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The pursuit of humane workplaces
Another way of working and being is possible
14 min read
Table of contents
The “Great Resignation” has recently had people leaving their jobs in high numbers, creating staffing problems in the U.S.A.; with employees not wanting to go back to work unless conditions improved.
Nowadays, it's easy to see the discontent and distrust of people towards companies and institutions. I feel it too.
We see that nurses, who worked through the pandemic in extreme pressure conditions, understaffed, with low wages, are striking for decent conditions and a better public health system.
Education workers face a similar reality, to the point where it's an enticing prospect to work at a supermarket rather than to stay in schools:
“I love every second of being in that classroom with those children. I love helping them. But if I can’t afford to live, if I can’t afford to feed my son, I can’t do it. And that’s the reality of it.”
Every once in a while, the word loyalty is thrown out as an intrinsic attribute of good workers lacking in the new generations. The good old times, when employees stayed in their companies until they retired, are long gone.
In sports, loyalty is often mentioned. Even exalted. The player who has stayed all their career with a team has dedicated their all to the city and organization. A player who moves to another team for personal motives—money, better teammates or winning chances—is a traitor.
The Merriam-Webster dictionary describes loyal as:
Unswerving in allegiance, such as:
- faithful in allegiance to one's lawful sovereign or government.
- faithful to a private person to whom faithfulness is due.
- faithful to a cause, ideal, custom, institution, or product.
Do we owe unswerving allegiance and faithfulness to a company, a team, a partner? I would say loyalty is a consequence of many factors, not the be-all and end-all.
When we think of loyalty in work settings, we quickly see examples that show how expectations of loyalty are, in most cases, one-sided, unbalanced. The onus of loyalty lies in the worker.
Companies treating their people as cattle when doing lay-offs are just cutting expenses, restructuring, optimizing the business lines, etc. We've had many examples of this over the years, Twitter's bizarre takeover, by a Trump-esque Elon Musk), is one of the most recent ones.
Meanwhile, an employee who leaves a company after a year or two might get penalized in the market because there is the fear they might repeat the same pattern.
If not loyalty or business as usual, then what?
The average weekly hours for full-time workers in the UK in 2022 is 36.4. When adding the daily commute and overtime, it is easy to see that work is a significant part of our lives. Social interactions, friendships, and even romance happen at work. People climbing the ladder, building reputations, burning out…
When we clock out of work, we don't clock in and start living. Work-life balance doesn't exist. Work is a part of life and for many people, work sucks.
Previously, I wrote that loyalty is a consequence, not an intrinsic and desirable attribute. A consequence of what?
When workers are asked about what matters to them, we typically get things like:
Fairness, trust, and respect.
They're things workers value, but above all, they're things human beings value. We all want our voices to be heard. We all want to feel appreciated and trusted, to be treated with respect, fairness, and compassion. Most of us would relish the opportunity to grow (and we're certainly capable of it), tackle challenges, make an impact and be part of something meaningful.
Work is a significant part of life, but most of us, the moment we cross the door to our office, only get to be a limited version of ourselves. Yes, it's true that we use different personas for different situations. We don't interact the same way with our family as we do with a stranger, but in many workplaces we can't engage in many of our core human qualities. To embrace what makes us human is the first step for more humane environments.
Healthy humans, healthier workplaces
How to create healthier workplaces is a complex topic. There's no single solution or framework one can apply, no magic pill to make our problems go away.
The process of improving the workplace culture never stops, it's hard and can be uncomfortable, it's outside the box, but the alternative is worse: unengaged, burned out and unhappy humans.
Wayfarer, all that is
are your footprints, the road,
and nothing more.
Wayfarer, there is no way.
A path is made by walking it.
By being walked, it becomes a path.
By looking back, you become aware
of all that you will never walk again.
Wayfarer, there is no way,
only the wake of a raging sea.
Individually, it all starts with self-awareness and self-reflection, by working on our relationship with ourselves and with others. Before pretending to change the team, the company, or the world, look inwards, recognize that you are part of the problem and also part of the solution.
To start changing our culture, an important step is to improve the way we communicate.
We're social animals that rely on communication and collaboration. Communicating well is often underappreciated and can be a challenge, but if you can transform your conversations, you might start seeing change around you.
Why is it a challenge to communicate? Because what we do normally doesn't match what we say, and we're not aware of it.
