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19 January 2022

A humanity revolution at work

Written by
Leanne Holdsworth

In my 25 year career working with teams and leaders I consistently see that humans have a built-in desire to experience love, connection and purpose in our daily lives.  And although this is a natural human need, the place we spend most of our days is often a place where love, connection and purpose are hard to come by: work.

The global pandemic has taught us many things, and amongst them, a number of us have been reconsidering what is most important to us.  In the process, we are experiencing variations in the workplace on the global theme of the Great Resignation1 and Great Reshuffle. The ‘lie flat’2 or tang ping movement in China, (doing the bare minimum to get by, and striving for nothing more than what is absolutely essential for one’s survival) appears to be having a similar effect; many of us are turning our back on stress and lives that don’t provide sufficient balance and meaning as we look toward what we care more about. 

But what if work was more human; more fulfilling, more caring and more empowering?  If it was, then is it possible that our fundamental need for love, connection and purpose be more likely to be met? And if so, what might that mean for our organizations, families and team mates?

When work is more human, might we as teams function more effectively because we have increased levels of psychological safety, and less need for ego driven behaviours?

When work is more human, might our families get a better version of ourselves, perhaps with more emotional availability for our kids and partners showing up at home at the end of the workday?

When work is more human, might we care more about the purpose of our organizations? And might that be a benefit to the organization? As organizations compete in this war for talent that the Great Resignation and Reshuffle are creating, might we be more likely to move to more human organizations where our needs could be more closely met?  

Although there are no common measures for how much love, connection, purpose and acceptance shows up in the workplace, we have some indicators that don’t paint a pretty picture about our current experience of work.  Only 20% of us globally are engaged in our work3,  a third of us report high stress levels, workplace stress costs US corporations $300 billion per annum4, and 120,000 deaths5 per year are caused by how US companies manage their workforces. And if you are interested in more of the social pollution costs of non-human organizations, read more in Jeffrey Pfeffer’s book, Dying for a paycheck:  He suggests “Instead of adding wellness programs or yoga classes, companies need to focus more on the management practices that lead to substantial health issues, such as layoffs, job insecurity, toxic cultures and long hours — not only for their own bottom lines but so they don’t offload those costs to broader society6

So why are we still so shy in our organizations to explicitly seek out and create humanized cultures? Our actions show that often we try. We pay attention to employee experience, we implement diversity and inclusion policies, we provide flexibility as to where people work, we provide healthy snacks and we design cool work spaces.

But at the same time, many of us as leaders are yet to embrace what it means to “humanize workplaces” into our organizations’ DNA.  

One might say that this doesn’t matter. It’s not the role of business to be concerned about whether their people’s need for love, connection and purpose is met at work. And yet even from a purely business perspective, the person that shows up at work the next day is impacted by what happened in the time between going home and showing up at work again. And what happens at home is impacted by work. We are the same person. The question is, do we want to insist that we are two atomised beings or can we accept we are one whole human being? And here, we are not suggesting that this means at work our inner worlds get in the way of working. In fact, we are learning that the more of ourselves we can bring to work, the more we have to offer.

Imagine two scenarios; Joel leaves his home office on Monday at the end of the day feeling out of his depth at work. He’s overheard two of his teammates talking about what they thought was a below par job Joel had done on his presentation this week. He is struggling but doesn’t feel safe to talk to either his manager or his team about the part of the role he is finding hard. Although one of the values of his organization is collaboration, it seems that it’s not an idea that is “practiced”. He has learnt the hard way (and watched as others have learnt the hard way), that it’s best to show up with “the answer” and he balances both getting his work done and at the same time making sure that his colleagues “see” that he knows what he is doing.

At the tech firm across the valley, Mindy is leaving her home office at the end of the day on Monday feeling stretched and supported. She has been having conversations with her Manager recently about a challenge she is experiencing in her work and has been feeling out of her depth in. Since having these conversations, and sharing how this challenge is feeling for her at the Team Development chats (this is a fortnightly conversation where each team member gets to share and “be heard” about places they each are wanting to grow in) things have changed.  She has been feeling the discomfort that comes with learning a new mindset to help with her challenge. She also feels supported by her team to work with it and good about herself as she sees herself gaining more capacity to deal with the part of her job she finds most challenging.

Joel and Mindy’s Monday evenings play out as they do. Imagining these two both heading into the same family situation at the end of the day, and all other things being equal between Joel and Mindy, what might we imagine to be the difference between their family’s experience of them? And what is the ripple effect on the family; day after day, week after week, year after year?

The reinforcing nature of their experiences at home and in their social worlds then of course has consequences on how they show up at work.

