How HR leaders can adapt to uncertain times

Human Resource Management

How HR leaders can adapt to uncertain times

In uncertain times, organisations aim to achieve short-term survival and chart a course for long-term relevance. They can achieve these when the following three conditions are present: positive interpersonal relationships, collaboration between organisational participants, and leveraging all available organisational collective intelligence. Interpersonal relationship, which is the foundation of the other drivers, comes from leaders having the relevant soft skills including:

  • Communication: two-way, truthful, and neutral 
  • Active listening
  • Empathy
  • Ability to build trust and integrity
  • Build a climate that cares for employees, provides an opportunity for them to be part of the decision- making process, make them engaged, agile and resilient.


HR leaders are important in uncertain times because they help the organisation avoid pursuing short-term survival to the point of harming long-term relevance. The productivity of human resources is central in achieving this. HR leaders need a complexity mindset which accepts that in uncertain times, organisations need to be agile and adaptable to constantly changing success factors. This mindset helps them to play four major roles, namely: balancing, umpire, data acquisition plus management, and data and information sharing. 

Balancing Role

HR leaders play an active role in helping the organisation to manage the dilemma created by pursuing short-term survival and long-term relevance simultaneously. They gather data to allow all organisational participants to recognise the need to make tradeoffs to optimise the two goals simultaneously for the organisation’s good. For example, HR leaders ensure that before resorting to laying off or reducing pay/benefit, organisational participants know that this decision is the last resort after other less painful options have been considered.

Umpire Role

HR leaders play the role of umpires to ensure that the needed collaboration between organisational leaders and employees is developed and sustained. They also keep the collaboration active in identifying and using organisational collective intelligence for short-term survival and long-term relevance. To effectively play this role, organisational participants must see HR leaders as credible.  HR leaders are like referees in sports. However, unlike referees, they are not there to identify defaulters to be punished, but to ensure that every organisational participant operates according to the rule of engagement that guarantees collaboration and the leveraging of all the collective intelligence in the organisation. They avoid being overtly tilted towards the organisation or employees, but they  steer  communication along a win-win course.  In doing this, HR leaders ensure that appropriate emphasis is placed on people, process, and profit, and that in arriving at this emphasis, every organisational participant is heard, understood, and cared for while agreeing on ways to handle issues. 

Data Acquisition & Management Role

HR leaders achieve excellence through data gathering and information sharing that facilitate discussions within the organisation – first within groups and then between groups. In a complex environment, it is only  data that is relevant to current situations that drives success.  It is the responsibility of HR leaders to draw meaning from them and interpret them in a way that is beneficial to the organisation. Hence, HR leaders act as ‘consultants’ that continuously acquire  or manage external data on leaders’ skills and employee issues and use such data to facilitate meaningful and beneficial communication that achieves a common understanding of issues and the required win-win solution.  This solution does not mean that every organisational participant gets what they want all the time, but that data provided will make employees aware of the discussions that led to any decision that demands sacrifice from them. Most organisations acquire data yearly, but it may be beneficial to increase the frequency of data acquisition to properly capture trends in organisational behaviour. 

Data and Information Sharing Role

HR leaders need data on employees’ feelings in uncertain times, their level of engagement, agility and resilience,  and their perception of organisational leaders. They need data on how leaders feel about employees, how they relate with them and the level of collaboration between leaders and employees. To organise data in ways meaningful to organisational participants and to drive fruitful discussion, the HR leader must make HR analytics a central function in the department.  This function can no longer be left to IT specialists who have no background in HR. 

With the data, HR leaders facilitate discussion with leaders, and within employees prior to discussion between groups. HR leaders ensure that all organisational participants have adequate information through data which will aid their individual and collective resolution of the main dilemma (short-term survival and long-term relevance). Hence, in uncertain times HR leaders need continuous acquisition and effective organisation of data.


Question to ponder: As an HR leader, how do you facilitate collaboration between your organisation’s leaders and employees? 

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