You can break out of your box but others may try to put you back

Completely trashing his previous claim to be un-intellectual, the HRD has a post up at XpertHR in which he quotes Jean Paul Sartre. The subject of the HRD’s post is, “If I could change on thing about HR…” part of an ongoing series at XpertHR to which I will contribute if I ever get my brain in gear.

The HRD argues that the image of the HR profession is in the hands of HR people themselves. How HR people decide to behave determines how others will see them. As Sartre says:

We ourselves decide our being.

[T]he coward makes himself cowardly, the hero makes himself heroic; and that there is always a possibility for the coward to give up cowardice and for the hero to stop being a hero. What counts is the total commitment.

There is some truth in this. As a colleague of mine said to me years ago:

We invite people to see us in a certain way. We do it before we have even spoken.

This is why first impressions are so important. We love to put other people in boxes; it helps us to make sense of the world. And we do it remarkably quickly. For example, if you join a new team and take on the completer-finisher role at the first meeting, people then label you as the completer-finisher. Before long, you’ll find yourself doing the minutes every week and writing up the flipcharts. Or, if you adopt a stance where you rely on your technical expertise, you will be boxed off as a technocrat and, while you might frequently be asked for your professional opinion, you’ll probably be excluded from the more strategic discussions.

It can be hard to change this because both our behaviour and other people’s judgements of us are often sub-conscious. If you go into a meeting and adopt a subservient role it is probably not a conscious decision; it is driven by your self-image. Somewhere deep down you believe yourself to be subservient and so you act accordingly. Likewise, your colleagues might not even be aware that they have pigeonholed you as subservient; they have simply reacted to the signals you have sent out. By your actions and your behaviour you have invited them to see you in a certain way. You shouldn’t be surprised if they take up that invitation.

Once this pattern has been established it is extremely difficult to change. This is why people who go through deep personal development programmes then decide to change their way of being can often run into problems with their colleagues. If Mrs Mouse who always makes the tea and writes the flipcharts suddenly decides she wants to chair the meeting and lead the next project, her colleagues could be forgiven for feeling a bit uneasy.

The HRD offers another Sartre quote:

We only become what we are by the radical and deep-seated refusal of that which others have made of us.

Apparently that sentence was seen as an advocacy of violence against repression – because the people who have an interest in keeping you in your place will resist your attempts break out of it. Once people have made something of you and put you in a box, they cling to that image and it takes a lot to change it. A radical and deep-seated refusal to conform to what others have made of you might not require violent resistance, at least, not in the corporate world, but it may well lead to conflict. I have seen people forced to leave organisations because their colleagues and managers had typecast them. Having been pushed into the same roles over and over again, they found that their only option was to go and play on another stage. For any number of reasons, it can be in other people’s interests to keep you in the box to which they have allocated you and they will fight hard to make sure you stay there. If it is useful to someone else to have you performing a certain role, they will use everything from emotional blackmail to naked intimidation to keep you in your place.

So, while I agree with the HRD that “there is nothing stopping you from being what you want to be” and that “it’s never too late to change the way in which you act”, we should acknowledge that changing the way we are and the way we behave may disturb and even threaten those around us. It is likely that they will react accordingly and may even oppose the changes we wish to make. When faced with such resistance it’s not surprising that many people just take the easy way out. They forget all the resolutions they made on those personal development programmes and revert back to their pre-assigned roles.

Of course, it’s much better if you invite people to see you in the way you want to be seen from day one. That’s why new leaders have to stamp their personalities on their organisations quickly. It is especially important for new HR directors, with all the baggage attached to their profession, to start behaving as they want to be seen on the first day in the job. If you want to be thought of as powerful, business focused and strategic, you have to be powerful, business-focused and strategic from the moment you walk through the door. If you’re not, they’ll have you making the tea and handing out the tissues again before you’ve even attended your first board meeting.

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4 Responses to You can break out of your box but others may try to put you back

  1. thehrd says:

    Rick – great post and thanks for the mention. It has given me food for thought which I want to reflect on a little.

  2. Thanks for such an excellent response to (and expansion on) The HRD’s similarly fine guest post on XpertHR.

    I was really pleased to see the HRD using his guest post to delve further into his avowed status as “a British HR Director caught in a Sartrian nightmare and trying to see the philosophical side of life.”

    Your point that HRDs need to hit the ground running in order “to be thought of as powerful, business focused and strategic” is a very interesting one, and arguably resonates with some of the points made by another guest author who has weighed in with their take on the topic “If I could change one thing about HR…”, J Keith Dunbar of the Defense Intelligence Agency.

    I’m very much looking forward to your own guest post, Rick!

    Kind regards


  3. Pingback: You can break out of your box but others may try to put you back - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  4. Really enjoyed the post, Rick, and that of the HRD too. Made me think about how you can go about changing once in role and make that a successful change – is it possible, how do you do it and where do you go for support?

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