If somebody were to ask us what we'd do in a group that had to make a significant decision, we'd say that we'd collaborate, share all the information, listen to opinions, etc. The reality is that, when we're pressured to make a critical decision, we would act, more often than not, defensively. We would try to:
Maximize winning and minimize losing: own and control the task
Define goals and try to achieve them: manage the environment unilaterally
Minimize expressing negative feelings to protect ourselves
Appear rational: withhold information, hold private meetings…
These two ways of acting are called productive reasoning and defensive reasoning.
If we could be aware of when we're using defensive reasoning and practice replacing it with productive reasoning, our conversations would be more transformative.
Conversations based on productive reasoning would focus on:
Free and informed choice
internal commitment to the choice and constant monitoring of its implementation
To change our conversations, we need to bring self-reflection and awareness, analysing them and deliberately practice improving them. The goal is to be curious, vulnerable, and compassionate, to be explicit about our motivations and goals and to be able to make ourselves and others accountable.
Douglas Squirrel and Jeffrey Fredrick, in their book Agile Conversations, go into great detail about this. They propose to learn from conversations by recording, reflecting, revising and role-playing them, and walk us through five conversations that address common pitfalls: trust, fear, why, commitment, accountability.
There are other skills for conversations that are invaluable to learn. I could summarize them in one phrase: “be mindful, be curious, be human”.
What percentage of our daily conversations are we fully present, engaged, listening actively in silence, seeing the person in front of us with curiosity and without judgement? There's transformative power in it.
Emotional change, productive conflict
Alongside improving our conversations, comes the realization—if you haven't been in touch with them—that emotions are an intrinsic part of our humanity and play a crucial role in our relationship with others.
Under the famous mantras of “work is a business transaction” and “business as usual” and their systemic reinforcement, we're expected to leave our feelings aside and just do our jobs. This is not only unhealthy, it also encourages people to avoid conflict at all cost, destroying the working climate.
We're not really putting emotions aside, they're still there, under the surface, having an impact on all our decisions. Not only that, now we are in an environment that constrains us.
Rather than wasting precious time and eroding personal relationships, conflict can be an opportunity for building new understanding, respect and trust…
Tensions are to be expected when teaming. Although rarely fun, tensions are not always bad. They can evoke creativity, sharpen ideas, and refine analyses. But there's a catch: patience, wisdom, and skill are needed to transform tensions into positive results. This is because most of us naturally resist tensions and the conflict they invariably bring.
—Amy Edmondson, Teaming
We've learned that conflict is negative, that we have to resolve it and avoid it as much as possible, but the truth is that conflict is inevitable and can be much more if we know how to be with it. Conflict can bring transformation, a more profound understanding of people, ourselves, the situation we're in, and how we relate to each other at work. That's why working on understanding our emotions, accepting them and regulating them is key.
This article would be an entire book if I were to cover how to connect with our emotions, and I'm not a psychologist. Practising mindfulness—to be in the moment and not reacting—, active listening and improving our conversations are a great starting point.
Systems, culture, leadership, and self-managing
A system is an interconnected set of elements that is coherently organized in a way that achieves something.
It may exhibit adaptive, dynamic, goal-seeking-self, preserving and sometimes evolutionary behaviour.
—Donella H. Meadows, Thinking in Systems
Workplaces are complex systems, with feedback loops, incentives and self-correcting mechanisms. There's a naive belief out there that puts all the responsibility on the individual, but this is simply not true. We have to recognize that we're all part of not only one, but many systems.
Only changing how you behave is already a massive step, but it might not be enough to impact the whole. We'd have to look at the entire system and look for levers of change, build deep relationships and communities, start small, with experiments, and within our sphere of influence… Change often happens slowly and in excruciating increments.
Regarding strategies for making ideas happen within an organization, Fearless Change and More Fearless Change by Linda Rising and Mary Lynn Manns are great books.
I believe that a person alone will never be able to change anything but themselves, and that the most we can do is encourage the conditions for change. Even if we're a leader with influence in an organization, forcing change won't lead to a true transformation, it just perpetuates command and control dynamics. In fact, leaders of an organization are typically the greatest obstacle to change.
The object isn't to make art, it's to be in that wonderful state which makes art inevitable
An environment where great things can happen depends on psychological safety:
Psychological safety is the belief that one will not be punished or humiliated for speaking up with ideas, questions, concerns, or mistakes.
In teams, it refers to team members believing that they can take risks without being shamed by other team members.
In psychologically safe teams, team members feel accepted and respected
We all know the feeling of being in a group, having an idea or wanting to say something and thinking: “why bother?” They won't listen, won't care, or will make fun of it. I know I've experienced this feeling, and it felt like something died in me, I was restricting myself. The team lost many ideas, observations, warnings, and if it happens to more than one person, it's an invaluable loss.
