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May 23, 2005
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 The H.R. Doctor Is In

The Missing Link

What do Cultural Anthropologists and Human Resources professionals have in common? The answer is many things. Both share careers in observing and documenting human behavior. Both are involved in the assessment of cultures - one in the more general sense, the other in the workplace culture sense. Both find behaviors to be fascinating, to be influenced by outside forces such as economic necessity, substance abuse, the nature of family and "tribal" leadership and even in workplace culture, by mating and courtship rituals.

The Cultural Anthropologist, however, is a scientist paying deliberate attention to the non-interference "prime directive." The HR professional, on the other hand, observes the culture and can be in a position to influence that culture, to align it more towards organizational goals or behavior considered more appropriate by the organization’s leaders.

The Cultural Anthropologist is, in a real sense, reactive. He or she observes, notes and reports. The "HR anthropologist" does all of these, or should, but is also a shaper of culture at work. He or she should be a primary agent of the elected and appointed leaders, serving clients in an extraordinary way as well as sensing and acting to prevent or mitigate liabilities.

However, there is another branch of anthropology which deserves comparison with HR. That is Physical Anthropology.

Here the scientist, among many other things, observes, records and hypothesizes about connections between things by considering fossil remains. The traditional "Holy Grail" for these scientists has been to find the missing link between species or sub-species of humans over time in order to identify the various branches in the human evolutionary tree.

There are many pieces in place in solving this riddle, but the Physical Anthropologist has a great deal of work still ahead because the missing links have not all been found.

In the case of the Human Resources professional, both in government and in private business, the missing link has been found. It has been identified and it has been described, including by the HR Doctor. That’s the good news, but the bad news is that while every HR professional can experience working in an environment where the missing link is longer missing, many do not find themselves able to say that.

The missing link is the recognition and connection between the value of what proactive HR does for an organization and being able to occupy a right hand chair next to the top appointed or elected officials in creating a strategy for the organization’s future. The "missing" part of the missing link phrase is often that disconnect.

HR in some "primitive villages" is still regarded as primarily a clerical, tactical and process-oriented function. The key skills of the indigenous HR tribe are to know how to alphabetize because they are thought to do little more than maintain records.

The fact that the HR professional performs work which can reshape the organization is often either ignored or never even considered. The organizational "warlord," sometimes regrettably a county or city manager or director, often displays behaviors marked by adjectives beginning with the letter "B." These include bulling, brash and boorish. Ironically, these leaders whom the HR Doctor has described as Godzilla the Manager believe they can intimidate their way to the top. However, the reality is that they litter the landscape with frustrated employees and employees ready to bail out when the right opportunity comes by.

This version of the "warlord" in organizational tribal culture lives in a time when the calendar may read the present but when the behavior is reminiscent of a time before organizational liabilities were anywhere near what they now are.

Sovereign immunity is no longer what it was when Civil Service rules first appeared in the federal system Ñ about 120 years ago. Even the military doesn’t practice a Prussian style of "shut up and do what you are told" leadership anymore.

The great professional of today is very smart, highly capable and highly desirous of excelling and contributing. The job of the modern leader and of the modern HR leader is to turn the right switches of vision, respect, support and holding people accountable. After that the main job of the leader today is to get out of people’s way and let them do spectacular work.

In a government, the connection between the style of the bullying leader described above and a modern, high performing organization is not the missing link, but the weakest link.

The HR Doctor wishes you all the best.

Phil Rosenberg •


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