Join the HR (R)evolution with Eileen Dunn

HR's Transformation into People and Culture Leadership

August 21, 2023


Eileen Dunn

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“Change is taxing. But that doesn't mean that it can't be done.”

In this thought-provoking episode, we are thrilled to have Eileen Dunn, an esteemed Organizational Psychologist and People+Culture leader with a passion for humanistic design. Drawing from her remarkable journey in the tech industry, Eileen explores the simple yet transformative steps that can lead to significant change within HR. Prepare to shift your perspective and be inspired to make a difference in your workplace.

Connect with Eileen and be part of the evolution!

Podcast transcript

Eileen Dunn: Change is taxing, but that doesn't mean that it can't be done piecemeal and in right sized ways and in ways that are incremental. Right? And it's really about the investment in that change. And if the investment is there, if the time and focus and energy is going to be committed to it, it can be done

Janine Ramirez: I am honored to introduce our next guest, Eileen Dunn.

She's an accomplished organizational psychologist with a passion for building people and culture systems in tech, star dot with a drive for continuous learning, Aileen champion's curiosity, and innovating, and she takes a systemic and humanistic approach to her work. She believes that we're in need of a workforce evolution, and she's here to shed light on why. So, I'm really, really, really excited to channel Aileen's courage to speak truth to power, to help us challenge our own existing notions of HR, I need this, and shake up our perspective. On workplace.

Are you ready for that, Eileen?

Eileen Dunn: I am so ready and really, really excited to be here Janine and looking forward to diving in with you.

Janine Ramirez: Great. Thank you so much for your time and for your thoughts and ideas that you're going to share with us today.

When we met, you

Is HR at a turning point?

really got me fired up when you mentioned that we are in a workplace revolution, like, I legit got goosebumps. So, we need to elaborate on that and share why you believe we're at a turning point.

Eileen Dunn: Absolutely. Yeah. So, we need to evolve our way of doing things so that we're better leveraging the potential of the systems that we're designing and operating in and contributing to.

And I think it will take a revolution of sorts to get there, because we're gonna have to do some intentional reframing of we the operating assumptions that we have when we design these systems and when we create incentive structures and, you know, try to reinforce certain habits and behaviors and how we define performance and success and well-being. We're gonna have to overhaul that really intentionally. So it's a little bit of an evolution and a little bit of a revolution I think to get there.

Janine Ramirez: I have a quick question that maybe is super basic, but I think it might help.

HR or People & Culture?

So I hear that there are so many different names to the team that basically is in charge of the workforce and the people aspect of an organization. And we're hearing that a lot of organizations are shift thing from calling it the HR department to people and culture, talent and culture, people services.

Do you have a preference? And do you think the name may a difference.

Eileen Dunn: Yeah. So I I do think the language matters a lot.

And I think you know, the people and culture function brings such an essential lens to the table with the existing skill sets and priorities in areas of focus already represented.

And I think one of the many things we're good at is knowing which small things matter and what we can do to those small things to yield big differences and impact. And so, I think language is one of those small but meaningful things.

You know, we the people in culture function increasingly is proactive.

It's strategic. It's embedded in how an organization lives and breathes and delivers its product or service.

And so it's counterintuitive to continue to use a term that is outdated. It reflects earlier point in time where human resources was about protecting, you know, the assets of the business and kind of policing employee behavior, but not in a way that was necessarily caring or empowering or you know, proactive. It was a lot more reactive and a lot more, I think people saw aligned with leadership and management.

And so if we really there are a lot of us in this field who have been executing and and advocating for this newer more evolved version of HR, a lot of us are already doing it to the best of our abilities in these environments.

But ultimately, if we're trying to do that under the umbrella of an old outdated term, that's sending mixed messages, and these are kind of the small but meaningful systemic components that really contribute to momentum for change. And so for me personally, I really like people in culture because you can't have one without the other. It really captures the primary focus and and area of of care and contribution.

But, you know, I prefer people over talent, for example, because it just feels more humanistic. So, you know, it's humanistic. It captures the work, and I think it represents that we are a different function than we have historically been.

Janine Ramirez: I like it, name: check! and I

Shift from the 'Future of Work' to the NOW

agree as well that language has power.

And I don't know, it gives you a fresh start even You know what I mean? Like the shift of of the name. But once you do that, there's so much more work that needs to get done to really evolve. So have you pinpointed certain things that you think we're doing wrong or that need to change and improve?

Eileen Dunn: Yeah. So I think you know, one thing that that I would like to see us stop doing is talking about the future of work, because I think it defers accountability and responsibility.

