HR, How Did You Get So Influential? The Evolution of a Profession

BY Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | May 16, 2023

Long before the notion that you could love your work, the HR profession was founded on the fact that work could be harmful to your health. In many ways, the profession's growing focus on well-being is not a touchy-feely detour, but a natural outgrowth from its roots–maybe even a nod to its origins.

“The birth of human resources today came out of the concerns for individuals, starting off with their actual physical concerns,” says Barbara Holland, HR knowledge advisor at the Society for Human Resource Management (SHRM). “It’s moved well beyond that at this point.” 

Born on the dangerous shop floors of the Industrial Revolution, human resources has been gathering responsibilities, but not losing any, for 100 years. Where it once was charged with the physical safety of workers, HR’s list of responsibilities now includes employees’ mental, financial, and social well-being, and it’s contending with AI and all its practical, ethical, and regulatory implications.

The HR department of 2023 takes on more workload and influence than ever before, and many practitioners are shifting to strategic roles and automating tasks that were once the purview of the “personnel department” of 50 years ago, like benefits enrollment, tax documentation, and fielding FAQs. They’re freeing up time to focus on the more creative elements of the job, like developing leaders, creating equitable work environments, and bolstering employee well-being.

How did HR get here, and where is it going? From Day One spoke with HR scholars and specialists to provide perspective about how the last three years of disruption fit into the longer game.

In the 20th century, HR went through a tremendous amount of existential change–it evolved from protector of safety to negotiator to compliance officer to paper pusher to strategic business partner–and as of the 21st century, it has come full circle. In many instances, HR has again assumed its role of employee advocate. Now, the profession is tapping into policymaking, giving employees a seat at the table and a say in their working conditions.

The Modern Origins of HR: The Safety and Well-being of the Worker

The modern practice of human resources originated in the late 19th and early 20th centuries in response to the dangerous working conditions of the Industrial Revolution. “As there were factories and more workers working in one place, that’s really where the whole idea of a personnel department started,” said Kristie Loescher, who teaches HR and management at the McCombs School of Business at the University of Texas at Austin.

Not only were the physical working conditions dangerous, “the emotional and psychological hazards of working consistently in these conditions were immense as well. Long hours, limited sustenance, and impersonal treatment contributed to an already stressful work environment,” wrote the academics Robert Lloyd and Wayne Aho in their paper, “The History of Human Resources in the United States: A Primer on Modern Practice.”  

Miserable conditions led to the proliferations of labor unions and their calls for workplace reforms. For instance, following the infamous Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in 1911, in which 146 workers were killed as a result of locked doors and inadequate escape routes, both the city and the state of New York passed dozens of workplace safety laws in response to pressure from newly formed unions, community organizers, and the general public.

Labor unions gave workers a say in their working conditions, and the National Labor Relations Act of 1935 compelled employers to give them a seat at the table. Now that there was a need for someone to negotiate with the unions, the discipline of “industrial relations” was born. 

HR Becomes a Compliance Officer

By mid-century, among HR’s chief concerns was compliance with regulation. Following the passage of laws that protect employees from discrimination in the workplace–including the Equal Pay Act of 1963, the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which established the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission, and the Age Discrimination in Employment Act in 1967–installed a department designed to keep the company from getting sued. Its stance was a defensive one, said Holland.

Under the new name “personnel,” what would become the modern HR department was steeped in the bureaucracy of mitigating legal risk and all the record-keeping it requires. Exchanges between HR and the workforce were minimal and transactional.

Andrea Osborne, who has more than three decades of experience in HR and is currently the VP of people for the product team at the software company Genesys, describes the mentality of the HR department of that time like this: “Here’s your badge, here’s your documentation, here’s your tax paperwork. Bye! I’ll see you on your way out the door.” 

HR Becomes a Business Partner

The globalization of business spurred the changes that produced the influential HR department of today. Companies turned their attention to the strategic capabilities of the HR department when, in the 1970s and 1980s, it became increasingly clear the U.S. was now competing in a global economy. 

In a paper on the international perspective of HR, Randall Schuler and Susan Jackson, both scholars of HR, wrote that “during that period, the focus of business shifted from domestic to multinational to global; the speed at which business was conducted increased; organizations recognized that labor costs and productivity must be address from a world-wide perspective; and many companies realized that competitive advantage could be seized and sustained through the wise utilization of human resources.” 

SHRM’s Holland began her HR career in the mid 1980s, driven to improve the cool and distant personnel department she encountered in the past. Holland saw transformation beginning to take place. “We were looking to make a difference,” she said. “I came in right on the cusp of the old still hanging on with some organizations, but newer organizations really embracing that HR was more than just a police department and signing people up with their paperwork and then walking around making sure nobody was breaking the rules.”