We cannot have a healthy and resilient environment, when we know we will be punished for speaking up. Having the freedom to speak up and feel safe opens up healthier ways to deal productively with conflict and allows us to learn from mistakes.
If we could look ahead into the future, what would a better culture look like?
One of my favourite books, Moose Heads on the Table, by Karin Tenelius and Lisa Gill, shows stories about self-managing organizations and what kind of culture and leadership is necessary to attempt becoming one:
Adult-adult relationships, not parent-child relationships.
The group's responsible, not “I'm responsible”.
Focus on issues and climate.
Moreover, it discusses the need to embrace a coaching mindset. While I haven't mentioned it explicitly, the cornerstones of this mindset are deeply connected to having better conversations, understanding your emotions, active listening, and, overall, being a better human and leader:
Relating to people's potential.
Placing responsibility with the group.
Clarifying and distinguishing.
Being able to be with it.
Not having your own (active) agenda.
In many ways, self-managing organizations are a bit too far into the future for many companies, but we can learn invaluable lessons from them.
It's no secret that many organizations have hierarchies with “power over” dynamics.
The manager's responsible for the health of the team and how it performs, the boss is accountable for the performance of the company. Then, what are the team and the individual responsible and accountable for? They are only responsible for producing output, disconnected from the outcomes. Cogs in the machine.
If the team's not responsible for their performance, their processes, their health, or even how the company performs, how good can their job be? How can they be blamed for not “caring” about the company or producing suboptimal work?
Workers are relegated from those responsibilities and treated like children.
There's some controversy with the words accountability and responsibility, arguing that it's normally used in business as a good thing, but it's really all about force and control. Someone in power will make you accountable and expect you to be responsible or there will be consequences.
If we look at the book Teaming by Amy Edmondson, she defines four zones, with psychological safety and motivation and accountability as axes:
Low psychological safety and high motivation and accountability: anxiety zone, critical parent.
Low psychological safety and low motivation and accountability: apathy zone.
High psychological safety and low motivation and accountability: comfort zone, caring parent.
High psychological safety and high motivation and accountability: learning zone, adult to adult.
To have a more humane environment, we want to have both high psychological safety and high motivation and accountability.
True engagement and responsibility comes from an ability to influence or have a say in our work and circumstances.
—Moose Heads on the Table
What if nothing changes?
It's important to recognize that changing systems is difficult, and that you won't ever be able to do it alone.
I've been in situations where all my efforts were unfruitful. I spent all my energy trying to improve the team or the organization, tackling all the issues but, ultimately, I was just frustrated, burned out.
Pick your fights, protect your mental health, focus your efforts where you have the most leverage and on your immediate bubble of influence, turn up the good, find allies.
Furthermore, sometimes we're not in the right moment in our lives—because of our skills, mindset, goals, things outside of work—for change to happen.
If nothing changes in your organization, learn from it. Then there are realistically two options:
Accept it and adjust.
Go somewhere else where you could make that difference or where your skills and mindset are needed, find your people. There are many companies out there, so don't get stuck.
What I've found is that using a coaching mindset, and all the individual skills previously mentioned, will help you impact your immediate environment and teammates for the better:
If we make an environment where great things can happen, great things will happen.
—Woody Zuill, Turn Up the Good.
The retention problem
When people are leaving in droves, don't focus your entire attention on them just leaving or on superficial problems.
Having a retention issue is usually a consequence of your culture. Fix it, not by forcing change, mandates or processes, but by encouraging change, creating psychological safe spaces, seeing the system, listening attentively to people at work, giving them the mandate and trusting them to solve them.
There will always be a percentage of people that leave for many reasons that we cannot control. But strive to make it so when people leave, it's because they have grown and want different experiences you cannot give them, not because you underpaid them, treated them like children, and failed to create a healthier, humane workplace.
There's more to be said about the topic, many angles, and nuances. What about practices or processes?
I believe that to start the journey to healthier and more humane workplaces, we have to focus on human values and principles. If those are in place, we embodied them through continuous practice, and we don't lose them on our journey, we can move forward experimenting and find what works for us.
There are organizations out there experimenting with self-managing, figuring out how to do salaries together, where people decide how to work together and directly experience the outcomes of their work and actions, transparency's valued… They make me hopeful and reinforce what I've been feeling all along:
“Another way of working and being is possible”