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Diplomacy in Human Resources -- The politics of valued relationships

I recently viewed a panel presentation of HR leaders  discussing the essence of diplomacy in human resources.  Having worked in the diplomatic world before, I was struck by the commonalities and differences between work diplomacy and global diplomacy, but one essential,  shared aim emerged, and that was the development and continuance of sustainable, valued relationships.



It takes practice


Merriam Webster Dictionary informs us that diplomacy is “practicing the art and science of peaceful relationships between nations, groups, or individuals.” In the work world, that could translate into companies we work for or consult with on a daily basis; departments where we support managers and their operations; and employees with whom we engage and respond to their needs. I like to think of diplomacy in the work world as the influential intersectionality of all systems, processes, interactions, and data.


As HR practitioners we are not born with the insight on how to deal with and influence others—we all likely learned it on the job.  I recall a French-speaking ambassador approached me on my first diplomatic assignment and became loudly indignant at an embassy party that I could not converse with him in French even though we were based in a non-speaking, French country. Thank god for my boss who had witnessed the ambassador’s umbrage, and walked up to me, put his arm around me, and introduced me as a Washington D.C. liaison who could speak Spanish, Italian, English, and Arabic. He then asked the ambassador if he preferred, I could speak to him in any of the languages he mentioned (which my boss knew the ambassador could not speak), then graciously handed him off to a higher embassy official who knew French. I learned a great deal from that exchange, since the ambassador was pivotal to US relations at the time, and it was important not to aggravate him even if he himself aggravated others.  Pretty suave of my boss not to disrupt the political balance of the party. He made a great impression on me that day.


Those of us in HR walk a fine line.  We tend to all stakeholders in a company, which requires we have to balance the needs of everyone with what we can do in keeping companies compliant. We are constantly working in relationships, doing what we can to keep the peace, taking the time to nurture others, listen to all, observe, form and deliver solutions, work through opposing opinions, and sometimes, work with limited resources.


Some things I have learned from both worlds


It is never easy but here are some observations that have helped me maintain a quiet calm toward my work relationships:


  • Develop empathy towards one and all, while being emphatic of policies. There will always be someone who wants to bend the rules because they believe they are not held to the same standard as others, but understanding where they come from will help balance what approach you need to take.

  • Be patient and sort through the data and the facts. In an employee investigation, you generally have to have several rounds of questions before you can get to an actual truth. How you ask these open-ended questions will determine your success.

  • Maintain neutrality as much as possible. Data says one thing.  Behavior another. Get all sides.

  • Be as transparent as needed for each situation. As heads of HR, we know a lot of information which shouldn’t be shared with everyone, though there will be times when you will need discretion in what information or knowledge you need to share.

  • Be timely in responding to all stakeholders. Leaving them uncertain on where they stand  or not acknowledging  them at all can cause unnecessary anxiety, and appear punitive.

  • Communicate constantly with all stakeholders, positively and calmly. This requires you to be very mindful of your communication style and how it impacts others.  Some employees will be more sensitive and fearful when hearing from HR.

  • Be consistent in your actions and words. People observe your style and whether you regularly deal with everyone in the same way.  They will notice any deviations. Projecting the same positive demeanor regardless of the situation establishes reliability and  credibility, as well as  trust that you will do the right thing.

  • Spot the patterns that trend throughout your organization and people, and begin to focus on solving or realigning them. Be as mindful as those observing you.

  • Collaborate with executives and line managers and staff. Recognize that they may be your support peers in providing insight you may not have thought of. You truly cannot do a great job without any of them in your wheelhouse.

  • Give yourself enough time to look into a matter of importance. Most behaviors and issues manifest themselves over a period of time. Manage your schedule where you want to be at each phase to deliver solutions.

  • Realign if necessary. Use data and benchmarks to back up your suggestions and phase in certain projects. Nothing eliminates hard-pressed objections faster than numbers and data that show a downward spiral of an approach. Be calm but firm in getting the numbers to tell your story.

  • Be agile and flexible. As things change, you will need to be able to pivot from one thing to another in a short period of time. You can’t do that if you aren’t able to let go of a strong opinion that isn’t factual.

  • Learn how to troubleshoot and ask the questions needed, patiently, but firmly. You learn by listening and asking questions. Being discernible is a sign of a good manager since it requires constant interaction with others who may offer you the solution you seek.

  • Be mindful that two solutions always exist to a problem:  the one that comes to mind quickly, and the second that you have yet to discover. Give yourself and others the leeway to look into those.

  • Know that you will not be able to please everyone, so know that the road you’ve suggested is the one that is compliant, and the one you will feel most comfortable with. Don’t overpromise or under promise.  Leaders will know when you are not true to yourself.

  • Give yourself a break and downtime to avoid burnout. Your job can be stressful, and easily impact the way you speak to people and treat them.

  • Learn how to say “no” in twenty different firm, but respectful,  ways. It is guaranteed that as an HR professional, you will be engaging in conversations that will require finesse.  If you are uncomfortable in this role, this will be easily detected, and you will lose your effectiveness.  Not all “no’s” take on the same level of seriousness.

What I have learned  in the diplomatic and work worlds is that both gear us towards working for the common good in supporting operations that support the people who support the goals, and who ultimately support the level of success you can have. There is a hierarchy in both worlds, you can work with high performers and weak managers and employees, upskill employees, take the pulse of an organization--become thought leaders.


As solution providers, we diplomatically weave our way throughout departments to understand operations and people. We plan and forecast. Along the way, we establish a presence that allows us to ask the questions without judgment, and foster the ability to decide a course of action. We are mindful that we, ourselves, might need to go back to square one in order to develop a different point of view. We are our own work ambassadors and influencers, collaborators if you will, that enjoy being results driven, energizing, productive, with relationship wins most of the time.


I’ll take those politics anytime.




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