HR operations itself benefited from globalization, according to Holland. “You had influences from other cultures and how people management was handled based on wherever their headquarters was.”

Decades ago, the PR department was known for paper-pushing and complicance (Photo by iStock/Getty Images)

At the same time, the U.S. transformed from a manufacturing economy to a “knowledge” economy. Where we once made products, we now made services, and that required a new approach to employer-employee relations. “If I have analysis work to do, and customer service work to do, and work that requires more autonomy on the part of the worker, all of a sudden I have to treat that worker very differently. As jobs changed, the way we treated employees had to change,” said UT-Austin’s Loescher. “This whole new area of HR was added in the ’80s and ’90s about employee engagement and development–that if we invest in our employees and give them working environments that are satisfying and then help them develop and learn and grow, they’ll not only be ready for today’s challenges in our business, but they’ll be ready for tomorrow's challenges.”

James Bailey, who teaches leadership development at the George Washington University School of Business, noted the influence of social science research in the 20th century, which asserts that people, not factories and machinery and financial assets, determine future business success. “It’s culture, it’s selection, it’s finding the right people, it’s properly motivating them to do their work better,” Bailey said. “Why you can have two firms of equivalent assets and one far outperforms the other is because of the people factor.”

Though labor unions declined in popularity by the 1980s, Thomas Kochan and Robert McKersie noted in their 1989 paper “Future Directions for American Labor and Human Resources Policy,” the “rising expectations of workers for increased influence over their immediate work environment and long-term careers.” Following a period of bureaucracy that kept distance between employer and employee, the HR department now had to operate with employer and employee best interests in mind.

As companies had to compete in a global economy that could access to talent all over the world, business strategies were adapted to include skills development and employee engagement. According to Loescher, “the profession was changing from one of mere rule implementation and screening of applicants to one where it included connection to the business strategy as well as a connection to the analysis and design of jobs that not only would meet the strategic need of the company, but would be motivating for people to do,” said Loescher.

The “personnel” department became “human resources,” and in university classrooms, moved from industrial relations to business schools, said Bailey. HR was officially a business asset. 

Human Resources Becomes the People Department

HR practitioners today will have noticed another change to the department’s name. Just as the change from “personnel” to “human resources” marked a change in the existential purpose of the department, the more recent shift to “people operations” reflects the further expansion of the function in business.

“Currently, even the term ‘human resources’ does not seem to convey the importance of human capital as we’ve moved more into a ‘knowledge’ economy, in which human thought, creativity, and innovation are critical to the success of new economy businesses,” said Sherry Moss, the associate dean of MBA programs at the Wake Forest University School of Business.

In corporate America, the new term is “people operations,” in academia, it’s all about “human capital management,” marking “yet another step symbolic of ‘We are part of the capital that makes this organization function and we want a seat at the table,’” said GWU’s Bailey. 

Automation of repetitive tasks, or ones that are at least more easily handled by software and AI, frees practitioners to focus on the strategy of developing talent and better workplaces. As mundane functions are automated, “it will leave more opportunities for the HR business partners to have more human interactions,” said Amy Freshman, senior director of global HR at the HR software company ADP. “Automation will certainly help remove the repeatable mundane tasks. At the same time, what is being asked of HR is changing. In many ways it’s growing, which just adds more to the plate.”

As the department gets more involved with the human elements of business, its reputation among employees is changing dramatically. Kam Hutchinson, a global director of talent acquisition who has spent more than a decade working in HR, said workers are more open to interacting with HR than they were in the past. “There’s more of an openness to reaching out to HR for support and seeing them as an advocate for you and not necessarily for the company,” she said. 

The HR Department of the Future is Proactive

So, what comes next? As HR cements itself as a key player in business success, where is there to go? 

HR is no longer just a responsive organization. Its latest goal is anticipation, prediction. For instance, contributing to the excitement around the new discipline of “people analytics” is its potential for predicting things like employee engagement or employee attrition. 

And the leaders in the department aren’t just thinking about what goes on inside a company, they’re considering the outside influences as well. When Jackson and Schuler wrote their article in 2005, they noted HR’s growing responsibility to monitor the external environment. As people operations is called upon to respond to national crises, social unrest, and mental health needs, that responsibility is even greater today.

Holland believes the next HR frontier is public policy. In the last handful of years, SHRM has become involved in influencing lawmakers. Its Government Affairs team has advocated in Washington for policies like paid leave, removing barriers to employment for immigrants, and employer-sponsored education assistance.

