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Being a strategic HR professional:
What's the brain got to do with it?

[hhab-author] [hhab-social]

Being a strategic HR professional feels a bit like English football success, much sort but rarely achieved. It’s not like it’s impossible, more that it’s rare and hard to know what to do to achieve the illusive strategic contribution. As with any issue like this there are reams of article written about what to do and many courses you can attend. But we think there is a missing element. And that’s your brain!


At a recent event HR Business Partners said they spend less that 10% of their time on strategic matters and that in the main their partners in the business resisted their attempts to speak up on anything future focused. They also said they found it hard to have a conversation which was on anything other than day to day issues and solving current problems. Data can sometimes shift the conversation, but it was rare for this to happen regularly or for Business Partners to feel they were contributing to strategy rather than following it.

We believe sometimes being strategic is a matter of opportunity, sometimes it’s skill mostly it’s a matter of mindset and habit. Understanding how the brain gets into the habit of being tactical and how you coax it into being strategic provides insight which can help HR professionals shift and in so doing add greater value to the business.

Some brain basics to consider

There are a few things about the brain to keep in mind.

Much of what goes on in the brain is governed by our mammalian or limbic brain. These are older regions which operate out of conscious awareness for example the habit system.

The brain takes the path of least resistance – your habits will dominate what you do and how you think. Its is worth noticing what your habits are in terms of how you work with your business clients. Are you in the habit of thinking about strategy or tactics?

We have a distinct areas of the brain for thinking about ourselves and others – the medial prefrontal cortex often called the default network, as we default to this type of thinking whenever we are not thinking about analytical, strategy or task. This area is also responsible for helping us imagine the outcome of an action or to think about the future. Important abilities in being strategic.

There is not just one area governing how we think and make decisions. The brain uses a number of areas. We tend to use system one for habitual, tactical thinking, this is fast and intuitive but can lead us astray and means we tend to get the same outcome we have always got. The System 2 parts of the brain are slower but notice data, patterns and connections between information. It takes effort to bring this part of the brain into our decisions.

Because of our ‘lazy’ system 2 we tend to do more of what is easy. Thinking tactically is probably easier for most of us. It takes effort to think strategically.

Neuroplascity  means we can change what we habitually do and that includes our strategic thinking.

A story of two mindsets

So, lets consider two different HR professionals. As you read think about which one most closely describes you. It maybe you are clearly more like one than the other or that when things are tough you default to behaving like one of these people in the story.

Imagine two HR business partners, both new to their organisations. In many ways, their situation is similar.  Both have always been very successful, both have moved role to take the next step in their career.  The businesses they have joined are cynical about HR and leaders only really want to use the function for transactional matters.

The first HR  Business Partner, we will call him Joe, finds it hard to stay motivated when his expertise is not sort out.  He keeps noticing how few calls he gets from the business and how the calls are asking him to carry out a transaction.  He notices how many times his catch-up meetings are cancelled; and his suggestions ignored.  This makes him very fed up.  The more fed-up he becomes the more it impacts the way he interacts with the business.  He is either low energy and cynical assuming they wouldn’t listen to him or pushes too hard and encounters resistance.  He asks himself “Why is this happening?”

In contrast, the second HR Business Partner, we will call her Alice, views the situation this way. She works hard to build relationships with the business leaders.  She makes sure she exceeds their requests. She also goes out of her way to build an understanding of the business and the hot buttons of the leaders she interacts with. She never misses an opportunity to ask them their views on a business activity or what a competitor is doing. She sends articles and news clippings that might be of interest and gets briefings from Head Hunters and feeds interesting details back.  After a couple of months, she notices the business leaders are asking her opinion and beginning to involve her in their planning. She has also developed deep relationships and she had honed her skills during the difficult early stages of the role. She asks herself “What can I do to make this better?”

The mindset Alice brought to the role was to build her credibility whilst being sure of her over all purpose to be strategic business partner.

In terms of her tactics what we see is her moving through the model below. This is a model we use to help HR professionals assess where their relationship is with the business and to make steps to shift to the right.

We developed the model based on our own experience of how to gain credibility and be more strategic and valuable in the business. You may find it useful to assess where you are on the model and then to develop a plan to move further to the right. It’s also worth noting that whilst this model is particularly useful in a new relationship it can also be used to diagnose issues with clients.

Your brain on strategy

Lets go back to the brain. Research has shown that strategic thought draws on both intuition and intellectual ability. What’s more, science suggests that the best strategists can integrate their brain processes to draw on both. Some people call this integrating the low road – the System 1 fast, intuitive brain and the high road the System 2 slower analytical brain. This type of integration can be trained and is tremendously helpful in developing high-quality strategic thinkers.

