Friends or frenemies: how well do HR, L&D and OD work together?

Michelle Parry-Slater reflects on the relationship between human resources, learning and development and organisational development, discussing whether these closely allied professions are working in harmony or in conflict

I have spent the past year investigating why learning does not land in organisations. My research has involved some fascinating conversations around environment, permission, culture, information, communication and education.

Several of these have occurred in my podcast, Learning From The Edges. While I am yet to draw my conclusions (I am six months into a year-long review), a surprising emergent theme which appears to be manifesting is colleagues as ‘frenemies’. 

Frienemy is a portmanteau of friend and enemy: that dichotomy of ‘nice to your face’, yet also ‘stab you in the back’ when you are looking the other way. There is an accepted social norm of ‘niceness’ at work, and why not? People should be nice to each other.

However, I think people mistake ‘nice’ and ‘kind’ as the same thing. Being kind is appropriate at work – always think the best of people, appreciate and respect what they bring and collaborate well alongside each other. ‘Nice’, on the other hand, takes us back to being fake. ‘Nice’ is insipid and non-descript. ‘Nice’ is one coin toss away from backstabbing.

Personally, I have never really understood the type of person who can be a ‘frenemy’. If you don’t like my work, then let’s chat. If you don’t like me, that is ok too – we can’t be friends with everyone – but don’t fake it. When Amy Cuddy gave her advice of ‘fake it till you make it’, I don’t think she was talking about relationships, rather about professional confidence.

Yet people are frenemies. I have experienced it, and I know others who have too. Particularly disturbing is when these toxic behaviours spill into workplace bullying. Bullying is unacceptable yet according to CIPD research, it is prevalent, with 15 per cent of employees having experienced bullying at work in the past three years.

The most common behaviour associated with bullying at work is being undermined – which seems like the ultimate frenemy behaviour: snide, underhand and toxic. Worse still, the people profession, the very teams supposed to support challenging and changing poor behaviours in people and the wider organisation, can often be found misunderstanding each other, arguing about who is responsible for what and not helping the very people we are all there to support.

I find it very curious that the people whose role it is to support people in work don’t always act with good grace towards each other. Online communities have opposing views. Internal teams don’t sit together and don’t understand each other. In a recent podcast, we heard how  ‘cancel culture’ has reached the profession, (What if… everyone got cancelled?).

Often it is a question of misunderstanding but it is also often a question of respect and power. In the realm of modern organisations, HR, L&D and OD are crucial functions that play distinct yet interrelated roles.

Defining the roles

To understand the complex dynamic, it may be useful to clarify the distinct roles these professions hold.

HR professionals are responsible for the legals and people; from talent acquisition, employee relations, comp and benefits, and ensuring compliance with employment laws. As a bridge between employees and employer, it is HR which ensures a harmonious and productive work environment.

L&D professionals are responsible for enhancing the behaviours, skills and knowledge of employees by offering opportunities to grow and develop. Working with stakeholders to understand their business and needs, they design learning programs and initiatives for professional growth, ultimately benefiting the employees and the organisation.

Organisational development (OD) professionals are responsible for the focus on improving the overall health and effectiveness of an organisation. They deal with issues such as culture, change management and strategic planning, striving to create a cohesive and adaptable workplace. I see this role as the overarching positioning that enables HR and L&D to do their work, therefore OD has the loudest voice of the trio.

Harmony or conflict?

Each of these areas of responsibility is for the betterment of the organisation and its employees, but the question that often arises is whether these professionals are allies working towards a common goal or rivals with conflicting interests. Do they work together on one strategic agenda, or each have their own? Do they focus on the same activities at the same time, or does one take the lead? Ultimately, the question is, are they working in harmony as friends or in conflict as frenemies?

These are my opinions and how I define the profession today. You may think differently and not agree with my definitions of HR, L&D and OD. You may also believe that frenemies is a made up word meaning nonsense or find my views are at odds with your experience and preferences. That’s not only ok but also a welcome difference of opinion which is important.

Difference means less groupthink, more creativity, clearer testing and learning. Having a variety of different people at work means the right skills in the right roles. You may not understand someone else’s habits and behaviours but accepting them is all part of being kind. You never know where the next best idea will come from, so having a wide variety of thinking in your organisation is what will keep you one step ahead of the competition. We need disagreement to grow.

What we don’t need, however, is whispering in corners, two-faced colleagues and a lack of honest discourse. Sadly, hierarchical cultures promote frenemies as a way of being because in order to climb to the top spot you stand on the shoulders of those you climb over.

The polarisation of society is playing out in many ways since Brexit started the decline of robust debate. There are keyboard warriors with their online hate, hiding behind their nameless handles, anonymous and fervent. There are voices absenting themselves from the torrid spaces where debate once took place. There are workplaces where people are putting up with toxicity because the people profession allows it to go ahead unchecked.

Each side of the polarisation doesn’t seem to be able to meet halfway as they are pushed by a lack of robust adult discussion, resulting in ‘you are wrong’ and ‘I am right’ opposing stances. It is possible that both sides can be entirely ‘right’, however hold opposing viewpoints. My research suggests that societal pressures around taking polarised stances have leached into work.

Successful relationships

The relationship between HR, OD and L&D is determined by a multitude of factors. Working in harmony, leveraging their respective strengths to support the organisation and employees makes them a formidable force for good. However, conflicts can arise if priorities are not in sync, or if they fail to communicate effectively. The path to amicable cooperation involves real understanding of each other’s roles, which is not just based on my opinion, but on yours too. Recognising the unique value each function brings and the importance of collaboration will enable HR, L&D, and OD professionals to create and support a thriving and adaptable organisation.

Their success rests on their ability to function as allies working towards a common goal rather than adversaries in competition, true friends in work, not frenemies. As ever, it starts with us.

Michelle Parry-Slater is author of The Learning and Development Handbook