Dear PPMA friends

In our first Out of the Shadows blog and I’m reflecting on the input from our amazing #PPMAHR19 speakers and some thinking from the inspirational Brene Brown. For those not familiar with Brene’s work she is a research professor who has dedicated her life to studying shame, vulnerability, empathy, courage and leadership.

I wanted to see how this would fit into our Out of the Shadow campaign. All of our speakers dedicate their work to empowering organisations and individuals. And it seems to me that in addition to Brene’s work, our Don’t Worry: Be Happy theme can help us find sustainable ways to better tackle bullying and harassment in the workplace.

In our conference PPMA supplement I outlined that we would be focusing on lots of different aspects of bullying and harassment. To do justice to this subject we need to do that. In my view it is only by looking through the eyes of those who have been bullied; developing appropriate responses to people who bully, understanding the legal definitions of victimisation, harassment and bullying; thinking about leadership and culture and the impact that has; and of course thinking about what we need to be doing as HR & OD professionals, that we can ever hope to develop and deliver holistic and sustainable change.

However, we need to start somewhere. My own view is that a good place is to look at personal responsibility. Human beings are influenced by many factors. Before we even start to think about our working environments, we are shaped and forged by the circumstances in which we live, our family, education, economic backgrounds, our friendships, and our cultures etc. In the world of work, we are further influenced by leadership, reward systems, peer pressure etc.

That is a complicated set of influences and it is inevitable that during our lives we may well feel overwhelmed by these. We are (mostly) an enlightened society and It is absolutely right that we find ways to support intervene and encourage people who are struggling. But increasingly I take the view that we must not inadvertently enable poor behaviour by making excuses for it.

I can relate to a real-life example. Last year, as you may remember, I was doing a lot of work on domestic abuse and what an employer response should be. Charities we spent time with very clearly advocated for employers to provide support for abusers – and some employers are doing that very successfully. However, the majority of employers took the view that an abuser should face punitive action. Employers have a huge obligation to role model the behaviours that it values – and society is, I think, taking a harder view about personal responsibility (or the lack thereof).

It is safe to say that there is a whole continuum between supporting perpetrators and punishing them. And there is no question that it is our job to get caught up in the serious debate about which part of the continuum is most effective for our organisations overall.

Reflecting on #PPMAHR19, we can clearly see the importance of Professor Beverley Alimo-Metcalfe, Maria Paviour, Shonette Bason-Wood and Jamil Qureshi’s work. My take from Maria’s input to conference is that individuals can change their emotions and behaviour by having a better and more conscious understanding of how our brains function. Jamil and Shonette also talked to this in different ways. Beverley was also profoundly passionate about the critical role of leadership in organisations. There was a clear understanding that neuroscience influences behaviour, leadership influences engagement and wellbeing. An increased understanding of this is critical to our success as a HR & OD Profession. It’s no accident that the World Bank is increasing its focus on the #HumanCapital index. And New Zealand’s finance Minister, Grant Robertson suggested that at the World Bank’s spring meeting in April that countries should assess human wellbeing instead of GDP.

We can’t just rely on leaders to fix the scourge of bullying – we have to have a laser like focus on the behaviours that we want to support and those we want to make clear are totally unacceptable.  And as individuals we also need to play our part in that.

We must prioritise the taking of personal responsibility.

Many clinical rehabilitation programmes do emphasise this, e.g., Alcoholic Anonymous12 Steps programme. However, much of the behaviour that people experience as bullying does not rise to the level where employers will send a perpetrator to rehab. A victim of bullying will struggle with feelings of shame, fear, loss of confidence, self-blame and so on – and if an organisation fails to hold a bully to account, they will also feel powerless, ignored, resentful, and lose confidence in authority. Bullies unchallenged will feel empowered and enabled. And colleagues and others will see that this behaviour is acceptable, lose the courage to challenge and speak truth to power. That is never acceptable.

For a long time, positive psychology, self-development, spirituality, new-age fields have increased focus on the power of the individual. Marianne Williamson, Oriah Mountain Dreamer, Louise Hay and many others have been pioneers in this field. Taking control of our own behaviours, emotions, intentions, ambitions etc offer productive approaches to positive well-being and productivity.

But our desire to change ourselves can only be effective if we truly acknowledge our feelings with honesty and if we whole heartedly participate in our lives. What is inspiring about Brene’s work is that there is a deep evidence base – over 20 years worth – much of that from workplaces. So we can have confidence that it works and delivers sustainable change.

There is a beautiful simplicity about some of her conclusions. In a 2019 Netflix Original on The Call to Courage, she talks about “not working your shit out on other people”. I love this as it’s that call to take personal responsibility. Abdicating responsibility means you are failing to fully participate in your life – and you give up your own power to be yourself.

Bullies, it seems to me, do just that. The general view that a bully is coward resonates with me, but bullies are also very manipulative, intelligent, selfish, sometimes amoral, sometimes bored, often jealous and envious. We know from neuroscience that we can change this – if, of course, we’re willing to do the work necessary to acknowledge our shadows.

I believe passionately that in our workplaces, HR & OD professionals have a unique contribution to make. We should be championing personal responsibility, the power to change and so on. And yes of course, we are challenged by work pressures and so on – but if we do not relentlessly focus on creating positive and productive workplaces, then we should just go home.

Relentless championing means we have to do our own work as a community. We need to make sure we are focusing on our own professional and personal development. Because if we don’t, we are letting ourselves down and we are holding back our organisations. And this is inexcusable.

So, for this first Out of the Shadows blog, I leave you with these thoughts. Our profession needs courage, empathy, vulnerability, integrity, compassion and love.

If, as a HR & OD professional:

  • you are trying to prove yourself at the expense of someone else,
  • you are accusing people of doing to you what you are actually doing to them
  • you are belittling someone to make you feel better about yourself
  • you aren’t being honest about what someone did because you are not ready to take responsibility for your own actions
  • you are shit stirring because you just can
  • you are competing because you want to be seen as ‘better than’ …. And
  • if you are standing by and not speaking up when you clearly see behaviour that should be challenged, even if there is a risk to speaking out ……..


….. Do as Brene says and stop working your shit out on other people.

If you aren’t willing to do that, go and do something else. You’re not welcome because you are not upholding our professional duty, which as CIPD reminds us, is to be purpose led, evidence based and outcomes driven.

We’ll be hearing from plenty of other amazing people during the next 12 months on this topic. We have to get involved in this debate, or the best efforts of #Metoo and the whistleblowers who have spoken out before will be wasted. And that will not do.