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Misanthropy - (C) David Ducheyne
This blog is about an occupational hazard for people working in HR: Misanthropy. Misanthropy is about hating people, or even worse, hating human kind. Misanthropy is lurking. Indeed, HR people could end up to hate the very people they serve. And I will tell you why and how you can prevent this.
HR is a profession that focuses on people. And just like any other profession that has people as its core focus, HR risks to be disappointed by the object of its purpose. Teachers, social workers, nurses, … are at risk. But so are HR people, at least if they do not pay attention. There are many reasons for this.

  1. HR People enter the job because they want to work with People

    Indeed, HR is about people. But it’s not only about people. It’s about performance, competitiveness, profitability too. HR is not about being good to people. It’s about creating a context where people can thrive. Thriving means also performing, being successful, achieving targets. And of course it’s about values, ethics, … Being a good employer means that you want to make a difference to your people. It means that you want to support them in their (professionals and private) life. It means that you want to do it right. But not unconditionally. The reciprocity is essential. There’s no charity or philanthropy.

  2. People are People

    As HR you see both the capital sins and the capital virtues. People can show gratitude, greatness, generosity .. .but they are sometimes selfish, aggressive, jealous, greedy, … If you are there to do good for good people, you can get disappointed some of the time by some of the people in your company.

  3. For better and for worse

    As HR you are in the company for better and for worse. When all goes well there is time and money for the good stuff. You build talent programs, engagement initiatives, volunteering, … When times are rough you are managing redundancy, disciplinary actions, budget cuts, … And often you do both at the same time. As economic cycles lead to investment and divestment, HR will be busy with development and managed outflow. This Janus head leads to confusion among people. These are the guys that talk about career development one day, and the next they are laying off people. For some this is very difficult to understand. Ambiguity is part of the game.

  4. The Cheese in the Sandwich

    HR has at least three customers. The first customer is the company itself. HR works to create value for the company. The second customer is the business leader. HR supports and strengthens business leaders while focusing on the human side of enterprise. The third customer is the employee. HR wants to work with people to develop their employability, performance, … Having three customers that have related interests does not make life easy. It’s a balancing act. Sometimes you have to do something that seems to be against the interests of another type of customer. This balancing act leads to frustration. HR is not a puppet on a string that will execute the commands of the business leader. HR will work together with the business leader to find the best solution that is in the interest of all customers. But sometimes one of the customers might feel neglected. And this leads to dissatisfaction. Believe me, this is one of the toughest aspects of the HR job, being the cheese in the sandwich and answering to the needs and demands of the three types of customers.

  5. The Feeling of Powerlessness

    At the end, the business customer decides. And even when you as HR professional know better, it’s hard to change someone’s mind. And that makes you feel powerless sometimes. This is a feeling that is shared with all kinds of leadership. At the end, a leader has no power without the engagement of others. Sometimes HR feels like a leaders’ prosthesis. Don’t. That’s demeaning and presumptuous at the same time. Misanthropy will feed these thoughts.

Reading this you might ask yourself: where is the hope? If you study to become an HR professional you might regret your choice after reading this. Don’t. Remember that HR is a difficult profession. Someone told me that anyone could do it, but I do not agree. It takes talent to do HR. And there are ways to avoid the misanthropy. Here they are.

So how to avoid Misanthropy?

  1. Don’t take it personal.

    When you are unable to fulfill all the demands of all your customers, you might get some heat. People call you unreliable. People say that they don’t trust you. People write articles about why they hate HR. One message: do not take this personally. It’s not because one person disapproves of what you’re doing, that your job is lousy. Remember that people are people. They will probably express discontent faster than praise you for a job well done. That’s unfortunate, but it’s like that. Look for indicators that show you how well you do your job. Measure. Find evidence.

