HR Superhero files #4: Don’t be a Westley
I love the Princess Bride. It’s a wonderful movie to make you feel happy with the world. However I realised something interesting recently. Through my HR career I’ve often been too much of a Westley.
For those that don’t know – Westley is the farm boy. Whenever Buttercup asks him to do something, he says “As you wish”.
One of the traps we can fall into in HR, is to be a Westley. Whenever our managers ask us something, we basically tell them ‘as you wish’. Even if we know it’s not the best thing to do. Even sometimes, when we know it’s wrong. But we want to build a relationship with them, we want to be credible, we want to help. It’s just early in our careers we might not have the experience to tell them no.
So how can you be a superhero, help your managers but not do everything they ask?
Here’s what I’ve found works really well:
- Turn it around. When a manager asks you what they should do – say “I’m happy to give you my opinion in a moment but I’m interested to hear what you think you should do first”. This is better than just asking ‘What do you think you should do?’ which sounds like you don’t know the answer – and for many cynical managers, turns them off as they think you’re not going to help. So I’ve found the first statement works well to get them to tell you their thoughts first – and sometimes they realise what the solution is!
- Give them options. A manager asks you to magically fix an issue with one of their team (let’s say it’s an issue with Peter using Facebook too much). Instead of saying ‘as you wish’ and trying to find some way around them having to talk to the person (like an update on Facebook in the company newsletter), tell them “Well I’ve seen a couple of things work in this type of situation. The first one was a manager who had this issue and he had a team meeting and had a discussion about the ground rules of using Facebook at work – but it wasn’t his rules – he asked the team to discuss what was reasonable. Another way I’ve seen it work is for you to ask the person what they think is reasonable with Facebook and see what their thoughts are. You might then talk through the consequences with them”. The manager can then have a think about what approach might work best. Just giving one option doesn’t give any choice. Two or three options gives a manager a choice and shows that you’ve dealt with this situation before.
- Explore: Often the issue isn’t as black and white as it seems. Before trying to even suggest a fix, probe, probe, probe! We do it when we do a recruitment interview but often we’re rushed with managers and jump to trying to fix something (back to the as you wish!). With Peter you might ask “How much time is Peter using Facebook? How’s it impacting on his job? Is it just annoying you? Or others? Have you talked to him before?” Find out the full story first before giving options. In fact Peter might be on Facebook for 5 minutes at his morning tea break, but the manager just hates Facebook and so is letting his/her bias make him/her unreasonable!
- The last method is to summarise. “So, Peter is spending too much time on Facebook and it’s making the rest of the team feel like he’s not pulling his weight. You’d like me to magically fix this without you having to talk to him even though as a manager your job is to talk to your team?” OR “So, Peter’s spending too much time on Facebook and you’d like me to put a special section in the company newsletter – for the 1,300 staff who aren’t using Facebook inappropriately to read – hoping that Peter will read it and realise it’s about him?”
Now if you can do this and make the manager laugh and realise it’s ridiculous – then I’ve found they’ll be more open to listening to your suggestions (see tip 2). However if you can’t pull off making them laugh – then stay away from this option.
In the Princess Bride, Wesley realises that every time Buttercup is asking him to do something (“Get me that pitcher farm boy”), she’s really saying that she loves him. And every time he says ‘As you wish’ he’s saying that he loves her too.
While we don’t want managers and HR falling in love (how many HR policies would that breach!!), if you stop using ‘As you wish’ and try the methods above, I’ve found that you’ll find your managers respect you far more, they try out different ways to fix issues and build their management skills.
And you become an HR superhero!!
As you wish. I’m off to watch the film again.