self-help books

Why Self-Help Books Don’t Help HR

The difference between HR books and self-help books is blurry.

Authors and business writers think HR professionals are psychologists and guidance counselors for the workforce. If you believe the hype, HR business partners and talent acquisition leaders are coaches, teachers, and advisors for the corporate soul. 

It’s not true. Statistically, more of you are liberal arts majors who studied notable British authors than psychologists who explored the inner workings of the brain. You don’t have a license to counsel. You barely have permission to attend your VP’s leadership team meeting.

But it doesn’t stop people from writing books that “teach” you how to help employees achieve the best versions of themselves at work. These books pull from Buddhism, Stoicism, Freudian psychology combined with Jungian analysis, John Bowlby’s attachment theory, and rational emotive behavior therapy pioneered by Albert Ellis.

I’m not a historian or a psychologist, but neither are most self-help authors. And they don’t understand your job. They throw pseudoscience and psychology into their manuscripts to make you feel like their ideas are amazing. Sometimes it works, and sometimes it’s garbage.

But mostly it has nothing to do with HR.

There’s No New Art

Far too many authors and writers borrow their management and motivational ideas from historical figures who are long dead. Tony Robbins reminds me of the Florida version of Epicurus and Seneca. Gary Vaynerchuk reminds me of Marcus Aurelius with a big inheritance. 

(Wait, Marcus Aurelius had family money. So, that’s a good comparison.)

Anyway, if an author wants you to ditch the drama or detach from emotion to reframe a future version of yourself, you’ll hear hints of Buddhism and stoicism in the narratives. However, you’ll rarely see a footnote that cites the source. Maybe the author doesn’t know she’s been influenced by a historical individual or, even, a peer in her community.

When someone writes about culture and bias — and when it’s framed as a good or evil force in the work environment — that is Freud and Jung in action. Malcolm Gladwell and John Boudreau remind me of writers who take their audiences on hero journeys and encounter all kinds of archetypal characters in the workforce.

Some books describe leadership as a noble calling and lay out the attributes and characteristics of a parental-like figure who helps others achieve the best within themselves. I hear hints of attachment theory (and maybe even co-dependency) is authors like Steven Covey and Robert K. Greenleaf.

And when someone writes a guidebook with the six steps needed to recruit and hire talented people using empirical data, that’s Ellisian thinking. For example, writers like Dan Pink and Mel Robbins remind us to be logical. They want us to separate feelings from the facts, and to address our challenges rationally.

What’s Wrong with HR Books?

The problem with many of these authors and books is that the call to action is a formula that looks something like this: “I’m an expert, so you should read my book and watch my YouTube video. Your personal and organizational problems will be cured. If you still suffer, it’s you. Read my other books and sign up for my course on Udemy. Maybe things will work themselves out.”

In that way, most business and self-help books are extensions of multi-level marketing campaigns meant to separate you from your money. Sure, we’re all in favor of capitalism. But I think HR books and authors can do better. They can change your mind, improve your performance and help your business grow without delivering a watered-down version of therapy.

Self-Help Recommendations for HR

I’ve been looking for self-help books for HR professionals, and I have two to recommend: “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance” and “Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life.”

The tennis book is about tennis, but its explanation of how to improve your performance is so eloquent and precise that executives and athletes read this book throughout their careers. I love it so much. Buddhist ideas are acknowledged, which makes me happy, and I believe it’s the only book HR professionals need to read about performance.

The three-minute therapy book is what it promises to be: about three minutes of therapy to calm you down and help you see the world logically. No self-esteem chit-chat. No promise of fame and fortune. Just valid and reliable exercises to calm you down and help you understand the world — and your challenges — from a new perspective.

Instead of getting therapy-lite® from a book, get solutions. Writers like Adam Grant and Tim Ferriss are awesome, but they come from a long line of people who say they’re not self-help gurus but tell stories “based in science” that sounds like lessons we’ve already learned from the past.

Check out “The Inner Game of Tennis: The Classic Guide to the Mental Side of Peak Performance” and “Three Minute Therapy: Change Your Thinking, Change Your Life.”

They’re old books written without pretention, and I think the authors will change your life.

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