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Blaire Palmer

That People Thing

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more about Blaire Palmer

Why you need to have an HR philosophy to really make a difference

If we want HR to be seen as more than just a service provider, practitioners need to demonstrate that they stand. So... what's your HR philosophy? 

One of the major differences between a manager and a leader is that managers fulfil the brief set by others while leaders stand for something that comes from within. 

Of course, you’re probably both – a manager and a leader. You were hired to deliver the vision of the business you work for. If you don’t buy in to it you’re probably in the wrong job and if you want to stay in the business you are committing to furthering the aims of the company you joined. 

But HR professionals must be more than a vessel for the vision of the CEO. They must have their own philosophy, certainly when it comes to the way the human resources in a company are treated, how we create work environments where people can do their best work and how we believe change is most effectively brought about.

In fact, we tend to trust leaders more when they stand for something. At a time when trust in authority figures is low globally, generating trust is a hot topic. It applies to us in HR just as much as anywhere else in the business. 

HR is more than a service provider

This is one of the reasons I get frustrated when I hear HR teams describe themselves as service providers. The implication is that they simply implement a service on behalf of a business, that they don’t have an angle of their own. HR needs an angle. It needs to stand for something. 

All too often though I speak to HR professionals about their philosophy and they look at me with a blank expression. Some will repeat some basic clichés about the value of people and that they like being helpful. A very few have a solid, well-articulated perspective born out of their experience rather than a repetition of the conventional thinking that dominates our industry. 

For example, I don’t believe that culture workshops work. It is my experience that running workshops for everyone in your company to explain the new company values and do a bit of brainstorming about ‘What This Means For You’ will not change your culture. It might be the start of something.

Rather than accepting conventional wisdom about human behaviour, seek out theories that conflict with what everyone seems to agree upon.

But to change a culture you need leaders to change their behaviour and this is an ongoing piece of work. Leaders require coaching and opportunities to deeply reflect on themselves and their own limiting beliefs and unpick decades of habitual behaviour – and this doesn’t happen at a one-off culture workshop. 

Yet I’ve sat next to far too many HR professionals who are brimming with excitement about launching their culture workshop programme because it’s going to change EVERYTHING. It didn’t work at their last company. Or the company before that. But it will work this time, for sure. 

Without a philosophy of your own, you end up cutting and pasting this year’s cool new concept onto your own HR strategy and wondering why it’s not working like they said it would in the book. 

What’s your job? 

The first philosophy to develop is around what HR is for. It’s not a service provider and it’s not a cost centre. There isn’t ‘you’ and ‘the business’. You’re not just here to help. So what are you here for? What do you believe makes HR absolutely fundamental to the success of a business? Or beyond that, what role does HR play in making the world a better place? 

I’m not joking. Work takes up a huge proportion of our lives and determines a large part of our life experience. Work and our experiences of work, our experiences of interacting with business as consumers, the way business influences our economy and the wellbeing of our planet contributes far more to our experience of what it is to be a human than, say, government policy. Work and business determine our world’s culture. 

Therefore HR has a huge part to play in determining the human experience. This is people’s lives. I believe work can be a powerful source of meaning and purpose. It creates community and a sense of contribution and value. It sends a message to our children about what is important in life and what it means to be an adult in our world. So when I’m thinking about my coaching clients or the audience at one of my conference speeches it’s this that sits behind everything I say. 

What value does HR bring to the business, the people in the business and the world beyond? What do YOU think? 

What are human beings like? 

I remember having my mind blown when I read a book about education that pointed out that most adults bring about change in their own lives without needing to be told. They start an Open University course, they move house, they buy a new car, they go on holiday to somewhere new, they get married and start a family.

It occurred to me that humans are actually really good at change. So, I questioned, why do we blame people’s resistance to change in the workplace on an innate dislike of change? Perhaps humans like change in general, therefore if they are resistant to change in a business context it might be this particular change they dislike and perhaps for good reason. 

It’s not possible to simply pretzel yourself in to whatever culture you find yourself in. You need to stand up for your principles in the business.

This revelation transformed my whole approach to change. Instead of repeating the old convention that ‘People hate change’ and ‘You’ll always get some people who can’t change’ I started with a belief that people are good at change, so if they are struggling it might be the way we’re doing this or what we’re trying to do that’s at fault. 

Rather than accepting conventional wisdom about human behaviour, seek out theories that conflict with what everyone seems to agree upon. Look at your own experience and see where the conventional thinking jars with what you’ve experienced.

Look inside yourself and consider whether these ‘rules’ about human behaviour apply to you. If they don’t, maybe they don’t apply to others either. Come up with your own theories about why people do the things they do and why they would ever change.

Stand for something 

When I work with HR clients on these big questions and they begin to philosophise about people, HR, the role of human beings in the business, the purpose of work and what business is actually here for, a philosophy begins to crystalise. 

Now life becomes a little tougher. It’s not possible to simply pretzel yourself in to whatever culture you find yourself in. You need to stand up for your principles in the business. In fact, your philosophy becomes a large part of your value, the reason you’re hired in the first place. Instead of being an empty vessel there to do the bidding of the business, you come with an agenda and that agenda is overt. 

As we look to the future of HR it’s worth asking what we as human beings can offer that a bot or a piece of tech can’t do. Having a perspective, a set of beliefs which determine your unique take on HR questions and challenges makes you indispensable. A bot can’t do that. 

You can read more about Blaire’s philosophy and start creating your own by downloading her free e-book, Punks in Suits, full of helpful prompts and exercises.

Author Profile Picture
Blaire Palmer

Author, speaker, agent provocateur for senior leaders and their teams

Read more from Blaire Palmer

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