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Facing the truth

How much does an overgeneralization – that HR is hated – bias the view of others?

By Ian Hendry

I am sure everyone has a favourite April Fools’ story. Mine is probably convincing a peer that he had been transferred to a location he would have hated. The perpetrators of this hoax had an executive sign a transfer letter and put the personal belongings of our colleague in a box on his desk for his arrival to work. It was only when he was phoning his wife to lament that the truth had to be told.

Pranks such as this date back to 1700, but historians speculate this unique day dates back to 1582 when the French switched from the Julian to the Gregorian calendar.

In 1998, after Burger King advertised a “Left-Handed Whopper,” scores of clueless customers requested the fake sandwich. Such can be our gullibility, and sometimes we can be easy to convince. It begets the question of how quickly our minds allow us to draw conclusions, make them factually “black and white,” and then use them as a guidepost to make subsequent decisions.

Bias is defined, after all, as a prejudice in favour of, or against, one thing, person or group compared with another, usually in a way considered to be unfair. It was only last year that an HBR article identified a hate for the HR function.
It inferred that we focused too much on “administrivia” and we lacked vision and strategic insight. As one would have hoped, the profession came back rejecting such ill-informed folly, but it was interesting that colleagues in other functional areas were quick to make reference to the article.

My response was to ask the question, “Do your teenagers like to be told how to behave or what to do?” The somewhat obvious response would elicit the followup question, “So, why would employees react differently?”
Few doubt that organizations need some form of code of conduct, or should be disciplining employees as necessary; these often thankless tasks befall HR, and if that makes us hated, then so be it.

However, how much does an overgeneralization like this, that HR is hated, bias the view of others? Moreover, does it have a bearing on our own self-image, or the profession’s view of itself? And what’s the risk that an unjustified bias could result in cognitive distortion?

Cognitive distortions are simple ways our mind can convince us of something that isn’t true. These distortions come in various forms. For example, we have all likely made a recommendation that generated questions warranting further consideration.

We might magnify these questions more negatively and filter out the more positive components that were well-received. This can lead us to a view that, unless we are perfect, we are failing.

How often might we jump to conclusions about someone else’s behaviour because we know what they are feeling and why they act the way they do? I am sure we have experienced people who over-react, as if the sky is falling, when anything goes wrong. Emotional reasoning takes over when we believe that what we feel must automatically be true.
There are numerous examples of unhealthy emotions that perpetuate these negative cognitive distortions. It only stands to reason that when we are constantly telling managers what they “should” be doing, a feeling of guilt may ultimately turn into resentment towards the HR function.

We are in the early stages of understanding the ways in which our minds work. Where we grew up, the people who have influenced our lives, the schools that we attended, the books and newspapers that we have read, the discussions around the family table and so on, have all contributed to our reality and the way we think. All of those experiences lead us to the biased views we carry with us.

Sadly, not everything we think is likely true or correct. Consequently, we should we be leery of the biases we carry when we make our decisions?

Breaking bias is the topic of the next SCNetwork event in Toronto on April 19th. If we can recognize our own biases that are in play, is it possible that, as practitioners, we can move beyond them and discover a more balanced ability to evaluate and understand people? My bias is yes.

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Ian Hendry

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