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HR Debt — Like Technical Debt, But For Organizations

We all know, at some level, there’s a cost to dysfunctional teams, “problem employees”, broken relationships at work. There’s the super-brilliant engineer who nobody wants to work with, but nobody will confront. There’s the team from an acquisition of a year ago who still won’t talk to anybody who doesn’t do things “their way”. There’s the manager who is a lovely person but who keeps changing his mind and then blaming product management, or sales, or marketing, or sun spots. (Feel free to supply your own examples — have a rant! I don’t mind…).

We know this is happening. We know it’s not great. But it hasn’t had a name until now, which makes it hard to grapple with. Giving concepts a name gives us something to grasp on to — naming confers power.

Let’s Call It “HR Debt”

I recently came across this rather terrific post by Jessica Rose. It kind of off-handedly introduced a notion we might call “HR Debt” — the organizational analogue of technical debt.

Coincidentally, a day later, I walked into a client session where the issue was, in fact, fixing up a team that had been badly structured and poorly lead: we spent an hour sorting out the pain, cost and emotional difficulty of getting things set to rights. The notion of “HR Debt” was immediately helpful in naming what we were wrestling with — a set of organizational and people issues that had been left to fester.

We can describe Technical Debt as the cost (time, attention, real money) of avoiding doing things the right way in a codebase. In the short term, the company saves money by not fixing a known architectural issue, by “hard-wiring” a piece of code, not fixing bugs that have “been there forever”, and so on (feel free to provide your own list here, too).

HR Debt is exactly analogous: by putting off dealing with a problem employee, dysfunctional team, broken relationship, the organization saves disruption in the short term, but pays, every day, in time and attention the team puts in to make things work: the morale-sapping arguments, the half-completed conversations, the decisions being put off or fudged to avoid (or create) confrontation. It builds an overhead into pretty much everything the organization does.

As Jes puts it:

“Having your team build informal processes to work around bad actors creates an environment where additional time and energy costs are included in all team activities”

Not only that, but when the time comes to fix it, just like technical debt, the cost is far higher than it would have been originally: people need to be moved or fired, teams rearranged, salaries re-worked, relationships repaired. It takes time, energy and courage to get in there to make the changes.

So what to do when it looks like HR Debt is starting to accumulate?

Do The Hard Thing

Much like addressing Technical Debt, the only way forward with HR Debt is the Do The Hard thing and decide to take it on, now, before it gets worse (one aside here is that although HR Debt may be emotionally harder to confront, in terms of sheer man hours, it’s almost certainly going to take fewer than dealing with Technical Debt).

Hard things have to be said, personalities confronted, difficult conversations need to take place. You will have to say the hard thing, as clearly as possible, probably multiple times, to people who may not want to hear it. It can feel like you are alone, with nowhere to stand.

So how to go about that? What’s a model you can hold onto as you go into those hard conversations?

Radical Candor

Radical Candor is a toolkit for saying hard things so that they are heard. If we boil Radical Candor down to its essence, it is a model for confronting and dealing with difficult conversations effectively. It encourages us to be direct, to tell the truth as we see it, whilst being clear that we actually care about the other person as a human being: that the feedback is not an attack, is intended to fix a situation, help the people involved, and build stronger working relationships. It asks us to “just say it”, whilst respecting the humanity of the person on the receiving end.

In the Radical Candor model, not having the hard conversations, or fudging them (“really things are OK, I’d just like you to maybe consider…”) causes us to drift into “Ruinous Empathy”, where our HR Debt will continue to accumulate. In “Ruinous Empathy”, our fear of confrontation, of having somebody quit, or burst into tear, or simply being hurt, gets in the way of us telling our truth. And HR Debt continues to accumulate.

The concept of “HR Debt” allows us to estimate the cost of staying in “Ruinous Empathy”: how many management hours will be dribbled away by patching over poor behavior? How much real money will be spent on a team which we’re pretty sure will have to be reworked? How much would we save over time if we took on the hard conversations now? If we started to be Radically Candid, how much time, money and attention would the organization begin to save?

Take a Look At Your Organization

Where are you avoiding fixing a dysfunctional team? Where do you have people working around a “difficult character”, spending their days avoiding, fudging and dodging his (or her) crappy behavior — however brilliant he/she is? Where do you have a team that is sitting around waiting for decisions, or swapping from priority to priority on a weekly basis? What hard conversations can he you have now, today, to start reducing your HR Debt?

Take look. Check out some Radical Candor resources (hey, there’s even a book!). Get started.

(Truth in advertising: I work with the Radical Candor team to give training and workshops in the Radical Candor model. I do this because it works)

(this, and more articles and links, in the weekly Tech People Leadership newsletter)