Meet Dave Ulrich, Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan

Dave Ulrich
November 11, 2021

This article is part of our new State of Employee Feedback Series which will interview a diverse mix of HR experts and thought leaders with a goal of better understanding their perspectives on the current state of and future of HR.

The following is an interview we recently had with Dave Ulrich, Rensis Likert Professor at the Ross School of Business, University of Michigan, and Partner at The RBL Group.

What is the state of the human resources industry today?

The 2020–2021 crises (global health pandemic, political toxicity, social injustice, digital 4.0, emotional malaise, and economic uncertainty) could be called the people/organization crises. And in these last 18 months, the business context has placed human capability challenges even more central to how organizations deliver value to all stakeholders (employee well-being, strategic reinvention, customer share, financial performance, and community reputation).

As a result, HR professionals have the unique challenge to “rise to the opportunity” of increased expectations. The people/organization crises have made human capability a central business agenda and raised expectations on HR professionals. When more is expected, more must be delivered. Think of two restaurants, a diner and a fine dining experience. Which restaurant gets more customer complaints? Inevitably, fine dining because of higher expectations. As expectations have risen for HR in the current crises, HR professionals need to “rise to the opportunity.”

What are the most common challenges you face when managing employee feedback and reporting?

Increasingly, the key to effective performance accountability is less the specific performance appraisal practice and subsequent processes, and more the ability of a leader to have a candid, thorough, positive, and specific performance conversation with employees around employee feedback and reporting. Leaders need to have a mindset of and skills for positive conversations where employees would leave a dialogue feeling better about themselves.  More specifically, leaders  can provide feedback through a three-step affirming performance conversation:

  • “Help me understand…”:  this lead-in frames the leader as coach who wants to help, not as a superior who wants to control.
  • “The data …”:  this discussion introduces specific data about an employee’s performance and behavior.  Focusing on data allows the leader to help the employee know where they stand on specific behaviors and outcomes without judging the personality or style of the individual.
  • “So that we can make improvements …”:  this focuses on the future and what can be better more than on the past and what has gone wrong.

These affirmative conversations are not just a calendared event, but an ongoing process when leaders interact regularly with employees. By learning these productive conversation techniques, almost any performance system could be effective. The most important thing that managers can do to improve performance accountability is to have candid dialogue between leaders and employees. By having these conversations, leaders model how to be transparent about accountability issues without being burdened with complex processes.  

What are 3-5 pieces of advice for organizations in your industry looking to improve their employee feedback culture?

  • Focus on positive conversations more than complex processes.
  • Offer specific feedback on behaviors that can improve performance.
  • Emphasize feed forward on what can be done more than feedback on what has been done.
  • Allow the employee receiving the feedback to monitor his/her own performance.  

Here is a table of emerging practices:

What’s the future of HR?  

HR professionals get invited to business dialogues because they understand value creation, delivery, and capture from the outside-in. Once invited to business conversations, HR participates by offering unique contributions in the areas of talent, organization, and leadership. These three areas of contribution are not new, but they are even more critical in responding to current challenges and discovering future opportunities.

First, talent. Traditionally, HR offered unique insights around individual competence (called workforce, skills, talent, or people). Talent-related efforts can evolve to be viewed outside-in to respond to changing times by ensuring that the right competencies are those that deliver customer and investor value, and by linking employee experience to customer experience. Many suggest that “people are our most important asset,” but today, that should be modified to “our people are our customers’ most important asset.” 

Second, organization. HR also offers unique insights about organization capabilities (called workplace, culture, or process). Wars are fought with people, but victory comes from how well the organization turns individual ingredients into organizational identities. Just like individual personalities (e.g., the big five) are more important predictors of personal well-being than traits (eye or hair color, height, weight), organization capabilities matter more than organizational demographics (number of levels, span of control). Our research (The RBL Group and University of Michigan) found that the capabilities of an organization have four times the impact on business results than the competence of individuals. 

Third, leadership. Talent and organization are shaped and driven by leaders. Employees (individual competencies) often mimic what their leaders do, and organization capabilities often reflect leaders’ personalities. More importantly, leadership at all levels of the organization signals thoughts and actions that get attention. Again, defining effective leadership may be done with customers in mind (Leadership Brand work) and with investor impact (Leadership Capital Index work). In the current uncertain world, it is more important than ever to ensure that the right leadership exists to create value for customers and investors.

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