11/15/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

Are Your Employees Stuck in the Bubble or Acting Like Owners?

Lloyd Blankfein, the head of investment bank Goldman Sachs, was interviewed in the weekend edition of The New York Times about what lessons he drew from the financial crisis. His answer is given below:

"I learned about the importance of making sure that everyone in the organization interprets his job or her job expansively. That everybody's looking at his or her neighbor. Because what you want to get is a lot of opinions. People can get trapped by their context. The nature of a bubble is that people who are in it can't see or else it would never have occurred."

Blankfein makes a great point. To paraphrase Paul Simon, it's easy to allow yourself to be that "boy in the bubble," trapped by your situation or context.

I lead the strategic HR practice of The RBL Group, and my work involves consulting with HR organizations and supporting the development of HR leaders and professionals -- everything from building more effective HR strategies, organizations and HR systems to workshops where we teach people how to be more effective business partners and change managers. Many of our clients live in a bubble as well, but a different bubble than Blankfein had in mind.

It's a bubble of anxiety and low confidence that's been brought on by job reductions and a frequently negative attitude toward HR. It results in a bubble of fear that impedes real contribution -- don't take risks, don't stick your neck out, don't try anything new, stick to your knitting, do your administrative and transactional work of HR flawlessly but otherwise wait until asked.

But we also see a great many organizations where the HR community has resisted the bubble and taken the risk of creating value as real business partners. At beverage company Molson Coors, HR head Ralph Hargrow, OD manager Joe Kane and their colleagues are taking initiative to develop HR professionals grow as change agents and business partners to contribute to business growth and performance. Jens Jenssen, SVP of HR at the global oil company Statoil Hydro, and HR transformation VP Hilde Sannes, have invested significantly in building the skills of HR professionals and the contribution of the HR community. Bob Landis, who leads HR for the chocolate business of Mars is doing likewise, helping the company gain the most from its merger with Wrigley, and working closely with executives to identify ways to increase both efficiency and effectiveness. And, Alain Rohaut, corporate leader of HR at AXA, and AXA University project manager Peter Shepherd, are working together to drive the growth of change leadership in the global HR organization.

I spoke last week at a good conference in Budapest entitled HR Revolution. The conference participants included a wide range of HR leaders from across Western and Central Europe, and a wide range of industries. Most reject the bubble. These individuals are far more giraffes than ostriches, sticking their necks out rather than looking for a place to hide. Most are determined to contribute as true business partners in their organizations, eager to learn and adopt best practices from other regions, but also able to give as good as they get. They are doing exciting, innovative things.

These individuals and others challenge Blankfein's insistence that you can't see the bubble when you're living in it. The history of the recent recession is that many financial insiders knew just what was going on, and where it was likely to lead, but nevertheless went along for the ride out of greed or fear. HR leaders and professionals like Hargrow, Kane, Jenssen, Sannes, Landis, Rohaut, Shepherd and the participants in Budapest's HR Revolution conference demonstrate an impressive ability to rise above the bubble and demonstrate real leadership.

What are your stories of how you and colleagues have risen above the bubble? Let me know.

Jon Younger is a Partner of The RBL Group, a firm providing consulting and executive education in strategic HR and leadership. Jon leads the Strategic HR practice area and is also a Director of the RBL Institute. He is co-author, with Dave Ulrich and three other principals at The RBL Group, of "HR Competencies" (SHRM, 2007), "HR Transformation" (McGraw-Hill, July 2009) and many articles, and last year logged client work in 35 countries.