“The ecstasy and agony of working as an HR professional in organizations today”
As I look back on my 13 years of being an HR professional, one of the most powerful and enduring things, I have experienced is an obstinate unwillingness to let myself be confined within my current understanding of the world, a deep desire to increase the boundaries of my perception. I have constantly been driven by a desire to see more, absorb more, express more, a desire to grow and expand beyond the limits I know of today. Can there be a bigger ecstasy as a professional than being inspired by hope and success to constantly be more not only for yourself but for others as well? At the same time, can there be a bigger agony, than to be constantly running after the mirage of being more and to be never able to achieve an end state. To keep going has been the essence of my professional journey as an HR professional.
Over the last 13 years, I have experienced that the world of work has become increasingly complex and uncertain. In this context, I see employees and leaders looking up to HR to provide the much-desired certainty and clarity. This to me is the source of all my agony and ecstasy of working as an HR. I feel inspired and ecstatic because of the hope, trust, opportunities and high expectations that are bestowed upon me because people expect so much from their HR. At the same, I know very well that all victories in HR are tentative and there can never be any absolutes when it comes to people. Be it attrition, engagement, hiring, leadership Development, I never seem to be getting on top of it; everything is forever ongoing.
One of my biggest learning has been that the ambiguity and uncertainty of our work context demand an HR professional to be flexible and switch modes depending upon the changing context. Flexibility in my experience requires one to be mindful so that we are in the now and therefore truly sensing what the situation demands and then deciding the course of action in alignment with the context. Reflecting back, I find that whenever I have been able to demonstrate flexibility, inside me I have been deeply anchored in the current moment and cultivate an identity beyond my ego, thus fostering the power to receive multiple POVs. It has taken me many years and multiple professional catastrophes to realize that our interdependence as living beings requires us to understand the other’s frame of reference and build empathy for their reality. As an OD professional, I have been entrusted to deploy massive change management programs across large global organizations multiple time in my career. My biggest learning from both success and failure of these initiatives has been that in order to create the desire among people to rally around the change journey, the change program needs to be inclusive. I think it is only possible to create inclusive solutions when you put in an effort to cultivate a flexible mindset.
Over a decade of experience as an HR professional has taught me that I can’t avoid the negative stuff at work, nor will any of my experiences last forever. Rather than judging these difficult situations from a perspective of what should have happened ideally, I have become more aware of the undeniable impermanence of all situations by accepting that just as negative occurrences are not permanent, neither are positive ones. This realization, that everything in my life has an expiration date, including myself have helped cultivate a more balanced and contented perspective of every situation I face at work. This acceptance of impermanence has helped me stay focused through the downtimes in my career and at the same time kept me grounded on my sunshine days.
As an HR professional, I have learned that policies and processes are there to facilitate the context in which we work, not the other way round. Today, the context changes very often and when it does, it is important for an HR to acknowledge the changes and align the policies & process to the new context. As an HR, the agony begins when we start using policies and process to justify the unjustifiable. Sometimes due to my own lack of flexibility and sometimes due to my inability to influence the leadership to acknowledge the changing environment, I have failed to align polices to the context. Resulting in agony for one and all.
Most of the time I have experienced life as a paradox which manifests itself through dichotomies of all sorts. As an HR professional I have experienced that the more I work towards building acceptance of my internal paradoxes, insecurities, and vulnerabilities, the more I have become open to acknowledging the polarities and contradictions of my work-life. By accepting my own vulnerabilities, I have progressively become more open to new and diverse experiences and perspectives. Working towards a more holistic acceptance of myself helped me constantly reinvent myself in alignment the shifting contexts but at the same time firmly anchored in my own unique purpose and values. This has helped me achieve greater congruence between what I think, feel, say, and act. As an HR professional unconditional acceptance has enabled me to be more empathic towards people and accept them for who they are. This has helped me understand them better. Few of my most ecstatic moments came through the practice of unconditional acceptance when people felt they could be themselves around me, when they felt understood, and when busy leaders take the pain to block my time just to have a conversation. These are moments I have deeply cherished and I am extremely grateful to my profession which has enabled me (through training, exposure, and experience) to create such moments.
