Dilemma Reconciliation & Servant Leadership: How HR Can Make Tough Decisions

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Dilemma Reconciliation & Servant Leadership: How HR Can Make Tough Decisions

Many HR professionals had to make tough decisions this year and will probably have to make some more in the (near) future. Perhaps it’s time for a new way to look at these decisions. In this article, we talk about reconciliation and servant leadership as two big opportunities for HR to make a difference in that regard.

Dilemmas and different cultures
Reconciliation as a competency
How reconciliation helps HR make decisions
Servant leadership
On a final note

This article is a round-up of a great conversation I had with Fons Trompenaars, during a recent episode of AIHR Live. If you rather watch the video, you can find the entire interview here:

Dilemmas and cultural differences

NV: A dilemma is a situation in which a choice needs to be made between two opposites that both have their advantages. An example is the choice between short term and long term. Our cultural differences & values make the management of certain situations – such as the recent pandemic – more suitable for one culture than another. How did you see different cultures respond?  

FT: First of all, our work is characterized by dilemma-thinking and I’ve never seen so many dilemmas as we have now since the beginning of the COVID-19 pandemic. This is one of the reasons we worked on an app, so that people could test their COVID-19 resilience themselves. The data gathered in the app formed the basis of the empirical side of our book.

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In our book, we have distinguished 23 dilemmas in total. Since that is a bit much, we focused on the 7 main ones, like on the one hand we need to comply to rules, on the other we need to be flexible. 

One of the meta dilemmas in the COVID-era is health versus economy and high tech versus high touch. We tested these dilemmas by asking people things like ‘how do you think your organization scores on compliance?’ and ‘how do you score on being flexible with the rules if circumstances change?’ For those countries that score high on both, we assume that they are reconciling the two. 

We asked a second question, namely ‘what do you think people in your society, in your culture, do?’ And so we had 2 scores, the individual score, and the group score and we did some correlation analysis.

To give you the result in a nutshell: on all 7 dilemmas, when we look at how well individuals and nations have reconciled those dilemmas, it correlated very significantly, in all 7 cases, with the number of deaths. 

We have looked at the best measure, namely how many more deaths did you have compared to last year. And we’ve taken that excess mortality as a basis.

Now, one of the surprising results is that by far number 1 and 2 are things that relate to the HR community:

  • things that relate to ‘what do you do to make sure that you combine learnings from the outside with learnings from your own community?’ and;
  • secondly, the quality of leadership which we call servant leadership. 

The question is what can HR do to combine outside signals with inside knowledge and secondly, what can we do to increase the quality of our leaders?

Reconciliation as a competency

NV: You call the navigation of culture differences reconciliation. You go as far as to say that people may need a reconciliation competency to solve dilemmas.

FT: We have been woking 40 years on advising people to understand cultural differences. We are saying that cultural differences – these can be corporate cultures, discipline cultures, gender diffences, national differences – will lead to tensions that we call dilemmas. Because a dilemma means that there are two opposites that you both like. For example global vs. local. 

In the US, one talks easier about global than local, in France, it’s the opposite. We found that choosing between two opposites is the worst you can do because if you go global at the cost of local, you miss out on something and vice versa. 

Reconciliation is the art of combining. It’s asking the question ‘what can I do locally to help my company become more global, and what can I do globally to help the company become more sensitive to local demands?’ 

My final point; reconciliation is not the same as compromising. In fact compromising is as win-lose as making a choice. Reconciliation is combining opposites which leads to integrity because integrity is creating wholeness through the integration of opposites. 

NV: How can people develop this reconciliation competency? 

FT: Nature and nurture play a role of course. There are born reconcilers. In our research we have a pretty large database where we measure reconciliation. This has 4 aspects:

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  • how good are you in recognising diversity around you 
  • respect that diversity
  • the actual idea of reconciliation 
  • realisation 

Footnote: females in general are better in reconciling than men. 

To train this competency you can start by asking different questions. As soon as you see a dilemma you will realize that most complex problems are dilemmas. If you start asking questions like ‘why?’ you come to the core. and you’ll see it’s a dilemma. 

Then you can ask what can I do with value X to get more of value Y. The art of asking the right questions is one that can help tremendously, also in HR. You can create a context around you that forces you to become a better reconciler, a servant leader.

For example, I have HR experience at Shell, an Anglo-Dutch company. We had a joined venture with the Japanese and they were complaining that all the bonuses were based on individual output. Individuals got bonuses based on their individual performance. The Japanese were saying that was jeopardizing our team spirit. We said now this is a multicultural team how can we create a reward system that makes people work together and respect both cultures?

We decided that 50% of the variable pay would go to individuals under one condition: who’s the best team player and the teams had to make presentations around what the team had done to make an individual excel. That is in reward systems a reconciliation.

If you, as a leader, a forced to follow that reward system because you’re part of it yourself then the environment around you will almost force you to think in reconciling terms. 

Let me give you another example. At Shell, we had 5 basic appraisal qualities, close to competencies, according to which we judged the quality of a person. Both in recruitment and in the performance/functioning. The 5 were called the HAIR system:

  • the Helicopter
  • power of Analysis
  • Imagination
  • sense of Reality and effective leadership  

I did a correlation analysis combining the HAIR with the potential of people which was also measured. Out of that analysis, we found that only two out of the 5 qualities were correlated on our site of the company in the north of Amsterdam.

Those were imagination, which had a negative correlation and power of analysis. The others didn’t correlate. So we said wow, the more imagination you have the lower your potential, the system was not made like that. Nevertheless, it could be explainable. 