“Where before we were a reactionary industry or occupation to what’s happening in employment law and things like that, now we’re inserting ourselves to try to actually influence that before the law is made,” said Holland. “HR is trying to actually influence change before it hits us.”

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance reporter and From Day One contributing editor who writes about the future of work, HR, recruiting, DEI, and women's experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, Fast Company, Quartz at Work, Digiday’s Worklife, and Food Technology, among others.

(Featured photo by Violeta Stoimenova/iStock by Getty Images)


What Business Leaders Can Do to Improve DEI Efforts in the Face of Backlash

Can corporate America restore its momentum on diversity, equity, and inclusion? DEI initiatives became a must-have for business organizations in 2020, after the killing of George Floyd in May of that year sparked a new wave of civil-rights protest and discourse. That cultural conversation focused partly on workplace discrimination against Blacks and other marginalized people, and it led to countless leaders—some from the biggest groups in corporate America—stepping up with DEI plans to help close disparities in opportunities. For a time, it seemed like those executives were delivering. According to Glassdoor data, DEI job openings grew 55% within a few weeks after the Floyd tragedy. Spending in the category surged, too. A November 2021 report from a top market research company said DEI funding was projected to reach $15.4 billion, more than double the amount it was in May 2020, by the year 2026.While many leaders maintained the DEI programs they enacted within the past few years, a backlash against DEI quickly arrived. A survey of more than 800 HR professionals in various industries, conducted around six months after George Floyd’s death, found that about 80% of companies are “going through the motions” with DEI programming and not holding themselves accountable. Glassdoor research later revealed DEI programming growth stalled in 2022, and CNBC reported last January that, to some in underserved groups, many efforts geared toward tangible change have felt inauthentic. One source for the piece said the DEI programs they’ve interacted with feel more like “branding strategies.” The turning tide against DEI picked up speed in June when the Supreme Court struck down affirmative action in higher education, a decision that many speculate will have an adverse effect on DEI efforts across industry. The New York Times reported that experts believe “the ruling will discourage corporations from putting in place ambitious diversity policies in hiring and promotion—or prompt them to rein in existing policies—by encouraging lawsuits under the existing legal standard.”The same issues in place before 2020 persist for Black workers at the office. Gallup polling indicates that employees of color still report discrimination—and those who do also have a burnout rate that’s twice as high as workers who are not discriminated against. DEI strategist Amri B. Johnson (author photo)However, the high court decision and the failings of some organizations does not have to inspire total pessimism for those who are committed to furthering DEI’s progress. DEI strategist Amri B. Johnson, author of Reconstructing Inclusion: Making DEI Accessible, Actionable, and Sustainable, says this is an opportunity for the true advocates in the space to stand up. “We focus a lot on symptoms and we don’t focus enough on systems,” Johnson told From Day One. “Now we need to start building the systems” that will lead to improved, tangible DEI outcomes. He adds that the Supreme Court decision and the pressures that it may put on companies to forego DEI investments could very well be used as an “excuse” to do just that. Eventually, though, “if a company uses that as an excuse not to be mindful, to cast [their] net wide and find people from different backgrounds to bring that insight, and create attention to [their] organization because people see things differently [due to] their embodied experiences, then they should stop” their DEI programs. “If they want to miss out on talent, let them do it,” he says. For those truly well-intentioned corporate leaders and people managers who want to carry on their DEI initiatives—not only because it’s the right thing to do, but also because it gives their businesses a well-chronicled leg up on the competition—here are some tips on how to ensure such programming can thrive, even in the face of DEI fatigue, and not come off like PR campaigns.Add a “B” to “DEI,” for “Belonging”Throwing money at the situation and writing declarative press releases is not going to solve problems like the ones that DEI programs are designed to address. Real people are affected by the culture that historically exclusionary business institutions have wrought, so it’s going to take person-to-person care and attention to disrupt the presence of outdated workplace management approaches.Johnson says leaders must do “the little things” around the office—real or virtual—to ensure that workers feel a sense of belonging. “Thoughtful gestures can show someone that they are seen and welcomed in the group,” says Johnson. “Instead of sharing a funny story with just your closest coworker, invite the person within earshot into the conversation. When religious or cultural holidays roll around, don’t hesitate to say, ‘Ramadan Mubarak,’ ‘Happy Easter’ or ‘Happy Hanukkah’ to those who observe. The only kind of inclusion system that truly perpetuates belonging is one that centers on humanity, creating conditions for all people to thrive across their differences and similarities.”Creating such a culture where behaviors like that are the norm may take a change in approach and mindset on the part of the leaders tasked with cultivating one. Julie Fink, VP of HR at the University of Phoenix, suggests that organizations think of “DEI” as “DEIB,” where the “B” represents “Belonging.”