If you turn your ear to the organisational and business ‘winds’ and try to discern its whispers you will begin to hear a new sound; a call to restore humanity in the workplace. You can see this manifesting in business literature through the promotion of ideas such as happiness in the workplace and building strength-based cultures. More and more authors are also writing about the crucial role of meaning and purpose in work in employee engagement. This increasing swell is linked to the positive psychology movement, founded by among others Prof Marty Seligman and Dr D Clifton, which has become a widely accepted discipline in recent years.
We have noticed this call as a latent theme underpinning many of the stories we’ve gathered in our narrative capture projects over the last 5 years. The sheer number of negative experiences we’ve witnessed through narrative are testament to the lack of humanity in our businesses. And so, it is not only the business thinkers who are promoting the restoration of humanity in the workplace, but it is also the workers, normal people who work in our organisations, albeit through telling stories that are labeled as ‘complaining’ by leaders.
If the call is to restore humanity, there are two important questions to be asked. Firstly, when did we lose it, and secondly, what is it that we refer to when we speak of humanity?
Although we haven’t been able to pinpoint an exact time when business, in general, stopped being a quintessentially humane place. Rather we have noticed how over time, businesses either intentionally or unintentionally adopt dehumanising practices. Stories from the era prior to the Industrial Revolution speak of a greater sense of humanity and meaning. With the advent of machines and mass production, an ever-increasing drive for efficiency and maximum profit has led most businesses down the path of dehumanising their workforce. Leaders almost can’t afford to see their workforce as human beings any longer; it’s more convenient to see them as “resources”.
There seems to be a dominant trend when it comes to the expectations of what it means to be a good employee in an organisation. This set of expectations somehow convinces us to leave our humanity at the reception desk when we clock in for a day of work. There seems to be a subconscious acquiescence that we all take part in when we get to our place of work that is a willing dehumanisation of sorts. For example, we primarily view our colleagues through a ‘role lens’ versus seeing them as complex, whole human beings where their work is only one part of their being.
Then, we have noticed how the adoption and promotion of dehumanising practices is somehow inextricably linked to power, authority and more especially hierarchy in business. Becoming a manager in many organisations requires a silent forgetfulness that you are indeed human yourself and is accompanied by the belief-in-practice that the people you manage are more closely aligned to being mechanical resources that are stationed according to strategy than they are human beings. Our employees are sacrificed on the altar of efficiency, productivity and profitability.
So then, what is humanity?
It is first and foremost a very nebulous phenomenon. You can dig out definitions for sure, but humanity in the workplace is known more easily when you see something that embodies it, or when something happens that clearly offends our sense of it. You know it when you see it.
But if we are to get specific, we can look towards a set of humanistic values as a start. Morality, ethics, respect, integrity, meaning, happiness, recognition, optimism, equality and fairness. These are some of the building blocks of a culture of humanity in the workplace. But even beyond these basics, one would look at enabling people to find meaning in their work, to be recognised and celebrated not just for their efforts, but also for who they are. To truly create an environment where people can be happy and fulfilled, where they aren’t afraid to dream, make mistakes and grow. This may sound very esoteric, but more and more research is showing a direct link between these concepts and increased productivity and engagement.
Doesn’t it strike you that these concepts are often the chosen organisational values that we turn into nice posters, or artistic symbols in our reception halls? And yet, our workplaces are sorely lacking in these very things. It makes you wonder about the linguistic conformance associated with humanity.
We talk it, but do we live it?