“I’m also reasonably certain that dealing with the intricacies of the latest NLRB ruling and the latest updates to the ATS are not exactly what inspires people to become HR professionals.” -Heather Bussing

I see HR as a refuge for humanity. It’s the official place in the company where people, dealing with leave, benefits and job changes, show their whole lives.

Most HR departments are focused on policy, compliance, payroll/benefits, hiring, discipline, and managing the day to day clusters that inevitably arise. If you do that well, you’re doing a great job.

I’m also reasonably certain that dealing with the intricacies of the latest NLRB ruling and  the latest updates to the ATS are not exactly what inspires people to become HR professionals.

Most of the people in HR are there because they care about people. It’s easy to lose sight of people when the media is full of lists and articles on “making the business case” for HR, and how the latest app or software is going to change your work and life.

I believe it’s good to shift perspective now and then.  Sometimes HR needs to see beyond “the way we’ve always done it,” and explore new ways of thinking about work.

Here are two of my favorite books that show a different view of people and work.

The Year Without Pants: and the Future of Work by Scott Berkun

This is Berkun’s look at WordPress, whose workforce is 100% remote. The company was growing and adding the beginning layers of team management while wanting to maintain a creative, autonomous work environment. Berkun’s insights into people, technology, and work are compelling, caring and make good business sense.

Here is my full review of the book: No Pants Works.

Orbiting the Giant Hairball: A Corporate Fool’s Guide to Surviving With Grace, by Gordon MacKenzie

Gordon MacKenzie was a designer for Hallmark in Kansas City. Midwestern sensibilities and conservative company meet creative rebel. MacKenzie takes on bureaucracy, policy, and rule makers with grace humor and panache, eventually ending up with the official title of Creative Paradox.  It’s a wonderful book that goes beyond thinking outside the box to wondering: Does it have to be a box?

I also believe that they keys to dealing with people at work, and everywhere, are compassion, empathy, curiosity, and trust. But these skills and qualities aren’t something I can just put on like a new coat. They come from doing the work on myself, so that I’m comfortable in my own skin and have healthy boundaries that allow me to feel safe opening up and caring about others instead of having to protect myself because I’m scared.  

The work is often counterintuitive. For a long time I thought that if I could just get everything and everyone out there to settle down, straighten out, and work right, then I could relax and be happy. It’s just the opposite. Happiness is an inside job.

I had to give up perfection, appreciate that ups and downs are just part of life, and that going through hard stuff and facing my own insecurities is the true work, and the only thing I can really control.

So here are three of my favorite books on doing the work on myself so that I can be available to help others in healthy and constructive ways.

When Things Fall Apart: Heart Advice for Difficult Times by Pema Chodron

This is the book I turn to when I want to drink scotch, smoke cigarettes, and run away because I can’t stand the way I feel and I don’t know what to do. I always come away feeling less crazy, more centered, and kinder toward myself.

It turns out that the bravest thing you can do is be kind to others, and the only way to get there is to learn to be kind and gentle toward yourself. The advice is piercing, funny, sensible and I never would have figured it out on my own, even though I’m pretty smart.

Just One Thing by Rick Hanson

Hanson is a neuropsychologist who mashes up the latest in brain science with age old meditation and mindfulness practices with 52 practices you can do to improve your brain, your thinking, and your approach to life. You can take on one new practice a week, keeping the ones that work and letting others go. Or you can dip in and out and try on the ones that seem most interesting. There is no wrong way to work with these ideas.

One of my favorite quotes from the book is: “If you’re stuck, you don’t need a perfect plan; you need to take imperfect action.”

Original Self: Living With Paradox and Originality by Thomas Moore

This is by the Care of the Soul author, whose work I’ve been interested in, but sometimes found difficult to understand because he often wanders off into complex myths and symbolism that can be hard to track. But this book is divided into short chapters that take on one idea or topic, and is much more accessible. The woodcut prints by Joan Hanley are also gorgeous. Again, it’s one you can dip in and out of.

Moore finds meaning, healing, and spirit in the dark times and the things that don’t seem to make sense. He can reframe that feeling of going crazy to remind me that my linear, logical, business thinking is not the only thing going on, and not always in charge. He helps me open the door to more creative ideas and thoughts even if they don’t make sense and to value the less rational parts of my soul and life. 

It turns out that not every thought or action, especially empathy and kindness, needs an ROI.

  • Thanks Heather – this is a lovely post with some excellent recommendations. I’m familiar with The Year Without Pants and Orbiting The Giant Hairball, in fact both have been in my hands again this week as I flick around looking for help and inspiration. The work on yourself stuff I am not currently familiar with. I have a short book buying embargo in place as I catch up on a few outstanding volumes and I will check these out as soon as I open the gates again. Happy New Year to you.

  • Thanks Doug. I’m curious, what books would you suggest to Make HR better?

  • Hello again – thanks for asking, Heather – here are a few of my favourites:

    Creativity Inc – Ed Catmull and Amy Wallace. This is a lovely read about Pixar and how it works hard to stay such an engaging, creative place to work. I’m a fan of some of the Pixar movies so it’s interesting to learn a little about the process behind the product, and the book has a super section to wrap up which summarises some great key points. A great book for HR folk and anyone interested in peopled better work – almost as good as The Year Without Pants. My friend Richard Martin reviews the book usefully here:

    Thinking Fast and Slow – Daniel Kahneman. I’ve had this book for a couple of years and I’ve not finished it yet. It’s pretty hard going – research based, lots of academic study, not my usual thing at all. However – it contains some excellent examples of why and how we think and as such it is a useful manual for insight into how our minds work, and through understanding this, how we can influence our environment to make our work better. I leaned heavily on this book as preparation for the ‘Beyond HR’ talk Neil Morrison and I gave at Louisiana SHRM last year.

    101 Things To Learn In Art School – Kit White. A simply superb book packed with brief thoughts, ideas and provocations, beautifully illustrated too. Though initially intended for the aspiring artist, this book has too many intersections with the wider work to be ignored. It’s easy to read, and easy to dip in and out of. I use little tabs to mark cool, useful stuff in my books – this one is the most tabbed book I have.

    Steal Like An Artist – Austin Kleon. 10 things nobody told you about being creative – that is the book’s claim, and I think it goes way beyond that. This is a short, engaging read about the process and practice of creativity. I’m a huge fan of the creative process, and I think it is essential practice for HR. As more of the HR role becomes automated, our ability to be creative is something which still separates us from the robots. I think few understand the full sweep of creativity, too many fear it unnecessarily and this book, plus Kit White’s I mentioned above – go a long way to demystifying the process.

    With the exception of the Daniel Kahneman book, I have given many copies of all the others away as gifts – I hope that act helps signify the importance I place on these excellent reads.

    Cheers – Doug

  • I haven’t read Creativity Inc, but I will now! I’ve loved all the others you mentioned.

    Thank you for taking the time to think about this and give us your suggestions. Fantastic!

  • I think you will enjoy it Heather. I have today ordered a couple of books, Just One Thing, by Rick Hanson, and The Thin Book of Appreciative Inquiry, by Sue Annis.

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