Tuesday, July 31, 2018

A linguistic expedition to the core of HR!?


It is said that the importance of a particular thing for a group is often reflected in the number of words they have for it. For example, Eskimos have many words for 'snow' (the number of words for snow  ranges from about 12 to 52, depending on which Anthropologist you want to listen to) to bring out the finer nuances in various types of snow.

I was wondering if we can adopt a similar approach to ‘reverse-engineer’ that is really important in the field of Human Resources (HR). So, let’s see what we can infer by looking at the various areas in HR and examining how many terms are there to describe each of them.

To avoid, ‘false positives’, let’s consider only the ‘technical terms’('jargon', if you prefer) that are widely used in HR and not just synonyms in English! Yes, this classification is not a very precise one as some of these terms have significantly different connotations (though they are related to the same concept) and as these terms go in and out of fashion! Of course, the 'core of HR' is also not static and it keeps on shifting and evolving!

These are the areas and the terms to describe them that come to mind immediately.


So, prima facie it appears that ‘what the employees are supposed to do’ and ‘what is there in the minds of the employees’ seem to be the key preoccupations in HR! While the first one is obvious (else, why do we need employees) the second one could be because of its ‘mysterious nature’ and because of the foundations of HR in psychology!

What do you think? Also, please let me know if you can add any more areas in HR (that has a large number of terms associated with them) and/or more terms related to an area that has already been listed!

Tuesday, July 17, 2018

The curious case of 'herophobia'


Why are we so wary of the term 'hero' in business organizations? This is a question that has intrigued me quite a bit. We actively look for heroes in other walks of life. Even when it comes to a novel or a movie, a hero is almost always present. Considering all this, why is it so fashionable to make statements like “we don’t have any heroes in our organization” when it comes to business organizations?

To avoid any possible confusion, let’s clarify the basic terminology for our discussion. We are using the term ‘hero’ in a gender-neutral sense here. So 'hero' doesn't have to be male (or the 'alpha male'!)  The sense in which we are using the term ‘hero’ here is quite similar to what Joseph Campbell does in his book ‘The hero with a thousand faces’. So a hero is someone who goes beyond the current boundaries, conquers difficulties, brings back something that is of immense value to the group and also undergoes a personal transformation in the while doing all this. 

The benefit of the hero to the group is in terms of expanding the horizons of the group and also in terms of motivating other members of the group to realize the heroic potential in them. Once the hero is back, he/she goes back to his/her old ‘job’ but approaches it in a new (better/higher) manner. Of course, the journey can start again on a different dimension (and hence becoming a hero is a continuous process and not some sort of one-time achievement or ‘certification’!).

So the hero is different from a celebrity or a superstar! Also, heroes and leaders have different roles in a group (though they are not mutually exclusive). While the hero provides outstanding positive examples by going beyond the current standards in the group, it is not their role to ‘rescue the group or the group members from trouble’.

I guess most of the herophobia is because of the concern that if a group celebrates heroes it might become dependent on the heroes, that it might impede teamwork or that the others in the group might feel inferior. In a way, it is also because of the residue of the reaction to the (now discredited) ‘great man theory of leadership’. Based on our discussion so far it can be seen that these fears are unfounded. 
Apart from the above factors that lead to herophobia at the organization level, there could also be factors operating at the individual level. That we want to be heroes is evident from the fact that most of us like to live out the hero's journey vicariously through identifying with the heroes in novels and movies. Hence, it is not that we don't like being heroes. Probably, what leads to herophobia at the individual level is some sort of 'learned helplessness' based on the belief that we can't be heroes (and that only a 'special few' can be heroes). So if we want to be something, and we can't do it and we see a some others (heroes) do it, it can trigger a host of negative emotions ranging from frustration, envy and fear. As these are uncomfortable  emotions, we might not consciously recognize or own them! As we will see shortly, this learned helplessness is based on a wrong assumption (about who can be a hero) and hence unwarranted.
Being a hero is not a 'character trait' that is present only in a few people. It is essentially a process of exploration and personal transformation that all of us can undertake. The hero’s journey gives hope to the other members of the team (that is work can be much more meaningful and impactful) and inspires them to kindle the spark of heroic potential in them. We must remember that the hero has a ‘thousand faces’ (or an 'infinite' number of faces) and hence (inspired by the heroes) every group members can be a hero. Heroes are very much part of the group and they are in no way an impediment to team work!

Now, let's come back to the "We don’t have any place for heroes in our organization; we have place only for teams that swim or sink together” kind of statements that we came across at the beginning of this post. They are based on a misunderstanding of the role of the hero in a group. Using the same metaphor, we can say that ''heroes not only swim with us but also help us to redefine how fast, how far and in which direction we can swim and thereby help us to realize our own heroic potential"!

So where does this leave us? It is clearly beneficial to the group to celebrate the journey and achievements of the heroes (without making them ‘celebrities’ or ‘privileged few’) in a way that it encourages the others in the group to realize heroic potential. They should be highlighted as examples that all of us can learn from, help us redefine what is possible and thereby give us hope and courage to unleash our true human potential. One doesn’t qualify as a hero unless one brings back something of significant value to the group and hence the hero’s journey is not some sort of ‘ego trip’. Also the personal transformation itself is the greatest reward for the hero. The power of the hero derives from the inner-strength he/she developed from the journey and not from the group putting the hero on a pedestal. Hence, the heroes don't need to monopolize the limelight or the rewards.

These days, when finding meaning and realizing one’s potential becomes increasingly important for employees at work, herophobia can limit the options available to the organizations. It might be worth considering modelling some of the long-term people development programs on the hero’s journey (see ‘Accelerated learning and rites of passage’ for a somewhat similar discussion on an anthropological approach to facilitate role transitions). 

Another related application of the hero's journey is in coaching, especially to help an employee to discover his/her calling and to chart out the journey to fulfill the calling. It helps to derive more meaning from coaching and to provide better orientation and more hope for the journey of self-discovery and personal transformation. In this way, coaching becomes a conversation with the hero latent in all of us! By the way, coaching can also help in unlearning the 'learned helplessness' that we discussed earlier (the one that is based on a wrong assumption about who can be a hero and hence leading to herophobia). 

Yet another application is in culture building and cultural induction of new hires. Telling stories about the deeds of heroes that exemplify the values of the organization is a  great way to communicate and reinforce the values of the organization!

It is interesting to note that the concept of 'hero' became 'unfashionable' in business organizations mainly in the last two decades. To some extent it was triggered by the highly visible/publicized  failures of some of the 'celebrity leaders' who were wrongly equated with 'heroes'. This in turn triggered the apprehensions related to the possible adverse impact on the organizations and teams that we looked at earlier. All this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding of the role of hero and who can be a hero. So, at its core, this post has been an attempt to 're-democratize' the concept of a hero so that it becomes accessible to all of us and we can leverage it to realize our heroic potential!.

Any comments/ideas?