HR, Be Water

“Water is fluid, soft, and yielding. But water will wear away rock, which is rigid and cannot yield. As a rule, whatever is fluid, soft, and yielding will overcome whatever is rigid and hard. This is another paradox: what is soft is strong.” – Lao Tzu

Ever since I was a little kid, I have had a fascination with water. I would fantasize about visiting the ocean to witness the experience – watch the waves, listen to them crashing on the sand, smell and taste the salty sea air, and feel the breeze on my face. I always wanted to just sit on the beach and bear witness to one of nature’s more beautiful experiences.

Rivers, streams, lakes, oceans, ponds, puddles, rain… all of it fascinates me. I’ve thought much as to why this element so intrigued me, but only recently did I discover why.

A few weeks ago, I lamented that I only recently discovered the philosophical brilliance of Bruce Lee.

Many may not realize, but Bruce Lee was more than an iconic martial artist and action film star. He was also an accomplished and profund philosophers. Overshadowed by the Dragon persona, his philosophy is overlooked by the mainstream despite it being central to him becoming the Dragon. Without Bruce Lee’s philosophy, his mastery of martial arts would have been nothing.

Lee was a warrior, and as importantly, he was a philosopher. Particularly striking to me was this interview:

“Empty your mind.

Be formless, shapeless, like water.

You put water into a cup, it becomes the cup.

You put water into a bottle, it becomes the bottle.

You put it into a teapot, it becomes the teapot.

Now water can flow, or it can crash.

Be water, my friend.”

This poetry – based on ancient Chinese Taoist philosophy – is the balance I needed to hear. It’s the Yin and the Yang I was looking for. I recall in high school science classes that water flows from a higher concentration to a lower concentration and few things can stop water whether it’s a slow trickle or a heavy flow. Water is adaptable. It flows wherever it is supposed to flow in exactly the way it was meant to flow.

This wisdom from Bruce Lee was my own epiphany into why I’ve always had an attraction to water. The universe was trying to tell me something. For much of my early adult life, I was rigid and inflexible. If something was out of place in my life or didn’t go exactly according to plan, I would get anxious or crumble. I’d sulk and become intolerable.

The universe was trying to tell me to be like water. Be flexible, soft, graceful. Be yielding. Be understanding. Flow or crash depending on what is needed. Adapt or die.

The universe is complicated. Nature is complex, probably far more so than our minds can comprehend. So, too, are our lives, since we are part of nature and not separate. How do people cope with this complexity that we do not understand? We form boxes, categories. We then put ideas and thoughts into these superficial spaces, which is limiting and constricting. It’s a great coping mechanism for hunter-gathers trying to survive on the ice fields of Eurasia; but humans have long since moved past our primitive surroundings, and it’s time our thought patterns move along with it. The sabretooth cat isn’t going to jump out and eat us anymore. Let go of the notion that there’s something scary hiding behind the bush.

Dear HR professionals, be like water, my friends.

Much like nature, work life is incredibly complicated. I won’t waste words by rehashing the stats and stories here, but a quick Google search, and most will see what I mean. HR work is destructive to those unwilling to bend. It was lonely, isolating work prior to the COVID pandemic. Now, many good folks are being crushed under the uncompromising weight of a microbe.

As the world of work is ever-changing, and workplaces are more complex than our minds can comprehend, a more helpful approach to work life is one that is flexible or adaptable. One that enables us to flow along. You know… kinda like water.

Depending on its environmental constructs, water changes. When it’s cold, water becomes ice to fit the situation. When it’s hot, water evaporates to fill that need. When it’s in a glass, it becomes the glass, as the Dragon so eloquently spoke. And so on. Water doesn’t resist. It just keeps being water regardless of what comes its way.

What does this mean for the HR professional?

It means learning to be adaptive and flexible to the environment around us. Do not cling to your views on or approaches to the HR profession. Be open to receiving new information about old ways of doing things. Changing one’s mind is not weakness. Much like a river redirecting itself after an earthquake, water finds a new path to tread so that it can continue to reach the ocean.

It also means learning to listen to the environment around us and being non-judgmental about it. I want to be ice. Well, it’s 72 degrees outside, so I need to be water. I will move forward as needed. I’d rather be doing my monthly professional development with my team, but I’m needed on this investigation right now. It’s not fun, but it’s where I need to flow!

Being water means going to new places without hesitation. Lao Tzu said in the Tao Te Ching, “That which offers no resistance, overcomes the hardest substances. That which offers no resistance can enter where there is no space.” It’s been written about and discussed hundreds, if not thousands, of times. HR needs to be a TRUE unabashed leader in the DEI+ Belonging space. HR needs to challenge racism and bigotry head on. HR needs to back up employees when they have legitimate grievances. Yet, many in the HR profession don’t do these things. Why? Water doesn’t refuse to go where it has to. It goes wherever it is needed however it can. HR needs to be able to find the space to go where there is seemingly no space.

Bruce Lee said “empty your cup so that it may be filled.” Or as Yoda told Luke Skywalker, “No. No different. Only different in your mind. You must unlearn what you have learned.”

If one remains rigid and unbending, they will eventually break.

Be water, my HR friends.

Published by Paul LaLonde

Husband. Father. Passionate about HR, helping people, and doing the right thing. Also, heavy metal, craft beer, and general nerd things! #SHRM19Blogger. Find me on Twitter at @HRPaul49 and LinkedIn. Thoughts, views and opinions on this site are solely my own and do not represent those of my employer or any other entity ​with which I have been, am now, or will be affiliated.

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