“Belonging is how employees feel about their company, their boss, their leadership, their peers, whether their organization cares for them as individuals,” says Fink. “If employees feel they belong, they feel safe and more connected to the work and the organization.”To help inspire this sense of security and connection, Fink says leaders should talk and listen to employees with a focus on “not only what they say, but what they don’t say in this area.” Ask: “Do they feel comfortable and safe to speak up in areas that can be improved, or bring forth suggestions or recommendations?”When employees feel a sense of belonging at a job, as Harvard Business Review reported in 2019, they perform better, at a rate of 56%. They also take 75% fewer sick days and are 50% more likely to stay at their job, research showed.Take a Skills-Based Approach to HiringLimiting recruitment hunts to individuals with gobs of experience and college degrees from top-level colleges is exactly how companies have stayed in a rut in which the same types of people are granted opportunities to achieve and advance. But considering skills required for a given position and just the general type of person who might be a great fit for your organization will render such histories of privilege irrelevant.Amanda Hahn, chief marketing officer at HireVue, a talent recruitment and hiring platform, says a growing number of employers are “exploring alternatives to their traditional hiring habits,” with a mind toward better DEI outcomes. HireVue recently published a report covering global trends in hiring, which included surveys of more than 4,000 talent leaders and found that nearly half (48%) are adopting a skills-first approach to talent acquisition, “forgoing educational and past work experience unless they’re actually relevant to the job at hand,” Hahn said. “In doing so, they’re widening their overall talent pool, increasing the number of qualified candidates they attract and charting advancement paths for employees based on less-biased or fairer, objective data.”And once interviews start—or maybe even earlier than that—prioritize the character of the candidates. Hiring teams should think about the culture of their organization and what kind of personality traits they’d like to find in the people they bring on board.“When you hire someone, you hire the entire person, not just their output,” said Fink. “You cannot think that a person is just an employee, and worse yet, a commodity producing widgets. Every person is an individual and made up of a variety of elements and you need to ensure your policies, and more importantly your actual practices, speak to this.”Amanda Hahn, chief marketing officer at HireVue Advises Johnson, the author and DEI strategist: “Make sure you have designed your talent attraction and candidate experience to attract talent from and across a broad spectrum of identities and lived experiences. And, don’t stop there. Once you attract a diverse group of committed people, create paths for growth, development, and thriving to keep them. If you are unsure of how to do so, ask them.”Hahn notes that greater integrations of technology can also help organizations expand the candidate pools each of them are accessing, while also providing hiring teams with greater insights into the types of individuals they might soon hire.“There’s a misconception that technology is replacing human roles. Instead, it’s fulfilling mindless work, boosting employee productivity and allowing talent teams to focus on the most impactful parts of their job,” says Hahn. “Our report found that in the past year alone, two in three talent teams have implemented video or virtual interviews to boost hiring productivity. When asked what benefits talent teams saw from these changes in interviewing, respondents reported time savings, greater flexibility and a bigger pool of diverse talent.”Don’t Base DEI Success Strictly on NumbersThe true impact of DEI can’t ever be completely quantified on a spreadsheet or in a PowerPoint. Sure, there’s the aforementioned impact a greater sense of belonging can have on the bottom line and other data on DEI return on investment, but measuring a culture—an atmosphere about the workplace—and levels of individual contentment is impossible. DEI should ultimately be done because it’s good for people and their copmanies. “There are several areas where employers can make mistakes when beefing up their DEI programming,” says Fink. “The first is to think that DEI is just about the numbers and the typical race/ethnicity categories. Second is to tie bonuses or incentives to DEI metrics. This can drive compliance rather than commitment and possibly not the best decision for the business. We need to make the expected behavior clear, then reward or showcase that behavior. Set the example and shout it from the rooftops.”Johnson says that limiting DEI focus to “single identities” is actually counterproductive to its mission. “Yes, it is very important to make the workplace welcoming for groups that historically have been pushed to the fringes—people of color, LGBTQIA+, the disabled, older employees, women,” said Johnson. “But true inclusion includes everyone, even those with longstanding power and privilege.”Which is why people leaders should…Avoid Playing the Blame GameWhile changes to workplace culture and people management to enhance DEI of underserved people are needed, don’s create new discrimination in the process. Furthermore, excluding members of an employee base that may have benefitted from now-outdated systems does not align with the values associated with DEI initiatives in the first place.“Be sure you are not making your DEI efforts feel divisive or punitive,” said Johnson. “Everyone in the organization needs to feel welcome to join in the discussion, but no one should feel singled out. Pointing fingers only perpetuates division. We need collective accountability without attempts to determine who is right.”Accept Realities and Normalize Social TensionsPracticing mindfulness and acknowledging grounded truths about the state of things might be the most crucial step of all if people leaders want their DEI programs to achieve desired outcomes while fostering a real sense of belonging for all members of an employee base. Thinking any initiative will be rolled out perfectly and solve all a company’s ills is a sure route to failure, DEI experts assert.Johnson says DEI work will not remove social tensions—nor should it. Conversations that are open and honest will need to continue, and if they do, people will be bound to disagree or not reside on the same page with their colleagues. He adds that “tension is necessary” and not a bad thing in and of itself. “The danger comes when you don’t know how to navigate the tensions and complexities that come from those differences,” he said. One way organizations can ameliorate tension around the subject of DEI is to actually calm expectations around the adoption of what Johnson calls “complicated jargon” that is inaccessible for many. Terms like “heteronormative,” “transphobia,” “BIPOC” and “unearned privilege” can be difficult for workers to understand and “may even raise employees’ defenses,” Johnson said.“If you are speaking about DEI-related concepts and a term is introduced, explain the term, and make sense of it with the person or people you are engaged with,” he advised. “If you read a word that you are unfamiliar with, look it up, ask someone more familiar, and learn to explain it in a manner that is clear for you.”Allowing people to be themselves, which includes displays of not only their strengths but also their blind spots, is the ultimate goal of DEI. Accept where voids in understanding lie, fill them up and move on—one step closer to greater harmony.Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor. You can read more of his work at, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.(Feature photo-illustration by Vadym Pastukh/iStock by Getty Images)

