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HR: Organizational Cheerleader or Agony Aunt?

Note: This post was my contribution to the crowd-sourced ebook This Time It’s Personnel: Humane Resourced 2. The brainchild of David D’Souza, HR pro, fellow contrarian, and spectacular blogger at 101 Half Connected Things, all proceeds from the sale of this ebook go to charities collectively selected by the many talented and creative authors. I am massively enjoying reading the varied viewpoints it contains, and have had more than a few great ideas while absorbing my fellow authors’ wisdom – I very much recommend it (and it’s less than $5).

 HR: Organizational Cheerleader or Agony Aunt?

If an Anthropologist were trying to conduct ethnographic research on the tribe known as ‘HR professionals’, HR blogs would offer a rich source of data. I imagine them hunched over a laptop reading, their notebooks filled with scribbles:

“Members of the tribe seem preoccupied with questions of collective purpose and meaning, resulting in a plurality of contradictory identities.”

It’s true that as a profession we spend a good deal of time ruminating about what HR is and is not, but I would argue that this is in part due to the fact that the members of our organizations often expect us to play such contradictory roles. We’re asked to be the policy police, the welcome wagon, advisors, counselors, coaches, hard-hearted terminators, risk managers, and occasionally (hopefully less and less) the social committee, among many other things. One of the roles that I harbour very ambivalent feelings about is that of the ‘organizational cheerleader’.

Quite naturally, HR is expected to consistently promote our organizations as great places to work, and frequently tasked with internal communications, often on behalf of executive leadership, about employee engagement, recognition and other HR initiatives designed to impact employee experience.

But what happens when our organizations aren’t particularly great places to work at the moment, or if the most recent employee engagement initiative has revealed some deep pockets of dissatisfaction that need to be addressed? In my experience there can be considerable pressure to put a positive spin on this information, or even wrap it in a thick, glossy, candy coating.

This pressure to avoid sharing the unvarnished truth can stem from a number of places, including fears that it reflects poorly on the HR department or executive leadership, or a kind of magical thinking that screaming from the mountaintop about the AMAZING culture around here will somehow make it so.

But this ‘cheerleader’ approach is dangerous for everyone. Should HR trumpet the strengths of their organizations? Of course. But glossing over the imperfections is a mistake. The line between internal cheerleader, employer branding strategist, and mouthpiece for management rhetoric can be blurry, and not always apparent to employees, or perhaps even ourselves.

There may be people out there who are not bothered by a certain level of disingenuous ambiguity in their day to day work, but I bet they’re mostly used car salesmen. And unfortunately, unlike selling someone a lemon and watching their tail lights fade into the distance, over-selling someone on an organization quite often means that you get to work alongside them day by day and watch their surprise turn to dismay and then give way to resentment and cynicism. And you get to know that you played a big, ugly hand in that. Dissonance and apathy can ensue.

When I contemplate a better role for HR than that of ‘organizational cheerleader’, my thoughts turn to Dear Sugar, former advice columnist for website ‘The Rumpus’, where she wrote anonymously for a couple of years before being revealed as author Cheryl Strayed. Not familiar with Sugar’s work? Don’t worry, I’m about to enlighten you. At this point I must confess that the title of this post is a touch misleading, because when you get right down to it Sugar is not really an advice columnist. She’s more like a righteous philosopher of the human condition.

I recently rediscovered Dear Sugar, and was as amazed by her writing today as when I first read her years ago. If you have ever doubted the magic alchemy that words are capable of, I implore you to read some of Sugar’s responses, which are not just advice, but art (be warned, she addresses some weighty, emotional issues). Her columns are gracious and raw in equal measure, filled with authentic empathy for troubles great and small. However, Sugar also has a bullshit meter permanently set on high, and she is relentlessly honest, even when the truth is hard, complicated, and not what her advice-seekers want to hear. Though every answer is unique, each ends in a place where the immutable accountability people have for their own lives and problems is crystal clear. No one gets let off the hook with Sugar, no one is permitted to wallow or to despair. Sugar accepts their tales of woe delicately in her hands, turning them over to examine their jagged corners and unique scars. She acknowledges their ugliness, but then she hands them back. Always she hands them back, and asks some variation of “What will you do now? Let us discuss how you will move beyond this thing, how you will seek to be transformed by what it has to teach you.” She does not seek to offer mere comfort or reassurance. Rather, she dives beneath the skin and operates on the bleeding artery itself.

Here is Sugar responding to an advice-seeker troubled by his overwhelming jealousy of friends who are getting six figure book deals, while his own ‘first-rate education, holding a BA from a prestigious college and an MFA from another prestigious college’ has yet to net him the same:

“What is a prestigious college? What did attending such a school allow you to believe about yourself? What assumptions do you have about the colleges that you would not describe as prestigious? What sorts of people go to prestigious colleges and not prestigious colleges? Do you believe that you had a right to a free “first-rate” education? What do you make of the people who received educations that you would not characterize as first-rate? These are not rhetorical questions. I really do want you to take out a piece of paper and write those questions down and then answer them. I believe your answers will deeply inform your current struggle with jealousy. I am not asking you these questions in order to condemn or judge you. I would ask a similar series of questions to anyone from any sort of background because I believe our early experiences and beliefs about our place in the world inform who we think we are and what we deserve and by what means it should be given to us.

Can you imagine the power of such a viewpoint brought to bear on organizational problems, major and minor? The courage that HR could bring to bear in acknowledging the symptoms, and then focusing solely on the root cause of any organizational anguish? The fearlessness to look beyond the problem and attack the misperceptions, entitlement, and dysfunctional beliefs at the core of organizational issues and conflicts?

I don’t want to be a cheerleader. I want to tell the truth and fix the problem.

I think that HR should be willing to reject the role of organizational cheerleader when it threatens to obscure organizational problems and shortcomings. If things are crap, let us be the first to point out that it’s not chocolate pudding rising above our ankles. And if that message is met with resistance or instructions to polish it up for public consumption, let us push back.

And should you work for an organization that has made it clear that it’s not interested in exploring how to help itself, that insists that you slap lipstick on a pig and keep telling people it’s a show horse, sit down with some Dear Sugar. Let her fearlessness inform your own. Do not settle for cheering the good; dig into the dark corners, find the ugliness of your organization and pull it into the light.

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