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HR and the Solomon Paradox

Two business people sitting at a table in an office.

​Former employment attorney and author Jathan Janove writes for SHRM Online on how to inject greater humanity into HR compliance. He welcomes your questions and suggestions for future columns. Contact him at the e-mail address at the end of this column. 

Researchers at the University of Chicago conducted fascinating research into a trend in human behavior, which they named after the ancient Israelite King Solomon.

Research subjects were given challenging issues to consider, such as the suspected infidelity of a spouse or the threat of imminent job termination. One group was asked, "What would you do?" Another group was asked, "What if a close friend called you and said he or she faced such an issue?"

The researchers learned that there were key differences in the two groups' responses. When advising a friend, they consistently:

  • Considered more information.
  • Were less likely to make erroneous assumptions.
  • Identified more options.
  • Were more flexible about possible courses of action to take.

In other words, our decision-making analysis improves greatly when we are advising a friend versus trying to figure things out on our own. The researchers call it the "Solomon Paradox" because King Solomon was revered for his wisdom (recall the baby and the two competing mothers), yet his personal decisions proved utterly disastrous.

The experiment reveals an opportunity for HR to become a trusted advisor for leaders and managers who are having a hard time seeing their struggles with employees objectively.

Opportunity for HR

I'll never forget a conversation I had with a senior executive at a large company. He was complaining about a lack of support from HR: "I run a large research and development unit. I get engineering. I get manufacturing. I get IT. I get accounting. I get all those things. But the one thing I don't get is human beings."

To me, this statement points toward the ultimate HR value proposition. It's incredibly challenging to align multiple human beings with what needs to be done, when it needs to be done and how it needs to be done. What if HR made the difference? What if HR truly helped organization leaders with that one thing most of them don't get? What if HR became the antidote to the Solomon Paradox?

I'm not talking about legal compliance or claim prevention. I'm talking about helping leaders with the never-ending issues, challenges, problems and even opportunities involving the people for whom they're responsible. Who else is better positioned than HR to kick around ideas, strategize, identify options and consider alternatives for helping leaders step up their game in aligning collective human behavior with shared goals?

"I think human resources is in a unique position to be the link between understanding and balancing employees' needs with business needs," said Tracy Stachniak, vice president of HR for Toyota Material Handling Inc. "An example of this that we are experiencing today is in our talent management and succession planning process. Through career planning assessments, HR has good knowledge on where our employees would like to see their careers grow and develop, and we also know top priorities for the business and the talent that's needed to support them. If we can play a part in identifying solutions to the business while supporting the career developments of our employees, we'll have proven our value as strategic partners to the business while driving engagement with our employees."

Bestselling author and former Campbell Soup CEO Douglas Conant strongly recommends that to serve that advisor role effectively, HR professionals must build high-trust relationships.

"When I think of the most impactful HR partners with whom I have worked," he said, "my mind immediately gravitates to the concept of trust. They have built a relationship with me that has a level of trust that transcends the ordinary. They have invested time and energy in our relationship, they have shown me that they are persons of great character, and they have shown me that they have great competence in all things HR-related."

Conant cautioned that a high-trust relationship needs to be built before advice can be credibly advanced by an HR colleague. "Too often, HR is run with a transactional model that assumes a relationship before one actually exists. When that is the case, it is not surprising to me that HR services can be viewed as lacking.

"To me, the bottom line is that world-class HR advisors and organizations are maniacally focused on building deep and abiding high-trust relationships with their organization counterparts."


Imagine having a conversation with the R&D executive I mentioned above. After his soliloquy, you say, "Would you like some help with the part you don't get?" To his puzzled look, you add, "As an HR professional, I'm passionate about making the most of workplace interactions and relationships. And I'm here to help."

Wide-eyed, he asks, "Is it possible such an HR exists?" Without waiting for an answer, he adds, "If so, sign me up!"

Jathan Janove, J.D., is the author of Hard-Won Wisdom: True Stories from the Management Trenches (HarperCollins/Amacom, 2017). He is immediate past president of the Oregon Organization Development Network and was named in Inc. magazine as one of the Top 100 Leadership Speakers for 2018. If you have questions or suggestions for topics for future columns, write to


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