Holding up the mirror

HR Business Partner – the modern court jester in companies?

This is a contribution by our guest author Christoph Henties. Christoph already published the three-part “Organisations Learn Jazz” in June this year. We are very happy to have him back this week.

Recently, in a conversation with an experienced, committed HR manager, she quoted one of  her superiors: “Our job in HR is solely to implement the board’s decisions and measures.” I visibly felt the restrictive effect of this statement of loyalty to the hierarchy on my interviewee. The disappointment at neglecting one’s own ideas for constructively shaping creative personnel work for employees and the organization was all too noticeable.

The concept of the court jester came to my mind: a figure who could tell the authorities unpleasant truths without fearing the consequences. This figure could mention the unspeakable. It had the task of telling the ruler the truth, had the freedom of fools.

The court jester is thus a kind of nonconformist – someone who changes perspective in an exaggerated way, illuminates the other side of the medal and thereby points to its origin.

The court jester – so to speak in the role of the social controller – points out failings and deficiencies. By masking and disguising, he simulates a reversal of reality, parodies authority. Nevertheless, the court jester was encouraged because his role could not have been forbidden anyway. He lives from the success of laughter; the failure of laughter could in extreme cases lead to his death in the Middle Ages. Nevertheless, the freedom to express one’s thoughts always carries the danger of communicating in a way that hurting another’s feelings.

If you imagine for a moment that you can say anything about corporate structures and management without having to fear the consequences, then this is the fool’s capital base. Those who know the stories of Till Eulenspiegel will understand that.

In classical plays women always had a maid who also acted as a consultant. On the stage, maids are often very clever advisors, without whom a queen would not have made any decisions. As a person from another social class who formulates enlightening thoughts on the basis of additional information, they brought in a new perspective. The figure of the clown also has this task, he illustrates success and failure by exaggeration. The moment the clown is taken seriously, he has lost! So the court jester, the maid and the clown always have a direct influence, but no responsibility.

The pressure for success in business life constantly optimizes organizations, ultimately limiting creative potential. In recent years, the classic role of HR manager has mutated into that of HR business partner: distributed HR managers who are available to the individual business areas as companions. From the point of view of senior management these are the implementers of processes. The creative role as a critical thinker in employee matters is subordinated to the fulfilment of processes. Where is the courage to adopt critical constructive positions coming from the workforce? Where is the creative freedom as an HR business partner?

Not infrequently do HR managers serve several masters, i.e. have three or more managing directors or board members who behave and express themselves differently. If the loyal HR manager orients himself towards his direct superior, he will sooner or later get caught under the wheels. Acting in this ambiguity demands a free thinking attitude – and that is where the role of court jester helps. If an HR manager focuses exclusively on individual and collective labour law, he will quickly lose his creative added value as a business partner.

” We want a few mad people now. See where the sane ones have landed us!” (George Bernhard Shaw)

The court jester was not an entertainer, he was a deeply serious figure, was an integral part of the medieval court. Funny foolishness made it possible for him to free himself from social norms and thus, in a sometimes more, sometimes less funny way, to subtly point out misdemeanours and abuses and to make the authorities think. This foolishness is a form of the division of roles or “separation of powers” in organisations.

Agile organisations need the renaissance of the court jester. Fear drives people into a self-made reduction. The fool is the wise man, the wise man is the fool. Is the employee actually the sage, is the board actually the fool?

I wish all HR business partners to be court jesters and organisational consultants – and to communicate under volatile conditions with courage and determination.

Origial text: Christoph Henties
English translation: BCO

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