Thursday, February 8, 2007

HR professionals and Multiple Personality Disorder

Encyclopedia Britannica defines multiple personality disorder as follows:

'Dissociative identity disorder, formerly called multiple personality disorder is a rare mental disorder in which two or more independent and distinct personality systems develop in the same individual. Each of these personalities may alternately inhabit the person's conscious awareness to the exclusion of the others. Usually the various personalities differ markedly from one another in outlook, temperament, and body language.'

I have noticed a similar phenomenon among HR professionals. The difference is mainly that it is fairly common (and not 'rare' as the above definition says). It is more commonly seen among those HR professionals who have taken their behavioral science education seriously. I talking about those folks who (even after working for many years in HR) still remember the behavioral science theories/principles that they have learned. Though a college degree per se might not have any direct impact on the level of knowledge of a person, it is often observed that having a MBA/MA in HR/behavioral science makes one more prone to this disorder. Of course, the most severely affected are those who have a pursued doctoral level studies and then (for some 'strange' reason) started working in internal HR.

The behavioral manifestation of this disorder is something like this:

During most of their time in office 'Personality 1' (let us call it P1, the dominant personality) is in operation. This involves carrying out their job related activities in a manner that does not reflect application of behavioral science theories/principles in any significant way.

Once in a while another personality (let us call it P2) surfaces. When this happens the HR professional gathers other HR professionals in the team, gets into a meeting room and talks about behavioral science principles/theories and their implications for HR practices. It can lead to discussions such as 'does our performance management system reflect principles of distributive justice' , 'do the models that are used in our leadership training programs have empirical validity' etc. This makes everyone feel nice and also enable them to feel that they are 'superior' to those who have 'wandered into HR without any behavioral science background'.

True to the nature of the disorder, P2 vanishes as soon as one gets back to day-to-day HR work and P1 takes over. Of course there are other avenues for P2 to surface including HR conferences, seminars etc. By the way, blogs might also provide an opportunity for P2 to surface !!!

There could be many more personalities (P3, P4,....,Pn) involved and some of them could even be placed in the continuum between P1 and P2. One such personality involves identification and implementation of 'best practices'.

Now let us go back to Britannica and look at the causes of this disorder. Britannica says

'Dissociative identity disorder is widely viewed as resulting from dissociative mental processes—i.e., the splitting off from conscious awareness and control of thoughts, feelings, memories, and other mental components in response to situations that are painful, disturbing, or somehow unacceptable to the person experiencing them. The failure to form a distinct personality can thus be seen as a way of coping with or escaping from inner conflict.'

I think that this more or less holds good in the case of HR professionals also. If we analyse the day-to-day activities performed by HR professionals in most of the companies, we would find that many of these activities do not require any great amount of behavioral science knowledge (at least in the way they are 'usually' carried out). This might be true even for senior positions. If we take out the hype, many of these activities might get reduced to 'getting forms filled-up'. Of course 'facilitation' is required, 'alignment' as to be maintained, the target population includes senior leaders, and the form filling is enabled by fancy IT systems (i.e. the 'form filling' happens online supported by an automated work flow and the system also enables monitoring, collation/aggregation and even built-in budgets). While this is useful work, this could create 'painful, disturbing, or unacceptable' situations (mentioned above) for the the HR professional who wants to 'make a big difference/contribution' by leveraging his/her behavioral science training. Again, similar to the 'painful early childhood experiences' that lead to the development of personality disorders, 'painful early career experiences' could contribute to the development of 'personality disorders in HR professionals'. Most obvious case is that of an HR MBA, who after taking up an HR job (often with unrealistic expectations) finds that his/her attempts to bring behavioral science knowledge into day-to-day work meets with inertia, indifference, resistance and even ridicule.

Similar to that in the case of multiple personality disorder, the treatment for 'HR personality disorder' should also involve integrating the disparate personalities back into a single and unified personality. Of course, this 'integration' itself is a complex topic (that require a much more elaborate discussion than what is possible here). Again, as in the case of treating multiple personality disorder, it is an important step to make the personalities aware of one another. That is exactly the purpose of this post!!!

Related Links : See related posts here, here, here and here


Anuradha said...

Well said!

I think you also bring about a larger point of “Inclusivity”. The corporate world rarely allows you to bring your “whole” self to work, whether it is “theory” v/s “practical applications”, “logic” v/s “emotion”, or “structure” v/s “flexibility”. And hence we end up feeling like we are leading parallel lives, nor knowing how the two can be integrated. Awareness will definitely be a starting point, but true integration will require cultural shifts, both at the workplace and outside of it.

Cheri said...

Ha! This makes a lot of sense. I left HR pretty quickly after gaining exposure to org psych, in particular since I found that the expectation that I spend most of my time in what you call "p1" was soul-killing.

I'm starting to wonder if HR can really be effective in championing change management. Perhaps more orgs can follow the lead of Starbucks and divide the Org Development function from corporate HR.

I think the problem is less that HR gets caught up with the minutia of the administrative side, and more that orgs want HR to "keep to it's place" and not push boundaries on org behavior issues.

Udayan said...

Read the blog incidentally and was actually surprised to find this topic .My interest stems from the fact that i was diagnosed with some sort of a multiple personality disorder at some point of my career.
In simple terms human beings need food, clothing, shelter and protection,emotional gratification,entertainment and a purpose to carry the excuse further.These needs can exist simultaneously and yet subconsciously and are balanced by the internal rationalizations and realizations of the environment and are very subjective based on parameters such as family, upbringing and social interactions , thinking processes of the individual perhaps even financial considerations of the individual and are moderated by the levels of aspirations the individual bears with regards to his ego positions in respect of the various roles he is performing.
It i feel from my experience is however a part of the learning process to be a HR professional and perhaps even transient but whenever the values of an individual come at a clash with the helplessness (whether learned or otherwise) to strike an individual identity the chances are that it may manifest as a multiple personality seeking to establish identity as either or all of them and yet not in synch with even p1.The scale of aberrations from p1 can be drastic if the deviations from individual aspiration and percieved truth are remarkable.