What is the key difference between the different cultures Joel and Mindy are experiencing?

For Joel, his experience of the culture is like this:  “I feel like I need to show up knowing how to handle everything. There is no room for experimenting or failing here. My identity and therefore my position in the company is determined by being certain and knowing. I have a buddy who is a Manager in another division that I trust who I feel like I can let my guard down to sometimes but in the main there is no room for me to be vulnerable and ‘not know’. I’d be eaten alive. I’ve seen others be ‘labelled’ as incompetent when they have tried new things and they have found their way out the door. On a day to day level, with all this corridor conversation about other people that I hear (even from my Manager), I’ve noticed I’ve started to spend more of my attention in judgment of others than I have in the past and I don’t feel good about this. ”

For Mindy, she experiences the culture at her firm as “It requires me to be curious, and keep learning. I sometimes feel challenged by the responsibility of the delegated decision making I have, but expectations about my role from my Manager are clear.  I learn a lot from seeing others more senior than me showing up with vulnerability and I think that is what makes me feel safe enough to really experiment. I might get it wrong but I get to be supported by my team during the process, and so I feel safe enough to try new things without necessarily being an expert or knowing how they are going to turn out.” 

Interestingly, Joel and Mindy’s organizations’ values are very similar and both sound very human. But how the values get expressed are very different. Mindy’s firm has a process of continual engagement in the values and how they may be deepened into the firm’s DNA. Joel’s organization’s values are displayed in the firm’s collateral, induction processes and website, but it’s hard to know what they mean in practice because they don’t seem to be visible. 

These stories are playing out in our organizations every day. The fundamental difference between these two cultures is one embraces a humanized workplace; where our fundamental need for love, connection, purpose and acceptance are baked in, and the other operates from a legacy based model based more on competition and a narrow definition of success. 

Humanised work can take many shapes, and this blog is being written as we (a group of colleagues and friends of Cultivating Leadership), are writing a book exploring leaders’ experiences in making their organizations more human. We are learning that there are many doorways or approaches to leading more human workplaces.

Some leaders take  a developmental path by supporting their people to “grow”. Others take a “how might we empower our people” approach, allowing people to reach their potential by  supporting personal agency, getting clearer on personal purpose, and giving them a say in how they do their work etc. Other leaders are focusing on building conditions that enable explicit care for each other.

As well, many of the leaders supplement their approach by using “complexity-friendly” mindsets, focussing on ways work can be structured and organised so it fits the more complex world we work in. This has the benefit not only of introducing mindsets that support the direction of the organization’s purpose, but also creating conditions for more liberating,  empowered experiences because the “way” we need to do things at work can make us feel more or less human.

All the leaders interviewed for the book, regardless of the doorway or approach they are taking, are committed to making work more human and therefore integrating into the DNA of the organization at least elements of the idea that work is a place where we can experience love, connection, purpose and acceptance by each other.

The most important thing we are learning from the leaders is just to start somewhere. There is no playbook, no right way to do this. Start somewhere, involve others, find support (others who have been down this path or a learning partner), be ready for some who don’t support the direction and be ready to call on all your courage. 

If you are reading this and working in an organization that is not humanized, and you are not the CEO, there is plenty you can do to make work more human for yourself, your teams and /or those around you. All of us can learn more about how to regulate our own nervous systems,  or get clear about how our attachment to our identities can result in egoic behaviour that doesn’t always support love, connection, purpose and acceptance,  or learn more about practices that can make work more human for those around us such as listening in a way that others feel heard. We also encourage you to find others around you who care about the same thing. You will not be the only voice in your organization who cares about this. 

And if you are a leader in an organization reading this, and want to learn more about how to make your organization more human, please reach out to us here at Cultivating Leadership. Be the first to hear about the release of our book, Making Work More Human, and other developments at CL, by joining our mailing list.

1 Professor Anthony Klotz coined the term the Great Resignation. For more read here https://www.bbc.com/worklife/article/20211214-great-resignation-into-great-reshuffle
2  https://www.ft.com/content/ea13fed5-5994-4b82-9001-980d1f1ecc48
3 https://www.gallup.com/workplace/352949/employee-engagement-holds-steady-first-half-2021.aspx
4 https://www.uml.edu/research/cph-new/worker/stress-at-work/financial-costs.aspx
5 https://www.amazon.com/Dying-Paycheck-Management-Employee-Performance/dp/0062800922
6 https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/on-leadership/wp/2018/03/22/this-professor-says-the-workplace-is-the-fifth-leading-cause-of-death-in-the-u-s/

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