It pushes it off onto somebody else and I think the reality is that like we can start creating that evolution of work now, that the future of work can be now and we just have to commit to that and empower ourselves to kind of roll up our sleeves and start doing what we want to see in the future of work.

I think we need to revisit the language that we use around communicating value propositions to employees about why they would give us their time, their ideas, their passion, their effort, you know, all of this drives the business, instead of asking, which is often what I have heard in the tech startup environments that I've been in, how do we get more for less. Right?

I think we instead need to be asking ourselves, what can we do to convince and reassure people that we are deserving of their time, their energy, their passion, their effort, right? So, that reframe is really important in understanding Why do we need people to drive and fuel a business?

And how are we going to go about convincing them that we're worth their time and energy rate.

I think we need to reframe our metrics of success and our language of success as well. So, what has historically, what has high performance looked like How have we measured it?

What are the demographics of folks who have been captured in those outdated metrics, right?

How have we measured what a valuable contribution is from an employee? You know, I think productivity has been king historically, right? And I think, like, we need to start understanding that it's not just the amount of work, it's the quality of the work and the value of it, right? And how do we, are we measuring the impact of employee contributions, right?

If somebody is a, has incredible skills in nurturing connections with colleagues on their team, and cross functionally as well, how do we measure those impacts? Right? Is that being folded into how we are measuring their performance?

And then I think most importantly is what is effective leadership look like. Right? We There are really, super outdated frameworks for what a leader looks and sounds and acts like and until we recognize that those outdated tacit assumptions have suppressed so much creativity, innovation, really valuable perspective and and different experience, we're gonna continue to keep spinning our wheels. Right? There there are a lot of people who have been kept on the sidelines from accessing leadership roles and delivering the value that they're capable of delivering And so I think reframing how we understand and look at leadership is going to be really key too.

And then I think also you know, we reframing our tacit assumptions of what brings the best out of people, I think from a really high level, organizations are designed to see the people as a means to an end, right? And it's like how do we, how do we how do we structure the work of these people to make sure that they're getting their work done on time and they're doing what's expected of them. And when they step out of line, we're there, and if they're not performing, we're there, and they're gone, It's it's kind of like really it's super patriarchal. It's really patronizing.

It's really it really doesn't reflect what we know and understand about humans at their best and the environments that they need in order to thrive and execute to the best of their abilities, right? Humans need to feel psychologically safe. Humans need to feel valued, they need to feel fulfilled. And when they feel those things, they do their best work, and we don't I think humans are, there's this kind of like, I think really, really funny assumption that like if we're not touching somebody, they're gonna just, like, laze about and do nothing.

Right? I think I don't think we give humans enough credit. Right? We are purpose driven creatures, and we're wired to work.

Like, we I think it is good humans want to work and contribute value.

The problem is if you're not going to create the conditions for them to do so in the way that is true to themselves, right? And in a way that speaks to them and in a way that meets their unique needs, then yeah, they're gonna check out. Right? Like, then, yeah, we're gonna keep having this kind of like, you know, this this ongoing narrative of like, you work and then you die, right?

It's like, that doesn't have to b e the case. I think people can love work and work can create incredible impacts in business and with clients and across all industries, but we just have to kind of shift some things there.

Janine Ramirez: Absolutely. Like one, I feel that that's kind of pre pandemic thinking, you know, to, okay, I got to watch over these people and make sure they're working because they're not gonna do it if I'm not on their case.

But now we have the data that people were more productive and working too much when they weren't supervised, when they were at home. Right.

Another thing I see, it sounds like it's a lot of just kind of shifting perspective. Right? Reframing, like, thinking of it in a different way, and therefore, once we do, hopefully,

Who is leading the (R)evolution?

like our actions and our systems kind of follow through.

Janine Ramirez: But in my experience, even for the thing, sometimes you do see the light, right? You you can see the other side of it and the other perspective and then you view, but you need someone or an organization to show you what that actually looks like in a system. So Exactly. Are you seeing any industries kind of taking the lead on this and showing us how it should be done.

Eileen Dunn: So I would say I don't think we're there yet. I don't think we see any clear front runners who are holding the flag of humanistic design and and, you know, sallying forth and leading this, you know, acting as Pied Pipers for movement. I don't think we're seeing that yet, But there are absolutely a lot of conversations being had in well respected spaces of thought leadership and management leadership and science and economics, and you know there are a lot of people starting to say, this isn't sustainable.

