HR Advisors Conference Blog

Further thoughts from the conference or about the challenges of being in an HR Advisory role.

What Sink Plugs can teach us about HR

A funny thing happened on our HR Advisors Conference the other week (and no it wasn’t drunken antics at the conference dinner, or anything about cats!!).

I checked into my room and washed my hands in the bathroom. The water didn’t drain away. It was one of those plugs that are a silver disk that sit flush in the sink hole. Now normally there’s a level behind the taps that you pull and up it pops and the water drains away.

There was no lever.

I looked under the bench top. Nothing. Tried all the switches on the wall and even felt around the sink in case there was a secret button. Growing bored, I decided I’d just use the sink in the kitchen. My husband (our Managing Director) walked into the bathroom, saw there was no lever for the plug so pressed it and up it popped.

The following night at the conference dinner, I asked my group if they’d all worked out the plug. A couple had but one person (who will remain nameless) still hadn’t and was using the shower to brush her teeth and wash her hands. Amidst much laughter, another attendee asked why she hadn’t called the concierge and asked and she said “I wasn’t going to call and ask how to use a plug!!”  After the conference I discovered that my colleague Lisa Hunter had also had problems with the plug and ended up prying it open with a spoon!

Okay, but what does this have to do with HR?

In HR we often approach problems differently and I believe it all comes down to our personality style. At Elephant we use the birds model in our training and development and it really came into play in the plug situation and also applies when we have an HR issue to solve.


Peacocks are big picture, extroverted, love variety & hate detail.  This is my dominant style and with the plug I tried to find out the logical solution but grew bored really quickly and came up with a creative fix. The problem with this is was that the plug still wasn’t working. If we apply this to HR issues – what a peacock might do is try to find out what’s causing the issue but quickly (too quickly) move onto coming up with creative ideas. For example managers aren’t using the current performance review system so you come up with an exciting new system. However it wasn’t the system that was the issue, it was managers not knowing how to have conversations.

The challenge for peacocks is using more logic and spending time understanding an issue and not putting a new exciting HR process in.


Eagles are better at this being decisive, fact and results focused but can come across as aggressive because they drive things hard. Fraser is an eagle and immediately used logic and made a decision the plug itself must be the mechanism.  While this is useful in many situations (and many CEO’s are eagles) they don’t necessarily think through all the consequences. For instance, he neglected to tell me how the plug worked so I was still going to the kitchen!!

So for eagles the challenge is thinking about all the other people issues around an issue you’ve fixed.


Owls are also logical and far more methodical and structured.  Lisa had been in hotels before where the plug was broken so logically reasoned it must not be working hence prying it open with a spoon. If that hadn’t worked she was going to call reception and ask them to fix it. In HR this is a very useful approach because finding out what is causing a problem is the key step to solving it. If this is your style, you will research best practise and find out what models or methods might work.

The challenge for you is not to spend too much time on the research and move onto delivery. This can be hard if you want a new system or process to be perfect. However it can be far more engaging to launch something that’s unfinished or even launch an idea, ask managers and employees for their feedback and then rather than making assumptions, you can make the final product deliver what the end users want.


And the last style is dove. Doves need time to think things through but are focussed on the people rather than the facts. They might feel embarrassed asking something that makes them look stupid. In HR this is a strength because you’re thinking about who a new HR process will impact and how, but you’re not necessarily challenging yourself or others because you might look bad.

In HR we need all four!

All four of these approaches have very useful aspects. Doves will question in any HR situation who is affected and how they’ll be supported. Owls will make sure the actual cause of an issue has been found and what theories come into play. Peacocks will come up with new ideas to use to solve those issues and eagles will make sure that it’s actually delivered and measured.

We can’t be everything though. Which is why it’s important to surround yourself with people who have different styles so together you can cover all your bases. And if you can’t, then it’s about making yourself focus on all four approaches. If I hadn’t given up so quickly, if our nameless attendee had called reception, or if Lisa and Fraser had shared with others about how to use the plug – we would have all had a solution.

Because brushing your teeth in a hot shower is something to be avoided!


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This entry was posted on January 28, 2014 by in Personality Styles and tagged , , .

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