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5 Key Principles for Re-Humanizing Workplaces

Our world is rapidly changing and becoming increasingly complex and disruptive. The acronym VUCA is frequently to describe this new reality: volatile, uncertain, complex and ambiguous. Therefore, the rules of business – and wellness – need to evolve. Yet many organizations are stuck in outdated practices and are not equipping people to thrive in this new reality. Strategies that may have worked a few years ago have quickly become irrelevant due to changes in technology, our environment and demographic shifts and demands in the workforce.

Why does this matter so much? Because in order to thrive in a disruptive world, companies need workplace cultures that are open and collaborative, that reward innovation and risk-taking, and that make space for the often messy creativity that it takes to solve problems. A workplace where it’s okay to be human.

And we also need workplaces that honor and support what it means to be human rather than treating people more like predictable, controllable machines. And that starts with recognizing that it’s part of the human condition to crave certainty and familiarity. So when we find ourselves in this VUCA world, we tend to clamp down and cling to what’s familiar. Consequently, we end up not being able to effectively adapt; we fall back on outdated strategies that actually lead to further dehumanization of workplaces and erode our wellbeing.

An estimated 88 percent of the workforce in the United States go home each day feeling like they work for an organization that doesn’t listen to or care about them. According to Jeffrey Pfeffer’s research from his 2018 book, Dying for a Paycheck, these dehumanized workplaces account for an additional 120,000 deaths per year – making them the 5th leading cause of death in the United States and accounting for 8 percent of our healthcare spend. We have a humanity crisis on our hands that is not going to be solved with kale and CrossFit!

The Re-Humanization Revolution

It’s probably not surprising that the tolerance for dehumanized workplaces is shrinking. People are craving better work-life harmony, meaningful and purposeful work, and being able to show up authentically human. As Erica Keswin writes in her book, Bring Your Human to Work,

“People are no longer willing to accept work as a soul-crushing, Dilbertesque, cubicled nightmare.”

In fact, results from research on over 30,000 leaders found that, “today’s workforce is increasingly looking for more meaning, human connectedness, true happiness, and a desire to contribute positively to the world.” At the same time, we also know that human beings are complex and messy; we frequently get in our own way, preventing us from showing up as our best, authentic selves.

We don’t start each day wanting to look stupid, disconnected or ineffective. Most of us want to look smart, capable and helpful. However, we also don’t like to be vulnerable where we’re exposed to risk, uncertainty and emotional exposure. In fact, we learn relatively early in life how to manage and avoid interpersonal risks where we might look ignorant, incompetent or disruptive. Researcher and bestselling author, Brené Brown, describes this as “armoring up”; much like medieval soldiers would put on armor to protect themselves during a battle, we put on armor to protect ourselves and avoid looking bad. The problem is that it leads to disconnection, siloes and keeps us (and organizations) from thriving. Add in the disruption of living and working in a VUCA world, and our instinct to armor up only gets worse.

Given this, it is critical that organizations intentionally create human, psychologically safe environments where people can take risks, lay down their armor and are comfortable showing up as their full, authentic selves; where they can share concerns and mistakes without fear of embarrassment or retribution. In her book, The Fearless Organization, Amy Edmondson defines psychological safety as, “the belief that the work environment is safe for interpersonal risk taking…Psychological safety is present when colleagues trust and respect each other and feel able – even obligated – to be candid.” And these environments are not only more human, they are more responsive and resilient – something we need in a VUCA world.

5 Key Re-Humanizing Principles

We’ve learned that future-ready, successful organizations are conscious, HUMAN businesses. They recognize the nature of living and working in a VUCA world; and they respond by supporting people in showing up as their whole, authentic selves and engaging in ongoing, meaningful growth and development. We have found five key principles that are essential to creating thriving, future-ready and human workplace.

Build a lighthouse.

Much like a lighthouse can help cut through the fog and provide clarity for where to go, having a clear purpose and core values can help to do the same. People can’t be successful unless they know what’s expected of them, feel connected to a shared vision, know how they fit into that vision, and know how they need to show up and behave in order to realize that purpose and shared vision. Building a lighthouse can provide calm and clarity in the VUCA storm, and passion and energy to keep forging ahead.

When people have clarity of purpose, they operate from energy and passion. Building a lighthouse also helps to create a sense of connection and belonging – key parts of our DNA as human beings. Engagement alone is no longer enough; purpose and fulfillment matter. Imperative (an organization who studies purpose) defines a Purpose Mindset as “a belief that each of us has the power to make our work meaningful and fulfilling.” Results from their 2019 Workforce Purpose Index indicate that people with a Purpose Mindset are 52 percent more likely to report being fulfilled; and fulfilled employees:

  • Serve as your brand ambassadors (with an average Employee Net Promoter Score of 30 compared to -60 for unfulfilled employees)
  • Are more likely to be in your top 20% percentile of performance
  • Are 2x more likely than unfulfilled employees to stay 5+ years at your organization
  • Are 3x more likely than unfulfilled employees to stay 10+ years at your organization

Create fearless environments.