Michael Stahl | November 30, 2023

Fire in the Belly: How to Find Hidden Potential in the Workforce

“Our systems for judging qualifications are flawed,” organizational psychologist Adam Grant declares in his new book, Hidden Potential: The Science of Achieving Greater Things. “In schools and workplaces, selection systems are usually designed to detect excellence. That means people who are on their way to excellence rarely make the cut.”The good news: This is changing, and shifts in the way companies recruit and hire indicate corporate America is starting to look for people who are excellence-bound, rather than already credentialed. Until recently, insistence that candidates have a four-year degree has confined the way we think about what people are capable of. But out of necessity in a tight labor market, companies ranging from IBM to Google have reconsidered or dropped that basic requirement. As Grant puts it: “You can’t tell where people will land from where they begin. With the right opportunity and motivation to learn, anyone can build the skills to achieve greater things,” he asserts, citing research on the relationship between initial aptitude and later outcomes.“We’re seeing a lot of employers moving more and more into the skills-based movement, thinking about developing talent with a set of skills that have indications they can be successful on the job,” said Elyse Rosenblum, the managing director and founder of Grads of Life, an organization that works with employers to promote skills-based hiring.Elyse Rosenblum, the founder of Grads of Life, which works with employers to promote skills-based hiring. (Courtesy photo)Skills-based hiring, the practice of prioritizing skills and capabilities over educational background and jobs held, represents a new enthusiasm for worker potential. In that spirit, companies are making new investments in workforce development. “This is a really exciting trend that we’re seeing,” Rosenblum told From Day One, citing the kind of investments made by Delta Air Lines, which launched its apprentice program in 2022, and JPMorgan Chase, which announced this week it will commit $3.5 million to apprenticeship programs in the financial and tech sectors. Apprenticeships are often considered more risky for employers because they don’t guarantee returns right away but are long-term investments in capable professionals. “They’re looking for people with potential,” Rosenblum said.Seeking a New Set of StandardsA growing number of companies have removed degree requirements for many jobs, but as I’ve reported, many employers still haven’t entirely worked out how to recruit without one. Some continue to favor applicants (and employees) who have degrees over those who don’t; some remove the degree requirement but replace it with arbitrary proxies; others limit the upward mobility (and therefore pay) of people without a bachelor’s by relegating them entry-level roles and internships because they assume these workers lack potential.“It’s a mistake to judge people solely by the heights they’ve reached,” Grant writes. “By favoring applicants who have already excelled, selection systems underestimate and overlook candidates who are capable of greater things. When we confuse past performance with future potential, we miss out on people whose achievements have involved overcoming major obstacles.”Predicting potential by past achievements is a terrible mistake, Grant argues. “In a meta-analysis of 44 studies with over 11,000 people across a wide range of jobs, prior work experience had virtually no bearing on performance,” he writes. “Even if a candidate’s past performance is relevant to the current role, this metric is designed to detect polished diamonds, not uncut gems.”Early reports on skills-based hiring policies are promising. According to a report by workforce development organization OneTen, 77% of hiring managers who apply a skills-first approach find it twice as easy to identify qualified candidates as managers who don’t. Hiring managers also reported that skills-first made it easier to grow their talent pools with qualified and motivated talent.How Better to Predict Success?So, how can employers identify those uncut gems–the workers whose potential is greater than their present achievements?Track trajectories, says Grant. The change in performance over time is more indicative of capabilities than is