Resources are finite. Humans are finite. Like, we cannot continue to operate in a way that is detached from sustainability and humanistic design. Right?

So, for example, Don Norman, who is a He is kind of like one of the grandfathers of user centered design, and he recently came out with a book about What's the it's it's called like designed for humanity, I think. I haven't read it yet, but it's on my read list. But I was listening to an interview.

Janine Ramirez: We'll look for it!

Eileen Dunn: Oh, beautiful. Perfect.

Yeah. And he he was just talking in this interview about the recognition that our our systems in society were not designed with humans in mind, and they were not designed to include an understanding and appreciation for our interconnectedness with nature, right? Our interconnectedness with each other within our our country domestically, but also internationally as well. Right?

Like, there's this disconnect of like, oh, I have this phone. I don't really care what it took for it to get here. Right. Right?

How much exploitation of humans and children and and the environment brought it here, there's a disconnect there. And he's saying, we don't have to, that doesn't have to be our destiny, right? That we can instead start framing the way that we create these systems and incentive structures, not just in work, but in politics and government and education, and we can all it takes is, you know, little steps getting the right people involved at the right time, and then eventually the momentum will shift in a way that is a forcing function for everybody to basically get on board. So it's not going to happen overnight, but I do think that when you have an influential thought leader like Don Norman and you see articles coming out from Mackenzie and corn fairy about sustainability needs to be that like that is the horizon is for sustainability and humanity centered designed to be what what steers these things.

Eileen Dunn: And I think

Hope in Tech and Gen Z

tech startups are uniquely positioned to potentially be the Pied Pampers here or at least like the proving ground in these early days because they are already they kind of position themselves as, you know, like they have their own playbook, They want to play by their own rules. Right? They're kind of like anti establishment. They're usually disrupting one industry or another.

Right? But where a lot of them fall short, I think, is that they are still operating with the same old playbook for what success looks like. Right? So it's like their innovation stops short, and I think there are really, there are some, there's a demographic of forward thinking progressive holistically intelligent tech startups that are either humanistic in their design and in their product or sustainable or both. And I think these are the these are folks who are going to be the proven ground for this evolution, because they are already starting from ground one or ground zero rather day one with we understand the importance of humans and human factors and all the complexity that comes with it in baking that into our DNA and how we design ourselves, how we operate, and how we how we execute. So, I think that's where we're going to start to see a lot more change.

Janine Ramirez: Yeah, I mean, just the idea When you're in a tech startup, the culture is about testing, like failure is okay, just tested. We'll see what the results are, and then we'll adjust.

And, I mean, I love that culture, but I don't know if it's the same kind of thinking when it comes to managing people.

I hope so. I hope that's where we're headed because you're right. There are the conversations starting, and I guess that's how humans evolve. Right? That's like, thinking, then talking about it, kind of processing, studying, and then acting.

Eileen Dunn: And also, be hopeful, Janine, because it's going to happen, right? Like there are, you know, Gen Z is really, they're not willing to put up with the same things that us millennials were or, you know, our parents' generation for us and workplaces like they're not willing to put up with it and rather than, you know, lament how entitled they are, we actually have a lot to learn from Gen Z, because they are, they're kind of a litmus test for the extent to which we are willing and able to accommodate the unique needs of the people driving the business, and that's a strong incentive, I think, because gen z is makes up a big part of the workforce, right?

And you also have women, bipoc, LGBTQ plus people, neurodivergent folks, who are increasingly fed up with the lack of follow through that they have seen in organizational systems on creating inclusive environments where their contributions are valued and recognized, not in paths on the head, right? But in title changes and compensation changes, right, and being put into leadership positions. Right? People are running out of patience understandably.

And so, you know, there's there's a lot of data there if we want to pay attention to it and smart to respond to it.

Janine Ramirez: This is bringing

It's simple but not easy.

me to another topic that I kinda wanna discuss. You mentioned like different diverse groups that are fed up and demanding change. One of the other topics that we touched on when we first spoke was like how do organizations adapt to a dynamic workforce, like how do they kinda shift and change depending on the different preferences of employees. And I remember you saying it's not as heavy of a load as we think. And that surprised me, because in my head, it's a lot of work, you know, for an organization to do that. So could you just, like, tell us why isn't it as difficult as we think it is?

Eileen Dunn: Yeah. So I think one thing that I am a huge proponent of in in my own life, but also in my work is creating more space for complexity and nuance in paradox because that is what defines our existence. Right? Like that is, those are inescapable facets of being human. And I think it's one of the big things that organizations miss out on.

And so the paradox here is that I think these changes are simple but not easy.

