There was an entertaining, provocative and feisty – in a nice way – guest post at HRFishbowl earlier this month by Chris Fields that caught my eye, and its title gives a good indication of the content: The Audacity of HR. Its main argument is summed up in one of its own highlighted sentences:

Maybe we should stop talking about ourselves as if we were a different breed.”

Before anyone puts their hand up to ask to complain (there’s a comment box below, by the way), I come not to bury HR (although the praise might not be fulsome.) In some ways, the piece strikes the same nerve endings that The Guardian’s HR: Friend or Foe? article did last year – although in this instance the comments have been much more favourable.

In this particular case, one of the issues raised was HR professionals’ reaction to being laid off: a first person lesson in “this time it’s personal”. As one commenter noted:

Having seen first hand the attitude of *some* HR pros when on the orgs side of the desk vs the being laid off side of the desk this is a great reminder to us all that what HR pros do is not *just* business. It affects the lives of fellow humans in big ways all the time. When we forget that we get it wrong.”

I remembered a woman I met at one of last year’s #connectinghr events, who was in the middle of the same experience. Two things about her reaction were particularly striking:

  • It was fairly obvious that she at the very least hoped that she’d always strived to remember that being laid off is pretty damn personal for the person on the receiving end
  • Her (very polite) dismay at her professional colleagues’ attitudes to CV-reading and their typecasting of potential candidates based solely on their most recent experience.

As we commented at the time in our write up of the event, her concern was that she was:

[…] being viewed as potential employers as a redundancy expert despite a long career in HR and a wish to be involved in aspects she values as being more concerned with development. Apart from the obvious issue of motivation, there was concern that hidden talents are being further buried rather than disinterred as a result of this Dymo™ label management approach.”

This concern was, despite the sadness of the circumstance, surely admirable in that it combined both the personal and the professional: there was a bigger professional failing at play here than merely her own circumstance – she perceived the HR profession as ignoring an opportunity to make the most of the talents available to the organisation(s) it serves.

But is there a bigger point than just the personal/professional dilemma inherent in HR? That any discipline tends to apply only its own focus on any given situation. Having arrived at its own truth, that becomes The Truth Full Stop. The economic trajectory of Japan, for example, has been something discussed and written about mostly by economists and political commentators. The public has wound up with a viewpoint that, as far as we’re interested in any case, Japan has endured two lost decades and is down to its economic uppers. When this viewpoint was challenged in The NY Times by Eamonn Fingleton, debate broke out on several websites, including a response from Professor Paul Krugman (and a counter-response from Fingleton). The truth, when examined, often turns out to be more debatable than is perhaps convenient: we need bigger nutshells, or to rethink our idea of the best container.

The ‘HR vs Human Being’ strand in Chris Fields’ HRFishbowl also reminded me of another piece of writing: Sunstein and Thaler’s Nudge, where the authors divided the species into ‘Econs’ and ‘Humans’. Reviewing it, we pointed out that the subsequent rather condescending tone all too easily becomes not just patronising but repellent. The message – gained more from the authors’ tone than their words – felt very much like something to the effect of “the Humans need to shape up and learn something from the Econs, who Have All The Answers”. Orwell might not have been writing with a specific profession in mind when he wrote “Four legs good, two legs bad”, but economists and HR professionals wouldn’t be the first of the professional classes to leave others feeling that there was a hint of this in play.

I also remembered a friend’s comment as we left the cinema after watching The Iron Lady, that an inability or unwillingness to take on board opinions from other viewpoints is a root cause of isolation. And the isolated, other than hermits with a BBC News Channel fixation, tend to become not just under-informed, but to lose the ability to understand or recognise the cases or feelings of others. By the time it’s become obvious to those around you that you’re not taking their point of view on board, it’s too late: they will already have realised, and their ability to feel – rather than display – respect will already be diminished.

Nor is this the only shortcoming of not taking on board other points of view: innovation and creativity (including their skinnier business-centric cousin, problem-solving) often thrive in situations where different disciplines meet on level(-ish) playing fields. (Combine several different sets of tunnel-vision and if nothing else you at least wind up with a wider, better lit tunnel.)

Another facet of modern working life we should all be familiar with is teamwork, although – see our earlier article – it’s a term we misuse frequently and badly. When we’re truly undertaking teamwork – rather than solowork, crowdwork or groupwork – the ability to recognise and value the other inputs is vital to the success of the whole. Grandstanding is for violin virtuosi; teamwork is for orchestras.

We also already know that one of the most empowering things we can grant anyone is a sense of their own contribution and ‘voice’. Any professional discipline that doesn’t recognise that this ‘voice’ may speak to them from a different angle on the world is in for a potential shock. If we don’t challenge ourselves, we shouldn’t be surprised if others step up to the task for us.

And we should remember that the search for respect is a universal human experience. Consider the following extract for Roman Krznaric’s recent and very thought-provoking The Wonderbox:

Respect can also emerge in the most unusual professions. I know of someone who shifted from being a refrigeration mechanic to becoming an embalmer in a funeral parlour. The reasons he loves his job is because he receives so much genuine appreciation from people for making their deceased loved ones look peaceful, dignified and even beautiful. ‘I have a folder full of thank-you letters from family members,’ he told me.”

It’s a lovely, touching story. But let’s hope we don’t all have to work with the deceased before we get a thank you from the living.

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