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IOn the Contrary-I Let Go of Bad Habits

March 1, 1999
Related Topics: The HR Profession, Featured Article
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I was one of those pathologically shy kids who never spoke in class and was terrified by show and tell. (I always showed.) Even saying "here" during roll call was enough to make me want to drop out of school altogether. Fortunately, by avoiding drama and never volunteering to be the captain of anything, I was able to escape the slow death known as public speaking.

That is, until the 8th grade, when a sadistic teacher thought it would be great fun for students to give oral presentations. In the midst of my demonstration on how to make lemonade from scratch, my knobby 13-year-old hands started to shake so violently that I accidentally knocked the bowl of fresh lemon juice off the demonstration table onto the floor, drenching the front of my new plaid jumper in the process. Quickly bending over to retrieve the bowl, I then whacked my head on the edge of the table. All I can remember from that point on is wondering whether or not the government’s witness protection program accepted teenagers.

While the entire fiasco probably lasted less than a minute, the mental reruns tormented me throughout puberty. Lesson learned: I was simply too inept to be an effective public speaker. Over the last few years, I’ve ditched the plaid jumper and worked to overcome my fear of public speaking. Ironically, the biggest challenge has not been learning how to speak in public, but forgetting how I once felt about it.

The key to moving on is to forget.
You see, forgetting is an important part of the learning process that most people, well, forget about. Instead, we hoard knowledge like nervous little rodents squirreling away nuts before a snowstorm. Stuffed with information that’s no longer relevant, we become immobilized in the face of new challenges. We rely on what we know to be true, instead of trying something different. But just because something worked or didn’t work before doesn’t mean it will work or not work in exactly the same way again. To innovate, change and grow, we need to spend as much time forgetting as we do learning. We need to get rid of outdated information and create room for new ideas to take root.

The ability to forget is especially important for corporate HR professionals. To become business leaders in a constantly changing, knowledge-based economy, HR professionals have to learn to let go. As management guru Tom Peters says, "You can’t live without an eraser." In his book, The Circle of Innovation (Alfred A. Knopf Inc., 1997), Peters explains that although organizational learning is a hot topic, organizational forgetting is even more important. "Not to focus on forgetting is a mistake ... perhaps mistake number one for your division, your unit and for you," he says.

By my calculation, there are three things HR should try to forget about.

  1. Forget programs. I was lurking around the Internet and read a post from someone looking for ideas on a "program to put more fun in the workplace." Among the programs suggested were a "weekly milk-and-cookie break" and a "quarterly event with senior executives." Whoa—are we really ready to have that much fun at work? Excuse my naiveté, but isn’t fun supposed to happen spontaneously? When did fun become something you do between 3:00 and 3:30 every other Thursday in the cafeteria? If you want to have fun, you have to be fun. You lead by example, not mandate. To the extent possible, HR should forget the idea of solving problems with structured programs. Sometimes it’s better to point people in the right direction and let them develop their own solutions.
  2. Forget policies. The other day, I overheard one HR person telling another that she was in the midst of developing a policy on open communication. Is it just me, or does this seem counterintuitive? If you’re seeking open communication, does it really make sense to spell out what open communication is, when it will occur and how the company regards it? Policies are like the New Year’s resolutions of Corporate America. They’re well intentioned, but doomed to make people fatter and more miserable than they were previously. Communication and leadership come from actions, not resolutions.
  3. Forget what everybody else is doing. The best practices movement has been a great way for managers to learn about effective workplace initiatives at other companies. But it also has created a generation of HR professionals who can’t write an employee handbook without first finding out how others have gone about it. In today’s competitive marketplace, profits go to the fastest, most innovative employers—not to those who copy their neighbors. Forget the other guy and focus on what your employees need to succeed.

It takes a lot of concentration to forget old ways of doing things, but it can be done. Whenever I’m about to deliver a presentation, I take a deep breath and look to the heavens for divine intervention. I’m not picky. A power outage, tornado or stroke would all be acceptable means of avoiding public speaking. Catching myself, I take a step back and force myself to remember the benefits I’ve gotten from public speaking. It takes some effort, but it gets me to the lectern every time. Best of all, I’ve yet to hit my head on it.

Workforce, March 1999, Vol. 78, No. 3, p. 19-20.

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