Through my experiences and reflections, I have realized that the person I am inside translates into the professional I am outside. As an HR leader, we need to first learn to lead ourselves by exploring our inner world and creating a presence that is rooted deeply in your own personal values and purpose. I have come to realize and acknowledge that the core work we do as HR is – Listening. Listening is usually associated with others. However, every one of us is essentially having a conversation with ourselves all the time. The quality of my external response is determined by the quality of my inner conversation and how mindfully am I listening to myself. As an HR leader, I have come to believe that I need to listen deeply to understand what I really want and what governs my mind, in order to be authentic in responding to complex problems. Every time I have had the courage to stand up to power, conviction to take a non-popular stance, be persuasive while integrating different POVs, came across as convincing while interacting with a non-welcoming audience – each of those times my actions was guided by my inner values and deep sense of purpose. There is no ecstasy bigger than being able to do that. The failure to do so due to my own shortcomings as a human being and as a professional almost always results in silent suffering and muted regrets, which have lasted for a long time.
As an HR professional, I have learned to accept employees are human first and everything else later. Like all human being, they have their moods, which are principally governed by their thoughts and emotions at a particular moment. I feel it is important to acknowledge that every employee would go through his or her cycles of difficulties. During my corporate tenure, I have noticed this propensity in some organizations to insist on creating a culture of positivity. Which essentially is an expectation that as soon as you come to the office you transform into this super positive energetic character irrespective of whatever happens in your life. This tyranny of the positivity creates the pressure on employees to be their ideal self all the time.
In one of the MNCs that I have worked, we had this leader, who whenever asked – How are you – used to give a standard answer – On top of the world, never been better. I always used to wonder at his energy and positivity but something about him did not feel authentic. We remained connected even after I left that organization and over a period, I became his coach. That is when I realized that he was going through a divorce, stuck in the same position at work for years, and was naturally devastated internally. However, the culture and expectation of that particular organization were such that he felt compelled to express an upbeat attitude just out of the fear of being labeled as ‘not a positive person’. All the while feeling like an imposter within.
As an HR professional, I feel accountable to collaborate with our leaders to create a culture of acceptance, which accepts employees as human first and acknowledges that as humans we have our moods and our share of ebb and flow. In addition, it is ok to not be energetic all the time, to not be ‘positive’ all the time, but it is probably more important to be authentic. In my current organization, we strive to create this culture of authenticity, where you are welcome as you are and do not have to strive to be your ideal self all the time. It is extremely rewarding to hear from employees that even during the downward spirals of their lives they love to come to the office. Why? Because this is a place where they do not have to pretend. Sometimes we have had cases of everlasting mourning periods but they are negligible when compared to the impact the culture of Authenticity has had in terms of retention and employee productivity. As word of mouth spreads, it has become one of our key magnates to attract talent from the market especially at senior levels.
Over these years, to me, being an HR professional essentially has come to mean the struggle to find the ‘HERO’ within. To find the courage to speak truth to power. Therefore, more often than I would like to admit, bear the consequence of speaking the truth. Being an HR professional, I believe it’s my responsibility to create a culture where nobody has the right to not be offended. Because the freedom to offend is at the root of the freedom to think and innovate. Innovative companies are companies in motion and with motion comes tension, dissent, and friction. You cannot have one without the other. I am ecstatic when I fight to create a culture which breeds and encourages new ways of thinking. The agony is, almost always, you end up enduring the pain of voicing the truth to power alone and sometimes it costs your own personal career progression.
During these 13 years, I have had my fair share of a power struggle. Sometimes these struggles have been with Business/ Delivery Functions, sometimes with other corporate functions like Finance, and sometimes interdepartmental with between OD and BPHR etc. Most of the times these altercations have been journeys of my ego gratification to prove how powerful or influential I have become in an organization. Nevertheless, as I have evolved as a professional I have come to realize that as HR we become really effective and influential not because we have power over others but because through our work we can empower others, to stand in their own truth and connect with their individual greatness.
As an HR professional, one of my deepest realizations has been –what’s real and what’s true are not necessarily the same thing. Because we are dealing with a human being, the Objective Truth of a particular situation is seldom the way they experience and interpret reality. They experience reality through their own lenses and perceptions. This leads to the creation of a culture of the multitude in every organization. As a result, every organization has many cultures, many realities, and many perspectives, to say one is truer than other would not be prudent. As an HR, I have at times ignored this reality at my own peril while trying to impose an organization driven culture (the greater truth) and not acknowledging this reality of multitude. The results have been disastrous, every single time.
My tryst with HR for the last 13 years has been coming to life of the old Chinese curse “May you live in Interesting times”. Interesting it has been in many ways. I have lived, loved, enjoyed, despised and evolved while experiencing, my life as an HR professional. I have progressively felt that corporate life is a strange amalgamation of unsolved problems, elusive victories, and ambiguous defeats, with very few moments of certainty. Leaving everything aside from being an HR professional has facilitated me to embrace more of who I am, and for that, I shall remain forever grateful to my profession.