THE BLOG
02/21/2012 10:54 am ET Updated Apr 22, 2012

Fear and Trust in Human Resources

A few years ago I gave a presentation on power. I was part of a conference where the topic was power, all day long. I decided to talk about the difference between small-p power and big-P Power, and why the distinction matters.

"You've got power that you're accumulating in yourself, and that's the small-p kind," I said. "It gets stronger when you tell the truth in situations that make it hard to tell the truth. The big-P Power is the kind that you get when other people confer it on you. I'm talking about titles and budgets and corner offices, as well as degrees and certifications and other trophies. There's nothing wrong with that kind of power, except that people so often confuse it with the authentic kind, and think that one substitutes for the other."

"I am here to learn how to get the second kind," said one participant. She laughed, a kind of chortle-y rueful laugh. "I don't have the energy to work on the first kind." "That is a tough one," I said, "because the people who seek other folks' approval in order to feel powerful end up with no power of their own, and when the things that have propped their fake power fall away -- titles and budgets and all that - they don't have anything."

As HR people, we're pulled between the two 'power poles' a dozen times a day. Fear-based managers want us to bring the hammer down on their employees, because they don't have the small-p power to trust their teams (or trust themselves to lead confident, trusting people). When I lived in corporate America for 20 years, the only thing I heard more often than "We don't do that" was "You could try that, but I wouldn't -- that would rub some people the wrong way."

I ask HR people, "How much would you have to get paid to be someone who isn't you?" An HR person wears her brand (or his) right out on the sleeve. If we're less caring, less empathetic, less real or less forthright than we'd like to be because someone is paying us, aren't we degrading ourselves? What is our integrity worth, in the clinch?

HR people tell me "I can't budge my management team. They are stuck in fear. You'd think the employees were an inch away from rising up in protest, if you listened in on one of our staff meetings."

"What have you tried?" I ask. "Tried -- how?" they ask me back. We don't know how to shift a leadership team from fear to trust -- we didn't learn that in our preparation process for the SPHR exam. It's the ultimate real-life topic, and you can't learn it from a book. What do you say when your integrity is on the line?

My old boss had a saying -- he'd say "Report faithfully," all the time. My boss wanted us to tell him what we saw and what we thought, free of political posturing or positioning. He'd say "we can deal with whatever is happening, as long as we see it clearly and talk about it forthrightly." That is the hardest thing to do, when there's pressure to say less, say nothing, or twist the story into something more politically-acceptable or more deflective of blame than the actual story. It's the hardest thing for a leader to inspire, unless there's trust in the atmosphere in abundance -- to get people to leave their fear and anxiety ("What will this disclosure mean for my career?") out of the equation, and trust in the team and themselves.

It goes without saying that a leader doesn't have a prayer at replacing fearful thinking with trust unless the leader has established a trust-based culture and proved it under fire. All it takes is one "off with his head!" incident to send the team back into la-la-don't-tell-the-truth-Land, for years or forever.

We've all learned fear-based management at the feet of masters, from angry elementary school teachers to parents who didn't know anything about the carrot, only the stick (and bosses and professors and administrators all along the line who internalized bring-the-hammer-down management as the only alternative). We're lucky if we've had a taste of the other flavor, and if we've experienced the pixie dust that energizes projects and sparks great ideas when trust is flowing freely.

As HR people, we have to role-model trusting leadership, even if it isn't swirling around us. If we fall down to the level of our least-trusting peers ("She thought she could approve that without talking to me first? We'll see about that!") the game is over -- we've lost. We can live out our careers as scuttling ameobas in the petri dish (not that amoebas scuttle, but you get my drift) or get out of HR altogether.

We get to choose trust over fear, every day, and we get to teach leaders how to build trust into their teams and communications. That's the fun part of HR, if you ask me. If we don't talk about the difference between fear and trust and call attention to our organizations' breakdowns, we're not doing HR. We're doing something administrative and fairly pointless, in that all the handbooks and benefits-plan reviews and performance-management schemes and training programs in the world can't touch what's broken when trust isn't in the environment. We can pretend there's no such thing as trust or fear, put our fingers in our ears and say "La la la, I've got a Talent Inventory report to prepare, so I can't hear you," but how can we look in the mirror, then?