Do No Harm.   These words came from a colleague sharing a perspective on the responsibilities of HR.  The role should minimize harm to individuals – increase psychological safety, meditate, listen, provide resources, organize programs for growth, and remove barriers to amplify wellness.  

As I listened,  I reflected.  Then it hit me.  Hard.  My perception was aligned.  My actions and behaviors were not.  The handling of the role and responsibilities reflected “them” not “us.”  Organizational decisions impacting people – hiring, promotion, compensation, demotion, firing, & process – HR has a responsibility.  Even when they do not have input or the decision is overruled.  When people are negatively impacted a divide between the function and the people can exist.  

How many in HR acquiesce when told to move forward with a decision?  If HR does not do what leadership decides we know all too well what the repercussions will be.  With decisions executed, contagion impact and the wellness of the team is affected.  This shapes the perception in the organization, not just on HR.

In a prior role, the executive leadership team was in a workshop.  The goal was to come up with actionable items to turn around the organization.  We kicked off with a question for each functional leader:  summarize your role.  I explained my role was to protect the company and support the team.  The senior leader applauded the answer, focusing on the first part of my answer and largely ignoring the second half of the answer.  This was 15 years ago.

Recently my role in HR has been less about amplifying people and more about compliance and protection – of the organization.  The work that aligns with my values and helps organizations to thrive was diminished.  Looking at my work I realized I have done more for the company than for my people.  The number of times it has pained me to do something – termination, discipline, or not hiring – doesn’t compare to the pain the individuals may have had to endure.  Yes, people are resilient.  Yes, another job can be found.  Yet the harm inflicted does not go away.  When trust is broken it is hard to regrow.  

As I reflected on my colleague’s words, my experiences, research & data, I realized I have a choice.  I can stay, leave, or reimagine the game.  I can do better and many HR professionals are leading the way.  

I have made a decision to step away from environments that do harm.  I believe there is a responsibility on companies to create organizational alignment.  From a people function, we look out for the psychological safety and well-being of our people.  This will give people space and an opportunity to thrive.  So here is to the next step in the journey.  A world in which we reduce the harm by being intentional about decisions and the impact.

Gallup’s 2022 State of the Workplace provides a sobering view of our work lives:  79% of global workers are emotionally detached at work or miserable.  And for those workers answered yes to the following questions:

Quiet quitters” voices are silently powerful.  Today’s corporate workplaces are largely built on management principles dating back 100 years.  Taylorism applied science to management improving efficiency and productivity.  Today data is viewed as necessary for competitive advantage, including human decisions.  Given the engagement data, organizations with cultural alignment for our minds, bodies and spirit, employees wellness, perform better in almost every measured category.

In modern workplaces, competitive advantage should be your people.  This is not just about upskilling, reskilling, training, or (gasp) more data.  This is about inviting people to connect, use strengths, and thrive.  It is about organizational alignment, sharing information and giving space to not only do the job but to collaborate and innovate.  

Human behavior research demonstrates that people thrive in environments where choice, collaboration, intrinsic motivation, and a sense of purpose are provided.  What can we do with the data and research to align workplaces and practices?  

Change of this type takes courage and a willingness from the individuals at the top to want to enact meaningful change.  Is this risk worth it? Can you imagine the competitive advantage we would have if we flipped the percentages so almost 80% of our workforce was engaged, happy, curious, and innovative at work?   

Additional Reading:

Management practices looking at new ways to engage employees at work include work by Frederic LalouxGary Hamel & Michele Zanini, & Holacracy.

Companies that practice this type of management include Patagonia, Morning Star, and WL Gore.

“Hope. It is the only thing stronger than fear. A little hope is effective. A lot of hope is dangerous. A spark is fine, as long as it’s contained.”

President Snow, The Hunger Games – Donald Sutherland

The blockbuster book and movie, The Hunger Games, is set in a dystopian post-apocalyptic world pitting people against one another in order to survive.  It is a brutal zero-sum competition.  It is also a story of how one person can impact change.  Does this remind you of your workplace?  

The classic management theory has similar traits to the orchestrated environment created in The Hunger Games. Our workplaces may not be as brutal but it takes and makes people conform to perform.  If you are selected to enter the workplace you are given – or learn – the rules.  You earn rewards when you conform.  And you are punished when you do not. Employees learn how to survive.  Sometimes.  

Gallup reports that a mere 21% of workers are “engaged” at work.  Additionally, 44% of employees reported experiencing stress “a lot” the previous day – a new all-time high.  Why?   Maslow’s hierarchy of needs tells us our well-being needs to be satisfied before other needs can be actualized.  Our workplaces are pulling us into a game with high stakes:  survival.  We keep scorecards and pit employees against one another – forcing rank on pay and promotion.  When workplaces don’t provide basic psychological needs, we lose out on innovation, dignity, respect, learning, and divergent thinking.  When people conform to the workplace games we get productivity and efficiency.  We miss the opportunity to look beyond the scorecards and design an environment that changes the game.  

What will you do?  Remain, leave, or change the game?