The VUCA world inherently brings some discomfort, as it demands we do things differently. However, we can only adapt and grow when people feel safe taking the risks required to do transformative work. Intentionally creating psychologically safe teams supports people in taking off their masks and armor so they can show up as their full, authentic selves and be vulnerable to take risks and grow.

Additionally, given that today’s employees spend 50% more time collaborating then they did 20 years ago, it’s even more important that we create environments that foster people’s abilities to effectively work together. We must provide a safe environment and the tools to enable people to learn new ways and show up fully rather than showing up armored and clinging tightly to what is familiar.

Wade in the messy middle.

Change involving humans is complex and evokes discomfort (which is why we must create fearless environments). We all have stories we hold – about ourselves, others and how things work. The question is whether these stories serve us well. Much of the time, these stories are self-limiting and stem from our Ego – our inner voice that craves acceptance and approval and leads us to please, perform, pretend and self-protect. These stories originate during childhood. And at the root of most of these self-limiting stories is usually something about not being “enough”: not smart enough, lovable enough, strong enough or good enough. And when not enough is in the driver’s seat, we show up guarded, in self-protection mode and are limited in being able to navigate through the VUCA challenges.

We need to move from self-protection to self-reflection and then do the uncomfortable, yet transformative, work to rewrite our inner narratives. We can’t fast-forward development. Instead of trying to revert to behavior modification and strategies that work far better for machines, we need to honor what it takes for humans to develop and transform. Growth happens at the edge of our comfort zone, so there is tremendous value in letting ourselves embrace the discomfort and be in the middle of the mess; and culture can’t transform unless we support and equip people to do the important inner work so they can thrive in spite of the challenges our VUCA world brings.

Show up as a leader.

Leadership is a BEHAVIOR, not a title or role. Every single one of us has the potential and opportunity to choose to show up as a leader – to do the courageous, difficult work required to show up authentically human, become a better version of ourselves and create a space for others to do the same. And it is impossible to show up as a leader unless we’ve waded in the messy middle to do the necessary transformative, adaptive change work. But once we do, amazing change can happen. We’ve seen countless people show up as leaders, move past self-limiting dialogue and influence positive change within their workplaces and communities. It’s truly inspiring!

Think about the strong, courageous students of Marjory Stoneman Douglas High School in Parkland, Florida. Their lives changed forever on February 15, 2018 when they survived one of the deadliest school shootings in U. S. history. Rather than sitting back and waiting for Congress to do something about gun violence, these teenagers stood up and spoke up. They showed up as leaders. They built a lighthouse and provide a compelling, clear vision for a gun violence-free future. They rallied people across the country, bringing high visibility and eloquent speeches into the mainstream so that their friends’ lives were not lost in vain. They got the attention of political leaders, and their incredible display of leadership even made the cover of Time Magazine. They started from the ground up and built momentum for positive change.

Building thriving workplaces that can weather the VUCA storms demands courageous leaders. In fact, Brené Brown says that “you shift a culture by creating a critical mass of courageous leaders.” In their book, Leadership On the Line, Ronald Heifetz and Marty Linsky suggest that the opportunity for leadership stands before us every day in various ways. And every day we must decide whether or not to put our contribution out there, or keep it to ourselves to avoid upsetting anyone.

“The process of developing extraordinary leadership is the same process as becoming an extraordinary person.” – Bill Adams, Mastering Leadership

Going against the grain of “business-as-usual” and “wellness-as-usual” requires a great amount of new learning, engaging ourselves and others in adjusting our unrealistic expectations and promoting our resourcefulness. With the rapid rate of change we face daily, we can’t afford to stay comfortable and wait for someone else “more qualified” to “fix” the problem. Besides, developing people to show up as leaders is one of the most effective components of any wellbeing strategy – supporting people in becoming the best version of themselves; that is leadership.

Find your tribe.

As human beings, we’re hard-wired for connection. We also want to feel seen and heard and know our contributions matter. It’s also probably not surprising that re-humanizing the workplace never has, and never will, be a solo journey. It takes a village of people committed to a clear, compelling vision to build a thriving workplace. Besides, we know that people only tend to support what they’ve helped to create. So start building diverse relationships with other people within your organization. Collaborate to build a lighthouse and expand from there. Leverage that energy and relationships to grow a diverse community; when you do, you’ll start to build momentum. Don’t try to go it alone!

Conscious, human, thriving organizations forego “business-as-usual” and leverage these 5 Re-Humanizing Principles. We expand on these principles in our forthcoming book, Re-Humanizing the Workplace…future-proofing your organization while restoring hope, wellbeing and performance. If you’d like to learn more on how to apply these in your work and at your organization, join me for my session at the WELCOA Summit on August 27, 2019 in Philadelphia.