HR – a liberator or a container?

This is a rewrite of a blog I wrote last year inspired by yet another social conversation with friends who deride/don’t trust HR.    Bullying and controlling were the themes in this conversation.  Not really interested in people’s day-to-day realities was the modus operandi.  Call themselves People Talent something or other is their identity.  Watch me wriggle (do they think that’s me?).

Other functions don’t seem to invite this type of criticism and negativity; I’m fascinated and want to make sense and meaning.   What I do know is that HR at it’s best is transparent, grown up, stacked with integrity and know how and gets out of the way without being pushed.

I do have a question for people working in HR having read Michael Carty’s storify of #hrtells.  Do you trust and value people and invite them to trust you, or are you inviting distrust because you distrust them?


A couple of archetypes to consider:

HR as Influencer, change agent and guide – the liberator

HR can and does attract people who understand organisational behaviour and its links to performance, and who want to intervene in the system – to enable people to make great stuff happen and for the every day effective administration to be viewed as vital and necessary.    They love operations, administrative efficiency and excellence, and relish empowerment, responsibility and don’t expect never to make a mistake.    They’re networked, want to keep learning and have integrity.   They’re educators and guides.  Their colleagues trust them.     They assume all the people they work with are full of potential and resource.   At their best, they are unselfish, principled and smart. They’re peoplehumans; they’re employees, colleagues, a manager.

HR as Controller, risk manager and rule maker – the container

Let’s take an alternative; HR can also attract people who like power, are insecure, lacking in self-awareness and want to exert control.      They want certainty in a soup of unscheduled  extras.   These HR people will take comfort in rules, policy and enjoy their ear with the top people.  No-one trusts them.  They secretly know this and it increases their insecurity. They don’t network, they don’t know what happens outside their organisation, and they are scared they’ll be found out.  They probably think that they work harder than anyone else, that it’s a lonely job where they can’t confide in anyone, and feel unsupported.

I have no doubt that the HR people described to me when I meet people socially, would put themselves in the first category.  Perhaps because they aren’t self aware, they wouldn’t identify with the second.    Perhaps they aren’t confident enough to tell their story.

Getting out of the way

Managers must be able to experience the consequences of their mistakes.   Liberate don’t contain.   Helping them take ownership for recruitment, designing their own function, attending tribunals if they have messed up,  or haven’t, owning and managing their budget for training and development is the way for them to be able to be accountable.  Designing and co-delivering their own training, managing their teams absence, coaching their people, developing their people and delivering results through their people is the only route to managers being able to enter their potential.    Free them.     Assume people are grown ups, adults who can  make their own decisions, judgements, assume they will take responsibility for their mistakes.    Get out of the managers’ way, and and allow them to take responsibility for success or failure.

I wrote last year – HR could be a team of super generalists who have influence,  competence, confidence, and knowledge to make sure they support and challenge the managers to grow in their own confidence, competence and knowledge to become HR generalists.  HR can be powerful and influential.  Let go.

So if you’re in HR – How do you see people you work with – worthy of your trust, or as greedy and demanding?

Do people see you as a liberator or as a container?





10 thoughts on “HR – a liberator or a container?

  1. When I started off in this crazy world of HR, I was always confronted with the control and container perspective. You can’t trust people, that’s just crazy talk!

    Yet my L&D manager was not of that ilk, and was doggedly working at influencing his peers to be better. He clearly influenced my approach too. This wasn’t a hard thing necessarily, as I always believed in the best of people anyway.

    In the ten years since, I’ve only worked with a few HR leaders who want to truly influence and make a change. And I don’t mean leaders as in those in positions of power or authority, but those who actually lead through their actions and behaviours.

    So I’m firmly on the liberation side. Vive la revolution!

  2. I think it’s a mindset issue. Do we need to contain – to protect power, reputation – risk or do we need to liberate so that people make their own decisions? Create clear structure, process – they choose to do something different – take the consequences. The more that we invite people to think about their actions, behaviours and beliefs, the more that they will be responsible.
    It’s a bit like facilitating in a workshop – if I have a view of how I think people should behave, respond, be, then I am likely to influence them to behave like that way, or I may want to contain them if they deviate from what I expect (and I have their good at heart, of course!). Alternatively if I have a view that they behave in the way they want to, and that they will respond, or not, as they choose, then there is no deviation. it is just what it is.
    HR could be seen I suppose as a metaphor for command and control. Inadvertently, it has arisen to reinforce that structure.

  3. I think the tendency for HR has been to be a reinforcer of command and control, by dint of some of the functions that it administers. That said, undoubtedly the need is to become a liberator in some areas and the drive seems to be more about command and control, accelerated by the proliferation of data in the HR space?

    From a business perspective, I do think great leaders are rather good at being clear when they are liberating and when they need to contain / provide structures. They are also exceptional at signalling when they are about to change. For this, exceptional emotional intelligence is needed?

  4. I am in agreement, and I guess it’s about the ratio between the two. If it’s 50/50 contain/liberate then at best good stuff gets cancelled out.
    Emotional intelligence yes; leadership paradigm yes plus.

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