So they're not easy because anything that is novel to us, anything that is new or unknown, unfamiliar, is incredibly metabolically taxing for us on a neurobiological level. Right? And that's a large part why we're also exhausted after the last few years, right, particularly a peak COVID, right? It just was an assault on all of our neurobiological systems to process and make sense of this novel situation we found ourselves in, right?

And so on an on an individual, but on a systemic level, change is taxing.

But that doesn't mean that it can't be done piecemeal and in right size ways and in ways that are incremental, right? And it's really about the investment in that change. And if the investment is there, if the time and focus and energy is going to be committed to it, it can be done simply.

And I think the broad stroke way to look at it is that we already have we know what it takes to create an effective functioning system, right? Like we need processes, we need tools, we need frameworks, we need support systems, and all we need to do is revisit all of those components of our systems and ensure that they are woven with threads of humanistic complexity basically and in the areas where they're not, and I think would be shocked at even the smallest ways that we stumble across that are, how could this possibly be used, and how could we possibly think that this would be effective given what we know about human complexity, right?

So we revisit these things and we just, we tweak them, we rework them, we recalibrate them, we adjust the language, we adjust the process, we adjust the incentives, and I think the end result is something profoundly radical, it is completely almost unrecognizable, but just from weaving those threads of flexibility and complexity and accommodation through the existing structure.

Concrete Examples to Evolve

Janine Ramirez: It's almost like another paradox. Right? It's like flexibility, but structurally, flexibility.

Absolutely. Like some examples, like concrete examples or case studies just so we can wrap our brains around it.

Eileen Dunn: Totally. Yeah. So let me give you an example. So you know, I think one of the things that we often bump up against in people and culture, I'm not even gonna say HR anymore, People in culture faces a lot of uphill battle and resistance in a lot of the work that we do day to day. And if you look at something like leadership development and and management development, for example.

We it's one thing to try and coach managers and leaders to practice and strengthen skills that we know are most effective in managers and leaders. So empathy, compassion, vulnerability, you know, being available to their team members, right, being accommodating to their team members, making sure that they are held accountable for the well-being of their teams, right?

But if we are coaching them on these things and they exist in a backdrop of tacit assumptions that prioritize profit and productivity over people.

They're like there is only so far that they're gonna be able to take those new skills, right, and really commit them and really put them in place. And the system that they're operating in is not going support their success in really driving impactful change with these new skills and frameworks that they're learning.

Whereas, you know, and I think like for those of us who have been in people and leader, people in culture leader roles is that you'll find in those environments then you're having the same conversation over and over with managers and leaders. Remember what we talked about, like this is what it looks like to exercise compassion with your team. This is what it looks like to be accommodating. This is what it looks like to support people.

You're kind of having the same conversations over and over because the system isn't designed. To reinforce what you are trying to teach them. So the structured flexible evolved version is to have like a leadership charter or a manager's standards artifact like a document that says very clearly, we expect you to be accountable for the well-being and success of your teams, this is what that looks like, and your performance will be measured on these areas. Right, your compassion, your empathy, your vulnerability, how safe your team members report feeling with you, right?

Putting that into a document and coaching and and mentoring leaders and managers to understand what it looks like to embody those things, knowing, and there's an incentive for them to do it, because they know their performance is going to be measured on it. Right?

That's where you see that's really the rubber hitting the road, and that's where you start to get mileage in kind of a new way of approaching and operating.

Janine Ramirez: This is reminding me of my conversation with Josh Siegel, who is like the VP of People at one of Canada's best workplaces, and I asked him like how do you make your values real? Because he said like that's the one thing that he loves about where he works. And he was giving these concrete examples of, in the all hands meeting, they call out people that embody the value and like show how they did it. And that just kind of concretizes and connects it in our brain, I guess, at this value equals this kind of action, and the more we see it happening, like the easier it is for everyone to kind of evolve and change in that way. And I love that, but it takes time and it takes work. Yes. It's intentional.


Getting Leaders to Join the Evolution

This is bringing me also to, like, maybe my last two questions that I can merge. You mentioned investment.

Right? Like, this needs an investment.

This is not something that, you know, is completely free for an organization.

And with that you need buy in, right? You also mention, you know, seeing, like, prioritizing people versus prioritizing productivity and profit.

And for me, it becomes kind of scary when an organization has to choose between prioritizing their people and investing in their well-being and just creating and empowering better humans versus their profit. So how do you get the buy in of leadership to change their mindset and get this done?

