Pontifications of an Interloper

Kelly Hardwick
Executive Director
Mississippi State Personnel Board

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There is a fairly popular sitcom that goes by the moniker “It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia.” That’s where I came from. I’m a recovering attorney. Much like Frank in “It’s Always Sunny,” I was the redeemed overseer of schemes, conspiracies and adventures for clients. The main foray into personnel issues was with clients where the conversation went something like this: “I fired Charlie today because he showed up drunk again. Can you tell the owner, Bob (who happened to be Charlie’s uncle)?” Or Mildred in H.R. calls with the even more likely scenario of: “Sarah beat up Mindy because Mindy was flirting with Charlie.” The back story is always that Charlie and Sarah are now married but Mindy is Charlie’s ex-wife who divorced him because he was running around with Katie from accounting. Chaos and confusion rules the day. But come to think of it, state government personnel issues aren’t really much different. Other than the state government sitcom is much more sophisticated like, say, “Cheers.”

With the upfront admission that Mississippians are generally eclectically unique when compared to the rest of the world, I did see some distinct personality traits of those that deal with state government personnel issues on a daily basis. Now I’m still trying to wrap my brain around whether this is a function of human resources or government or a creamy delicate blend of both, but the biggest issue I have observed can be described by the old adage of paralysis by analysis. I come from a world of shoot first and aim later. It has been a big adjustment to hear about meeting after meeting after conversation after review after . . . well you get the gist. There seems to be a reluctance to make a decision and move on. The reason for this lack of understanding of the “it is most often easier to get forgiveness than it is permission” concept could be two fold.

First, it seems that paranoia runs deep in state government human resources. Generally speaking, paranoia is our response to our internal doubts. I’ve noticed way too much internal struggle until someone announces a decision. Then everyone gets on board. The problem is often people seem to try to do the impossible when we should be blocking our internal fears from becoming obstacles. Now some of this may be caused by the second observation: the lack of specific human resources training.

A dearth of detailed training directly related to human resource issues seems to hamper many state government agencies. You have individuals move into human resources because they are nice and get along well with others instead of having been trained to deal with the human psyche and methods of manipulation to get folks motivated to do their job. Too often I’ve observed people much like Toby from the Office. They are mild-mannered to the point of being somewhat powerless to voice edicts and ideas or assert themselves. Though exasperated by the shenanigans in the office, they appear passive. But I don’t think that is necessarily true. The bottom line I’ve learned in my brief expedition into human resources administration is this: the people are nicer and seem to be better human beings than in other areas. I’m not sure that is necessarily a good thing. I also know it is a fact.

So what leadership skills can be imparted to enhance the attention required by those in state government human resources? I think a few suggestions can go a long way in setting examples for all areas. First, we must remember that we are constantly dealing with humans. Fragile, strong-willed sinners. The petulant and cantankerous. But also those who are dealing with tragedies and triumphs. We need to make an effort to be empathetic without being sympathetic. Another way we can exhibit leadership is to emphasize the need to have fun and enjoyment whilst we work hard. These things are not mutually exclusive. Especially if we get the previous skill in line. We can never make people happy all the time but we can exude joyfulness in most any situation. One of the ways we can do that is to be straightforward and clean with expectations and communication. Don’t cajole and hint. If you need someone to hammer a nail in the board don’t baffle them with flowery academics and Shakespearean soliloquies. Get to the bottom line. Quickly.

By doing this, we will find that we overcome the drawback that humans are more likely to do what they see you do rather than listen to what you say. If the people in human resources are showing up to work on time, completing projects, pitching in/leading committees, solving little problems before they become overblown then other areas will get a better sense of expectations. If our departments are isolated and only come out during storms, we will find that that becomes our expectation. Regardless of our intentions. Lastly, don’t be hesitant to acknowledge deficiencies. No policy manual is foolproof. Sometimes sacred cows are skinny and need better feed. If something isn’t working, stop doing it. Now. By combining these talents, we will see improvements in morale. We will see slivers of joy creep through the dark madness of human resources. We will see positive change.

So as an interloper what have I concluded? I may have been better served by a background in psychology or psychotherapy rather than law (although a certain dosage of benzodiazepines in the community coffee might be beneficial). Lawyers are trained to know the rules, statutes and laws. We are also trained to apply such edicts to given fact patterns. So in many ways a legal background is beneficial to dealing with human resource issues. However, one would be well suited to pick up books that help us understand the human psyche from Blink to the Bible to help better navigate the labyrinth that is state government human resources.

 This Leadership Project is sponsored by Infor.