How to solve your biggest HR problems by focusing on one very commonly ignored area

Jigso Listen's founder Hans Donckers was recently interviewed on an HR industry podcast on a very important topic: 'How to solve your biggest HR problems by focusing on one very commonly ignored area'.

Listen in as Hans discusses a number of key topics including:

  • What are the big-picture issues that you see that companies are trying to fix right now?
  • Diversity and inclusion: the importance of teams
  • How does the big focus by companies on individual employee performance affect the HR problems?
  • Why don’t organisations focus on the team level as much as they do at the individual level?
  • How do organisations try to solve this problem?
  • What exactly does Jigso Listen do and how is it different?
  • Giving back ownership and direction
  • How can companies and team members use the data?
  • What if you’ve already tried employee surveys before (and they did not work)?
  • Is the Jigso Listen tech set-up a long, slow process?
  • Why prioritise improving teams?
  • What are the free resources Jigso offers to employers?
  • What kinds of organisations does Jigso Listen help?
  • What future changes do you see coming in HR and the world of work?

What are the big-picture issues that companies are trying to fix right now?

Two very common and well-known problems:

1. The burnout pandemic

There’s a huge increase in long-term absence.

2. The Great Resignation

Very high turnover in every company which leads to a renewed war for talent.

It is very hard to build a high-performing culture when you’ve got people walking out the door and when the people who stay are unhappy. All sorts of side issues get attached to that.

Diversity and inclusion: the importance of teams

Another of the big HR issues is diversity and inclusion. Again, there’s a parallel with the tension between the individual focus and the collective focus.

The D of DEI, the diversity is very often an individual focus. The D actually stands for the door. It’s about opening the door to minority groups or to people who are underrepresented in the company.

But opening the door is one thing, involving people, accepting them, welcoming them, including them in everything you do, that’s another thing. That’s the inclusion practice.

And also there we see that people want to feel included in their teams

But then the next challenge is:

  • Do I have a seat at the table?
  • If I’m at the table, am I being heard?
  • Can I show up as my authentic self?
  • Am I being valued for what I contribute?

And so inclusion, through a very large extent, is also a characteristic of team dynamics.

How does the big focus by companies on individual employee performance affect the HR problems?

The problems are regarded as often as individual problems, and a lot of the efforts are on the individual employees or on the whole population of employees.

Whereas, the place in the organisation where people spend their time, but also where they come up with innovative ideas, where they solve these complex problems, is in the teams.

There’s actually tons of research that shows that a positive team climate has a huge effect on employees’ wellbeing, but also on the team performance and so ultimately on the company’s performance.

If business leaders or HR leaders focus on teams, it’s often a focus on the input.

  • Who do we need in a team?
  • Which skills do we need?
  • Which seniority?
  • How many people?

That’s the starting point. And then if we have all the right people in the team, we just hope that the outcomes will be positive. When there’s a lot of focus on the input, subsequently there’s a lot of stress on the output.

  • Will this team perform?
  • Will they meet their business objectives?
  • Will people stay on board?
  • Will they stay happy and healthy?

Whereas in between, between that starting point and the outcomes, there’s a whole dynamic going on.

In Google’s Aristotle Project, with the support of Amy Edmondson from Harvard Business School, they found actually that the highest performing teams are different, not in the setup, not in the composition, but in how they work together in what they do and how they do it, not in terms of the people in the team, but in terms of the quality of collaboration.

  • Are people capable of asking for help and giving feedback?
  • Do they feel comfortable in addressing difficult issues, etc?

The quality of collaboration is not only the mediator between the starting point and the outcome but it’s even a predictor of the outcome.

Why don’t organisations focus on the team level as much as they do at the individual level?​

The whole HR process starts with an individual focus with the hiring of people. And so HR processes historically tend to focus on the individual employee, the individual employee lifecycle, and then on the leadership pipeline, but that’s always about individuals.

Think about the best soccer players. They may have amazing skills but if they don’t know how to communicate with each other, if they don’t trust each other, if they are not willing to sacrifice one or sacrifice their ego for the team that NOTHING is going to happen. It’s a classic metaphor but it still holds and maybe it also has to do with some of the power dynamics in organisations.

A lot of attention and budget is spent on senior leaders and high potentials and you name it. But in the core of the organisation, it’s all about teams, that’s actually where it happens.

How do organisations try to solve this problem?​

Oftentimes there’s this organisation-wide effort on culture: a big program with a lot of focus on communication and not about actual practices.

Nowadays almost every company is consciously thinking about the culture they need in order to realise their strategy but it’s a very vague concept and it doesn’t immediately affect the quality of teamwork.

The other common effort is sending all managers and leaders to trainings. Only when taking out these people from their context and in that classroom or in the workshop room, their minds will be triggered but the transfer from that classroom to the daily team practice is extremely difficult and you’re actually betting on one single member of the team.

Companies often forget about the system: a team can also learn. We should regard a team as an entity as well. There is a possibility of team learning:

  • A team can develop new habits.
  • A team can evolve in terms of shared beliefs, shared assumptions.

And so if you invest in team learning rather than in individual learning, the effect will be a lot more powerful.

What exactly does Jigso Listen do and how is it different?​

JiGSO is a joint venture between a machine learning agency, a bunch of mathematicians and data scientists on the one hand and a boutique consultancy firm on the other hand. So we combine data science with very solid experience and knowledge about how teams function, how they dysfunction and what one can do to change that. We give teams the right figures to know:

  • what they have to learn and how they can learn
  • how they can develop new shared habits

In our team learning platform we use validated surveys on different aspects of team dynamics such as team cohesion, psychological safety inclusion, team effectiveness.

