Humanizing Workplace Relationships



“For me, my role is about unleashing what people already have inside them that are maybe suppressed in most work environment.” Tony Hseih, Zappos CEO

I believe there is a central issue at the heart of so much difficulty in today’s workplace – our inability to regularly connect at the human to human level.  To be sure, the structure of the “modern” organization creates serious roadblocks and even undermines empathy, trust and genuine collaboration between co-workers.   There is a decaying legacy of hierarchical control models that were never designed to optimize human dynamics.  We need a critical conversation that engages organizational leaders and their employees if we are to ever achieve trust and authentic engagement. 

Is the “modern” workplace designed for people?

Are the systems created for work designed to maximize productivity and profit or human well-being?

Who factors in the real cost of human labor when analyzing productivity and profits?

What do most managers believe they are managing?  

I have far more questions than I have answers on this topic. In fact, I think we’re now on new terrain when it comes to redefining the meaning of work in a global “supply chain” world.  While it may seem absurd that in one part of the world children are still working in coal mines; while in another, companies like Google have installed, “Chief Culture Officers,” – this is the new “normal.”

It all seems a bit crazy – sort of upside down, doesn’t it?  On one end of the spectrum some companies haven’t even gotten the Henry Ford message, while at the other end, a company like Patagonia advised customers to resole their old shoes before they consider buying new ones.

In a Barnard College commencement address, actor Meryl Streep captured the essence of the times we now live in, “There is no ‘normal.’ There’s only change, and resistance to it, and then more change.”

Design Mind author, Tim Leberecht, writes about the nascent movement among some “business leaders who are talking about the “Human Age” and claiming that capitalism is being replaced by “talentism,” defined as access to talent as a key resource and differentiator.”  According to Leberecht, “Many companies have embarked on initiatives to unleash their human potential. Those are big words and noble ambitions and naturally they seem worth striving for.”

But back here on Earth, I’m hearing lots of stories about workplace cultures that aren’t envisioning a glorious new Human Age in the workplace; rather we are talking to employees who don’t even believe they have five minutes to have a non-task oriented conversation with a co-worker.   One manager recently shared, “I’d like to foster stronger bonds and closer relationships, not only because I know that’s what’s needed to build collaboration, but because it would feel better.”

While there are many factors that drive the norms that shape today’s workplace (key among them being the atrophied legacy of command and control models of organization)  the hard reality is the structure of most organizations simply isn’t set up  to optimize human potential.  Tim Leberecht points out, “There appears to be a fundamental chasm between individual human behavior – which is expansive and multidimensional, ranging from the rational to the wildly irrational, sentimental and unpredictable – and the design of organizations, rational, practical, results oriented and engineered to perform consistently.”

Despite the small, emerging visionary organization or bold leader that truly gets that business as usual is about to be over in the near future; most senior leaders are still remarkably ignorant of the basics of human dynamics.  Even more telling is the general lack of awareness of group dynamics that most managers of people have.

The belief that work is and should be a function of solely “rational” processes is still the dominant theme that underpins the foundation of how work is organized.

Even the typical change initiative introduced by well-meaning organizational leaders suffers from high rates of failure because of the importance that society and business continue to place on being “logical” and “rational.”  Writing on the limits of rationality, Covert Processes at Work author, Robert Marshak identifies three reasons why change efforts fail:

  • Most change agents rely primarily on rational approaches to foster organizational change
  • Most change initiatives actually involve significant non-rational dynamics and processes
  • Most change agents still insist on operating as if organizational change is a rational process

The over-reliance on the belief that most organizational processes are solely rational ignores what Marshak calls the covert processes that undermine most work and consequently workplace relationships. Marshak defines these processes as “any hidden or unconscious dynamic”. These are the beliefs and feelings that underlie people’s behavior. They affect what we do, even though we may not be aware of them.

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 while the power of culture unequivocally impels the nature of workplace relations, there is a significant role individuals can play in the choices they make in relating to others in the workplace.

Make no mistake – the mantra to HUMANIZE the workplace is simply just the responsibility of organizational leadership – it is as much about how each person engages their colleagues in the process of work.  After all, a culture is an aggregate of tiny, everyday gestures, comments and actions that form day-to-day work life.

To Humanize – Stay Human

“When we change the way we communicate, we change the society.” Clay Shirkey, Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations

People are not tasks. 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 – whatever the word du jour is – and can’t summon up the energy to deal with diverse personalities and needs and intense organizational pressures and demands.

Conversely, this suffering is a symptom of the de-humanization process. 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.

Your business needs are not the same as your personal needs. Another symptom of the de-humanized work environment are chronically unmet needs. This is often completely out of our conscious awareness.  In my work, I often ask clients in group settings to identify what they need to work optimally. Commonly, what I hear in return are the lists of things the organization or team needs to get the job done.  This suggests that workers are often totally divorced from their own internal drives and desires.  We’re particularly out of touch with our psychological needs.

Typically, universal human needs are not identified to us as children so we adopt a set of usually unsuccessful strategies that are a poor substitute to satisfying our real needs.  For example, I hear many people in the workplace saying they need more work-life balance (well at least that’s a start from identifying corporate needs as ones’ own).

The term work-life balance sounds (particularly in a public setting) a lot better (within organizational norms) than saying – I need more sleep or I need some quiet time to rest my mind.  To humanize, we must acknowledge our humanness and stop acting as if we are automatons who can keep moving, thinking and producing (optimally) for 12 hours a day.

One of my favorite quotes about human needs in the workplace comes from author and founder of Nonviolent Communication, Marshall Rosenberg, whose reminder that, “People who are in touch with their needs do not make good slaves” should be placed on every work station in the global workplace.

Cynicism is the enemy of humanization. Personally, I find cynicism exhausting. Cynicism’s not chic or cool, it’s debilitating. It devalues contribution, creativity and sincerity. Ultimately, it is an unsuccessful defense mechanism against disappointment and despair.  Dropping our cynicism doesn’t have to mean we lose our discernment, in fact, I believe the lens of cynicism clouds our ability to perceive clearly.  I have to believe that treating others humanely, with caring, respect, empathy and consideration of their needs, matters.  When I act this way, I contribute to the generation of more humanity within my workplace.

Innovation is not Humanization.  In his Harvard Business Review article, Please, Can We All Stop Innovating,” author Bill Taylor asks, “So what if we all stopped trying to “innovate” — and started trying to have fun and really do something new? And what if we set ourselves a more basic (and more authentic) set of challenges as we look to the future? What difference are we trying to make in our field? What do we care about?  How can we re-imagine the sense of what’s possible?

I pose these questions to you. Don’t you want more humanization in the workplace? We’re probably in agreement that most organizations aren’t ready to release their grip of power over the processes they think they control, right? So what are you willing to do? What’s needed in your workplace relationships? Are you willing to take the first steps?

Thanks for reading.

George Altman, Partner, Intentional Communication Consultants

Art: Banksy

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