Is human resources department’s ‘iron fist’ clamping down on courage?

My 11-year-old son was thrilled to tell me I had appeared on a recent episode of SpongeBob SquarePants, where underwater café manager Mr Krabs reprimanded his staff member Squidward Tentacles by threatening: “You wouldn’t want to have to go and see HR, would you?”

In spite of the efforts of many HR leaders, human resources departments are still inclined to be seen as obstructionists. It wasn’t that long ago that I took up a new role where the chief executive told me he had faced a dilemma: should he recruit me, or buy an answering machine that says ‘no’? I never took the opportunity to ask whether he had made the right choice.

In some organisations, I am assured that not only are we still the ‘people police’, but it is also suggested that being called to see HR is akin to being sent to the headmaster’s office.

So what’s going wrong? Why are our non-HR colleagues waging guerrilla warfare on HR establishments up and down the country? Why are they turning against years of sound advice and effective support?

It takes a very special person to succeed in our profession. Balancing motivational skills with problem solving, coaching, calculating, analysing and project managing, we need to be in an almost continual learning mode. When it’s working well, we partner with our organisation, inspiring colleagues and providing expertise. When it isn’t, we seem to become the centre of negativity: the department that likes to say ‘no’ the home of risk-aversion and neutralisation or, as one chief executive once described us, the ‘discouragement department’.

Why would anyone think that we discourage people? The word ‘discouragement’ means taking someone’s courage away. If that is correct, then surely the opposite must also apply, meaning that when we encourage, we give courage back.

When colleagues only see our faults, begrudge the time to listen to our advice, and working relationships go awry, could the reason be that we no longer give them courage? Could it be that managers feel we fall short of their expectations, not because of what we contribute, but rather because of what we take away? Could we honestly be afraid that staff and managers are engaging in positive relationships in spite of us, rather than because of us? Are we becoming experts at hindering, delaying and discouraging positive behaviours: ‘You’ll end up in tribunal’ ‘That’s not in our policy’ ‘Have you got our approval yet’?

Those guerrillas out there in line management are fighting back. They want something new from HR – something that is the opposite of discouragement. They want an HR department that inspires them, acknowledges them, and thanks them. The new manager wants to be understood and listened to, treated as a unique individual, whose potential is seen and supported by HR. What an inspiring vision.

Courageous managers take risks, inspire their teams, try different things, create vision, and commit to causes. Courageous managers grow through taking on new experiences. Minor difficulties and setbacks no longer affect them.

Without courage, managers take little risk, defend what they have, and mistrust intentions. Minor niggles become major issues. Courage helps managers look outwards lack of it takes the focus inwards.

My HR department wants to give courage to our line managers. Our role is to inspire growth within management. We want managers to take back what was always theirs: the ability to engage and manage their staff in the most effective way open to them. It’s not too late. Most things that are broken can be repaired – if you want to, that is.

Graham White
Head of HR and organisational development, corporate services, Surrey County Council

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