Define the why of I

In our imperfect world we talk of skills, we talk of structures, we talk of competency frameworks, of behaviours and values. But for some reason, we rarely speak about beliefs. We focus on so much else, but give little, if any, time to define the why of I.

I’ve been mulling this one over for a while and my friend and co-conspirator Michael Carty recently caught the debate on this here. The thing that struck me about this brief foray, was how quickly the conversation turned away from beliefs back to behaviours.

Like so much of our work, we focus on the how and the what. But not the why.*

You see, it seems to me that if we can develop this, if we can define the belief system we work within, if we can create a shared higher purpose for our work, then we are simply more likely to taste success.

Let me give you something more concrete to consider:

–       I believe I can make the workplace a better place for everyone

–       I believe that everybody comes to work to do their best

–       I believe I have as valuable contribution to make as everyone else

–       I believe everyone is allowed to be wrong, including me

If you want to change behaviour, you need to address the beliefs that underpin it. Contrast with this. How many HR people come to work, instead with a mindset that says:

–       I believe that people don’t take me seriously enough

–       I believe that people don’t value HR

–       I believe that managers are incompetent

–       I believe that employees are always trying to get one over us

And what different behaviours would be demonstrated by someone with each of these set of beliefs?

The challenge I’ve had thrown at me is that organisations drive the belief systems. That’s rubbish. They can influence it sure, but only the individual truly controls their own beliefs. Almost every inspirational character in history has held a belief system that wasn’t dictated by their environment.

You can fiddle with the behaviours, you can focus on competencies, you can tinker with your structures. But unless you identify the belief systems that underpin them, my guess is, you’ll find yourself just a busy fool.

* (A hat tip to @GrumpyLecturer for that one).


  1. Ian Perry · August 5, 2013

    I guess its easier to come back to behaviours probably because they are easier to identify. Organisations cant drive belief systems, that would be brain washing if they did, we have our own beliefs.
    Organisations might have a collective set of beliefs but we choose who we work for consciously or unconsciously based on our own values or beliefs. I can reflect on my worst experiences of employment was when my own beliefs or values were different. It was not the behaviours or competencies, but what drove those behaviours that caused me anguish and frustration.

    The “why” is important, and I would like to take it past just HR peeps. If we can help people be clear about their beliefs, and whether those fit with the wider organisation then surely thats the best service we can do for them.

    I may have missed your point, but hope this adds something?

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      You, of course, add something. This isn’t just about HR you’re right. This is about recognising the human role in business. Thank you.

  2. Ruchi · August 5, 2013

    Excellent post Neil. Since the landscape of work & learning is changing more rapidly than ever, we as HR professionals must take pause every now and then to explore the deep beliefs and associated values that shapes and influences our thinking to deliver our best at work. It has implications on how as HR pros do we design the new job roles , design the learning environment , design the workplace where employees can be at their best so on and so forth.

    You will be interested to know about Devdutt Patnaik from India who is the Chief Belief Officer with Future Group in India. You can learn more about his role as Chief Belief Officer in the organization here

    Also sharing link to his Ted Talk on East vs West paradigms and its effect on business. through storytelling he shares what it means to be a Chief Belief Officer 🙂

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      I want that job title…..

  3. Terri Kruzan · August 5, 2013

    Great conversation – individuals do need to take the time to understand their own beliefs and influence on their behaviors – but since organizations and society are founded and led by people, they also have belief systems and understanding them is just as important. Individual or organizational beliefs happen by either being passed on from one generation to the next without review (you could call that brainwashing) – or they develop by acting on your espoused beliefs through personal behaviors or group practices. If these behaviors/practices bring you or your organization success, the beliefs are reinforced and move from espoused to real. Either way – taking the time to understand the ”why’ is important. Every generation needs to check out their personal, organizational & societal beliefs to see if they are still working in the context of the world they are living in. It is very much like ‘defining the why of I.”

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      I agree, although I think there is a divergence between individual and organisational beliefs. I’m not sure why, but I implicitly feel that. Am I wrong?

      • Terri Kruzan · August 12, 2013

        This is complicated…my experience says that organizational beliefs start as a set of beliefs of individuals – and you are probably correct that they morph into something different as group think sets in. And yes, individuals do not have to buy into an organization’s beliefs and can and will strike out on their own while others choose to accommodate to the beliefs of the organization.

      • Neil · August 12, 2013

        It is complicated isn’t it? Agree with your comments. It isn’t one or the other. Thanks.

  4. GrumpyLecturer · August 5, 2013

    Neil this was written in an attempt to open a discourse as to what the underpinning theoretical approach of HRM was supposed to be.

