The Top Competency for Human Resources [poll results]

Earlier in the month, HR Bartender ran a little one-question completely unscientific poll asking you what the number one competency is for human resources pros. I gotta admit…the results surprised me.

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Now I know that I wrote a post a few days ago talking about the value of human resources having a relationship component. And I believe relationships are important. But, I didn’t expect it to be number one because there’s more involved in creating value than just the relationship. There’s the thing you’re building the relationship about.

The result made me wonder. Is the primary role of HR to manage relationships? Or is that just how they spend the majority of their time?

What also surprised me was what didn’t end up at the top. We talk so much about human resources becoming a business partner and business acumen ranked second. The margin wasn’t even close.

It also was a bit surprising that global effectiveness was at the bottom. I believe technology has made the business world borderless. I did get a comment that the low rating for global wasn’t a shocker because being global is second nature. If that’s true, it might also explain the rating for ethics. It raises the question about the dynamics between ethics, business and our relationships.

I totally understand there could be only one competency at the top. That was the point of the question. I’m glad it’s given me some thinking to do. Because if the number one competency is managing relationships, then why are we seeing articles like this one from the The New York Times titled “When the HR Office Leaves the Building”. Hmmm…


  1. says

    Interesting results indeed. I am also a bit surprised by the outcome, in particular that Business Acumen did not rank first. Everything we do is in the context of the business or enterprise in which we operate, and seeing the “why” or “big picture” we do what we do is so critical. On the other hand, we can achieve nothing if we are not successful in managing the complex exchange of knowledge, alternatives and decisions with senior leaders, board members, managers, and employees. I shared the poll (and results) with IBM HR colleagues around the world, and it prompted some very good discussion. Thank you.

  2. says

    Relationships fuel prosperity …. Wellbeing is like “goodwill” on the balance sheet.

    Reflecting upon outsourcing of HR… juxtaposed against US ranking 34 for postive emotional state in November 2012 global Gallup poll …. juxtaposed against creation of unprecedented Boomer wealth where unpaid labour of women built neighbourhoods full of relationships.

    From the poll: “… in the United States, income only makes a significant impact on daily positive emotions when earning up to $75,000 annually — after that, additional income does not make as much of a difference. Leaders who are looking for ways to further improve the human condition in their countries — especially those societies such as Singapore that are doing well on traditional economic indicators, but not necessarily behavioral metrics — need to do more to incorporate wellbeing into their leadership strategies.”

  3. says

    Thanks for the comments! I agree that the results could prompt some interesting and valuable conversation.

    I was surprised too that business acumen didn’t rank first. It prompted the question, “If you don’t know the business you’re in, how can you manage the relationships within it?”

    I can see how positively managing my relationships with others creates well-being. Unfortunately, if human resources is spending their time managing the relationships of other people then it can be perceived as being a ‘referee’ which isn’t beneficial to the organization or the individuals involved.

  4. says


    I don’t read the top response in the same way. Many HR professionals manage relationships directly with senior leaders, with business professionals and decision makers.

    In my case, my HR team works on IBM acquisitions, divestitures and outsourcing deals — we do a lot of all three. HR is a critical part of our success in each and every one of these transactions. To use an overused phrase, we have a seat at the table, and happily our business colleagues insist on it because they know if we don’t the transaction won’t happen, or it won’t deliver on the committed business case. We don’t referee, we do.

    I hope this helps. Happy New Year!

  5. says

    The result didn’t surprise me, as HR professionals we tend to concentrate on the how as opposed to the what.
    In my mind it is important we focus on the resources required
    to exploit the business opportunity. But to be really clever, to really add value we have got to start to help identify the business opportunity in the first place.

  6. says

    Interesting post, and I think the poll results are quite fascinating. I used to teach graduate school students in an HR management program, and I used to start each class (1st session) with a similar question. What used to astound me was the profound disconnect between what many (not all) of my HR students, most of whom were current practitioners. demonstrated between their role in their organizations and their business value. Many of them told me that they weren’t in business, “I am in HR.” It’s simply true that many HR professionals gravitate to the profession because they are drawn to build and foster relationships. That’s a wonderful thing. But what is unfortunate is that more organizations are seeing a bottom-line disconnect between this more traditional view of HR and the current needs of a rapidly evolving marketplace and work envirnment.

  7. Anne McCarthy says

    Passive. That’s what an HR department is if those at the top are
    focused on managing relationships. That’s ok but how much
    better it is when HR is reforming. When cultural alignment to
    Customer and market needs set the people agenda. That’s the kind
    of HR that wins for the customer, the business and it’s people.

  8. says

    A contrary view.

    HR exists so that the business or organization can achieve its objectives — depending on the type of org, that is revenue, profit, market share, growth, service delivery, or other outcome measures. IMHO, what we do is core work, it is key to success in all orgs. When we do it well, the business/org prospers, and so do employees, communities, owners and shareholders.

    Business Acumen, Global Effectiveness, Ethical Practice, Technical Expertise are all critically important, but they are foundational, the price of entry. Get those demonstrably right or do something else. My POV is Business Acumen is number one, but I don’t agree that Managing Relationships has to be passive. The business drives, HR advises and supports. We do that best when we are credible partners with the business, when we demonstrate our value, and when business leaders see that they listen and act on what we say. Maybe if we called it Effective (Business) Relationships or Delivering on (Business) Relationships it would be more clear and less passive.

  9. Anne McCarthy says

    I agree completely with Tim. To reform; to put people at the heart of business means you have to build really strong relationships. Why would people buy into the reform otherwise? Most importantly I agree that the effective HR professional needs to be strong across a number of areas. So it follows that if we seek to major in just one area at the expense of all others we will fail.

    I have witnessed HR professionals who focus on relationship building almost exclusively. They survive for as long as their business partner survives – but HR never really excels at those times.

  10. says

    It depends on how you define Managing Relations. In my world, the only relations that I can truly manage are mine. Certainly, I can and do facilitate (referee/coach) the relations of others, but they have first, final and ultimate responsibility for the quality of their relationships. IF/WHEN you have internal squabbles, turf wars and outright hostility, none of the other competencies will be met achieved with the full potential for business success.

    What would the responses look like if the phrase HR was replaced with Business Professionals?
    RMSmithJr.SPHR recently posted..2013 New Year’s Resolution

  11. says

    Thanks everyone for the great conversation!

    I do find it interesting how we view “managing relationships” in different ways. And those competencies that seem to be the “price of admission”. IMHO, some of these competencies every manager should have – regardless of discipline. Does that mean they should be a part of the HR competency model? It does raise an interesting discussion.

  12. says

    Andrée, somehow – and unfortunately enough- I am not too surprised by the poll results: I have seen too many HR practitioners who have been focusing on relationship management. That being said, it also explained why ethics were ranked low. However, to some extend isn’t managing relationship part of having business acumen to a certain extend? Or should I say that to be a successful business person we need to learn to manage relationships? In fact, to some it comes naturally. Others have to work on it. More and more HR is becoming usual. Should it be part of the HR competency model? Good question. I would say communication and negotiation skills should include relationship management. It is a shame that consultation, critical evaluation and technical expertise are seen as of little importance. It would appear that what would separate HR from other business professionals would be the capacity to ally HR and technical expertise to critical evaluation and apply the mix to business situations. As for global approach..well, let’s just say that we have a long way to go…

  13. says

    I heard more than a couple comments offline about critical thinking not showing up higher in the list. I’m seeing a lot of focus on skill development in this area along with problem solving and decision making. Thanks for sharing your thoughts!