recent or average performance. Rather than evaluating a student’s overall grade-point average, for example, consider their performance for the duration of their schooling. Low grades across the board in freshman year can weigh down a GPA, but when that same student logs all As by graduation, that indicates promise.Similarly, reward workers’ performance over time rather than investing only in those who ace their first performance reviews. As Grant writes, “the most meaningful form of performance is progress.”In an organization of tens of thousands, tracking the trajectories of individual employees is now made possible by HR tech tools that monitor employee progress, skills developed over time, and even match capabilities with jobs.Give people the opportunity to put their skills in context, says Grant, who cites the example of astronaut José Hernandez. He applied to NASA 12 times before he was accepted. At the time, NASA’s selection process was not designed to find potential, it was designed to award achievement. There was no system to learn that Hernandez grew up in a family of migrant workers and would miss months of school as his family traveled, or that Hernadez was not fluent in English until he was 12.Instead, the application asked for education, work experience, special skills, and awards. “The form did not ask for unconventional skills like picking grapes,” Grant writes. “It didn’t signal that a command for the English language would qualify as an honor. The awards section wasn’t a place to mention passing physics while working in the fields. The system wasn’t designed to identify and weigh adversity candidates had overcome.”See How Far They've ComeInstead of achievements, Grant argues that distance traveled is a better measure of potential. There exists a unique brand of motivation and grit required to travel as far as Hernandez did. Mona Mourshed, the founding CEO at nonprofit advocacy group Generation, calls this intrinsics. “As an employer, you’re asking, Does this person have the intrinsics to grow quickly in my company?”What you’re getting at, Mourshed told From Day One, is the energy of that candidate, their hunger to learn, their willingness to take what you give them and run with it. “They’re looking for the fire in the belly of this person,” she said.That fire in the belly is what Mourshed wants to see–or rather, feel–from a candidate. The humorist David Sedaris has noted the same about aspiring writers: “You meet people like that, and it’s like opening the door of an oven.”Looking for Fire in the BellyMourshed’s organization has an exercise designed to look for potential in candidates for its workforce-training programs. When a learner identifies the role they want to aim for, Generation tells them to go find three people who have that job and find out what’s great about it, and what’s not so great, then report back.Learners get a week to do this. In addition to pressing them to learn more about their potential career, “you’re also testing their ability to plan and to check their progress against that plan, in addition to the depth of the questions that they have and the quality of what they write.”How do you read a resume for that potential? “You don’t,” says Mourshed. You have to meet that person. “The only way you know is that when you are engaging in a conversation, it’s really clear when someone’s got that spark. They are asking questions as much as they are answering questions. They are bringing an energy to the conversation about what they want to do and what they want to learn if they’re given this opportunity.”In many cases, those people with fire in their belly won’t have any work experience or education in the career they’re aiming for. But they will have the drive to get there and the character to persevere.“In a world obsessed with innate talent, we assume that people with the most promise are the ones that stand out right away,” Grant writes. “But high achievers vary dramatically in their initial aptitudes. If we judge people only by what they can do on day one, their potential remains hidden.”Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza is a freelance journalist and From Day One contributing editor who writes about work, the job market, and women’s experiences in the workplace. Her work has appeared in the BBC, The Washington Post, Quartz at Work, Fast Company, and Digiday’s Worklife.

