HR and Commitment-phobia

Josh Liebner, Gershon Mader, and I ended up on an interesting tangent about the role of human resources in driving strategic commitment (previous posts here and here).  Both authors shared my frustration about HR’s inertia when it comes to transformation efforts.  In no small measure, this frustration comes from believing that HR should be in a unique position to drive change because they often know “what is really going on” or “what people really believe/think”.

We kept coming back to one question:  Does the human resources field attract people who can’t or don’t want to lead?  Our answer was “too often” and the discussion identified three drivers:

  1. The reputation of HR as a leadership backwater is an on-going barrier to attracting risk-taking leaders.  Many people recognize that HR could be more, but ultimately…
  2. The transactional nature of many core HR functions shapes its own org design.  What parts of HR must be done?  Well, they are the compliance, recruiting, and benefits administration functions.  Therefore, there is something about the work that attracts…
  3. Gatekeepers.  Compliance-heavy functions require formal and structured lines of authority, which are quite easy to hide behind or to substitute for business decisions.

This last point highlights the position that HR has gotten itself into: gatekeeping may give it formal authority, but strategic imperatives don’t respect formal authority.  Emergent and adaptive systems will almost always find workarounds.

To that end, Josh and Gershon both suggested that a coaching and mentoring model is the best way for HR to engage in strategy.  This approach leverages the strength of HR — knowing the lay of the land — with a softer, less rules-bound style.  Acknowledging and shaping emergent behavior will be more fruitful than trying to ban or control it.

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