  2. Educate your Customers

    Use every opportunity to educate your customers. Talk about what you do. Tell your customers what your job is about and hat it’s not about. Don’t let the disgruntled customer get away. Acknowledge dissatisfaction and go into the debate. Very often the dissatisfaction comes from wrong expectations. Make your adversary into an ally by exchanging points of view. Maybe your customer will still not agree on whatever decision, but at least he knows the reasons why and maybe he’ll understand. There’s a lot of paradoxes in the role of HR. Be clear about that.

  3. Don’t be anything to everyone

    The mistake that HR sometimes makes is to want to please everyone. You cannot. You have to make choices.

  4. HR is not a Department, it’s a Process.

    HR is not solely responsible for the human factor within an organisation. The first person who is responsible is the business leader. All leaders share the responsibility of delivering a people strategy. HR has an important role to play, but it cannot do it alone. So make sure that leaders understand this.

  5. Keep a Distance

    Don’t be cold, but keep a healthy distance. As HR you must stay neutral, independent. Popularity is no manager’s target. But you can be respected. The distance helps you to keep away from biases and to work with your three customers. The distance helps you not to be disappointed.

  6. Ethics come first

    Ouch. Ethics. That’s a tricky one. Some companies define ethics as doing the right thing for the company. That’s not ethics. Ethics is about right and wrong. In universal terms. What if ethics get in the way of being successful? Well, then you need to find another way and take a detour. Once you have lost your ethics, you have lost your soul. If people see that you take ethical views, you’ll get respect. Some of you might think that this will get you fired. Well if you’re working for a company that would fire you because of ethical considerations, start running. But don’t be holier than the pope. You need to move on. But keep in mind the frontiers that you do not want to cross.

  7. Get real

    If you are yet again disappointed by humanity when rolling out yet again another HR program, you might question what you’re doing. Does the program really a solve a problem? Is it as important for my customer as it is for me? Does the management team really supports this? Am I going too fast? Is it the right timing? What can I do to increase acceptance? In other words, get real. Misanthropy will stop you from being self-critical. You’ll only blame the other.

  8. Focus on the bright Side and on Progress

    You want a full glass? It’s not possible. Focus on the glass that is partially filled. Every time you meet targets you should celebrate. If you have a difficult customer, try to work with him to make a progress. Make sure you see the progress. Very often we look at the ultimate target and forget to enjoy the way up. So look back and appreciate. Misanthropy makes you bitter.

  9. Learn to be empathic

    I have learnt that every question is important to the one who asks. You can be judgmental about it, but that won’t help you. The main message is to try to understand. How come this person asks this? Why is that so important for him or her? What’s behind the question? How can I show that I am listening and am trying to understand? Being empathic does not mean that you have to accept everything. Being empathic means that you listen and that you have a dialogue. Misanthropy kills empathy.

  10. Take Influence

    If you’re not on the executive board’s table, don’t whine about it. Act as if you were. The only thing which needs to propel you is the company’s best interest. HR focuses on the people side (in the broadest sense) and there you can find your contribution. You have to take influence even when it takes an effort to evolve. Your credibility is based upon your actions, your results. Do not feel glorious when you have been proven right after your customer has neglected your advice. Use opportunities like that to come back with solutions. Help people to be stronger. Take influence.Misanthropy does not get you further.

Misanthropy is a signal

Misanthropy might be a signal. You should listen to it. It might be a signal that you are close to a burn-out. It might be a signal that you are in the wrong career path, or in the wrong company. Find out what the signal means and do something about it. It’s important. Misanthropy can become a general state of mind that isn’t reserved for the work place. And if that happens, you’re in deep trouble. Not as an HR professional, but as a person. And that’s because misanthropy will chase people away from you. Do not let misanthropy destroy you.
One more thing. This Blog is not about HR. It’s about how to remain yourself. What I’ve written here is valid for HR but also for other professionals. Get in touch if you (don’t) agree.
Check out these quotes on misanthropy.

David Ducheyne is the founder of Otolith. As a former HR and business leader he focuses now on humanising strategy execution.

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