Being Human At Work

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People are not tasks or robots. I’m still surprised when I meet people in the workplace who don’t believe that people are the most important part of their jobs.  Sadly, the people are a means to my end meme still dominates. Granted, many people are disengaged, burnt out and disempowered – and can’t summon up the energy to deal with diverse personalities and needs and intense organizational pressures and demands.

Most of the business world is still organized on the principle that a job is essentially an economic transaction.  Workers are being asked to do more with less –and faster than ever before. Employee head count is down and the bar for performance set higher. And managers still don’t seem to understand how to establish a workplace environment that view workers as people. An over reliance on the rational (we’re here to work!) and on emotions that don’t feed the human spirit (anxiety, mistrust, resentment, frustration) all contribute to the sense of exhaustion and disillusionment that many employees feel.

Writing on the limits of rationality, author Robert Marshak  – Covert Processes at Work Managing the Five Hidden Dimensions of Organizational Change, identifies a key reason change efforts fail:

Most change agents rely primarily on rational approaches to foster organizational change

Marshak defines the covert processes as “any hidden or unconscious dynamic” that undermine most work and consequently workplace relationships. In other words, the beliefs and emotions that underlie people’s behavior. A major symptom of the de-humanized work environment is the failure of leadership to recognize, understand and appreciate the role and value of emotions – and the consequences of chronically unmet needs. This is often completely out of conscious awareness.  Workers are often totally divorced from their own emotional lives and internal drives and desires – and so is management.

How many times in your work life have you heard a manager say, either explicitly or implicitly, “there’s no place for emotions in the workplace”? Baked in this message is the belief that we’re compartmentalized individuals, like Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde – capable of checking parts of our personality in the closet at home and coming to work with a different persona. Not possible! We carry our emotional baggage with us all the time. For some, the baggage is a small folding tote bag, for others, it can be a huge trunk. Whatever the weight of our emotional baggage, our humanness is expressed through our emotions.

Whenever we have relationship or performance problems at work, we are more likely to blame someone else as the source of the problems than consider our own contribution. So, when we imagine one of our colleagues at work, mentally re-hashing the problems he/she has “created” and all we can see is the living embodiment of a problem – we need to listen to our internal narrative and realize that we are in danger of diminishing their humanness in our minds.

What then are the dimensions of one’s humanness?

I’ve found the inspiring work by the late author, Rumer Godden to be a wonderful self-referencing place to think about the human dimension. Everyone is a House with Four Rooms, A Physical, a Mental, an Emotional and a Spiritual. Most of us tend to live in one room most of the time, but unless we go into every room, every day, even if only to keep it aired, we are not complete.” If you consider the “house with four rooms” as a metaphor for your own being, you might want to ask yourself, what room has too much clutter or might need more furniture? Also, how much do you really know about the metaphorical “home” of your colleagues at work? Do you give any thought to finding out?

In  workplaces where workers compete for limited resources, strategic power and professional identities, it is all too easy to view employees as “human resources,” “human capital,” or ‘human data,” and lose sight of human compassion. Some managers treat their people like replaceable machines, and not as human beings.

There appears to be a growing number of progressive organizations and leaders, albeit small, that truly get that a business model, built on a 20th century mindset (“command and control,” position-based authority), fails to address the needs and issues inherent in today’s workplace.

Still, most senior leaders are  remarkably ignorant of the basics of human dynamics. It’s important to note that these dynamics stem from three sources: the internal (these are the personal processes that each individual brings to the workplace culture) the interpersonal (these are the dynamics generated by interactions between people) and the structural (these are the processes shaped by organizational norms, policies, rules, etc).  The interplay of these three processes shapes workplace relationships and how people treat each other.

If we can aspire to live in Rumer Godden’s “House With Four Rooms” from a place of balance, whether in our personal lives or at work – to see the humanness in ourselves and others – we may find deeper rewards in all we do. There’s a gentle quality to her simple words and humble advice. 

Thanks for reading.

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

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