It was hard to find an apt name for the Dragon this time, but not hard to recognize the feelings it evokes when it stirs.
Conflict in the workplace – conflict anywhere, in fact – evokes an age old response. The adrenalin surges and we feel many possible emotions – fear, passion, fright, anger, defensiveness, self-righteousness, and many more possibilities. Adrenalin serves a pretty useful purpose (carrying on the analogy) if you are a sword carrying combatant, dependent on quick reactions and physical strength for victory, but I think it serves far less useful a purpose if you are my kind of warrior – the keyboard-bashing sedentary soldier of HR…
Nonetheless, it is an ever present companion in times of stress and we in HR have a few of those. As mentioned in my initial post, often, we are not just observers or facilitators of other’s disputes; sometimes, we are at the centre and it is our career, our reputation on the line. That kind of pressure can bring out the best, or the worst, in us. It is good, therefore to work on the discipline of confrontation, or combat, as best illustrated in that beautiful film, “The Last Samurai” (That movie is so full of extraordinary leadership lessons, I am now inspired to write more on that another day!)
But for now, we are on that Japanese hillside where a Western prisoner named Algren (Tom Cruise) is learning to fight with a katana; amongst many, many other simultaneous cultural lessons he is learning. He is obviously the student and he is being taunted by some taking bets on his next failure, and is being brutally beaten by his teacher. (It’s a wooden training sword so he cops a few blows here and there without actually dying) Nobutada, another Samurai who is watching comes to him and offers advice, saying humbly “Please forgive. Too many mind… Mind the sword, mind the people watch, mind the enemy… too many mind. No mind”
It’s about focus. Algren was trying to learn a new skill, with a new weapon, and he was getting hurt. He was under pressure to protect himself and had no idea where the next blow was coming from. He was trained for distance warfare, with a gun, not for “kill or be killed” close quarters combat against a more skilled opponent. The rush of inputs was too much for him. The solution, which he did not learn straight away, was focus. Figuring out what was important, and attending to that.
So here we are, far away from that Japanese hillside, in our modern day workplace, and we are dealing with so much. We have so many roles that we are juggling, and all are important. Excellence in all of them is what we want to achieve, but excellence in just a few of them is becoming devastatingly urgent. We can easily give in to the onslaught of inputs and demands for priority. Not knowing where to turn first, we can become stressed and unclear in our thinking. “Too many mind.” We need to stop, step back, and be deliberate about what we pay attention to.
The Dragon is called Desperation, and the weapon we want is the Dagger of Discernment.
The dagger is a two edged close quarters combat weapon, designed to be the “knife” in a knife-fight. Primarily, almost exclusively, it is an offensive weapon. (Interestingly, the sword, which many see as purely an attacking weapon, is unique amongst all weapons because it is in fact equally as much a defensive weapon, as it is a weapon of attack.) But the dagger is razor-sharp, light and fast, made for the gap in another’s defenses, to slide between shield and body, between armour and clothing, and do its damage by precision and skill.
These words equally describe the ability to discern.
Discernment is “to distinguish mentally, recognize as distinct or different; to discriminate” It is the ability to know, from tens of inputs and options, and hundreds of things to do, what is truly important. And equally, what is not. And what is not important, is perhaps the most important thing to see.
Every situation is different but as HR Practitioners we need a broad set of principles with which we can accurately analyse and discern what our priorities must be. These may be shockingly obvious, but they are not so easy to implement in practice. My personal discernment principles are as follows, and I am open to suggestions of what might be better. The come from the words of someone I greatly respect – he said (paraphrased) that in becoming the absolute best we can be, we need to place Character before Calling, and Community before Comfort. In the workplace, therefore, these have served me well so far:
- The truth and being true to our values comes first.
- The Company’s best interests come second.
- The sustaining and future viability of workplace relationships comes third.
- I, come fourth.
Recently I was faced with a situation where a white lie could have got me out of a sticky situation. No one is perfect, and I had just proved that. But I had an “out” – if I wanted to, I could blame someone else. Or could I, really? Given what I openly stood for, and my role in the company, I had to choose what the best example was to set. Because I value the truth, and the company values a “no-blame” culture, it was easy. I told the truth, and of course had to deal with the disapproval. This is a personal choice I will always make, but it turned out to be the best move anyway, because the truth always has a way of coming out…
What about a situation where the company’s risk profile is being compromised. A ER risk could be developing slowly that could easily compromise the employer. The safest option for us could be to just avoid the tangly, sticky mess of challenging the difficult manager, who is creating the risk. We could plead ignorance, or not push very hard, and eventually, the company would face a very high risk and potential damages for allowing an easily fixable situation to decompose into a horrible mess. What do we do? We should, of course, risk our own peace and workplace harmony to make sure this situation is dealt with.
But how do we do that? Do we go over their head, expose their weakness, get our own way at any cost? Win the power game of who is right and who is not right? We are relationship builders, so the next priority kicks in. We do it, so that come what may, we do not compromise working relationships. We fight fair and we fight for the best possible outcome for all the people concerned. I have been on the receiving end of the “fight unfair to win at all costs” system, where my weaknesses have been noted and gossiped about, and where people have been trying to get leverage against me.
It has been a privilege to find the high road, and walk it. To not gossip, not undermine, not Bcc people, and not weaken company relationships to protect myself. Looking back, it is an awesome feeling to have stood firm for healthy relationships even at the expense of a quick victory. To have acted so that redemption and restoration are always possible and achieving it will not be compromised by an ego battle in the office. Its not always possible, this is true. Sometimes, a relationship is compromised by the higher priority of truth or employer protection. And the other person’s response is always out of our control. But we try not to…
And finally, where we can honour truth, where we can achieve safety and a healthy risk profile for our employer, where we can protect and preserve future relationships all around me, then we can worry about us. Because, in truth, our reputation and our integrity are bound up in the other three, so when we look after them, we are already looking after us. Just not selfishly.
For me, any other order is a failure of company and personal values.
My workplace Dagger of Discernment (I have others) has these 4 things etched deeply into the blade. Truth. My employer. Relationships. Self.
I would suggest that any CEO would trust us confidently if we demonstrate these priorities. They will rely on us to hold true to them, because they are the foundation of the culture every employer should want to build.
The Dragon is Desperation, and the fear of the personal cost to us. The weapon that will defeat it is the Dagger of Discernment.