As the firstborn child in my family my siblings and I often joke about how much we are typical of the stereotypes that are discussed when it comes to birth order (although I take more traits of an only-child).  I’ve always been the achieving control-freak, my brother the rebellious socialite and my sister is happy as long as she is the centre of attention.

At September’s DisruptHR James Poletyllo, Head of People Development at Fuller’s asked us if our businesses are actually stroppy teenagers, and it got me thinking about HR functions and whether our habits, behaviours and actions model that of the birth order of children and if our organisations are actually the parents as we bicker and squabble amongst ourselves battling with our siblings in other departments across the business.

So let’s take a look.

HR as the Firstborn

As the leader of the pack, firstborns often tend to be:

  • Reliable
  • Conscientious
  • Structured
  • Cautious
  • Controlling
  • Achievers

Firstborns bask in their parents’ presence, which may explain why they sometimes act like mini-adults. Firstborns are diligent and want to be the best at everything they do. They excel at winning the hearts of their elders.

In this context the HR function is one where it’s important to be liked by the top team, they are the yes people that will do everything they can to please, even if they know it’s not always what’s best for the business and its people.

There will be lots of detailed policies and procedures, little ‘thinking outside of the box’ and no risk taking.  If what you want to do goes against the polices and employment legislation, then think on, it aint happening.

They want to be involved with and control most of the projects that are being designed and delivered, because, well, we’re HR.

Hardworking and reliable they will do exactly what they say they will, when they say they will and they will deliver it to a high standard.

They will be supportive, but don’t spend too much in their room, try to steal their toys or place the blame on them for something you haven’t done, they won’t like and therefore neither will you.

HR as the Middle Child

“The middle child often feels left out and a sense of, ‘Well, I’m not the oldest. I’m not the youngest. Who am I?'”. This sort of hierarchical floundering leads middle children to make their mark among their peers, since parental attention is usually devoted to the beloved firstborn or baby of the family.

In general, middle children tend to possess the following characteristics:

  • People-pleasers
  • Somewhat rebellious
  • Thrives on friendships
  • Has large social circle
  • Peacemaker

The middle child will play the game between leaders and the team, not because they want to, but because they aren’t sure of their place.  The messages they deliver will be ‘because it’s come from the CEO/Leadership team’ instead of being a message that they can get behind.

HR as the middle child will say yes to anything, but will deliver on their terms.  They spend their time talking a LOT to people all over the organisation, having meetings over coffee and trying to keep the peace between their team and yours.

They won’t challenge a lot as they don’t want to upset you, but their rebellious side will see them deliver things that they want to, not necessarily what was agreed.  This is their way of showing you what they can do, whilst still trying to keep you happy.

They will apoligise if ever you’re unhappy with them, but will win you round with their social skills, because after all, we all just need to get along.

Last Born

Youngest children tend to be the most free-spirited due to their parents’ increasingly laissez-faire attitude towards parenting the second (or third, or fourth, or fifth…) time around. The baby of the family tends to be:

  • Fun-loving
  • Uncomplicated
  • Manipulative
  • Outgoing
  • Attention-seeker
  • Self-centered

The last born HR function want to have fun, it’s all about how to make employees happy and how to create an environment of fun across the organisation, as long as they get the credit for it.

They may try and manipulate conversations and decisions playing off one person/team against another, because they want to get their own way, and much more credit for it.

Policies and procedures will be short and sweet, mainly using images and flow-charts if they can, allowing lots of opportunity and scope to follow the basics but use them to your own advantage.

The last-born HR function will be more likely to design frameworks that can be worked around rather then structures that absolutely have to be followed.

You’ll see the team everywhere, meetings, on the front page of the magazine and they will always want the organisation to know all of the great work that they have completed this month.

Only Children

Being the only child is a unique position in a family. Without any siblings to compete with, the only child monopolises his parents’ attention and resources, not just for a short period of time like a firstborn, but forever. In effect, this makes an only child something like a “super-firstborn”: only children have the privilege (and the burden) of having all their parents’ support and expectations on their shoulders. Thus, only children tend to be:

  • Mature for their age
  • Perfectionists
  • Conscientious
  • Diligent
  • Leaders

The only-child HR function will be able to communicate with everyone in the organisation and will present with the kind of wisdom that you may expect from your elders.

They will lead from the front, and the back, be diligent in all of the work and all of the conversations that they participate in.

There’s no flies on these guys.

Perfection is the only standard they will accept and they will be conscientious and diligent in their efforts to ensure that perfection is sought at every turn.  Because of this they crack the whip and can be their own worst enemies as they will push themselves until they are happy with the outcome, which can cause frustration.

So, what child is your HR function?

In reality there needs to be a blend of all of the traits of the children mentioned above in order for the function and the organisation to be successful.  The last-born can be great fun in an innovative and forward thinking business, but there will come a time when you need the only child or first-born to step in and set some firm foundations that support the business and its people for growth.  The rebellious middle-child will be great when it comes to looking for new ways of working, when you want to transform the function or be inventive but you may then need the last-born to step in to simplify things.

So, what child is your HR function?  Share your views in the comments below.

Kelly Swingler

Kelly Swingler is Founder at Chrysalis Consulting, The People and Change Experts and was appointed at the UK’s Youngest HR Director.  Kelly is passionate about helping people find bespoke people solutions to suit the needs of their business. Kelly is the author of Fostering a Mindset for Career Success and what’s your excuse for not Overcoming Stress.