Focus on What Is Right With Your Company

Human resources strategy is pretty simple, really. Focus on what motivates your BEST people, and replicate it throughout the organization. Ignore the Death Lizardy consulting firms who’ll tie you in knots trying to introduce some “best practice” they wrecked another company with; instead, look to your organization’s core strengths and values and build from there.

I was recently profiled by Nico Rose, a German Ph.D. and expert on positive psychology and HR. Why anyone would want to profile me — other than a district attorney or two down at the beach — is beyond me, but I thought you might like the article (and his great blog site). In it, I talk about how Coca-Cola Enterprises navigated its way out of a bad morale swamp by shifting our HR framework from a deficit-based one to a strengths-based one.

Nico, who describes himself as “a heavy metal stage hog happily stuck in the life of a loving dad and husband, organizational psychologist, coach and wannabe writer,” asked me how I ended up studying and writing about psychology and work. My answer:

I have always been fascinated by different personality traits. I started my career after graduating from Duke Law in 1980 as a labor and employment litigator and it struck me how important a role personality played in why one employee sues you and another doesn’t, even if their job circumstances are the same. I made partner in a large Atlanta law firm in 1986 but was shortly thereafter recruited by Coca-Cola to help form the new law department of its bottling operations, which it spun off as Coca-Cola Enterprises in the largest IPO in history. My interests in the psychological components of work continued during my career with Coca-Cola Enterprises, where I held a variety of jobs including president of a nine-state, $2 billion operating region, as I developed a firm belief in the link between optimism and positive emotions in employee and corporate performance.

I had the opportunity to put my theories into practice in the latter stages of my career, when I was named head of human resources for the entire company. Frankly, the organization was down. We were under legal assault by small groups of hostile employees. Rather than aggressively defending the claims — which I found spurious — our programs and energies were focused on an agonized self-examination of what we did to prompt such claims. The halls were full of consultants and lawyers and days were consumed by meetings, all focused on what was “wrong” with us and how we could treat it. Not surprisingly, our “disease” was metastasizing, and corporate maladies previously unknown (or non-existent) were being discovered and stern remedies subscribed. Managers and employees forgot about selling Coke and spent their time instead in a variety of “workshops,” the corporate equivalent of Mao’s re-education camps.

Our new HR team decided to flip the paradigm, and look at what was right about the company — a focus on the life above zero, as Marty Seligman says. It didn’t take long to learn that the vast majority of the employee grievances were brought by a handful of perpetually complaining employees, often sponsored by outside interest groups, and were generally unfounded. We also found that most of our employees were quite happy with us as an employer. We starting asking a very basic question of ourselves: “Why is it 95 percent of our HR programs and initiatives are focused on the 5 percent of employees who hate us? Why spend our precious resources and energies on the perpetually dissatisfied few? Why not focus on efforts on those who want to build a better company and believe we can?” Eventually, we resolved our issues quite successfully, the grumblers moved on, and we spent the rest of our time in HR doing things to hire and engage people who were a positive contribution to our company. When I turned 50, it was time to move on, so I joined the Duke Law faculty teaching labor and employment law, while continuing my research into optimism and positive personality traits by receiving a master’s in applied positive psychology at the University of Pennsylvania.

After the interview, I asked Nico about his philosophy of HR. He said he doesn’t really have a “philosophy” per se, but cited a Chinese proverb: “Before you go out to change the world, go three times through your own house.” In other words, he said, “find your strengths first, then go out and use ’em.”

Every organization has something good about it. Successful HR strategy builds from that foundation.