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Liz Ryan Headshot

Putting The 'Human' Back In HR, Part Two

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Go to Part One here

I took a 360-degree feedback test (oh that's right, it's not a test) and the guy who administered it, who also bills himself as the guy who invented 360-degree feedback (and I must say, with no rancor whatsoever I'd have trouble thinking of a worse legacy for oneself) was there in person to share my 360-degree feedback results with me. He told me, "You scored very high with your bosses and peers and subordinates, except that your 360 was heavily weighted toward a lot of right-brained stuff, and HR is a left-brained job."

"It is?" I asked. "In my company, we HR people put almost all our energy toward communication and culture and digging into employee and leadership snarls to make sure we get the right answer."

"No, no no," said the father of 360. "HR is an administrative job."

"That's gospel?" I asked. "Where does that come from?"

"It just is," said F360. "It just is?" I asked. "God decided that?"

Over the years since I left the corporate world, there's been a split in HR. There are the old-school people who truly believe it when they say "I'm a Strategic Business Partner" (thereby establishing beyond any doubt that these folks are neither businesspeople, nor strategic, nor partners) but live in the world of here's-how-we-always-do-it and if-we-make-an-exception-for-you, and then there are the people who are reading this paragraph right now thinking "Yes, sing it. I am a pixie dust person. All of my other tools are subordinate to that."

My friend M., a search person who specializes in placing HR leaders, says that twenty percent of her corporate clients want 'switched-on' HR people, and the other 80% want the standard policy-and-process model. That is good, says M., because twenty percent of her candidates can get out of the conventional HR frame (reports, recruiting, benefits, process, policy, spreadsheets, don't make waves, keep the company out of court) to see where else they might play to great effect -- at the level of trust and pixie dust, for instance -- and the other eighty percent cannot. As one HR leader wrote to me recently, "You can talk all you want about talent, but at the end of the day people need to be managed closely or they'll take advantage."

They will? Who's hiring these miscreants -- surely not you and your talented recruiting team? Don't we see that when we fear our employees, we're really giving voice to the primordial admission "I don't trust myself to spot talent, so I use keywords instead. I don't know how to manage people, because I know nothing about myself and I'm terrified to look in the mirror. I'm only capable of hiring people who need to be supervised like a hawk, so I've set it up to keep our company full of them."

I talk to HR leaders many times a week who tell me "culture change is hard, but I'm moving the conversation along, little by little." They sing the song about culture and talent. They find allies. They spark debates on important topics that've been pushed aside or loudly not discussed at all. They make organizational health - such a mushy, unbusinesslike topic! - an agenda item, with stories to illustrate their observations and concerns. They speak up when something is rotten in Denmark and believe that if they're in place to have influence on the organization, they're going to have the most impact influencing the CEO and the executive team, every day.

HR people want influence. This is the influence we get to have, this critical influence on talent, culture, ethics and leadership -- but this is also the scary kind of influence that separates 'oh-screw-it, if-they-fire-me-I'll-find-something-else' HR types from the HR masses. As the lady said to me after my presentation on personal power a few years ago, "No one wants to hear about personal power. You can't learn it over the weekend in a For Dummies book, so what good can it be?"

When we influence the conversation and take the time to understand a thorny employee issue and push for ethical decision-making, we're doing HR work, but we wouldn't know if it we believed the lie that says HRIS data and HR metrics tell the story. We know the numbers in the cells can only move in the direction we'd like because of conversations, whether they're sticky, sobering, uncomfortable, charming, angry or just sad. We know viscerally that numbers on a spreadsheet have no capacity to tell the story of a culture or an organization's energy or its problems or its wins.

It is funny that I talk in my work with job-seekers about finding one's voice. It's funny because I sing opera and always struggled as a corporate person with the tug-of-war between my artsy self and my blue-suit one; it's also funny because although I sang "Quando men vo" in the hallways of our warehouse back then (great acoustics!) I never found my voice enough to totally drop the mask and the corporate persona, or only in very small gatherings of brief duration. My company was way less buttoned-down and closed-mouth than most, so the problem wasn't them, but me; I'd sucked down enough of the Kool-Aid by my mid-twenties to keep lots of myself under wraps and behind the veil, the way most corporate people do -- a stupid waste of creativity and human power.

Whoever misconceived of HR as a process and systems role (whose purpose is, when all is said and done, to keep employee issues from disrupting the machinery and to keep the company out of court) and the many HR people who bought that lie are fooling themselves and the millions of working people who rely on them -- who could really use a thoughtful, eyes-open human advocate and partner in place of a fearful bureaucrat. I am sad about it, because the real work to be done is fun and joyous and empowering and important for employees and customers and shareholders, and for the planet. The left brain has done its job in the business world and then much more, not knowing when to stop; we're policy-and-guideline-drunk and can't see that we're slicing and dicing our way to oblivion. You can't legislate spark, genius, or inspiration. They come on their own when the stage is set.

How about this for an analogy: an HR chief is the stage manager for a Broadway production, one where the goal is to play to delighted sell-out crowds every night and sweep the Tonys, and where the actors re-write the script every day?