By: Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR

In general, HR professionals aren’t perceived to be thought leaders. The “thought police”, “corporate enforcer”, and even “servants of the corporate empire” are among top internet search results for human resource stereotypes. It’s fair to say that many people associate business functions like marketing, product development, and information technology with change and innovation – but not human resources.

As the term “thought leadership” is business jargon, formal definitions vary. However, in sum, thought leaders leverage their knowledge and influence to shape others’ thinking. In this way, they can have tremendous impact on people, organizations, and even society, including inspiring innovation and championing change.

This article explores why human resource professionals tend not to be perceived as thought leaders, and how they can be.


Why Are Human Resource Professionals Not Perceived to Be Thought Leaders?

Frankly, HR people are not perceived to be thought leaders because they are expected to support and follow more than to think and lead.

Similar to how the purchasing department is responsible for obtaining raw materials to make products, the HR function arose during the industrial revolution to support business’s need for workers – helping to find and retain personnel. As a result, the present-day perception of HR is that it provides employee support functions like recruitment and benefits. And people who are expected to be supportive are not supposed to think differently or suggest a new direction. Rather, they are presumed to align with the direction set by organizational leadership.

By working within the assumption that HR is only a support function, human resource professionals inhibit their capacity to be thought leaders. Instead of acting on opportunities to challenge the status quo, they end-up working to maintain it, fueling stereotypes such as the “thought police”.


How Can Human Resource Professionals Be Thought Leaders?

So, what can HR professionals do to be thought leaders, especially in organizations where HR is expected to only provide support? Here are a few recommendations:


Take a Catalytic Approach: A “catalytic” approach can be a way for HR professionals to begin to add value as a thought leader. Generally speaking, a catalyst is something added to an existing process to make it more effective.

By providing ideas about how to improve or build upon existing ways of doing things, HR professionals can add value as thought leaders while still operating in a support capacity. Within HR’s conventional span of responsibility, examples include offering ideas about how to reduce hiring costs, make recruiting efforts more effective, etc.

However, HR professionals can also take a catalytic approach to providing thought leadership to business functions outside of the HR department by applying their skill-sets more generally (where they fit). Even in instances where they’re not experts in the “what”, there is often opportunity for them to improve the “how”. For example, given HR professionals’ strong people-skills (e.g., communication, facilitation), they’re equipped to provide ideas about how to make company meetings more effective throughout the organization, even if they’re not expert in what the meeting is about (e.g., by offering tips about how to foster participation, promote collaboration, etc.).

As HR professionals demonstrate that they can add value to existing processes, both within and beyond the HR department, the perception of them as thought leaders is likely to strengthen.

Develop a Thought Leadership Mindset: Thought leaders often question, challenge, or disagree with commonly held beliefs, whereas HR professionals are more inclined to support, comply, and align. Thus, developing a “questioning attitude” is a way to cultivate a thought leadership mindset.

Asking questions that lead others to think differently is crucial. Rather than coming across as critical or skeptical, a questioning attitude for effective thought leadership should be delivered with a tone of curiosity, helpfulness, or exploration of possibilities. Three examples are: questioning problems, questioning assumptions, and asking “what if” questions.

Clinical psychologists know that a patient’s presenting problem is often a symptom rather than the root cause of the problem. In contrast, many organizations become caught-up in trying to solve surface-level problems (symptoms) rather than identifying and resolving underlying issues – and those issues often involve people/employees. Given HR professionals’ expertise in people, they are positioned well to ask questions that unearth root causes and get organizations focused on underlying issues.

Similarly, HR professionals are positioned well to question assumptions. Working across functions while not being expert in those other business functions allows HR professionals to perceive issues with fresh eyes, or without the constraints of commonly accepted ways of thinking within those functions. For example, in a tone of curiosity, HR professionals can question if longstanding ways of doing things are still the best way, whereas the people who have always done things that way may assume it’s best because, well, they’ve always done it that way.

And it’s easy to understand how “what if” questions are integral to a thought leadership mindset – they invite others to think differently by considering possibilities. For example, HR professionals can ask the questions in ways that facilitate brainstorming, unconstrained thinking, or creative problem-solving (e.g., “what if budget wasn’t a constraint – what would we do differently?”).

Hone Influencing Skills: When problem-solving in organizations, having the “right answer” is only half the battle – the other half is getting others to buy-in or accept the answer. As mentioned previously, being an effective thought leader entails shaping others’ thinking and perspectives. Thus, for HR professionals looking to be thought leaders, strong influencing skills are essential.

While the art of influencing others is complex, and many books have been written about it, there are core elements that HR professionals can focus their efforts on strengthening. According to the Greek philosopher Aristotle, those elements are ethos, pathos, and logos, or the character, emotion, and logic aspects of an influencer and their message. For example, people are more likely to be influenced by a person who they perceive as expert (character), with a message that inspires them (emotion) and makes sense (logic).

HR professionals can become more effective thought leaders by mastering the mix of character, emotion, and logic when conveying their ideas and perspectives. For example, some audiences may be persuaded more by emotional arguments (e.g., employees will suffer if…), whereas logic may appeal more to other audiences (e.g., the numbers show that the cost is more than the company can afford…), etc. Monitoring audience reactions and adjusting emphasis on character, emotion, and logic accordingly is crucial for influential thought leadership.


In sum, there is ample opportunity for HR professionals to be thought leaders, and their ideas and perspectives can certainly benefit organizations. However, stereotypes of HR being “only a support function” can get in the way. Nevertheless, there are ways HR professionals can contribute as thought leaders.

About the Author

Gary Dumais, Psy.D., SPHR is a Business Psychologist & Human Resource Consultant at Select Human Resources. Specializing in people-assessment, he profiles people for jobs, protects companies from bad hiring decisions, and provides executive coaching. He has over 20 years of experience working with top-tier HR firms and companies. Gary has a doctoral degree in Clinical Psychology, bachelor degrees in Psychology and Health & Human Services, and is a thought leader content contributor to Philadelphia SHRM.

Editor: Dennis Paris