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Secrets of Human-Capital Management 【May 2015】

Going through the motions

By David Creelman


Even the best people management techniques don’t deliver much if managers just go through the motions. Dr. Charles Scherbaum (CUNY) has done research showing that recognition improves employee performance; however, if you require managers to give more recognition, the risk is that they will just go through the motions and not achieve any meaningful result. Essentially: the research showed sincere recognition worked; I’d hypothesize that non-sincere recognition wouldn’t.

The same phenomenon occurs in selecting new hires. There are many approaches to assessing candidates, but Jeffrey Pfeffer’s classic The Human Equation, leads me to believe that what matters most is managers putting real effort into whichever approach they use. If they are deeply concerned with digging deeply and finding if the person is a fit then the process is likely to work well, if they are just going through the motions then the most scientifically designed techniques may disappoint.

I’d encourage you to pause for a moment to answer this question: “Are there any processes your organization has in place that are undermined because managers don’t take them seriously?” Write the answer down, because if you named a process then you’ve named a problem that shouldn’t be ignored.

How do we know if managers are just going through the motions?
The point of going through the motions, as opposed to doing nothing, is that from a distance it looks like you are complying with policy. If no one enquires too deeply, it may look like all the relevant boxes are being ticked. This is one of the disadvantages of relying on metrics: if you just look at the numbers it can give you the false impression that you know what is going on.

However, it is rarely a big secret that managers are not taking some process seriously. All we need to do is get out of our offices and ask the people directly involved. If people “don’t know” this is happening it is usually because they are turning a blind eye to the problem, not that it is hard to find out.

This leads to my second questions: “If managers are just going through the motions, is this allowed to continue because leaders do not know; or because they don’t want to know?”


What can you do?
To change managers’ behaviour we need to start with understanding the cause of the behaviour. A useful framework is that lack of performance may be caused by one of three things: lack of opportunity, lack of motivation or lack of skill.

• Lack of opportunity may not be a literal lack of opportunity to do the process correctly, but rather a lack of time or energy. If managers are overly stretched, they may feel they don’t have time to do a good job on people management. Dealing with lack of time and energy is a gnarly problem. The knee jerk reaction is to try to force compliance, but, we need to be thoughtful about how much work we pile on managers. It may be better to cut out the activity all together if it can’t be done properly.

• Lack of motivation may be surprising since you would imagine that managers would be highly motivated to achieve excellence in people management. However, they often believe HR techniques won’t make a difference and hence are not motivated to do them well. Motivating people is a sprawling topic, and may vary from manager to manager; however if this is the cause then it is worth applying your know-how in motivation to effect a cure.

• Lack of skill is always a possibility and in some ways that is the easiest to remedy since we know how to deliver training or coaching. In fact, one of Scherbaum’s findings was that training managers on how to give recognition led to even better outcomes.


What if managers’ behaviour cannot be changed?
If managers are just going through the motions one solution is to drop the process. If, for example, goal setting is just a pretend exercise with no significant impact, and attempts to change that have failed, then HR should seriously consider abandoning the process. We tend to only celebrate new things that we add, but we should also celebrate the brave decision to stop doing something that is not working.

In many ways going through the motions is an extension of Jeffrey Pfeffer’s knowing-doing gap. Pfeffer says we know what to do in people management, but we fail to do it. Sometimes we go as far as knowing what to do and then pretending to do it. That’s may be worse that not doing it at all. Facing up to the uncomfortable reality of what is going on, rather than living with illusion that managers are executing good people practices, is the mark of good HR leader.



David Creelman is CEO of Creelman Research, providing writing, research and speaking on human-capital management. He works with a variety of academics, think tanks, consultancies and HR vendors in Canada, the U.S., Japan, Europe and China. Mr. Creelman can be reached at