Unconscious immunity

I can remember at some point in my childhood, my brother and I were having a pointless argument over a pointless topic in only the way that loving siblings can. I can’t remember the specifics, there were far too many brotherly tiffs to record them all, but I know that he was teasing me over something that I had tried to do and failed badly at. And my mother said,

“Those who never try, never fail”

Those who never try….never fail.  Ok so this was said as a rebuke to a 9-year-old evil tempered older brother. But some 30 years or so later I was sat in the US thinking about the future of HR and why we seem incapable as a profession of shaking off the shackles of mainstream perception and the words start to take on a separate but equally  valid meaning.

So many of us out there in the profession are seeking some sort of unconscious immunity.  If we say nothing outside of “the box”, then there is no chance that we will be ridiculed.  If we keep our counsel on subjects that are out of the strictly defined “people agenda” then we will never look stupid. If we don’t talk and stay silent, then we might not look stupid and might raise our credibility.

Of course, when you read this – like me – you’ll think this is a nonsense.  It makes no sense right?  Why would not saying something be more likely to improve your credibility than saying something? But then you are reading this from a rational objective and not an emotional one. And the way that we interact in business and express our views is, in my opinion, more based on the latter than the former.

Saying nothing is a seemingly sure bet.  If you say nothing, you will seldom be wrong. The view on the monthly financial report, the question on the marketing plan, the point on the supply chain strategy that just doesn’t sit right.  Raising them…..well you could be totally wrong and make yourself a laughing-stock. But not raising them………?

Don’t get me wrong, I can be guilty of this myself. Sitting in a meeting and thinking “that doesn’t make sense” but saying absolutely nothing. Not always, but sometimes. And I need to challenge myself to break this habit.  You don’t change anything by staying silent, you change by speaking out.

Very little grows in the shadows, it grows in the glare of the midday sun.  You put yourself out there and of course there is the risk that you may just get something wrong. But let he who is without asking a daft question, throw the first stone.  And you never know, once in a while, you might say something that really changes the game.


  1. Michael Carty · July 12, 2011

    Superb stuff, superbly argued, sir.

    I’d be very interested to find out just how prevalent you think the condition of keeping one’s own counsel to achieve “unconscious immunity” (when it comes to issues outside of HR’s remit) might be within the HR profession? And do you think other professions are more or less likely than the HR profession to display such behaviours?

    I’m also intrigued by the US-based discussions around the future of HR that you mention. What sort of themes emerged there, if I might ask?


    • Neil · July 12, 2011

      Michael – thanks…..your comments are always appreciated.

      I think a lot of businesses pigeon hole HR people as the people people and therefore they get little chance to develop other skills. And when they do get the opportunity to contribute – let us say invited to a meeting on a non HR topic – they are so focussed on not screwing up and therefore being invited back that they say nothing. Which is a false economy, because people then wonder why they are there. There are other professions that are like this, depending on the industry that they work in, but I think it is highly prevalent amongst HR people, yes.

      The future of HR? Opinions are as diverse as the people that hold them. I could give you my views (maybe over beers in a couple of weeks) but quite frankly, I really don’t know where it will go, just where I want it to go.

  2. David Palmer · July 12, 2011

    Do you think HR attracts those that prefer to follow than lead?

    • Neil · July 12, 2011

      David, thanks for commenting. I think it is probably a bit of both. HR punches below its weight when it comes to recruiting top quality people, so there may be something there. But I also think they are often not given the opportunity to develop leadership skills.

  3. mastersorbust · July 12, 2011

    Very interesting post Neil.

    This behaviour really annoys me especially from the “business partner” crowd – how can you be a business partner if all you comment on is people issues?

    Personally my favourite opening in cross functional meetings is “I know i’m just the HR guy but…” my pre-statement prat fall insuring me against undue challenge and allowing me to question or challenge anything. Seems to work!

    • Neil · July 12, 2011

      I used that line a few months ago with a group of very senior colleagues from across the world, at which point one replied “you normally talk more sense than the rest of us put together” it was flattery…..but I’ll take it!

  4. Alison Chisnell · July 12, 2011

    I really like this post Neil and like you, I think it is essential that HR people understand the businesses they work in, ask questions and make suggestions. If not, then what’s the blooming point of us?

    I understand where Rob is coming from in the “I’m just the HR guy” preface, but I also think we shouldn’t shoot ourselves down before we’ve even spoken, however ironically.

    I probably ask a lot of daft questions and I learn a lot from the answers. But the sense of achievemnt of asking a question or making a suggestion that really makes the other senior managers stop and think, makes up for hundreds that might be easily dismissed, already thought of or just plain daft.

    • Neil · July 12, 2011

      Alison – HR people need to have wings like a shield of steel (to quote Batfink) we need to learn to repel the bullets and have the confidence to go again. Daft questions are just part of the job.

  5. Stephen O'Donnell · July 12, 2011

    In these kind of meetings it’s important to know that you are their for a reason, and not just meat in the room. Remember that anything agreed will have your signature on it, so you cannot simply agree policies or plans of others “on the nod”.

    I’m quite sure some directors of News International now wish they had spoken up.

  6. Neil · July 12, 2011

    Stephen, I couldn’t agree more. You are there for a reason, you don’t need permission. And yes, your last point is a good one, if you don’t speak up you are also complicit – regardless of the situation.

  7. Christine Livingston · July 12, 2011

    I think one of the things that works against people’s best intentions are the unconscious needs they have of their job or their work.

    We may say that our reason for being in HR is to help build great cultures, or to champion the people side of business, or whatever. And these would be good, conscious reasons. But underneath, we may need other people’s approval to validate our sense of ourselves, and end up going with the flow, rather than risk making ourselves feel wobbly by speaking up or speaking out.

    If there’s one thing that I think needs more attention on the HR development agenda it’s supporting people to be robust, self-confident individuals in their own right. People who know that if they say something challenging – or just plain stupid! – their world is not going to disappear.

    • Neil · July 13, 2011

      Christine that is such a good point and summarises what I was trying to say much better than I could manage. Sadly I think when we focus on development we tend to dodge this and look at consultancy skills or strategic skills which don’t shift performance as the underlying lack of self confidence is there.

  8. Kate Griffiths-Lambeth · July 13, 2011

    Great discussion chain and some excellent points from your (Neil’s) blog onwards. I do think that an additional issue for HR is that we frequently offer to facilitate meetings (or are asked to do so) and therefore think that we should encourage discussion amongst others round the table, rather than making a significant contribution. In a leadership team context this is daft as, as others have pointed out, at the end of the day the c-suite/top team/management committee are jointly responsible for decisions and outcomes. Not speaking out and questioning when you think that something doesn’t seem to hang together or make sense is irresponsible and negates the value of having HR at the table. As Enron, RBS, News of the World, and many other organisations demonstrate, true leaders need to have the strength and personal resilience to challenge – and especially to have the resilience to question those who hold the greatest influence. Vince Cable’s turn of phrase (and choice of audience) perhaps made him look foolish when he declared “War on Murdoch” and the BSktB bid, but at least he had the courage of his convictions and said what he believed. One of HR’s primary roles is to enable strong, sustainable businesses, as a result we need to be comfortable speaking out, even at the risk of at times of appearing foolish.

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Kate, thanks for commenting. You make some really valid points. We have to be brave, we have to speak out and we have to make our voices heard. Whether that is on the big or small issues, they are both equally as important for the profession.

  9. Henry · July 16, 2011

    Nice one

    • Neil · September 6, 2011

      Thanks Henry

  10. Pingback: The one where I scare myself on purpose | Masters or Bust

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