Nick Mitchell, Chief Executive of The Training Foundation

“Do you think it’s damaging to HR professionals to describe the profession as caring?”

CIPD members were polled last week on this question. As of 29th July, the site showed 1,437 responses, the results being; 36.74% Yes, 58.25% No and 5.01% Don’t know

On the basis of this sample, which is substantial enough to be statistically reliable, it seems that around 40% of HR professionals would distance themselves from being perceived as ‘caring’. Whatever the reason, this is astounding. It suggests a failure to be willing to acknowledge the proven link between caring for people, giving them a sense of personal value and appreciation, and employee engagement. Could it be that this misconception’ is contributing to why so many engagement ‘strategies’ are failing?

The dichotomy for HR is that, on the one hand, the 2010 HR Directors Key Challenges Survey * clearly identified employee engagement as the No. 1 challenge. That has been reinforced by the CBI employers’ survey in May, which showed that 7 out of 10 employers see engagement as a barrier to recovery. On the other hand, if ‘caring’ is not to be seen as a legitimate agenda item for HR, then policy and practice is unlikely to engage the hearts and minds of its people. What is behind the seemingly perverse view held by nearly 40% of the profession?

It may be that some respondents, in the middle of difficult restructuring and/or downsizing processes, are reducing their own cognitive dissonance by disclaiming a caring persona. It may reflect a view that ‘caring’ is somehow paternalistic. Alternatively, it may reflect a belief that HR needs to be seen as ‘harder’, more ‘business aligned’ and hence needs to somehow distance itself from any perception of being soft and woolly.

Whatever the reason, a positive response to the question is surely to misunderstand what it means to be caring. Caring is not tree-hugging, neither is it taking responsibility for others. It is an attitude of mind that is needed even when difficult decisions have to be made. Do we care enough to raise performance issues in a timely way? Do we care enough to take action before things get very much worse? And when we need to implement those difficult decisions, do we do so with a caring attitude?

Conceptually, we want people to care don’t we? Care for the organisation? Take care of its assets? Care for the customer? Of course we do. You can hardly pick up a business book published over the last few years that does not have the word ‘caring’ in it. It seems perverse for anyone in an HR role – representing an organisation’s human dimension – to disclaim it for their own profession under some illusion that it is ‘too soft’. The soft stuff is the hard stuff…

Many management and leadership thought-leaders have consistently espoused the importance of a caring dimension to organisational behavior, effectiveness and performance. They include Ken Blanchard, Peter Drucker, Stephen Covey, Warren Bennis, Marcus Buckingham, Marshall Goldsmith and, perhaps the UK’s leading management authority of the last fifty years, John Adair. Adair is the man, you’ll recall, who invented the three circles of management.

In his book Not Bosses But Leaders, Adair includes a Chapter on Sharing and Caring. In this, he recounts many examples of military commanders such as Hannibal, Wellington and Napoleon, all of whom built highly-engaged forces by the power of caring for their people. He points out that this high ideal applies across the organisational board; “industry and commerce, in universities, hospitals and schools.”

Adair refers to his experiences in Japan, that if you are in hospital you will be visited by your manager as a matter of course, as also happens in the armed forces. He answers the rhetorical question, ‘isn’t that paternalistic?’ (are some CIPD respondents thinking along similar lines?) with;

“Paternalism means applying the principles of acting like a father towards children. It’s a bad analogy for leaders if they assume that those who work for them are merely like young children whose conduct must be regulated and whose every need must be supplied by those in authority.

It’s a good analogy if it means that leaders take everyone’s interests seriously. If they believe in people and care about what happens to them. You should do it because it’s the right thing to do, regardless of consequences. It’s not paternalism, it’s just humanity. As the philosopher Baron Friedrich Von Hugel wrote to his niece; “Caring is the greatest thing. Caring Matters Most.”

John Adair wrote that in 1987. Since then, and particularly in recent years, the geneticists and neuroscientists have combined to produce astounding confirmation that when we feel cared for at work, we engage more fully. In fact, it is by far the most important engagement driver.

How bizarre, therefore, that anyone in an HR role and especially in an organisation concerned about employee engagement, should gainsay the importance of a caring persona for the HR function. It may well be a contributory factor in explaining the current widespread failure to arrest the decline in employee engagement.
Yes, HR does need to present a business-aligned face to senior management. But it is not a case or ‘either/or’. It is both. Hard-edged business practice can and should be couched in caring clothing.

We recommend everyone in an HR role – especially those with a negative perception of the need for a caring perspective – to read the white paper, The Rules of Engagement. which evidences why caring is actually the key to engagement.

2010 HR Directors Key Challenges Survey results can be accessed at

About the author:

Nick Mitchell is currently Chief Executive of The Training Foundation, a leading performance improvement specialist based at the University of Warwick Science Park, which he founded in 1998.

Nick has more than thirty years experience in senior Learning and Development and General Management roles. Following a 15-year career with one of the world’s leading software companies, Computervision Inc., where he led a team of more than 80 L&D professionals in six countries, Nick founded the Institute for IT Training in 1995 and was Chief Executive until 2002. As CEO of The Training Foundation, he is the principal architect of the TAP Learning System, the UK’s leading L&D qualifications framework, accredited by the University of Chester.

Nick has spent the last three years researching employee engagement and leading the development of an engagement skills programme for line managers. He incorporated much of this research in his recently published white paper “The Rules of Engagement.”