We use those validated surveys and then we use machine learning to actually generate tailored recommendations to teams as to what they should do, what they can do, and with those two elements we bring them in this learning cycle of:

  1. ASK: assessing the situation
  2. ANALYSE: understanding what’s needed
  3. ACT: moving to action, and keeping that cycle going on.

The next time they take a survey or they receive recommendations it will take into account their history. We want to bring those teams into a learning mode and a learning cycle.

On the team level, we can take their history of actions into account and monitor the evolution but also on a more meta level we can compare many different teams over many organisations and improve what we call then the ‘recommendation engine‘.

Consider it like your Spotify account, your Netflix account: based on your behavior, you will get other recommendations and so based on what a team does but also based on what we discover in the data on which actions were best, in which context, the recommendation will improve over time.

As soon as a sufficient number of people have filled out the survey and we know some stuff about the context, teams will get instant recommendations.

Our platform shows the results in the most transparent way to every team member. And we have very detailed scripts and recommendations on how teams can have a good dialogue around it, on how to involve every single voice in the dialogue, to come to a shared understanding, and then in the next step to a shared commitment on what to do next.

Giving back ownership and direction​

Our experience with operational team leaders or even business leaders is that you don’t have to convince them: most managers are more than willing to to work on the team dynamics and to try to improve the quality of collaboration or the engagement of their people, but they just don’t know HOW because it’s not in their expertise.

And they’re very grateful if they get concrete pragmatic, actionable recommendations.

It’s not a “one off event”: if you succeed in installing regular habits, then you create this opportunity for a good chat and for a good team connection and team dynamics, it gives ownership, but it also gives them a direction.

How can companies and team members use the data?​

Before moving to actions, we want teams to have a good dialogue first to understand the results, to do some collective sense making around it. 

Not to find excuses, but to guide them through an understanding:

  • Where can we improve?
  • Where is our team dynamic going wrong today?

Our recommendation engine highlights a number of those areas for improvement and then very concretely describes actionable things that teams can do. 

So if there’s a problem with giving and asking feedback then teams will receive a recommendation on an actionable practice that they can implement within their team sessions.

We call this interaction scripts and they can be about all sorts of things. For example openly sharing and discussing mistakes in your team meeting like “failure rounds” every week, or every month in the planned team meeting.

So we actually nudge them towards a certain way of interacting that makes it predictable and safe for people.

What if you’ve already tried employee surveys before and they did not work?​

Regardless of the type of business you’re in, it will always be about people feeling comfortable to share things, feeling accepted for who they are and then being capable of giving the best version of themselves to the team.  

What we do take into account also in the recommendations is your practical context. Not every team operates in the same way in the production environment.

One of our clients is a big player in the pharmaceutical industry. Their context is very peculiar in the sense that in the research department you have people collaborating around the table planning their new clinical trials. Whereas in the logistics department it’s a very operational blue collar environment and people don’t sit around the meeting table all day. Okay, so that context will also determine the type of recommendations people get.

 It’s all about feeling included, feeling part of the team, being comfortable with speaking up, with sharing ideas, but the context might ask for some some different actions.

Is the Jigso Listen tech set-up a long, slow process?​

No, no, no. We’ve developed this as a SaaS solution.

You can start with it instantly. There’s no connection needed with your HCM or HRIS or LMS. However, connection is possible: we can tap into your LMS system and even use your library of trainings and scripts to plug into our library. 

Why prioritise improving teams?​

There’s tons of of research available that shows that if people feel included, if your team cohesion is high, if the psychological safety in your team is high, then you will see it in the business outcomes and in the people outcomes.

If you don’t invest in that, your risk for absence and turnover will increase significantly

And so, we should move our focus from the individual skills and talents to the team as a unit of thinking and as a blocker or an accelerator for performance. 

What are the free resources JiGSO offers to employers?​

As a result of our work with tons of customers in the in the boutique consultancy firm, which is called Beanmachine, we’ve developed a whole library of very practical actionable scripts or templates that require no additional consulting that a team (leader) can just consult in the JiGSO Listen platform and start working on very concrete topics immediately. Basically it’s like a very detailed “How To guide” to allow a conversation on a difficult topic like failures or to enable teams to look together to their inclusion practices.

Not on a philosophical or high level way, but really allowing them to look at their actual reality: their day in, day out habits.

What kinds of organisations does JiGSO Listen help?​

We help any company where teamwork and collaboration makes the difference.

Typically it’s also about knowledge workers needing to share ideasreflect together, sit together and find ways to solve complex issues.

But basically regardless of industry, regardless of location, we serve from logistics companies, to pharmaceuticals, to banking, insurance, professional services, you name it, any organisation that struggles with collaboration. We are more than happy to help them.

What future changes does Hans see coming in HR and the world of work?​

All the talk about these big changes in the disruption sometimes makes me feel uncomfortable because the end of the day it’s still all about people. 

And the psychology of people will not change that quickly. So rather than looking for the next big thing or trend you need to be ready for, I would say, let’s focus on the essence of things and regardless of all the geopolitical changes or technological changes that are coming towards us.

We still need to understand how people function. We need to have some good understanding of human psychology of social psychology and, based on that, create the right environments, get the best out of people and make them thrive and that’s no different today than it was 50 years ago or 100 years ago.

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About the author

Hans Donckers

Hans is co-founder of JiGSO and also co-founder of Beanmachine, a consultancy firm in the domains of Organizational Development and HR. Before becoming a consultant and entrepreneur he was a doctoral researcher in philosophy and ethics.

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