    There appears to be gathering discontent amongst the blogging HR community not before time I hasten to add. A growing despondency is spreading through the ranks of the once masters of business universe many caused through a lack of employee engagement, employee increasing mistrust and a upsurge of questioning what exactly the role of HRM is.
    The major problem for HRM is that it is a philosophy as opposed to an ideology. The philosopher looks to reason as to why life is the way it is, in this particular instance, why work relationships between employees and employers are the way they are. They adopt, it can be argued, a more pragmatic approach to the principles that guide the employment relationship. The ideologue applies a universally held view, weltanschauung, about the nature of, in this particular case, the employment relationship. This weltanschauung is deeply based in historical events, political interests and concerned about the creation of an ‘ideal society’.
    So what is the point? Well as far as the employment relationship is concerned the HRM philosophy is trying, from a practical and reasoning perspective, to alter the employment relationship from one of distrust and often open hostility to one of engagement, cooperation and loyalty between employers and employees. Unfortunately, and this is where HRM fails miserably, employees and to a large extent employers, still view work from the old, let’s say traditional, ideological perspectives in which the weltanschauung of both sides is one of monetary and effort mistrust. Employees wanting the most wage for the least effort the employer the most effort for the least wages.
    The philosophers of HRM find themselves, more often than not, in the midst of this ideological battle. This is not of their making however; it is their failure not to recognise the historical antecedents to the employment relationship or worst still be arrogant enough to think that they can change things through ‘rational argument’ as this raises the question as to whose ‘rationality’ is being applied which unfortunately brings us back to ideology. In a way HRM is naive and childlike in that it sees a harmonious employment relationship as possible but based on historical evidence this not achievable due to the very nature of capitalism.
    For the first time ever in a recession the wages of ordinary employees have not only failed to rise but they have declined enormously whilst those of their bosses have increase exponentially. The poor decision making of managers and employers are resolved by sacking employees. Employees are forever expected to work harder for little or no monetary reward. Employees are browbeaten into acting individually as the world of work is expressed in Olympic competitive terms. These are all happening under the watchful eye of the HRM managers or directors and employees appear at last to be coming to terms with what HRM is. To employees who may have once thought HRM was a good idea, philosophically speaking, are now ever more inclined to think of it as yet another cynical ideological system of employer control.

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      I don’t care much for theory, I care for reality. But thank you.

  5. HR Tinker · August 5, 2013

    Your post made me think of Paul Eddington.

    In HR we are asked to do a great many things that are legal but morally questionable due to the world we operate in.

    When Paul was interviewed on Face to Face before his death he made the greatest quote I haver ever heard, please watch this from about 6:55

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      Brilliant. Thanks.

    • dougshaw · August 30, 2013

      Just watched the video – all 8 minutes of it. Very moving, thanks for pointing it out.

  6. PaulHebert · August 5, 2013

    This conversation has me thinking… thinking that we somehow think we all have to believe the same, if not similar things within an organization in order to be aligned and engaged with that organization. At least that’s the inference I took.

    I think, however, it is much more a discussion of how can the organization find a way to connect to what I already find meaning with.

    What I see happening in many instances is that employees come to work with their own set of beliefs, desires, goals and things they find important in their lives – the organization then sets about to try to change those goals, desires and beliefs to match what the organization is doing… and we call that getting employees aligned with company mission and values.

    I think we have it backward… the onus should be on the organization to adapt not the individual… or at least find a way for mutual change for alignment.

    If an employee finds meaning in helping the aged in their spare time, can a company provide resources for that employee (time and/or treasure) to assist in that cause? Can the company move that person into a department that focuses on community connections and public relations? Can that employee’s manager find ways to accommodate (within reason) that employees personal belief system? What can the company do to help that person capitalize on what they find meaningful?

    That is what really makes companies human.

    Then again – I believe I may have missed the point here…

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      No, no Paul…we’re saying the same thing. That’s exactly what I mean, but just better written. It is about understanding your individual beliefs and how that makes you act.

  7. changinghr · August 6, 2013

    Great blog Neil. I guess my ‘why of I’ to me comes close to lots of work companies do to have an underlying set of ‘winning’ values. You’re right to suggest they don’t drive the belief systems but they can put in place the right relationship with each employee to help drive mutial benefit (e.g Ritz Carlton sees the virtue of giving everyone who stays the greatest experience but clearly seek to incentivize and monetize it just for good sake).

    @PaulHebert articulates for me the challenge in this ‘imperfect world’ where success will continue to be determined by trying to maximise these positive belief systems with an individually tailored view of how you can get the best out of employees for the good of the organisation.

    It does however, go back to behaviours and outputs I’m afraid as far as I’m concerned. That in itself is tough enough, I’m struggling to see how we accommodate and maximise the complex personal belief systems effectively of each person making up the whole and drive competitive advantage at the same time ?

    • Neil · August 11, 2013

      Because beliefs underpin everything else. If you don’t understand the beliefs, you’re just juggling with the outputs not the inputs. That’s how I see it.

  8. Pingback: ~ Beliefs, words and pictures
  9. GrumpyLecturer · August 11, 2013

    Ok lets ditch theory it obviously deemed useless but reality is also somewhat subjective in that one persons perception of ‘reality’ may be seen as ‘irrational’ by another. So when one ‘cares for reality’ whose and which reality deserves such care and which reality needs ditching?

    • Neil · August 12, 2013

      There is only one reality, just different perceptions of it…. Are we getting all existentialist here? 🙂

  10. GrumpyLecturer · August 12, 2013

    However, these different perceptions of reality are based on ones ideological beliefs which brings us back to my argument of HR being a philosophy in an ideological world. If HR proponents wish a discourse then they need to define what are the underpinning theoretical ideas that drive their ideas and more importantly whose interests do their ideas serve. Please do not stick with the ‘benefit of the organisation’ argument this is getting wearisome Once HR has defined these terms then possibly they can move forward. At present it is extremely difficult for most ordinary people to accept HR as they see it as a management tool of control. Believe it or not I am trying to help for once even though I cannot abide HRM.

    • Neil · August 12, 2013

      I’ve never argued that HR is there for the benefit of the organisation. I agree with you that most people feel HR is a tool of management and that is completely wrong.

      • Sukh Pabial · August 12, 2013

        So if HR isn’t a tool of management, what is HR?

      • Neil · August 12, 2013

        The management of tools…….. 🙂

      • Sukh Pabial · August 13, 2013


  11. Pingback: Best of the HR Blogs August 2013: The HR bloggers' choice! | XpertHR - Employment Intelligence

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