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Kieran Hearty

How to Eat the Elephant in the Room


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How and why understanding “quarkiness” could help your HR team


What keeps HR people awake at night?

Here are a few thoughts that keep me awake. Maybe you share some of them:

  1. We are emerging from the worst, and most scandal-ridden recession of the modern age, with the reputation of leadership brought close to the gutter.
  2. A recent Gallup poll concluded that 82% of managers are ‘wrongly appointed’. Somebody, including HR and more senior people, thought they were good appointments.
  3. I wonder if you have heard the words ‘toxic culture’ uttered by disillusioned employees as often as I have, and if so, to what extent you are concerned about the daily human rights violations that occur in so many workplaces today.

The adverse cost of these issues is astronomical, despite massive investments by HR in management and leadership over decades. I was so concerned that we had missed a trick in HR that I sought inspiration in quantum physics!

Quarks are sub-subatomic particles generated by high-energy hadron collisions. They are so tiny that they are almost impossible to detect, but they are the fundamental constituents of everything.

In quantum physics, we are simply huge clouds of atoms that interact with each other on a physical and personal level. I describe some of these interactions asquarkiness”.

What drives quarkiness?

The quarkiness that I talk about concerns microscopic behaviours. In any team meeting, or human interaction, we exchange huge clouds of tiny messages almost unconsciously. The problem is that they are mostly negative, and the further up you go in an organisation, the greater the negative bias seems to be.

These small negative message clouds (strange quarks) elicit an adverse impact on the recipients. Cumulatively, they are toxic to teamwork, engagement and results. HR needs to know this because of the sheer volume of these ‘micro-violations’.

The positive messages that we transmit (charms) are infrequent, despite their massively positive impact on the recipients. This is where the opportunity lies for HR. 

How can we spot strange quarks?

They are hard to spot but generally an eye roll, facial tic or a frown, an intake of breath, or a certain tone of voice; that feeling of being burdened with someone’s disapproval, but not quite knowing why.

During an important presentation, my performance was affected by the way in which the CEO was looking at me. A pursing of the mouth and a couple of tiny facial tics ruined my day.

Quarks are mostly unintentional, and definitely covert, but they do betray our true feelings, which, when dictated by intolerance or disapproval, are damaging.

What’s in it for HR?

People are at the heart of any HR strategy yet they are being badly let down. What if HR is looking in the wrong direction, at the ‘big stuff’, when the root cause of many HR issues lies in the ‘small stuff’?

What if HR were able to introduce a new language (quarkiness) to their organisation that could massively improve relationships, and engagement, as well as improve results, yet at a minimal cost?

The secret is in getting the language of quarkiness on the radar, because once we understand what is going on, we can make amazing progress.

In the strategic shift to positive emissions of ‘charms’, look for small affirmative nods of approval, sincere, appreciative smiles that light up rooms, and other positive affirmations, including a tendency to talk supportively rather than negatively about other colleagues.

The importance of quarkiness for inclusion and diversity efforts

I teach quarkiness as part of a human rights and inclusion program. If quarkiness is driven by our reaction to people who are different to us, what does this mean when the person is of a different colour, gender, religion or sexual persuasion?

In other words, how many microscopic violations do we commit each day through our quarky behaviour? Cumulatively, the sheer volume has the corrosive effects of a sandstorm on engagement and performance.

We live in such a rich and diverse country that quarkiness has huge implications. Think about big workplace issues such as diversity and inclusion. How many strange quarks do women, and colleagues of a different colour or persuasion have to deal with at work every day?

If we select candidates for roles where there are important requirements, including sensitivity to diversity, and human rights, paying closer attention to these tiny nuances of body language could be a winner.

Quarky tips for HR

  1. Get quarkiness onto the development radar for all employees. If they can more easily detect the small stuff, the big behavioural ‘quirks’ will be a cinch.
  2. Elicit firm commitments from employees (at all levels) to consciously work on a positive behavioural shift away from strange quarks.
  3. Create ‘quarky communications’ to promote the shift to more positive ‘charms’. 
  4. Appreciate the value of candidates for management and leadership positions who exude positive energy.
  5. Check your own body language. Your quarky behaviour will not help unhappy employees.

The language of quarkiness is universal. It transcends gender, race, language, and culture. It might even help us develop a more powerful HR strategy! 

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Kieran Hearty


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