Leadership Principle #8 – Know Your People and Promote Their Welfare

Buckle up, this post has some energy behind it.  (You’ve been warned.)

Disclaimer:  I’ve worked with some wonderful people from the Human Resources community.   They are committed, caring people who bring passion and dedication to what they see as their calling to develop people for the betterment of both the individual and the organization.

However, I hate the term “Human Resources”, a view shared by a number of the people I know who work in this field. In my not-very-humble opinion this term unwittingly reflects a mindset that is responsible for much of the human misery that exists in the workplace.

The dictionary defines “resource” as: “available means or property; a supply that can be drawn on”.  Hence a business might have financial resources or physical resources.  Whether capital obtained through a bond issue or a stockpile of stainless steel, these resources are objects, things which can be used in realizing the business’ objective and which are valued solely for their utility.  If words matter, then I wonder if our adoption of the term “Human Resources” is reflective of an organizational mindset that views people in the same way.

One of the great struggles of an organizational leader is balancing the tension between the needs of the individual with the needs of the organization. (It’s a polarity.)  A business must make a profit if it is to continue operating.  Likewise, an army’s purpose is to fight in the defence of its country – if it fails to do so that country may cease to exist.  These realities carry with them some hard consequences.  For a business to remain profitable in the face of an economic downturn, it may have to reduce the number of employees it has.  If an army fights, then some of its members will die.  One of the ways that some leaders deal with this psychological discomfort is to emotionally distance themselves from those they lead – to begin to think of them not as living, breathing human beings, full of value and mystery and possibility, but impersonally as “headcount” or as “salary envelope” or as … “Human Resources”.

Don’t do it!  Reject the mindset that reduces people to the level of a “resource”: things which exist for no other purpose than to be expended in a way yielding the greatest possible Return On Investment.  This is the approach of such contemptible executives as Al “Chainsaw” Dunlap .  While Dunlap may be an extreme example, this mindset manifests itself in multitudes of smaller ways: the leader who is quick to take credit for success but skilfully ensures that a “fall guy” is available to take the blame in the event of failure; the leader who hides behind “policy” when making unpleasant or controversial decisions (and leaves some hapless HR officer to communicate the news to those affected); the leader who believes that “employee engagement” can be bought through a skilled internal PR campaign and a box of doughnuts.

I once attended a presentation by a Canadian Army Officer, tough and profane, who had lost soldiers in combat in a “friendly fire incident”.  During a Q&A session I asked him how he, as a leader, had dealt with that situation.  He answered, very quietly, “I cried”.

“Know your people and promote their welfare.”  It’s one of the military’s Principles of Leadership because of centuries of experience proving that if you want your people to be engaged, if you want them to give their best, if you want them to lay down their lives (literally or metaphorically) then they need to know that they matter to you.  Not to some impersonal organization, but to you.  It’s part of the price of leadership.  Pay it or step aside.

What have your experiences been?   What advice would you give new leaders in this regard?  Let’s talk about it!