Cultivating Human Workplaces

Cultivating Human Workplaces

November 12, 2018

We don’t need leaders who treat their staff as “human capital’ or “human resources”, but as human beings on human journeys.

We all need to feel like we matter. Today, the injection of massive doses of humanity into workplaces is especially necessary so employees can find new purpose in their lives and work. We hear employees crying for workplaces that not only provide a paycheque, but also feed their souls. In this new age, we no longer need leaders to be heroes; we need leaders to be healers. So how are we to create deeply human organizational cultures?

Early in my career as the Chief Psychiatric Social Worker at a maximum-security penitentiary, I was able to closely observe the behaviour of inmates. Sometimes they would punish a member from their group by putting him “on the dummy”, which meant the targeted victim was totally ignored and treated as if he didn’t exist. Ostracized inmates described this behaviour as even more hurtful than their loss of freedom.

We no longer need leaders to be heroes; we need leaders to be healers.

The reality is that far too many people are put “on the dummy” in our organizations today. People want their voices heard, but they are often silenced. The silencing of employees can be the result of systemic depersonalization that comes from a rigid top-down hierarchical model. Sadly, this model is very much alive in organizations today.

Several years ago, I had an experience that was to change my life and leadership forever. Friends of my family, Jack and Janet, were driving home when they became involved in a head-on crash. Janet died instantly and Jack’s injuries required months of hospitalization. Upon hearing the news of the accident, my heart froze. I became immobilized with grief. I didn’t go to Janet’s funeral and I didn’t visit Jack in the hospital. I was overwhelmed with tremendous guilt and pain in my inability to support my friend.

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Months later, after I heard from another friend that Jack really wanted to see me, I mustered the courage to visit him. I didn’t know how he would greet me as he had every right to be angry and deeply disappointed by my lack of support in his time of greatest need. Jack enveloped me in his arms and we sobbed uncontrollably. That night, in front of Jack’s fireplace, we shared stories about Janet and the years of friendship we shared. We laughed and cried some more. Someone once told me that you quickly forget people that you laugh with, but you never forget the people who you cry with.

Just before I left I asked: “Jack, can you ever forgive me for letting you down and for not being the friend you needed at the time of your deepest pain? I am so sorry. I just didn’t know what to do”. Jack looked at me with his gentle forgiving eyes and said, “Hugh, my precious friend. I didn’t want you to do anything. I just wanted you to be with me.”

We need to be more present with each other. Our listening, compassionate presence makes a difference in helping to create more human organizations. By taking the time to be present, we are acknowledging one another for ‘being’ not just for ‘doing.’

Author Henri Nouwen writes. “When someone listens to us with real concentration and expresses sincere care for our struggles and our pains, we feel that something very deep is happening to us. Slowly, fears melt away, tensions dissolve, anxieties retreat, and we discover that we carry within us something we can trust and offer as a gift to others. The simple experience of being valuable and important to someone else has a tremendous recreative power.”

We need leaders who don’t treat their staff as “human capital’ or “human resources”, but as human beings on human journeys. Human beings who, when treated as such, are free to express their full potential for the organization. Creating deeply human workplaces is not a luxury. It’s a necessity. It’s the right thing to do if we want life-giving organizations that thrive and succeed for the right reasons. These are the organizations that will provide powerful legacies for the future.

By being curious and encouraging questions more than answers, we create organizations where learning never stops. Finally, as leaders we must develop our inner lives and encourage others to do the same. True leadership comes from the inside out. We must take times of quiet reflection to stop long enough in our organizations to hear where we should go and who we should be. In Sabbath, Wayne Muller writes, “Only at rest can we hear what we have not heard before, and be led to what is most deeply beautiful, necessary and true”. As we cultivate our inner lives, we discover the strength and courage to believe in ourselves and in others. That will be the beginning of creating the massively human workplaces that our staff so desperately need.

Implementing Leadership Circles

We introduced Leadership Circles in our organization six years ago, which provide a space for all voices to speak and be heard. Circles are comprised of 8 to 10 staff who meet for several hours a month to discuss their lives and leadership. It is an opportunity to create a space within the organization to reflect on and explore their experiences of the workplace. The circles are based on the principle that everyone is a leader. As such, leadership circles can be comprised of front-line, mid-level and senior managers.

Every two years, our organization conducts a comprehensive survey of staff engagement. The survey results have clearly demonstrated that engagement scores for staff who participate in leadership circles are significantly higher than staff who do not. The results tell us that people who have a space where they are allowed to grow and thrive at work contribute more to the success of the organization.

In 2015, our organization received the Order of Excellence by Excellence Canada. This is the highest recognition awarded to organizations in Canada. Although receiving the award was great, greater still was the human journey it took to get there. Together we dared to create a workplace that is deeply human. We have all grown and as a result, so has our quality of service.

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Hugh Drouin, PhD
Hugh Drouin, PhD, is the Commissioner of Social Services for the Regional Municipality of Durham. In the last 10 years, Dr. Drouin has led the department through the Progressive Excellence journey through Excellence Canada. His life mission is to be an instrument of transformation in the lives of individuals and organizations.

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