Don't Be a Bobblehead

By Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP July 1, 2020
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HR Rising!! bookcover

Editor's Note: The following is an excerpt from HR Rising!! (SHRM, 2020), the second book from Steve Browne, SHRM-SCP, a director-at-large on the Society for Human Resource Management's Board of Directors and vice president of human resources at LaRosa's Inc.

Everyone has their quirks. Most of the time we keep them to ourselves, but I'm cool with you knowing one of mine. I'm a collector. Not a hoarder, a collector. I have always collected things that interest me. When I was young, I was even trying to reach a world record collecting bottle caps from soda bottles with my younger brother. We ended up with over 20,000 bottle caps that we stored in an old console TV box in our garage. Our mom was not a fan, but she let us continue our adventure to see if we'd reach our goal. We never contacted the folks at the Guinness Book of World Records, but we loved gathering all of the bottle caps.

Since my childhood, I've curbed my collections (somewhat). Now I only have collections of marbles, fossils and rocks, and . . . bobbleheads. I think they're fun. Little statues of various figures whose heads toss to and fro whenever you jostle them. Now I know there are bobbleheads for all sorts of things these days like TV shows, movies, and even cartoon characters. I am more of a "purist" and collect bobbleheads from my favorite sports teams.

They capture a point in time and show players that were popular or legends from the organization's history. Living just outside the city of Cincinnati, I am a Cincinnati Reds fan. They are an iconic professional baseball team, the very first professional team to be established back in the late 1800s. I try to attend several games a year, and I make a special effort to go if they're going to hand out bobbleheads of the players.

I'm very cool with collecting bobbleheads but not with being one. Unfortunately, I feel that many HR pros act like bobbleheads within their organizations. Often we find ourselves nodding in acceptance of senior management because we don't want to rock the boat. We may not agree with what is being said, but we don't push back. We just do our best to make things happen. There is value in being a peacemaker in an organization but not in being passive. HR has wrongly believed that if we "keep the peace," we're being effective.

HR folks are great implementers when we could be great instigators!!

Acceptance for acceptance's sake diminishes our role in organizations. Great leaders in senior management don't want people who just say "Yes" and bobble their head up and down. They expect people to give their input and have meaningful discussions as well as offer potential solutions. When HR continues the myth of waiting for some special invitation from senior managers to engage and be strategic, we are fooling ourselves. Leadership is an expectation based on participation and action. It isn't something bestowed upon people.

Our aversion to taking risks keeps HR on the outside looking in. It's understandable that we are tasked with being risk mitigators, but it shouldn't force us into a position that keeps us outside the mix of the regular movement of the business. I would contend that staying idle and always taking the mild and undistinguished stance hurts us personally and professionally. HR shouldn't be the doormat of acceptance in an organization.

I'm not suggesting you should become argumentative and disagreeable. It's intriguing to me that when people are given advice on a possible direction to take, we tend to become a pendulum that swings too far. If we've been silently agreeable in order to keep things in harmony and balanced, it seems foreign to now be an outspoken champion of all things people related. You don't have to become something so opposite of what may have been your approach. If you do make a pendulum swing, you will feel awkward and uncomfortable. It will be just as ineffective as being the constant affirmation source.

Our aversion to taking risks keeps HR on the outside looking in.

I want to encourage you to consider taking on a new posture as an HR pro. Historically, HR has been stereotyped in one of two ways when we respond to employee situations. We're either tagged as the people who always say "No" because we're viewed as restrictive rule mongers, or we say "Yes" to keep balance and harmony. I think there's a better response.

"It depends . . ."

On the face of it, this response seems extremely non-committal and guarded. When I've given people from other departments an "It depends" response, they hate it. The only reason people hate that response is because they want an instant "Yes" or "No" answer, so you agree and support their perspective and position on what they're presenting. Now, if you say "It depends" only to buy time and hope things get better, that's poor as well. Using this phrase allows you to look at all sides of a situation. The key is to follow that response with a decisive stance based on your expertise.

We are fortunate as HR practitioners in that we get to work with every human in the company. I understand that some of this interaction may be indirect, but you are more connected to employees than other departments. You can be a leader by helping people assess the situations they face. There are very few instances where an immediate answer is needed. Using "It depends" sets the stage for assessment with the understanding that you will land on an answer. We can't lose sight that our decisions regarding people can affect them as a person. It would be better for all HR pros and organizations if we sought a positive outcome instead of looking for curtness and expediency as our motivator.

When you offer an analysis and assessment of employee interactions, you're allowing various options and angles to be considered. In the end, you'll come to a conclusion that will have a longer lasting positive result. This positioning gives us a stronger stance from which to lead. HR has the obligation to lead in organizations and not settle for being a support function that nods its head.

The bobbleheads I collect are kept on a bookshelf. They're cool to look at, but without movement they spend most of their time collecting dust. We don't have to be bobbleheads. We can be a critical and sought-after resource in our companies. Choose to be involved. You'll see that working with people will be far more rewarding when you are involved with others and not just offering a simple "Yes" or "No.

Steve Browne is an accomplished speaker, writer and thought leader on human resource management. He is a member of the Society for Human Resource Management's Board of Directors, writes the nationally recognized HR blog "Everyday People" and is the author of HR on Purpose!!: Developing Deliberate People Passion (SHRM, 2018).


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