Roderick Gilkey and Clinton KiltsGoizueta found that when measuring the brain activity (in a fMRI machine) of people solving strategy dilemmas there was interaction between the prefrontal cortex (sometimes called the executive brain) and other areas of the brain including the insula, the anterior cingulated cortex and the superior temporal sulcus. The executive brain enables us to recognise patterns, assess risk, think abstractly and plan. The second area is the one associated with ‘gut feel’ or intuition and thinking about  other people.

The research showed two interesting insights into the minds of strong strategic thinkers. First, it suggested that the best strategic thinkers considered how plans will impact others who must implement them – activity based firmly in the superior temporal sulcus and the medial prefrontal cortex. However, it also showed that, in the interaction between the two areas of the brain, the executive functions tended to be down played. In fact, the people who performed best at the strategic problems showed significantly less neural activation in the PFC than in the “intuitive” areas.

Becoming more strategic – the low road

If you want to change how you think you need to overcome habitual tactical thinking. The ‘low’ road uses our older brain networks and is motivated to make quick and easy decisions that satisfy our need to feel comfortable. Whilst intuition often integrates what we know unconsciously and brings it to conscious awareness along with new and interesting insights it also relies on what we are familiar with. There is nothing wrong with this type of thinking, but it can lead you astray if not checked analytically. It’s also hard to explain to a client why you are recommending a course of action if you can’t articulate your intuition with data or a rationale.

Neuroscientist estimate this type of thinking makes up something like 70% of the decisions we make. It feels comfortable and safe but it can also mean you do what you have always done; you rely on comfortable habits. If you want to be more strategic you have to overcome this habitual thinking and take a different path.

The high road

Engages the lateral prefrontal cortex and the default system (medial prefrontal cortex) to develop narratives about the future. For example, to imagine what the long-term benefits will be of a course of action or what will motivate the client. This way of thinking over rides automatic preferences and engages the problems solving and analytical thinking and decision systems as well as the ability to imagine the impact of different actions on people.

To activate this system, you need to have a strong sense of purpose, clear goals, persistence to overcome the discomfort of thinking differently and to be mindful of what you are trying to achieve. (There is evidence that a formal mindfulness practice helps)

In developing your strategic ability balance an intellectual understanding of the business and the client with access to your quick thinking intuitive brain. Train yourself to access both rational thinking and intuition.

Ways to be build a habit of strategic practice

We think there are 4 important habits to help you be more strategic. They are all habits which you can develop

Habit one: Set clear intensions and a purpose.Our Success Profile found strategic HR professionals had a point of view and were unafraid to articulate it even in the face of resistance and push back. Having a clear purpose and monitoring that you stay true to the purpose is essential to being strategic and staying true to yourself.  Purpose helps you make the right decisions and to tap into your intuition as well as analytical decision-making. Many HR professional have invested heavily in the analytical side but you may need to balance that with intuition.

To begin to train your intuitive muscle you need to practice. One of the best ways to do this is to keep a record of your intuitions. Here are the steps to follow:

  1. Record your insights and how they come to you. Note the place in your body where the feeling occurs and the circumstances.
  2. Track the outcomes of your intuitive thoughts. Did they work out? What might have happened if you had followed them?
  3. Periodically review your records to identify patterns and discover when your intuition is reliable.
  4. When you want to act on your intuition, test it by collecting a range of data, what supports and what contradicts your intuition? You can use this to back up your insights.

Obviously, it’s not a good idea to start with a situation that is career breaking! Build up your confidence.

Habit two: Ask strategic or powerful questions. Strategic or powerful questions seek to shift the perspective of your client or help them to see new possibilities. They tend to have the following characteristics:

  1. They are about relevant real life /work and make sense in the context.
  2. They are genuine and are asked to delve deeper rather than lead the client. We frequently see HR professionals asking questions which are designed to lead the client to a conclusion the HR person has already decided on. This is not a powerful strategic approach.
  3. Know what “work” you want the question to do? For example, produce new perspective, give new possibilities, hold the mirror up, help the client to become less stuck?
  4. The question is familiar enough to be recognisable and relevant and different enough to call forward a new response.
  5. You know what assumptions or beliefs embedded in the question? Asking what went wrong gets a different response than asking what can be learnt.
  6. The question aims to generate hope, imagination, engagement, creative action, and new possibilities.
  7. The question may leave room for new and different questions to be asked as the initial question is explored?

Habit 3 Understand how the business makes money (or not). We have seen reams of articles on knowing the business data, but you can spout numbers without really understanding the dynamics of the business. This is knowledge that helps you know what’s important and what’s superficial, to challenge assumptions and priorities.

Habit 4 Understand the client’s hot buttons. Social connection is a primary need for humans. Understanding what your client wants, their ambitions, beliefs and assumptions puts you in a much better position to ask insightful questions, challenge and make a contribution they will value.


No one is strategic all the time, nor should you try to be, but knowing when to access the strategic thinking and when to be tactical is a way to add more value. The brain allows us to change and understanding which habits you want to do more of is a way of shifting your approach to the job.

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