Six thinking roles for HR professionals | Page 2 | Sunday Observer

Six thinking roles for HR professionals

28 May, 2023
Dr Edward de Bono (1933-2021)
Dr Edward de Bono (1933-2021)

Decision-making is a delicate part of a managerial career. This is true for People Professionals as well.

In the midst of a planetary pandemic, the right decision at the right time in the right direction is more crucial than ever before. Thinking is the central theme when it comes to decisions. Today’s column is all about how People Professionals can play six thinking roles, based on six thinking hats developed by Dr. Edward de Bono, in the early eighties. It is in fact a tribute to Dr Bono who passed away on June 9, 2021 at the age of 88. 

Dr. de Bono in his book, “Six Thinking Hats”, discusses an important and powerful technique that is used to look at decisions from a number of important perspectives. This forces us to move outside our habitual thinking style, and helps to get a more rounded view of a situation.

As we discussed in a previous column, an HR Professional or a People Professional can be viewed as a senior person engaged in Human Resources activities as an occupation. In other words, a manager with experience and qualifications, handling the responsibilities associated with the Human Resources function of an organisation. HR professionals are responsible for attracting, engaging, developing, rewarding, and retaining the most precious resource of any organisation, i.e., human resource. In this endeavour, they need to demonstrate thinking in a big way. Let us draw parallels to the roles they should play in line with six thinking hats of Edward de Bono. 

In a nutshell, I would call them six Ps, viz., prober, partner, preventer, provider, proposer, and a planner.  

HR Professional as a Prober

When he or she wears the white hat, the role in focus is what I would like to call prober. According to de Bono, the white hat pertains to facts and information. It covers facts, figures, information needs and gaps. “I think we need some white hat thinking at this point,” means “let’s drop the arguments and proposals, and look at the data collected.”

Rather than jumping into conclusions, HR professionals need to gather needed facts and make decisions based on facts. Sources and uses of information should be very clear in the mind of an HR professional. Take recruitment for an example. Assessing the prospective candidates involves a fair deal of information such as educational qualification, working experience, previous career highlights etc. Probing helps him/her to dig deeper before making a decision. 

HR Professional as a Partner

When the HR professional wears the red hat, the role in focus can be viewed as a partner. Here, I use the term partner, to identify the feelings and emotions associated. As someone near and dear, he/she uses the gut instincts more than the logic. 

This covers intuition, feelings and emotions. The red hat allows the thinker to put forward an intuition without any need to justify it. “Putting on my red hat, I think this is a terrible proposal.” Usually feelings and intuition can only be introduced into a discussion if they are supported by logic. The feeling is genuine but the logic can be spurious. The red hat gives full permission to a thinker to put forward his or her feelings on the subject at the moment.

Let’s take the earlier example of recruiting a manager. He/she may have ended up shortlisting two candidates who are equally qualified and experienced. Where the head stops, the heart may begin. Feelings and emotions of the HR professional, truly showing his/her partnering, might 

HR Professional as a Preventer  

As much as an HR professional has to be a thinker and doer, he/she has to be a preventer as well.  It has a connection of what Edward de Bono termed as a Black hat thinker. It essentially involves being cautious, in looking at the worst case scenarios, in truly playing the role of “devil’s advocate”, in preventing a disaster. 

This is the hat of judgment and caution. It is not in any sense an inferior or negative hat. The black hat is used to point out why a suggestion does not fit the facts, the available experience, the system in use, or the policy that is being followed. The black hat must always be logical.

The need here is to identify barriers, hazards, risks and other negative connotations. The overall spirit should be to see that the final decision is error free or not just emotionally –laden one without value. The challenge is not to overdo it by becoming a stumbling block for success, or not to undermine it by merely ignoring obvious risks. 

This is a delicate challenge for HR professionals. They are supposed to project a positive image oozing with optimism. Yet, becoming cautious, in clearly identifying the risks involved in a decision is the pragmatic way forward. 

Let’s take an example from industrial relations. An HR professional has to deal with a tricky labour union, which is opportunistic in changing their stance to suit ongoing political trends. As much as the HR professional demonstrates care and cooperation, he or she needs to be cautious in looking at a variety of possible scenarios so that the organisation is not vulnerable in future. 

HR Professional as a Provider 

This is the most demanded role, linking with Edward de Bono’s yellow hat. It is all about being positive and optimistic. Some authors have called it a logical positive, in answering why something will work and why it will offer benefits. It can be used in looking forward to the results of some proposed action, but can also be used to find something of value in what has already happened.

As a provider of constructive ideas on benefits of a particular course of action, the HR professional can influence a team decision making. Such an approach might have a potential conflict with the black hat thinking. Eventually, what would come out is a balanced decision not tilting to any of the sides. 

There are situations where the context is bleak and participants are depressed resulting in an inefficient process of decision making. HR professionals can be the cheerleader in getting everyone engaged to reach a meaningful decision. 

HR Professional as a Proposer 

This can be regarded as the role of our times. As a proposer, an HR professional would wear a green hat, in generating new ideas. It involves identifying new possibilities. It is the hat of creativity, alternatives, proposals, what is interesting, provocations and changes.

Unleashing of creativity is an absolute must with regard to complex decisions that do not have text-book solutions. As the competition intensifies, human creativity increasingly emerges as the cutting edge, resulting in innovative products and services. 

It is also the hat of novel thoughts. It is based around the idea of provocation and thinking for the sake of identifying new possibilities. Things are said for the sake of seeing what they might mean, rather than to form a judgment. This is often carried out on black hat statements in order to identify how to get past the barriers or failings identified there (green on black thinking). Green hat thinking covers the full spectrum of creativity and it can take many forms.

The HR professional has to propose a variety of options, related to different scenarios, with clarity in mind on the promises and pitfalls of each of such options. Take a case of talent hunt for an example. You have to find novel ways of filling your existing vacancies with competent people. Allowing potential employees to use social computing tools such as face book or linked-in to get familiar with the organization is one such example. 

HR Professional as a Planner

This occurs when an HR professional wears the blue hat. It is all about looking at the big picture. This is the overview or process control hat. It looks not at the subject itself but at the ‘thinking’ about the subject. “Putting on my blue hat, I feel we should do some more green hat thinking at this point.” This can be a possible comment of a participant. 

It helps the HR professional to get connected to the ‘broader canvass”. If he/she is leading a decision making discussion, it is an opportunity to be the process-controller as well, in truly demonstrating the essence of planning. He/she may invite the other participants to wear the other caps so that the discussion is an enriching and insightful one, leading to a decision with higher accuracy. 

From Six Ps to one Big P

Having discussed the six Ps for People Professionals in becoming better thinkers, the big P cannot be ignored. It is all about performance, ranging from institutional level to an individual level. HR professionals should use the six thinking hats in playing the corresponding roles in order to attain a higher level of organisational performance. This is in fact should be their most significant strategic contribution.  In the midst of a continuing contagion, they need to demonstrate decisive actions with dedication as committed performers.