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  • Writer's picturePaul LaLonde

The Tao of HR

“He who clings to his work will create nothing that endures. To live in the Tao, do your job, then let go.” – Lao Tzu, from Tao Te Ching

One of my favorite blog pieces was a discussion on how HR can be like Winnie the Pooh. The main concepts and ideas were inspired by the book The Tao of Pooh.

Taoism (sometimes spelled Daoism) is a philosophical tradition from China. Taoism emphasizes living in harmony with the Tao (translated as “the Way”), which is the source of everything that exists. The main focus is to seek betterment by becoming one with the Tao, or “unplanned rhythms of the universe,” the spontaneousness of life.

As with all philosophies, the teachings differ depending on the teacher or the school, but overall, Taoism generally stresses “wu wei” (action without intention). Attempting to control the universe results in chaos, so allow the natural order to flow forth through non-action. Other key elements of Taoism include simple living in harmony with nature, cultivating self-knowledge, and the Three Treasures: Compassion, frugality, and humility.

Many in the West will recognize the Yin Yang, which isn’t “opposite” in the Western sense of being contradictory. The Yin and the Yang are opposites of the same, meaning, one cannot exist without the other. There is no light without darkness. There is no happiness without sadness. There is no masculine without feminine. There is not payroll without HR! The Yin Yang is important to Taoist philosophy, (though not exclusive to it).

Ying and Yang

While this blog post is not about Taoism in particular, this background is info helps set some context.

There is a passage in The Tao of Pooh that was particularly striking to me. The author discusses a “desiccated scholar.” The book describes a desiccated scholar as “one who studies Knowledge for the sake of Knowledge, and who keeps what he learns to himself or to his own small group, writing pompous and pretentious papers that no one else can understand, rather than working for the enlightenment of others.”

I admit, when I first read that passage, I needed to look up what the word desiccated meant! According to the dictionary, “desiccated” literally means “having had all moisture removed; dried out.”

Without water, nothing grows. Being dry and baron means death. No water, no life. Dry, stuffy, unfriendly, unapproachable, beyond reproach.

In the context of Human Resources, I thought, what would this mean? To me, a Desiccated HR is what Lars Schmidt calls Legacy HR – centralized bureaucrats, gatekeeper mentalities, cultivators of complex policies and mechanisms no one can understand, refusal to adapt, grow, or alter perspective.

“It’s what we’ve always done!”

“I can’t approve that move until you sign this form!”

“According to the policy…” (HR practitioner proceeds to read the policy word for word to the employee)

Desiccated HR is the stereotype image that plagues our profession. It is the opposite of what I discuss in my post HR, Be Water. No one likes this HR professional. This HR pro sucks all the life and happiness out of the room – much like a desert sucks the water out of the air.

Taoism teaches, in part, that if something hampers life or happiness, then those institutions should be reduced or abolished. Things must be kept simple. There is no need for grand bureaucracy.

I am not suggesting HR be abolished, except maybe Legacy HR. Contrary! I advocate that HR needs to be ENHANCED! HR pros need to evolve to a place where we don’t feel we’re as self-important as Legacy HR pretends we are.

This is about letting go of control. It’s about building systems that can function without us. It’s not about abdicating responsibility or ownership. It’s about building systems for people, not for HR.

Build systems with policies and rules that can be easily understood! The true genius of a leader is being able to get the hell out of people’s way! It’s not building infrastructure that can only function when HR is pulling all the strings. True leadership is about building a system that functions without you. This is a true HR legacy. It takes an egoless person to do this, but the best leaders kill their ego, or at least put it to rest.

As Lao Tzu, the traditional founder of Taoism, said, “A leader is best when people barely know he exists, when his work is done, his aim fulfilled, they will say: we did it ourselves.”

“But,” some may be saying, “I am too important not to be involved! I need to be there to make sure it’s going right!”

No, sorry. You’re not that important. No one is. That’s ego talking. Marcus Aurelius wrote that “everything has always been the same, and keeps recurring….” Marriage, childbirth, sickness, death, war, holidays, traffic, agriculture, flatterers, enemies, pridefulness, plotting, newsmongers, lovers, misers, greed, power brokers… all of it has happened since the dawn of time, and all of it will continue until humans cease being human or the sun expands and swallows the earth.

This includes work! The HR department existed prior to us, and it will exist after us. Focus on making it better, not on controlling it to retain power! Control is about ego. Remember that trying to control what happens has the opposite effect. The more we try to control, the more we fail to control. “Everything that happens,” Marcus Aurelius wrote, “happens as it should, and if you observe carefully, you will find this to be so… Frightened of change? But what can exist without it? What’s closer to nature’s heart?”

So, embrace change. Embrace building a system that doesn’t need us to function. Build one that helps provide power back to the employees – one focused on the Taoist tradition of compassion, prudence, and humility. Build a system that helps lift others up, not yourself.

The ironic thing about that. When we lift up others, we also become lifted. Thus is the Tao.

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