Emily McCrary-Ruiz-Esparza | November 15, 2023

How to Lead With Positive Thinking, Even in Times Like These

At a time when it can seem like everything’s going wrong at once in the world, it can be challenging or even dysfunctional to search for reasons to be cheerful. Pressuring yourself and others to remain upbeat in the face of what would reasonably upset anyone has even earned its own buzzword: toxic positivity. During the pandemic, studies, articles and books emerged denigrating it. Indeed, suppressing unpleasant feelings of sadness, anger or fear with a cloak of conjured-up happy thoughts can only make things worse.On the other hand, negativity can be exhausting. In the workplace, the show must go on despite disruptions in the business and the world. This is when people leaders need to tap their EQ. Reframing a daunting situation in an authentic, mindful way will not only improve a leader’s personal state of being, it will also help them improve well-being and productivity in the people they manage. How to do it? Turns out there’s abundant science for that. Michael E. Frisina, Ph.D., founder and CEO of the Frisina Group, a coaching consortium specializing in performance enhancement as well as organizational development, asserts that a state of healthy positivity can be achieved by thinking with our “upper brain,” or the prefrontal cortex, which sits behind the forehead. “This is where your innovation is, this is where stress management is,” said Frisina, who co-authored Leading With Your Upper Brain: How to Create the Behaviors That Unlock Performance Excellence.A 2021 study published by the National Library of Medicine, inspired by the impact the pandemic was having on global enterprise, found that positive leadership promotes employee engagement. “The more difficult the situation is, the more leaders need to demonstrate positivity,” the study’s authors wrote. They suggested managers be trained in positive leadership approaches, which “can provide additional return on investment by improving employees’ positive emotional experience.” These training programs, the authors wrote, should guide managers in implementing positive leadership, including “such aspects as creating a positive-emotion-oriented team atmosphere, promoting positive relationships among employees, [and] developing positive communication among employees.”Upstairs, Downstairs in Your Brain In everyone’s brain, said Frisina in an interview with From Day One, “resides the capacity to choose one direction over the other.” Upper-brain thinking is characterized by planning, expression, and moderating social behavior. Lower-brain thinking, characterized by fear, loss and doubt, is experienced in the brain’s limbic system, residing beyond the prefrontal cortex.“This part of the brain–the lower brain–is built for survival,” Frisina writes in his book, which he co-authored with his brother Robert. The lower brain helps human beings manage fear in response to external threats, producing reactions of various kinds, including mental (e.g., confusion), emotional (anger) and physical (fight, flight or freeze). “When your team members spend their productive efforts surviving at work rather than thriving at work, performance suffers.”  While lower brain thinking serves a function that is useful in particular times and places, Frisina says actively engaging in upper-brain thinking on a longer-term basis is better for mental and emotional fitness, which will in turn improve performance. Leaders can do this and set a good example for workers, but they can also intentionally train their employees in upper-brain thinking as well, making it “contagious,” as an article in Harvard Business Review suggested last year.How Managers Can Inspire Productive Thinking on a TeamTo retain upper-brain thinking while acting as a manager, Frisina suggests that leaders start and end every meeting with what’s going well, set clear expectations and reasonable deadlines, and communicate priorities. They can also “reframe a stressful project” by asking workers to identify the pain points. Once that has been established, the leaders should ask: “Is what you are thinking about in your control or out of your control?” The effect of the follow-up question is a shift away from “skeptical, confusing, fear-provoking ‘what if’ thinking,” Frisina said, and into “productive, energized thinking.” Instead of focusing on “the negative outcome they want to avoid,” team members can focus on the “positive outcome they will create.”Frisina also suggests that, when employees ask questions, leaders should lead them to answers by describing the desired outcome and asking questions of their own that facilitate discovery. When people are successful, that needs to be celebrated, too, he says. “Get into a flow of recognizing wins and success stories, in conversations, at every meeting, as a part of every process improvement initiative,” said Frisina. “The more we emphasize what’s going well, the more likely people are to stay in their upper brain–and the more likely success is to be repeated.”A Case Study of Positivity in PracticeAndrew Wade, CEO of OrthoSC, an orthopedic clinic with six locations in South Carolina, says he became a devotee to Frisina’s approach after hiring him as a coach in 2020. “Upper-brain thinking” has spurred transformative change in his organization, he told From Day One.“The environment that we create really does have a physical, a very real physiological effect on people,” Wade said, referring to leaders in general. In a negative environment, “people will literally have higher blood pressure, they will experience more stress-related illness, [and they will have] a harder time in their marriage and their parenting relationships [and] in their community.”Andrew Wade, CEO of an orthopedic clinic with six locations in South CarolinaDuring the first few months of the pandemic, an unprecedentedly stressful time for healthcare workers, Wade began to prioritize positive thinking and bring it to the workplace. He recognized that, in his organization, leadership requires what he calls an “influential, relationship-driven” approach. If he was going to expect good customer service out of his employees, which requires that they be consistently pleasant, he had to set an example.