Robey’s Blog: Be Water…


“Empty your mind, be formless.  Shapeless, like water.  If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.  You put water into a bottle and it becomes the bottle.  You put it in a teapot, it becomes the teapot.  Now, water can flow or it can crash.”  -Bruce Lee

My opinion of psychometric testing has shifted, somewhat, over the years.  But I can’t deny that it has shaped how I see people and the world.  I learned to think of Choleric, Sanguine, Phlegmatic and Melacholic before I learned to think about DISC.  And, thanks to a little learning being a dangerous thing, also came to think about people in terms of Fire, Water, Earth and Air.  But I opened with Bruce Lee because the place where I really began to understand those ideas wasn’t in the office, but in the dojo where I practice karate.

In karate – and, indeed, in most oriental martial arts – the classical elements, as they are known, are super-important.  Far be it from me to contradict the late great master, but whilst water is great and all, in martial arts the real challenge isn’t to be just one of the four elements, but to be all four of them, picking the right one for the right moment.

Although that would be great for life as it would in a fight, though, the psychometric types do have something of a point: we all do have a default mode that describes our natural inclination.  Whilst we may be able to, say, turn on the fire, if we prefer to be air then shifting to fire takes effort.

And I tend to think that Bruce was right about water: it adapts to its environment.  It becomes what it needs to be and, although it may not have the destructive power of fire, the experience of water in the process of rapidly shifting from one thing to another can be impressive.  Every business needs a healthy balance of Earth, Air and Fire.  But it’s been my recent experience that HR, especially in an SME, really needs to be Water, and I’ll explain why.

HR must change shape all the time

Not only do we have to change shape mentally – shifting from the minutiae of holiday entitlements to the grand strategic vistas of reward policy as quickly as it takes to move from one room to another – but we also have to change shape behaviourally.  Working with our leaders, we have to be responsive, obedient and conciliatory, negotiating tricky points of challenge whilst managing egos and expectations with patience and humility.  Working with our management peers, we have to be assertive professionals, confident in our knowledge and ready to help.  Working with employees on an individual level, meanwhile, we have to be compassionate listeners and, at the same time, manage expectations firmly and with authority.

HR must be nimble

It isn’t just the legislative landscape that’s forever changing.  Our business context is permanently shifting and our priorities change from one day to the next.  If we let ourselves be Air, we simply blow from one thing to another, never alighting on one thing for long enough to make progress.  If we are Earth, we become fixated on seeing one project to a conclusion, neglecting new urgencies and ignoring the changing context.  If we are Fire, we tear through things only long enough to tick off another job done, without taking time to consider whether it was done well.

Water, meanwhile, accommodates everything within its reach.  Once embraced, nothing is relinquished until the water has moved on.  And water knows what is out of its reach, leaving it alone until the context changes and it can leave old ground behind and move on to something new.

HR must be strong without being destructive

Fire gets a bad rap, and it’s certainly Water’s opposite.  But in any business, Fire is essential: it is passionate, dynamic and aggressive: there’s a reason we call it “firing” someone.  But Fire and water are needed in equal measure so that the business can destroy what it must without leaving nothing but scorched earth in its wake.  It’s HR’s job to try to make the experience of leaving a business as painless as possible.  When decisions are made about redundancies (a Fire decision), it’s good to hand it over to a Water person to execute.  Water is strong, but it knows how to compromise and how to control and manage relationships.  Relationships for Fire are just fuel.  Relationships for Water are life.

The downside for all of this is that HR can sometimes look like a Jekyll and Hyde character within a business.  One moment we’re helping people get mental health counselling and arguing for better working conditions; the next, we’re overseeing the dismissal of whole departments.  But that’s Water for you.  Water can look as still as a millpond.  It can feel as gentle as a raindrop.  Or it can be as loud as a thunderstorm and as terrifying as a tsunami.  But whatever we see, it’s still just Water.

I’ve heard many colleagues opine that this conflict between the soft and the hard of HR is something with which they struggle.  But the truth is that we’re still the same people, whatever HR task we’re managing.

Be yourself.  Be HR.  Be Water.

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