HR as a strategic partner: 1

 Last year Sharon Proberts conducted a training needs analysis for HPMA London Academy. The overriding message from HR deputy directors was that they wanted their HR teams to act strategically and be treated as a strategic partner by the rest of the organisation. In a series of articles, Sharon explores how to make that happen.

What’s preventing HR being a strategic partner?
So what’s stopping us? Well, we still need to deliver the stuff that most people associate with HR: recruitment, payroll and discipline even though we have been busy placing responsibility for those functions with line managers. We are now involved in providing services that support the delivery of the organisation’s strategy: learning & development, organisational development and HR business partnering, which has taken us closer to becoming a strategic partner. What then is missing?
If it were simply the case that we need to be great at business strategy, organisational design and change management, then we would already be strategic partners, so there has to be something else.
This series of articles will examine what it takes for HR to be regarded as a strategic partner in the organisation. Much of the evidence comes from the work of Lawler & Boudreau ‘Global trends in Human Resource Management – a twenty-year analysis’ You can read a summary here.
I suspect that what will make the difference is noticing what is going on behind the scenes – the organisation’s culture and emotional intelligence. We will look at how we can use the language of the organisation to find the right strategic fit, how to be strategic whilst doing the business as usual stuff and how to manage and motivate HR talent. To get us started, I want to take a look the concept of vulnerability at work.
To be vulnerable
I stumbled across Brene Brown’s TED talk about vulnerability last year and it got me thinking: every year, according to the national staff survey, around one third of the workforce (390,000 people) state that they have experienced or witnessed some type of bullying or harassment at work. That’s a lot of unhappy people coming to work every day.
What is the cost of lost productivity? How does it affect patient safety and experience? How does it impact retention and turnover?
It is a persistent issue that has received much attention and it seems an intractable problem, where our standard repertoire is not having much impact.
We know what bullying is - those actions designed to deliberately harm and humiliate others, but listening to Brene Brown, I wondered if that’s what’s happening in NHS organisations or was it subtler? Is it that people feel their voice is not heard, that they will be blamed for reporting errors and they must maintain the status quo and not rock the boat?
To what extent are our HR policies and procedures contributing to that perception? Grievance procedures tend to be adversarial, we have a track record of dismissing whistle-blowers and in order to comply with DH guidance many have introduced some type of rating or ranking to performance appraisals as well as training managers to have ‘difficult’ conversations with their people.
If an alien space traveller was to stop by and notice what we are doing, they might be forgiven for concluding that we actively encourage invulnerability. Although the Francis report didn’t name it, he discovered a deep well of invulnerability.
Brown describes vulnerability as experiencing emotional risk and uncertainty, who hasn’t felt that at some point in a working week? The question is how we deal with it. Do we button it down and tell it to be quiet so we can be invulnerable or do we give it some space, take a deep breath and go with it?
Wearing a cloak of invulnerability is time consuming and exhausting: when I first joined the NHS as an interim, I needed to learn a whole new language. Rather than ask during meetings what x or y meant, I’d google it later. I had convinced myself that as an interim I was supposed to already know everything! Silly isn’t it - but that’s invulnerability.
Where does this invulnerability come from? The work of Patrick Lencioni in Five Dysfunctions of a Team, links lack of trust with invulnerability. Therefore, in order to create the space to be vulnerable, we need to create trust. Trust happens when there is consistency between the words and music. People need to be able to trust the organisation, their managers, colleagues and team members. When there is a lack of trust, blame increases. Blame results in people making less effort to get their voice heard, becoming disengaged and feeling less accountable for results.
In the next article, I will look at how best to tackle this issue. 
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