Recently, I was doing some reading about internal barriers in organizations created by fear. In Tom Rieger’s Breaking the Fear Barrier he points out these barriers take three forms: parochialism, territorialism, and empire building. As he states:
“Parochial managers do not necessarily want to take control over other departments. Instead, they build walls against others’ empire building attempts to keep outsiders from interfering with their own local focus and viewpoint. Territorialism is about keeping things just the way they are; empire building is about changing the balance of power. While territorialism seeks to impose limits over what people can do inside the silo, empire building seeks to change the focus of what those in other departments do. Territorialism is about defending the current span of control, but empire building is about expanding it.
Huh. I’ve known some human resources professionals that fall into each of those categories. Parochial HR leaders say things like “You can’t do xyz because it’s against policy/law/my wishes” or “We need you to complete that annual checklist performance review so we have documentation” or “Because I say so.”
The territorial HR manager will let you know, quite happily, that she controls your training budget so you best justify to her why one of your staff members needs to attend a $159 training workshop. You need to go through her (not IT) to get a new laptop and gain her approval before you allow a staff member to spend the afternoon working at the local coffee shop.
Interestingly enough, Tom Rieger shares an HR example of empire-building:
“A multibillion-dollar company centralized several support functions under its head of human resources. As a result, that executive became chief administrative officer over human resources, accounts payable, legal, real estate, and several other departments. Although the IT needs of the businesses were specialized in research and development, she insisted that IT should also be under her charge and successfully fought to add IT to her growing empire. The outcome was inefficiency, wasted resources, disengagement, and lack of focus, all of which resulted in unnecessary costs for the organization.”
Now I dare say the way this works in a multibillion-dollar company is just a tad different from how it occurs at Acme Financial Services with 300 employees. In some ways it’s easier for the HR leader to assume control of people, functions or resources in a smaller organization. No one wants to manage the vehicle fleet? HR will take it on. That administrative assistant whose job has become somewhat redundant in the last 10 years? Bam! We’ll put her to work in HR!
Next thing you know, the human resources span of control includes customer service/reception, purchasing, and facilities maintenance.
Is this always a bad thing? Not necessarily This sort of structure might be appropriate for Company A even though it’s not going to work at Company B. But, as Tom Rieger points out “Often, organizations will permit or overlook an empire builder’s encroachment because he presents his attempt at conquest as a faster way to meet an objective. In other cases, the empire builder is more subtle, taking over inch by inch. By the time anyone notices, the change has already occurred.”
Do the HR Empire Builders want to find ways to meet objectives? Get stuff done? Eliminate redundancies and remove impediments? It’s possible.
It’s also possible some just want power in whatever way they can get it.
But size – and control – have nothing to do with real strength and power. Wise HR leaders realize it’s not about gobbling up additional territory as if sweeping the board in a game of Risk in an attempt to conquer the world. Instead they realize it’s about delivering value by supporting and enabling the execution of company strategy. Period. End of story.
They understand that HR influence isn’t dependent upon the size of one’s kingdom. They know it’s about acquiring knowledge and mastering the HR fundamentals. It means they never stop learning and they look forward to the future rather than trying to run from it. They know that great HR is often invisible.
And that’s how they build an HR empire.
“Uneasy lies the head that wears a crown.”
Henry The Fourth, Part 2 Act 3, scene 1, 26–31