Then we did the same thing in Germany. There, leadership was number 1, sense of reality was number 2 and the others didn’t correlate. In France, imagination scored positively as number 1. This is how we found that there was a cultural bias in the performance appraisals. What we did is we had 3 dual axes:

  • Imagination on one and sense of Reality on the other 
  • Power of Analysis on one and Power of Synthesis on the other 
  • the third one local companies could decide what they wanted to use

People scored on a grid of 10 by 10. As a result, the correlations in every culture were significant and high on the potential measured by independent sources. That is an example of how by context with a performance system you could stimulate people to think in ‘oh, power of analysis is not good enough, you need to combine this with power of synthesis’ etc. 

So coming back to the question of developing a reconciliation competency: training, asking the right questions, forming a culture where you encourage people to think in terms of dilemmas – and that dilemmas are ok – and creating a context by your models – because don’t forget,  most of our existing models are bi-polar, not inviting for reconciliation (are you an introvert or are you an extravert, are you thinking or are you feeling, you need to combine!).

Servant leadership

How reconciliation can help HR make tough decisions

NV: How can reconciliation help HR make tough decisions under pressure? Can you share an example?

FT: There is a wonderful example of a company in the US. They needed to cut costs. As such, they calculated that they needed to fire 30% of their people to be break-even. They told their people this and they said, we will need to do this unless you find a better way. Oh, and, by the way, you have a day. 

This was a company of about 400 people. At the end of the day, they had an agreement; the top would reduce their income by 30% so the bottom had to do a bit less and if the CEO would do the same and reduce his costs – meaning have a bit less dividend – then we’re all in great shape. 

To cut a long story short: the CEO followed their advice. the company survived and never had such motivated people. This is a reconciliation example of what servant leaders would do rather than just firing people.

Servant leadership

NV: Why servant leadership? In terms of crisis, one could think that a strong leader is the best option?

FT: There is a bit of a myth that says in crises you need strong leaders. We have seen strong leaders and we have seen the results; they are disastrous. I’m not saying the opposite either, that you need weak leaders, no, we need servant leaders and servant leaders combine listening with speaking, top-down with bottom-up and we have found the confirmation for this in our data.

A servant leader is a bit like a good father or mother. They can be very strong, but their strength lies not in shouting a lot. Sometimes they play the horse with the child on their back and then they play the dominant role when for instance dinner is ready. 

Servant leaders have one purpose in mind: how can I enable others to perform better? A servant leader can fire people, but they do it out of tough love. Servant leaders always reconcile dilemmas like group solidarity and individual accountability. A servant leader is a person that combines opposites. 

We are seeing more and more companies that are now going into so-called yin and yang values. These are values that are combining opposites in one sentence. Example: We go for collaboration. We say, what about individual accountability? Or: We go fo innovation. We say, what about compliance? We go for ambition. We say, what about prudence?

These are values from a company called CDPQ. During the financial crisis, they were almost going bankrupt because of their values. They called me and said Mr. Trompenaar, we read an article by you and we implemented it. Their wonderful Head of HR showed me 3 pictures of the elevators in the company. On one door they had the old values: Ambition, and on the other Prudence. One on door Innovation, on the other Rigor. One on door Collaboration, on the other Individual accountability. 

What we have helped them with is what kinds of behaviors do you want to see in your organization so you can use ambition to be more prudent. Or so you can be more prudent through ambition. Because if you’re ambitious without prudence you are reckless and it doesn’t work. If you’re prudent without ambition you’re a coward and it doesn’t work. It’s always the combination of values that works and that’s what servant leaders do, they bring together opposite values.

NV: So what they do is, they reconcile.

FT: Yes. We thought about a leadership model that would work in a multi-cultural environment. Because traditional literature on leadership is very much oriented towards the country the author is from.

But if you look at all the icons of big religions they are all servant leaders. Billions of people are following them. In HR, we need to translate what can we learn from these icons. Mandela is another example. After 26 years of jail, instead of saying let’s kill these bloody whites, he said what can I do to help South-Africa. He can be tough and he can be mild. 

Future challenges for HR

NV: What do you think can be the main challenges for HR during a second or third wave?

FT: Part of the answer is beyond Covid since we will have other crises. I would focus on leadership first. We have developed a new app that includes not only nationalities but also corporate culture; is your corporate culture ready for the main dilemmas that not only we have found but that the people in your organization have found as well?   

Another dominant one is digitalisation. People are tired of their screens, they want to see people. Wanting to see people can raise a dilemma though since you put your health at risk. So what are the questions you can ask: what can I do with digitalisation that deepens our relationship? What can I do with face to face that makes our digital approach more relevant?  

Through our app we try to measure a company’s dilemmas in 4 areas:

  • culture
  • design – including physical design
  • technology
  • process

Out of the app we do an analysis of the average of the company, this can be done by discipline. We give you the top 4 dilemmas, one in each area. We have developed a conference where within the organization we can work on these dilemmas according to 6 steps. 

The outcome is that not only the dilemmas are the results of people themselves rather than outsiders telling you and secondly the reconciliations are made by people themselves as well.  

I think HR can create an enormous energy in the organisation by following that type of logic.

On a final note

NV: Where do you think that the biggest opportunities lie for HR?

FT: Finally, people realize that a difference can be made in dilemma reconciliation. That is true in values, in behavior, in models. If we think about hey, we need both sides and especially the interaction between both sides, then we can make an enormous difference as HR professionals.

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