How HR Can Help Executives Change & Lead with the Heart

By Craig Donaldson

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Craig Donaldson is editor of Inside HR magazine, and is responsible for the strategic planning, creation, production and ongoing development of the magazine, its online presence and social media platforms. Craig has been a journalist and editor for 15 years, and written for a range of HR and business publications locally and internationally, with a focus on driving effective organisational results through people.


There are two main reasons why executives are struggling to cope with organisational change, according to a global leadership expert, who said HR plays an important role in helping such executives better manage themselves first – in order to deliver better organisational leadership
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“I don’t think executives cope well with the rate of change going on in their organisations these days,” said Philip Merry, a leadership and change expert and CEO of global consulting firm PMCG.

“The main issue is the sheer complexity of organisations in today’s world.

“Leaders are bombarded with issues which come at them instantaneously, as opposed to the past where they had space and time to reflect or pause before needing to respond,” said Merry, who has worked with global leaders and teams in more than 100 cities across 57 countries.

A second major issue for executives struggling with change is the need to manage team members who are making increased demands for personal involvement and autonomy.

“Organisations do expect people to work in the evenings and the weekends,” he said.

“So the speed of a communication has become both a blessing and a curse.”

Leaders and teams need to adapt to the speed, because if they don’t, “they lose the deal”.

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“The speed of a communication has become both a blessing and a curse”

Another challenge is in customers, who expect a more nuanced service which is human and able to anticipate their needs.

However, Merry observed that staff on more stressed and burnt-out than ever, and so not able to deliver on these customer expectations.

“I think that there is also a weariness and worry, as people look at the world,” he said.

“Things do seem to be more chaotic, and organisations need to understand their impact on their staff and somehow help them deal with these challenges,” he said.

“For example, I know it’s a long time ago, but I remember conducting a leadership workshop in Macau at the time of Tiannaman Square.

“I could not just continue the leadership agenda as I had planned it, and I remember well that most of the days were spent discussing implications for Macau and Hong Kong in terms of what was happening in China.

“Now I’m not saying that leaders need to start work and discuss international affairs, but I am saying that it is a block to dealing effectively with change, and leaders need to take account of this in the way that they manage and lead.”

“The major issue is the mindset that says you have to do everything yourself to prove that you are an effective leader”

For executives who are struggling on a personal front to deal with an increased rate of change, Merry observed that the biggest gap is in the area of managing people.

“Leaders are incredibly well qualified in a whole variety of skills which help them achieve great things on the practical side of their role, such as getting product to market,” he said.

“The major issue is the mindset that says you have to do everything yourself to prove that you are an effective leader.”

The challenge is to manage team members who are searching for a sense of meaning in what they do, Merry explained.

“And I don’t just mean millennials,” he said.

“The whole variety of factors have come together to make today’s team the most exciting and the most challenging in a long time.”

“Team members want to be able to do a job that matches their unique skill-set and personality, and they are looking for a sense of meaning in what they do, because they have a more holistic approach to the life where they want to integrate work and personal issues.”

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“You cannot help your staff deal with purpose or meaning if you yourself have no meaning”

These are tough issues for today’s leaders to manage, and because of the fast pace of today’s organisations, he said leaders do not have the time to reflect using logic and rationale alone.

“To manage both their individual team members as well as the speed required they need to trust the heart as well is the head,” he said.

“And this is not easy.”

However, there are a number of steps both HR and executive leaders can take to help do this, and Merry said that whatever leaders are asking of their own staff – they need to ask of themselves.

“You cannot help your staff deal with purpose or meaning if you yourself have no meaning,” he said.

“So leaders need to walk the talk before they can help others.

“This requires self-awareness of their own emotions and the ability to reflect on where they are on the journey of life.

“Otherwise they will be seen as inauthentic,” he said.

“If leaders are asking their staff to combine the head and heart in the decisions they make at work, then clearly leaders must be able to do that themselves,” he said.

“Executives feel stuck, because they have sacrificed a personal sense of meaning at the altar of organisational efficiency”

“And this really gets exciting, because I do believe we are living in an organisational age that is shifting from a Newtonian age to a paradigm of holism, where both mind and heart need to work together to deal with today’s challenge,” said Merry.

“More and more in my coaching work all over the world, I am finding that executives feel stuck, because they have sacrificed a personal sense of meaning at the altar of organisational efficiency.

“They need to recover that,” he said.

In recent times, there has been a new focus on heart and research by the HeartMath organisation, said Merry, who works with executives to develop their ability to understand the heart’s role in stress regulation, and intuitive decision-making and problem-solving.

“With rigorous scientific research, they have shown that the heart is intimately connected to the brain in regulating the way in which executives make decisions.

“It’s not just an organ that pumps blood around the body; HeartMath has shown that the heart sends more messages to the brain than vice versa, and actually found that the heart has its own brain with short- and long-term memory.”

HeartMath is working globally with major organisations to help a variety of professionals and executives from a range of sectors including healthcare, government and the military to help them access the power of the heart.

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“They have shown that the heart is intimately connected to the brain in regulating the way in which executives make decisions”

“Heart will become more and more important in the days and years to come,” said Merry.

“In today’s fast-paced world, HR needs to develop the skills themselves and help staff in training programs to grow the ability of the head and the heart to work together.”

Merry said that the business world is at the beginning of a major paradigm shift, where ideas from quantum mechanics are beginning to impact many disciplines.

“And these ideas have the biggest impact in the whole area of managing complexity,” he said.

Merry observed that effectiveness and success are as much concerned with what goes on inside people – as with what happens outside.

Values, personality, brain wiring, genes, beliefs and attitudes (or internal processes) have an enormous impact on people view “reality”, and Merry said this governs the way people act as leaders, managers or followers.

“Thus, to maximise effectiveness, success, and happiness it is important that we understand how these internal processes run our lives, and develop ways to move beyond them to new ways of being,” he said.


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