Can HR Drive High Reliability?

Positive thinking is sometimes overrated. In fact, too much positive thinking can be disastrous. While optimism can help people and organizations bounce back from tough times, when allowed to dominate the psyche during good times, it can blind us to the possibility of what could go wrong.

It’s important, periodically, to think creatively about potential doom.

Such “preoccupation with failure” is one pattern of behavior that helps some organizations have far fewer accidents than we would expect given what they do. For example, plenty could go wrong in a nuclear power plant or aboard a naval aircraft carrier. But few errors devolve into disasters in either, in part because its people explicitly know what failure could look like and catch small problems before they become catastrophes.

These types of organizations are “high-reliability organizations,” and I think there’s something that human resources (HR) departments could learn from them.

In particular, what might happen if we tried to apply the five hallmarks of high reliability to HR practices? This is a topic that I addressed in “High-Reliability HR: Preparing the Organization for Catastrophes,” which appeared in the Winter 2016 issue of People & Strategy

To summarize some of the key points of that article, consider the following five hallmarks of high reliability:

  1. Preoccupation with failure: What could go wrong?
  2. Reluctance to simplify interpretations: What’s the true cause?
  3. Sensitivity to operations: Are we in touch with the ground-level reality?
  4. Commitment to resilience: How do we recover?
  5. Deference to expertise: Who knows best?

I argue that HR could play a pivotal role in helping an organization adopt these principles. For example, HR could help with scenario planning based upon identified risks, developing leaders who promote a climate of healthy questioning, assisting with reporting and analyzing near misses, training employees on actions to take during catastrophes and implementing hiring practices that select employees with the specialized skills needed by the organization.

Some may say that HR has no place in disaster planning or emergency preparedness, suggesting that such efforts need to be solely under the purview of business continuity, security or risk management functions.

But shouldn’t HR be concerned holistically about the human side of the organization’s survival and success? Isn’t HR as a function positioned well to act as custodians of a culture that moves the organization toward high-reliability?

Or maybe we should go back to calling HR the “personnel” department.

Regardless, it’s worth it for us as HR professionals to liberate our thinking as we think about what the HR function is and how it contributes to the overall organization in the 21st Century. My full article on this topic applies the high-reliability HR framework to the topic of an active shooter on a college campus, and it’s meant to provoke a conversation about the potential role of HR in ensuring a secure enterprise.

To download the full article, click here. 

Does HR have a role in helping the organization prepare for disasters and bounce back when they occur? Leave a comment below!

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About Ben Baran
Ben Baran, Ph.D., is probably one of the few people in the world who is equally comfortable in a university classroom, a corporate boardroom and in full body armor carrying a U.S. government-issued M4 assault rifle. Visit: