Inverting the Pyramid: How HR Can Respond to the Talent Crisis

While leaders contend with an unpredictable 2023 business environment, the struggle to find and retain talent lingers as a top concern. For some companies, the lack of trained and available staff has been a direct and highly visible cause of lackluster revenue, underperforming earnings and angry customers. A recent Manpower Group study reported that seventy-five percent of companies surveyed across eight countries and regions were experiencing talent shortages, creating profound implications for the retention and upskilling of workers.

Just below the surface of these immediate business impacts is another critical challenge that human resource leaders must acknowledge – the impact on the managers and leaders attempting to hold things together during the seemingly endless stretch of more work than staff. The extra work managers are absorbing, along with the daily anxiety produced by their attempt to keep their team or group functioning, is resulting in never-before-seen levels of stress and burnout. If these managers and leaders can’t find much-needed support from their human resources staff, they will likely be the next talent tragedy, resigning their positions when it all becomes too much to handle.

How can human resource professionals help combat this dangerous cycle and contribute directly to the bottom-line performance of their organization?

Consider inverting the pyramid.

Traditional talent management and development activities begin with a needs analysis of long-term priorities driven from atop the pyramid. Organizational-wide programs such as annual succession planning, talent calibration, career development plans, and performance management take not only the time of the HR and talent development team to plan and execute the work, but require already taxed managers to provide input to these systems and have conversations at predetermined cadences during the year.

Are these programs valuable to building a long-term talent pipeline? Absolutely! Should you consider suspending some of these activities and replacing them with immediate, short-term, bottoms-up programs during challenging business conditions? Absolutely!


While having retention plans in place for the highest paid, most costly to fill senior level positions is important, don’t overlook your role in helping to shore up struggling departments. Start by collecting job and people data on the underperforming areas of your business that are closest to your customers. As you choose where to place your HR team’s resources for the year, focus on departments that are consistently more than 20% understaffed. This bottoms-up approach can allow you to target your limited resources with specific areas that need the most support for achieving your business objectives for the year. 

Simply redistributing work won’t cut it. The HR team is uniquely suited for working with each functional leader to create more significant talent picture and plan for their area of influence. After identifying the specific pockets within your organization that need the most attention and securing executive level buy in to postpone some of your annual top-down activities, it’s time to roll-up your sleeves and dig in.


This is triage time, requiring immediate action and results. It’s time to do, not delegate. HR professionals can add value by using their facilitation skills to help leaders to clarify and prioritize work.

When helping leaders and teams mitigate their talent issues, consider these three high-impact approaches:

  1. Reprioritize – The Eisenhower matrix is an excellent tool for categorizing tasks and projects. The urgent versus important, four-box model provides a framework for reprioritization. It also frees up managers to question long-held work assumptions. They will be able to eliminate some non-essential items on their team’s to-do list and get clarity on what is most urgent for success in an understaffed environment.


    Help employees understand that less is more in unusual times. Leaders need to understand that asking the people left behind to do everything will result in more burnout and more resignations. Help your most understaffed teams determine exactly what they need to do and not do – at least for the time being. Help them focus on the core areas that serve customers. Facilitate action-oriented planning sessions using this model where teams leave with a short (week) and longer term (month) plan for how to work differently until the staffing problem is solved and new workers are trained and ready to be productive.


  2. Rethink – Spend time with the most challenged departments so you can help them rethink their staffing and work plans. You’ll likely need to help them get unstuck with brainstorming and out-of-the-box thinking. Be bold. Don’t over think it. Move fast. You may want to suggest that they use staff in other areas of the business or consider non-traditional hires. Organizations are reporting great success when rethinking jobs so that they work for young people, retirees or stay-at-home parents. Tap into your talent acquisition staff to help prioritize the most important job, aligning with the new direction. Keep senior leadership appraised of the plans and seek input and approval when appropriate.


  3. Reimagine – When organizations or teams come face-to-face with constraints, it’s a great time to reimagine what is necessary and possible. Unlock the power of less.  When cross functional groups come together and take a hard look at essential workflows, it set the groundwork for process improvement. Ask leaders and teams to think long and hard about what they can NOT do and still satisfy customers.  You’ll likely might find some innovative longer-term cost savings in the process.

When you take on this business-not-as-usual work, be aware that some people might resist your involvement. However, if you are transparent about the dire and hopefully temporary situation, and you approach them as humble partner who only wants to help create a plan to get the department back on track, it will go a long way in gaining their trust and contribution.

As the plan is developed, coach team leaders to over communicate and remain as transparent as possible. Help leaders create communication plans that reiterate staff importance, underscores their understand of the additional stress and responsibilities everyone is dealing with, and details what they are doing to address the complex problems. You’ll want these leaders to be positive and engaged as the plans roll out.

Begin at the bedrock of your pyramid. Once you have patched the cracks that weaken your entire system, you can then get back to your regular HR activities. Until then, providing short-term, practical, and results-oriented talent management solutions will help stop the bleeding and clearly demonstrate HR’s value to the organization.

Register for the follow up Alchemizing HR webinar: 3 High-Impact Responses for Managing Today’s Talent Shortage on March 2 at 1 p.m. EST here

Steve Dion is founder and CEO of Dion Leadership, a leadership and organization development consulting firm based in Michigan. Steve has dedicated his career to understanding and improving organizational cultures through the creation and deployment of innovative leadership developmentexecutive coachingteam effectiveness and talent assessment programs.