“I do not have the authoritative leadership, if you will, to just be that CEO who issues a memo from on high and expects everything to just happen the way I set it,” said Wade. “Sometimes that lends itself to it being harder to get things done because you’re building consensus [and] you’re motivating [employees] to move–you’re not kicking them or shoving them forward.”Reshaping the company culture into one with more positivity had to begin with his own outlook and disposition. “If something sucks, it starts with the mirror,” he said. “If I’m not showing up at my best, then I’m not going to be able to help my team show up at their best and we’re not going to be able to  collectively function in unison to deliver our best for the people who are entrusting their care to us.”The Role of Empathy and ListeningIf leaders can stay in upper-brain mode, which Frisina further describes as “a state of positivity, openness, engagement and creativity,” he said, they’re less likely to frighten, stress out or even shut down employees. Whether you’re a worker or a manager, you might feel yourself dipping into lower-brain thinking, but there are ways to pull yourself out of it. When engaging with a coworker or client and things just aren’t clicking, Frisina suggests taking a walk in the other person’s shoes. Think: What is driving their behavior? What pressures do they face? What do they need to get from this partnership? How might they be perceiving you? It’s often OK to verbalize those types of questions.“Being inquisitive is powerful,” said Frisina. “Too often we go into situations thinking we already know the answer. But this kind of self-righteousness makes us rigid, which sets us up for conflict and failure. We should really approach conversations with a what-can-I-learn-from-you attitude. But also, asking questions opens minds, hearts, and doors. It shows people you care about them. They are far more likely to settle down, open up, and be more willing to cooperate and collaborate.”All of this starts with mindfulness, which Frisina writes in his book helps a person “regulate your own thoughts, function as the guardian of your team’s collective thinking, and increase your leadership effectiveness.” Foundationally, mindfulness is a strict focus on the present moment, or in the case of work, what you are thinking right now. “It is a technique of calming your mind, reducing stress, increasing focus, reducing distraction, avoiding multitasking, eliminating disruptive behaviors, and being mentally and physically present with people,” Frisina writes. Bringing oneself into a state of mindfulness can be accomplished by periodically taking brief pauses throughout the day “to slow your thinking,” Frisina suggests in his book. Mindful breathing exercises can help too. All of this, he writes, “will bring your thoughts under your direct and conscious control.”Making People Feel ValuedMindfulness, in fact, is what powers the positive-thinking approaches to people management that leadership coach April Sabral teaches in her book The Positive Effect: A Retail Leader’s Guide to Changing the World.  “You have to become very self-aware as a leader,” said Sabral, who has worked for such brands as Starbucks, Apple, and the Gap. “You have the lever to ignite those positive emotions in people.”Sabral says a key to being positive with people is through the radical acceptance of who they are, which helps bring a better understanding of how to manage them and insight into the entire kaleidoscope of their capabilities. “People will work with you, but they won’t work for you,” she said. “When I managed people, those who felt supported did the best job, they got the best results. It’s really about how you make people feel valued.”Achieving radical acceptance of others requires more listening than talking, which could be out of a manager’s comfort zone. “It sounds really basic, but do you know how many people don’t know how to listen?” Sabral said. “A top skill that leaders need to learn is how to ask questions.”These skills will be valuable when a leader or a worker enters into what Sabral calls “a negative spiral” of thinking, which will affect everyone around them. But there are ways out of it. She observes that it’s not possible to “stay positive, you have to be positive.” So one way to climb back into a positive state is to have a list of things that make you feel good, Sabral suggests. “It could be anything, something big or small. It could be walking around the block or listening to your favorite song,” Sabral said. “When you’re in a negative spiral and you’re recognizing that, do something that makes you feel good so you can get back to neutral and then recognize your negative thinking and start working on it.”Sabral has trained leaders in positive thinking at L’Oréal, Victoria’s Secret, Jimmy Choo, and other companies. Those she has coached have reported back to her saying their personal adoption of positive thinking has had a lasting impact, she said.“The No. 1 thing that happens to all those team leaders is they recognize that they take ownership of igniting positive emotions in their team,” Sabral said. “They’ve become way more aware of walking into situations with that assumption that people aren’t always going to be honest with them, so their job is to remove the friction, remove the title, and start to build that positive relationship with their team.”The Benefits for WorkersSouth Carolina entrepreneur Wade says Michael Frisina’s counseling of upper-brain thinking and the power of positivity has helped him get his workers–and himself–to perform like they’re “in their prime.” They’re in a better place mentally and emotionally, he says, which precisely aligns with the business’s mission of providing health care.“If we’re going be an organization that takes care of people, that means not just the customer, but the people who are working here in the organization that are just as important,” he said. “If I’m constantly sucking the life out of people by creating an environment that’s harsh and nasty and unkind, and people are constantly worried and scared and afraid to pick their heads up, they’re not going to be able to do their best work.”There’s nothing toxic about that, and after learning about positive thinking and seeing its benefits play out across the six locations of his company, Wade adds, reflectively: “It’s just one of those foundational things that seems like it should be so obvious, but it’s not.”Michael Stahl is a New York City-based freelance journalist, writer, and editor. You can read more of his work at, follow him on Twitter @MichaelRStahl, and order his first book, the autobiography of Major League Baseball pitcher Bartolo Colón, at Abrams Books.

Michael Stahl | October 19, 2023