Eileen Dunn: So I will I wanna call out from the top that this is not going to be possible at least at this stage of where we're at in every organization.

And I think what's been really eye opening for me to see in the last few months as I've had dozens of conversations with people and culture leaders across so many different industries, different parts of the world, is the amount of suffering and struggle and strife that a lot of us find ourselves in in these positions where we care so deeply about the people, we see so strongly, the potential that we have for impacting, their lives, their work, the success of the business, right? And we know that we have the capacity to initiate that impact and deliver that that impact and change.

But we are up against so many barriers because those tacit assumptions held by leadership are not aligned with or conducive to what we are advocating for. And so I think I just wanna acknowledge that We don't have to stay in those environments. I think it's really important for us as individuals, but also for the integrity of this function and the future evolution that it represents that we're going to start putting in place now, right? Like not just the future future like future now, future present, is being really discerning about where we're directing that energy and focus.

So recognizing this isn't the place, I'm gonna find the right place. Right? So that aside, there absolutely is always going to be component of negotiation, influencing, right, you know, gentle, cajoling, or coerced maybe, right? Like, that's always gonna be a part of the job, especially given what we are trying to, the change that we're trying to influence and see.

But I think in the right environment when you can tie your propositions to the goals of the business, when you can identify the pain points that the business is living with and make a compelling case for the changes that you're proposing addressing the pain points and delivering on business goals, it's hard to say no to, right? You just have to have a leader and a leadership team and investors who believe in the power of people and their capacity to deliver so much more than what we've expected of them.

And so I think, like, when those conditions are there, It's a pretty easy case to make.

And I think part of it is, you know, we waste so much time and energy on existing inefficiencies and friction points in organizations all the time, but we're just, it's a status quo. Right? So we just kind of like grumble about it, we live with it, and it's like these these of inefficiencies that we are accustomed to and live with, and grumble about, but can't really figure out how to affect change and I think a lot of them get taken care of by creating these systems that are just more humanistic, you know, like I think we spend a lot less time hemming and hawing over employee engagement when, you know, trying to crack the code.

Right? Like, how are we measuring it? Are the metrics meaningful? How do they change over time?

Like, What are we doing to actually impact change in them? Can we feel confident in the data that we're seeing? Instead of, like, wasting all of our time and energy over those things if we're creating a system that is empowering and enabling employee success and accommodating their needs and nurturing their growth and development.

And allowing them to be complex, humans would be successful in the way that works for them, then Of course, they're engaged. Like, why would they not be engaged? And so I think like we take care of a lot of problems that we see and are trying to solve for and building all of these tools for, that I think like could potentially be solved by just approaching things a little bit differently.

Janine Ramirez: This is definitely sounding

Comrades and Communities

like a revolution. Like, it sounds kind of like a protest. That's why, you know, we know the right way to go, we know this is good for business, maybe we have to find a way to kind of make that even more real. I mean, there are a lot of studies, but, you know, something to make the case like clear to leadership, right? And not standing for it when they don't when they don't support that.

You mentioned And then you got to fit too. And you I don't know. What's your favorite HR community? Or are you building it? If anyone's listening that they just wanna be part of the revolution evolution, where can they go?

Here. That's a different You can subscribe. Yeah. But also

Eileen Dunn: Yeah. That's a great question. I what I'm finding, so I'm part of a handful of membership groups.

So startup experts, people geeks, resources for humans, and the people people group.

And what I have found is people in these spaces who are shouting this stuff from the rooftops, like we are everywhere. It doesn't really matter where which group you look at or look to join or start to engage with, you're going to find a people and culture professional who is talking about these things and talking about them in the in the future tense, like hopefully we can get there someday. And I think the reality is we have to empower ourselves to take the reins and take the leap and drive this change in the way that we know we're capable of doing. But I think, you know, given that we are, I think, inordinately represented by women and people of color, that we are used to deferring to the power of the system and waiting for doors to be open for us, and I think we have a big enough group of passionate, powerful people in this field that we can actually take the leap together and start doing this now.

Janine Ramirez: I really wanna end there because those are inspiring words and getting, like, spouts in the back.

Thank you so much, Eileen. Like, I love this conversation.

I want to help and be part of this revolution because, I mean, these that's our life on the line, our lives -- Yes. -- because work takes up so much of our lives. You know what I mean? We gotta make the future of work now.

Eileen Dunn: You're totally Right. So thank you so much. It was a pleasure, and I don't know. Let's work together to make this happen in.


I'm here for it. I'm here for Janine. Thank you so much. I really enjoyed the conversation. Thank you.

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