel free to provide your own list here, too).

HR Debt is exactly analogous: by putting off dealing with a problem employee, dysfunctional team, broken relationship, the organization saves disruption in the short term, but pays, every day, in time and attention the team puts in to make things work: the morale-sapping arguments, the half-completed conversations, the decisions being put off or fudged to avoid (or create) confrontation. It builds an overhead into pretty much everything the organization does.

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. It takes time, energy and courage to get in there to make the changes.

So what to do when it looks like HR Debt is starting to accumulate?

Do The Hard Thing

Much like addressing Technical Debt, the only way forward with HR Debt is the Do The Hard thing and decide to take it on, now, before it gets worse (one aside here is that although HR Debt may be emotionally harder to confront, in terms of sheer man hours, it’s almost certainly going to take fewer than dealing with Technical Debt).

Hard things have to be said, personalities confronted, difficult conversations need to take place. You will have to say the hard thing, as clearly as possible, probably multiple times, to people who may not want to hear it. It can feel like you are alone, with nowhere to stand.

So how to go about that? What’s a model you can hold onto as you go into those hard conversations?

Radical Candor

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 effectively. It encourages us to be direct, to tell the truth as we see it, whilst being clear that we actually care about the other person as a human being: that the feedback is not an attack, is intended to fix a situation, help the people involved, and build stronger working relationships. It asks us to “just say it”, whilst respecting the humanity of the person on the receiving end.

In the Radical Candor model, not having the hard conversations, or fudging them (“really things are OK, I’d just like you to maybe consider…”) causes us to drift into “Ruinous Empathy”, where our HR Debt will continue to accumulate. In “Ruinous Empathy”, our fear of confrontation, of having somebody quit, or burst into tear, or simply being hurt, gets in the way of us telling our truth. And HR Debt continues to accumulate.

The concept of “HR Debt” allows us to estimate the cost of staying in “Ruinous Empathy”: how many management hours will be dribbled away by patching over poor behavior? How much real 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? If we started to be Radically Candid, how much time, money and attention would the organization begin to save?

Take a Look At Your Organization

Where are you avoiding fixing a dysfunctional team? Where do you have people working around a “difficult character”, spending their days avoiding, fudging and dodging his (or her) crappy behavior — however brilliant he/she is? Where do you have a team that is sitting around waiting for decisions, or swapping from priority to priority on a weekly basis? What hard conversations can he you have now, today, to start reducing your HR Debt?

Take look. Check out some Radical Candor resources (hey, there’s even a book!). Get started.

(Truth in advertising: I work with the Radical Candor team to give training and workshops in the Radical Candor model. I do this because it works)

(this, and more articles and links, in the weekly Tech People Leadership newsletter)

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Finishing Software Is Hard (And If You’re Managing Software Projects, It’s Your Job)

The Last 10% Is Hard

“The first 90 percent of the code accounts for

the first 90 percent of the development time.

The remaining 10 percent of the code accounts

for the other 90 percent of the development time”

— Tom Cargill, Bell Labs (ancient software

wisdom — if you know an Agile equivalent,

I’d love to hear it)

The last 10% of a software project, is hard. It just is.

There’s nowhere to move the deadlines — time’s up. The thing you are building, which used to feel like a set of well-understood building blocks, now streams towards you in an endless river of barely connected details. UX wording needs to be exactly right; reliability, which was “good enough for beta” now needs to be 100%; that niggling bug everybody has been working around for weeks needs to go away, today; a feature that you thought worked great is missing something — not clear what it is, but it is clear that the beta users have to have it; the CEO has an idea and…

The more you do it, more you learn to pattern match on traps you’ve fallen into in the past. But I’m not sure anybody ever learns enough to bring their projects into the final deadline smoothly and without stress. (Maybe you do — if so, let everybody know your secret). There’s something more fundamental going on here.

Read More

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Process and Delegation – Links

Liberate Your Team with Clearer Processes



The Subtle Art Of Delegating Work – The Startup – Medium



How to Create Consensus Around Your Vision – MAP



7 Questions That Lower Resistance to Negative Feedback | Leadership Freak


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Listening (And Not Listening) – Links

Etsy’s Charter of Mindful Communication | Lara Hogan



Why Leaders Who Listen Achieve Breakthroughs



How to Work with a Bad Listener



Don’t Yolo Hard Conversations – Rands in Repose



The “Other Side” Is Not Dumb. – Sean Blanda – Medium


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Incredibly Simple Rules for Story-Telling

Here’s a thing that happened: we were looking for a great engineer to work on device drivers (yes, this was a long time ago). D showed up, did a great interview, and I hired him.

Here’s the story about the thing that happened: I was doing interview after interview for a great low-level engineer. I was tired of it, bored. D’s resume was sparse, but he’d written his own game, so I thought, well, maybe, sure, give him twenty minutes. D showed up to our exposed-brick, cool warehouse space wearing a suit, which was very weird, and looking like some kind of male model, which for a game coder was weirder. My skepticism increased. I looked at my watch. D started to describe his game.

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Incredibly Simple Rules for One On Ones

This post is one in the “Incredibly Simple Management” series, dedicated to stripping great management down to the fundamentals you need to get it done.

As with any leadership activity, things are moving on two tracks: management – the art of controlling time and resources; and leadership – the art of connecting, motivating and serving people.

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Incredibly Simple Meeting Rules

This post is one in the “Incredibly Simple Management” series, dedicated to stripping great management down to the fundamentals you need to get it done.

Meetings are necessary. The purpose of an organization is to have people work together. The purpose of leadership is to have people work together as effectively as possible. Well-run meetings are the most effective way to coordinate and motivate a group of people. Poorly run meetings are one of many terrific ways of doing the opposite.

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Self-Awareness. What It Is. How To Get It.

We know it when we see it. We say “she’s highly self-aware”, and we mean it as a compliment. We mean that person is able to take criticism,correct her mistakes and learn as she goes. We can work with that person, tell her what we think and expect a reasonable response.

Being self-aware is a strength. It’s a foundation for authenticity, for communication, for decision and for leadership. It’s also something that can be simply defined, learned and practiced.

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Sometimes “Why?” Is the Wrong Question

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?”.

Read More

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“HR Debt” Is The Cost of Putting Off Hard Conversations. Radical Candor is a Solution.

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 🙂

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