The real reason why HR isn’t viewed as a strategic leader

I’ve spent the better part of 20 years working in or supporting the field of human resources. And, I can still recite some of the not-so-flattering responses I’ve heard from people after telling them what I do for a living. To put it mildly, there are a lot of people who don’t have the best perception of HR.

To make matters worse, when a corporate scandal occurs, like the recent sexual harassment allegations at Uber, HR gets blamed.

I’ve heard many theories offered over the years for why HR has such a questionable reputation:

  • HR is too compliance driven.
  • HR only cares about protecting management (like the Uber case might suggest).
  • HR doesn’t know the business. 
  • HR is focused on the wrong things.

While these issues might be true in isolated cases, it doesn’t line up with what I’ve seen.

In my experience, HR professionals are smart, motivated people who care deeply about helping both employees and the organization succeed. HR often has the clearest picture of what’s truly happening within an organization and what needs to be done to prepare the organization for success. 

However, there’s one ingredient I’ve found to be in short supply in HR. And, I believe it’s the missing piece that would transform HR from being viewed as an administrative necessity to a strategic leader. 

Courage. 

Despite often knowing what to do, I’ve seen far too many HR colleagues defer to others. They accept an executive’s critique on an HR initiative while knowing it’s unwarranted. They allow a manager to make a bad hiring decision because it’s “their team.”

It’s not because they lack ability or knowledge. It’s not because they don’t care. It’s because they are afraid. Afraid of losing what little influence they feel they have. Afraid of looking incompetent. In some cases, afraid they’ll lose their jobs. Whether or not these fears are warranted, they feel very real. And that fear changes their behavior. 

This is why courage is needed. WWI hero Eddie Rickenbacker said it perfectly: “Courage is doing what you’re afraid to do. There can be no courage unless you’re scared.”

The work of human resources is profoundly important. Employees depend upon HR to ensure fairness, safety, and opportunity. Managers need HR for guidance and support. Leaders rely on HR to facilitate a culture and work experience that supports organizational progress. This work is far too important to allow fear to get in the way.

But how do you become more courageous?

Based on my experience, there are a few things you can do to prepare yourself for moments when you need to find the courage to move past the fear.

  1. Get clear on your values. When I was 13 years old, my dad’s boss ordered him to go back on his word with a customer he’d known for years. After some heated words were exchanged, my dad quit with no backup plan. He was faced with a decision to either compromise his integrity or find a new job. To my dad, his integrity was never for sale. So despite the challenges this could create for our family, he made the hard, scary call. Do you know which of your values are worth fighting (or quitting) for? Make time to get crystal clear on these things so when the moment arrives for you to fight for what you believe in, it’s an easy decision.
  2. Make yourself “unfireable.” I’ve heard so many people say something like, “I can’t say that – I might get fired.” Here’s the reality: If you are so replaceable that one comment can get you fired, you’ve got bigger problems than courage. The key is to focus your energy on becoming so valuable that you’re nearly impossible to replace. You can achieve this through gaining expertise and specialized knowledge. Or, it can happen because you’ve raised your hand to offer help so many times that the organization has become dependent on you. The more valuable you become, the less afraid you’ll be to rock the boat when it’s called for. And, frankly, even if they did fire you (or you had to quit), you’d have no problem finding another job.
  3. Build a posse. It is infinitely more frightening to stand alone in the face of adversity than it is to stand with others. One of the most important things you can do to create a feeling of strength and confidence is to invest your time in building a powerful network of relationships. Seeking out those who have common interests, goals, and values will provide you with support and encouragement when you need to take a stand and push beyond fear. In fact, the Latin root of the word “posse” means power. Harness this power in your career. 

Courage is something you cultivate over time. The more confident and grounded you become in who you are and what’s important to you, the less daunting it will feel to push beyond the fear and be the leader your organization desperately needs you to be.

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