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Employee engagement numbers are low all over the world, and sometimes I think HR professionals forget that they’re employees, too. Work sucks for them as much as it sucks for other people. And many HR resources professionals are unhappy with their jobs because they have a lot of autonomy but no power.

Let me explain.

When you work in HR, your day is largely yours. While you’re at the mercy of crazy employees and demanding executives, you still have a ton of freedom to determine how you accomplish your work. Sure, you have meetings and calls. But you are self-governed and free from the control of a time clock and a quota.

What you don’t have is the decision-making authority, also known as power. You don’t run a P&L, and you don’t have much leverage to change enterprise-level behavior beyond your power of persuasion. You can make mindful decisions on how and where to spend your energy, but you can’t force a company to change its policies based on your word alone.

When HR professionals enter the part of the Venn Diagram where they have no autonomy and no power — and when somebody is questioning the validity of human resources and making decisions outside our span of control — we lose our shit. We feel as if our very essence is challenged.

So, if you want to survive the trenches of HR and boost your engagement, it helps to have a non-judging mind. If you’re at the intersection of “my CFO is an asshole” and “nobody listens to me or consults me on important issues,” don’t judge it. Don’t try to fix it right away. Be a journalist of your own experience, and ask yourself questions like, “Is how I feel actually true? Why does this keep happening to me? How can I do this differently, next time?”

The non-striving mind in HR will help you, too. The world works against those who try too hard. The more you endeavor, the harder it is to succeed. If you find yourself pushing up against power and losing, return to your non-judging mind. Watch how power is expressed — and contained — within your company. Try to understand how decisions are made in your organization and copy those behaviors that are healthy and productive.

Finally, all the autonomy and power in the world doesn’t matter if you don’t have good ideas about HR and your organization. And, if you’re new to your career, you probably don’t have good ideas. I know that hurts to hear, but you aren’t good at recruiting or HR — or anything in life like parenting, leadership, marriage, writing — unless you’ve done it for more than a few years.

So be patient, trust that you’re on the right path, and try to be mindful that autonomy and power are wasted on arrogant and selfish people. And remember that, no matter how much you currently hate your job, you’ll always hate your job if you’re rushing to judge experiences and people — including your own — before you know anything about them.

5 Responses to Autonomy and Power in HR
  1. Rachael

    I have learnt to put my ideas on the table and walk away – this is because I now understand that anything that looks like I am ’emotionally invested’ in is always seen as a ‘minefield’.

    Walking away usually means the idea will come back to me at some point (sometimes even from a person who insists it was ‘their’ idea) and if it does not then it wasn’t important anyway. This has so stopped the ‘losing excrement’ moments… 🙂

    • Colleen

      “I now understand that anything that looks like I am ’emotionally invested’ in is always seen as a ‘minefield.'”

      +1,000! Learned this one the hard way….scratch that, am still learning it.

  2. Rick

    Legal and Finance are often in the same boat, with the exception that they both wield far more power, even without managing a P&L. Thus, many in HR retreat into the world of policy (“see? It’s in the employee manual!” or contrived data (“a replacement hire will cost a gagilionity dollars…it says so right here in We Make This Stuff Up Daily!”). Often times, non-HR folks will speak as though they know HR (“I’ve been a managing for mumbledy-mumbledy years!”) and that there’s nothing particular difficult or complex about how HR works. All of that can be incredibly frustrating. The key in all of this — in my experience (and I’m no spring chicken, as witnessed by my overuse of parenthetical expressions) — is to find champions who believe in you, believe in what you’re doing, and will support you because they know it will be beneficial to the org, to them, et al. Important attribute: champions in positions of authority. Without that, HR will continue to be the land of Don and Donna Quixote.

  3. Vic in TN

    “Watch how power is expressed — and contained — within your company. Try to understand how decisions are made in your organization and copy those behaviors that are healthy and productive.”

    This is brilliant advice, whether you’ve been doing HR for 20+ years (like me) or 2 years.

    And I would add — prove that that you are working for the good of the organization. That will be noted over time and eventually your influence can become powerful, even without a line on an org chart somewhere.

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